There was a brief moment, back in the late '70s and early '80s, when I was on fire in New York City. I had a novel on the New York Times bestseller list. I had a new wife, and we had been dubbed a "literary power couple" in the tabloids. I had a movie deal in Hollywood, and Gore Vidal had been signed to adapt my novel for the big screen. I was invited to Upper East Side dinner parties, at one of which I found myself seated next to Henry Kissinger and across the table from Norman Mailer. But I knew I had really reached the top when my phone rang one morning, and the famous New York Post gossip columnist Steve Dunleavy was on the line, asking if it would be all right to publish on Page Six in the next day's newspaper that Donald Trump's latest starlet girlfriend had been my date the night before at Elizabeth Taylor's birthday party at Studio 54.
This article first appeared in Salon.
See all the star power in that sentence? And most of it was true! I had been at Elizabeth Taylor's birthday party at Studio 54, the night when she rode into the place on a white stallion with the famous Studio image of the man in the moon sniffing from a teaspoon of cocaine behind her. But I hadn't been with Trump's new girlfriend, although I had spotted him at the party, standing in a gaggle that included the infamous red-baiting lawyer Roy Cohn and the designer Halston. It seemed that Trump's then wife, Ivana, had learned he had been at the party with the starlet, and Trump had called Dunleavy with a favor to ask. Could he print a rumor that the girlfriend was with someone else, to get Ivana off his back? Dunleavy had seen me at the party, and for some reason selected me as the beard for Trump's girlfriend.
I said no, he couldn't put me in his column as escort to Trump's bimbo, and that was that. Except it wasn't, because of what my brief brush with the Trump penumbra of fame says about those days in New York in general, and Trump in particular.
That wasn't the only time I ran into Trump during my brief foray into the Manhattan stratosphere. I saw him at a boite called Le Club on the Upper East Side one night, ogling the young lovelies who teetered around the place in skyscraper heels and micro-skirts, their enormous cantilevered chests held aloft by power-bras seemly constructed by U.S. Steel. I saw him at an East Side supper club one night promoting the Miss Universe Pageant, which he had recently purchased, apparently to audition "dates" for parties at Studio 54 and other popular nightspots. And of course I saw his then-boyish visage almost daily in the tabloids, grinning for the flashbulbs at nightclubs, prize fights, and ribbon cuttings for his collection of garish buildings that popped up around uptown Manhattan like some new species of deadly mushroom.
Trump was everywhere in those days in New York. You couldn't avoid him if you dug a cave under one of those gigantic rocks in Central Park and buried yourself. Somehow you knew he would find you there in your underground hiding place, dig you up and force you to get back out there on the sidewalks and walk past another mirrored masterpiece with his name emblazoned in gigantic ugly letters. TRUMP. You couldn't avoid him. He was like … what was he anyway? Oh, I've got it! He was like a plague! And New York City had caught it!
It's kind of funny looking back at those days in New York, when he was so ubiquitous that even my phone rang with cheapo-Aussie gossip-mongers asking favors for Trump. Except it wasn't funny when you think of the fact, and it is a fact, that those were the days when Trump honed his entire shtick, the same shtick he went on to ride all the way into the White House.
Trump's shtick as a celebrity in New York was the same one he used in his business. He bluffed his way into and through everything. His buildings were the tallest and the grandest and the most expensive and the most prestigious, even though they were none of those things. None at all. He added stories onto Trump Tower, seemingly just because he could. He told the world everything he had was the most expensive, even as he shopped his condos and cheap Trump vodka and cardboard Trump steaks at a discount to anyone with a buck. He bought the Eastern Airlines Shuttle for $365 million and renamed it the Trump Shuttle. It was an expensive flop that lasted only three years before he had to let it go in bankruptcy. Same with the prestigious Plaza Hotel, which he bought for more than $400 million and ran into the ground in less than three years, also lost in bankruptcy. Same with the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, which cost him $1 billion to build, another gaudy, grand, overpriced monstrosity he lost in bankruptcy.
In all, Trump took out more than $3 billion in loans, $900 million of which he personally guaranteed. His entire teetering gold-leafed mirrored empire fell, the whole lot of it, in 1992 at a big meeting with more than 50 lawyers in a big conference room in the law offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, the firm that represented Trump's largest lender, Citibank. Trump sat down and signed over most of his buildings, his jet, his yacht, his airline and his casinos, all of it in one afternoon, in exchange for more favorable terms on his personally guaranteed loans. The banks could have easily called Trump's loans and left him penniless, "but we all agreed that he'd be better alive than dead," explained Alan Pomerantz, then head of the real estate department at Weil.
In other words, they caved into Trump's bluff. He had borrowed so much money and built so much crap and made so many bad deals that like the banks themselves after the crash of 2008, he was too big to fail. Trump's bluff was, I'm into you guys for so much money, not only are you going to lose more if you knock me off, you're going to look terrible for having helped me build this crumbling empire of schlock.
Trump had been bluffing and losing without consequence for years. For the first half of his life, his father bailed him out. When Dad was gone, Trump kept on bluffing and got so good at it, the banks bailed him out.
Bluffing is what Trump does. He gets up in the morning and looks at himself in the mirror and, instead of a bald man with pitted, sagging skin and lifeless eyes, he sees Mr. Handsome, the swordsman who bedded a thousand beauties, the billionaire who made a thousand brilliant deals, the Most Powerful Man in the World. That's why at his so-called coronavirus press briefings, whenever he is confronted with a question quoting his own previous statements, he yells, "Fake news!" He bluffs his way through, just like he always did. Everything other than Trump himself is fake. To Trump, only he himself is real.
And that's why we find ourselves where we are with the coronavirus. For three months, Trump thought he could treat the virus like he treated his bankers, like he treated his contractors, like he treated his wives and girlfriends, like he treated the whole fucking Republican Party. He would bluff his way through. All he had to say was that this building was the tallest and the best, and it was! All he had to say was that he was a billionaire, and he was! All he had to say was that if you crossed him, he'd kill you with tweets, and nobody ever crossed him! All he had to say was that the virus was "going away," that we had it "under control," that the number of cases were "going to zero," and all of that would come true!
Trump could bluff his way through marriages, sexual abuse allegations, bankruptcies … hell, he could even bluff his way into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But he couldn't bluff the virus. He doesn't owe the virus any money. He hasn't left the virus sobbing in some Reno hotel suite with no one to turn to. He can't divorce the virus and remarry another, younger, prettier virus. He can't slather the virus with orange pancake makeup and spray it into submission with swoops of combover cotton candy and fool everyone into believing it wasn't really there.
Trump bluffed his way through everything else in his entire life, but he has finally tested positive. He's on life support. He didn't catch the virus. The virus caught him.