Throwback to the Trumps of the Early '90s

There was a time when I knew the three boldest of the boldface names of the early '90s: Donald, Marla, and Ivana Trump. Not long after Liz Smith announced that Donald and Ivana were getting a divorce, I joined the tabloid chase, as a cub reporter at People magazine. I met the triumvirate separately like pins in a bowling alley. It was during the days of wacky expense accounts, so far out of control, that there was a legend that one writer expensed a month's rent. Another allegedly bought a tux. And me? I bought Donald Trump baby pink ties from Hermés and sent them over to his assistant Norma Foederer. She would phone and say thanks, with a bit of pizazz and in a tone of voice that made me think I might be on to something.

Chuck Jones, Marla's then publicist, (whom she would later fire for sniffing her shoes) leaked word that Marla was going to finally appear in the flesh, at Trump's Taj Mahal casino, in Atlantic City. I hurried down and waited. Michael Jackson showed up for something, a raging case of kidney stones appeared for me, but I never did see Marla and, as Ivana so affectionately called him in her Czech accent, The Donald. Through Chuck, I did get to meet Marla Maples, whose Georgia Peach kindness made it impossible not to like her. I even saw her opening night at The Will Rogers Follies on Broadway where she moved to the beat as she did on Dancing With The Stars until she was recently eliminated. And I met Ivana. One thing is for sure, Trump has great taste in women.

I would eventually follow Ivana to Mar-A-Lago for an interview. The rich see time very differently from you and me, to coin a phrase. I soaked my toes for eight days at The Breakers in Palm Beach before being summoned to Trump's palace of 126 rooms and three bomb shelters. It was gilt overkill a la Donald. Although Trump inherited his money, he manages to seem nouveau riche, not at all Palm Beach. After the interview, Ivana and I flew first class to Chicago where she gave a "Women Who Dare" speech. Oh the champagne, and caviar. Well, then again, I don't eat caviar, but it's a nice touch.

As for the Donald, I would meet him too. One fine April day in 1991, after The New York Post posted on their cover that Trump says "Hello Carla, Goodbye Marla." I called Norma, and she passed me through to Donald's new publicist, John Miller, who sounded strangely familiar. His inflection and staccato word patterns and tendency to repeat the clipped lines more than twice were the duplicate of The Donald's. What a convenient hire, I thought. Miller went on to tell me that Donald indeed had a new woman in his life. "Her name is Carla Bruni Fredesh. I don't know how to spell the last name. She allegedly dropped [a big rock star, who is married] for Donald. And that's where it stands."

He told me Kim Basinger called, as did Madonna. They were all "salivating" for a date with Trump. Miller also wanted to clarify something very important to me. "The biggest misconception was that Donald left (ex-wife Ivana) for Marla. He didn't. He leaves for himself." And when it came to marriage, "Miller" said, "When he makes the decision, that will be a very lucky woman." I was so busy talking up "Miller" and half thinking that it might actually be Donald that I kept firing questions at him. Nothing was off limits. This new PR guy was a dream come true!

When our taped conversation ended, I wondered if even The Donald would have the gall to try to hoodwink me so artlessly. When I played the tape for colleagues at People, they also found the voice unmistakable. We even went to The New York Post columnist, Cindy Adams, who said, "There is no John Miller. Is that Donald?"

But the most telling response came from Marla herself, who simply cried when I told her I needed to let her hear of her rumored fiancee's shananigans. That was difficult to do. But Donald had shown colors that she needed to see. It was the first time I thought he showed a truly mean side; before I thought he was playful. Why would he do that to someone that he loved?

My instincts about Marla proved telling. In an unspoken token of acknowledgement and contrition -- she made Donald take me and a friend from People to the "in" club of the time. We met at Marla's apartment and all together rode in Trump's stretch limousine.

The Donald, resplendent in one of my pink ties and his omnipresent long blue wool coat made small chit-chat with me and my friend, Karen. "I'm from Albany," I said. "Terrific place," he boasted. "I went to college at the University of Vermont," I then added. "What a state!" He then upped it again, as if he had owned it like a casino. I thought it was easier to talk to Marla, but I was glad to see they had made amends and that they held hands. He wasn't orange back then, and he had light brown hair that wasn't the odd geometric shape it is today. Ten minutes into the party, Trump told me they had to leave, but the limousine was for my friend and me to use all evening.

Donald and I kept in touch after the divorce as well. "It's over, it's settled, and I'm happy," he told me. And not to be one-upped, he added, "My lawyers totally prevailed." He also said, "How many people can write a check for $10 million. I'm better off than most."

When I recall those encounters today, my first impulse is to see the "John Miller" call as an almost endearing prank. In fact, now that I've seen The Donald turn the Republican party upside-down, that blowhard stunt echoes through just about every preposterous utterance. The guy who pranked me on the phone back in 1991, is now pranking half of the country. It's simply no longer endearing.