Living in New York for more than 30 years, I have had a front-row seat to The Donald Show. And that includes the spectacle of Trump and his three wives.
My most memorable experience with Trump was sitting in the office of New York Post editor Jerry Nachman, an award-winning, street-wise savant who drank in information with the same gusto he gulped down countless cups of coffee. This was the heyday of the Donald/Ivana divorce, in 1990, when I was the Post‘s TV and radio columnist. The dueling Post and New York Daily News were documenting the couple’s very public breakup. Ivana Trump, via Liz Smith, had won a front-page story — and public sympathy — at the News, portrayed as the spurned wife losing her husband to the younger Marla Maples — and Donald didn’t like it.
Sitting in Nachman’s office while he was editing one of my pieces, I heard his secretary yell, “It’s Donald.” Nachman motioned me to “shhh” and put Trump on speaker. “Those fucking bitches,” Trump bellowed. “I want a front-page story tomorrow.”
Jerry calmly replied, “Donald, you just don’t demand a front-page story. There has to be a story.” “For all the newspapers I’ve sold for you, you should give me one.” “That’s not how it works.” “What gets a front-page story?” Donald asked.
The veteran newsman contemplated the question. “It’s usually murder, money or sex.” Donald fired back: “Marla says with me it’s the best sex she’s ever had.” Nachman’s face lit up like a firecracker. “That’s great!” he said. “But you know I need corroboration.”
“Marla,” Trump yelled into the background. “Didn’t you say it’s the best sex you ever had with me?” From a distance, we heard a faint voice: “Yes, Donald.” Only years later did we learn that Trump sometimes impersonated voices to reporters. I still can’t be sure whether the voice in the room was really hers.
Thus was born one of the most famous tabloid headlines in history: “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had!” Hanging up, Jerry looked at me and we giggled. Back then, men of that rank didn’t discuss their sex lives on the record.
This was before Facebook. This was before reality TV. This was when privacy mattered and oversharing was considered crass.
“Jerry, every young girl who is targeting a rich older guy always says, ‘It’s the best sex I ever had,'” I told him. The seasoned Brooklyn-born editor — who died in 2004 — smirked and said, “It’s still great.” And then I was shooed out of the office as a team of editors clustered around Jerry to craft the infamous New York Post headline and story.
The Post scored with that headline. So did Trump in the PR war. Shameless and wily, he instinctively knew even then how to steer the media conversation.
The Donald Show continued with Maples, the Georgia model whom he met in New York and took to Aspen. But Marla soon made the same mistake as Ivana. Ivana, an engaging Czech immigrant and the mother of Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric, believed they were equal partners. Donald got her a job at The Plaza, which kept her busy. But he wanted a cheerleader, not a co-host. There could be only one star.
Complicating matters, Ivana wanted to conquer New York society, dragging him to parties he detested. He preferred to stay home, eat burgers and watch TV.
Now that he was with Marla, a similar problem developed. The small-town beauty queen wanted credibility to ease into NYC life. She was obviously nagging him. So Donald made some calls — and sources revealed that Lifetime was going to give her an audition to anchor a new series.
A home-wrecker who had a scantily clad résumé didn’t deserve that opportunity, I wrote. Especially with a network that billed itself as an advocate for women’s stories. The nagging for Trump must have gotten even worse because I was summoned into Jerry’s office. “You need to meet with Donald at the Plaza,” he said. “Your story has made Marla go nuts.” “She has no qualifications for that job,” I replied. “Just meet him,” said Nachman. “He wants to show Marla that he’s doing something. You don’t have to write anything.”
Upon my arrival at the gilded hotel, from which poor Ivana had been banished, I was greeted by Donald and Marla. As if on cue, Marla left to go to the bathroom. “Donald you have so many connections,” I said. “Ivana is the mother of your children.”
“Lifetime is the channel where discarded women can find stories about building a new life,” I said. “Get Marla a job somewhere else.” His bottom lip started to quiver and curl. “I like you,” he said. “You tell it like it is.”
Moments later, after Marla returned, he got up and explained he had business to do. I finished my lunch with Marla — who never got the Lifetime gig. She and Trump separated in 1997.
In 1998, he met Melania, who understood the deal. Many wives of powerful men must contend with money-seeking predators pawing at their husbands. The wives often hold out hope that their true love will create a force field that repels beauty queens on the prowl. Melania never had such illusions.
After the Post, I was a CNN correspondent and the editor-in-chief of Avenue, an upscale magazine about New York society. At Avenue, I got to observe Melania. I learned that Melania couldn’t care less about attention. She was steely and impressively impenetrable. She had no interest in befriending anyone or playing the game of hosting charity events.
She was an immigrant from Slovenia. When you experience that type of hardship, where food and opportunities are scarce, you really don’t care whether your husband fools around with porn queens named Stormy or is overly complimentary to his daughter Ivanka. You’ve lived through the storm. This immigrant was ready to accept a Faustian bargain. Her modeling career wasn’t financially viable, but her flirtation with Donald was. She didn’t expect to change him.
Furthermore, in the circles of the very rich, the young new wife can enjoy credit card purchases and posh apartments, but the family of origin often is pushed to the sidelines. Donald Trump has been one of the few husbands I’ve seen who is willing to live in proximity to his in-laws. The Knauss family has accommodations at Trump Tower. For Melania, protecting her family is everything. I’m told that Trump deeply values Melania. Her lack of sentimentality for anyone not a blood relative also makes her a keen observer and confidante.
Before his election, a friend told me she had seen the two at Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar celebrating their anniversary. “Did they seem to have a connection?” I asked. “Very much so,” replied my friend.
Hanging up, I reflected on the marriage. They each got the deal they wanted, best sex or not.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.