Book Review: Trump: Surviving at the Top (September, 1990)

Donald Trump and Ivana Trump
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 01: Donald Trump and Ivana Trump (Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Photograph by The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Editor’s note: In this September 24, 1990 article from our magazine archives, Fortune’s Gary Belis reviewed Donald Trump’s second book, Trump: Surviving at the Top. Trump called Belis’s review of his first book “the single worst review of a book in publishing history.”

“I know you. You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.”

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

Sunset Boulevard

The Eighties have ended as abruptly as the silent film era, and holding on for dear life is Donald Trump, our age’s answer to Norma Desmond. The Ego That Will Not Die is once again on display at a bookstore near you (Trump: Surviving at the Top, Random House, $21.95).

Here at last is a book you can judge by its cover. The smirk on the face on the dust jacket is a hint of the smirks that await the reader on virtually every page. Liz Smith, the columnist with whom he has fallen out, “used to kiss my ass so much it was downright embarrassing.” He mentions a letter from Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown asking him to pose for the magazine. Merv Griffin, with whom he battled for control of Resorts International, is “a guy who’d never built anything bigger than a Wheel of Fortune set.”

The book is co-authored by Charles Leerhsen, a senior editor at Newsweek who is probably doomed to be immortalized in the pages of Spy magazine as a “former journalist” (as was Trump’s first co-author, Tony Schwartz). The choice of co-author in fact seems irrelevant. The voice is clearly Trumpian, the sentences as empty and graceless and the narrative as rambling as any section in Trump: The Art of the Deal, Volume One of the continuing saga.

The former billionaire still can’t let go of the “my” word—my hotels, my plane, my 118-room house. If the my’s were seasoning, Surviving at the Top would be five-alarm chili. When at his most gratuitous in dropping mentions of his possessions, Trump comes dangerously close to self-parody. Like the old joke about a mother who screams, “Help, help, my son the doctor is drowning.”

Donald devotes a chapter to his marital difficulties, sentimentally titling it “Trump vs. Trump: Undoing the Deal.” (He loves saying his name almost as much as he loves “my.”) Thrill seekers will be disappointed. Marla Maples gets a single, uninformative paragraph (“A terrific person, but my relationship with her was not the cause of the trouble between Ivana and me”). He claims to be revolted by the media coverage of the estrangement but somehow overcomes his disgust to mention the now infamous “Best Sex I Ever Had” headline (supposedly quoting Marla re Donald) from the New York Post. Ivana “never really stopped loving me and I hope she never will,” says Trump. “Likewise I will always love Ivana.” It is the safest of chapters, unlikely to be stapled to a legal brief in Ivana’s divorce case.

The original article from September 24, 1990 issue of Fortune. Click to enlarge.

Any reader expecting details about the Trump Organization’s loan restructuring will be likewise dissatisfied. “Over several weeks of very hard bargaining,” Trump allows, “my bankers and I worked out a terrific deal that allows me the time, the money, and the leeway to come out stronger than ever.” No mention is made of the banks’ insistence on an independent financial officer or the monthly allowance for personal expenditures. Everything is fine, just fine—if only, sighs Donald, the press would leave him alone.

Donald has his guns loaded for journalists. Any Fourth Estate practitioner who has voiced criticism of Donald Trump is either incompetent or harboring an ulterior motive. Time’s negative cover story was reported, Trump asserts, by a woman who hates men. Garry Trudeau, who satirized him in “Doonesbury,” has no talent. (And Trudeau’s wife, Jane Pauley, is more talented, says Trump. So there.) For the record: There is no mention of Fortune. His unflattering treatment in Forbes, says Donald, was prompted by a supposed incident in which Malcolm Forbes’s party was turned away at the Oak Bar of Trump’s Plaza hotel because two members appeared to be under the drinking age, and by Malcolm’s jealousy of Donald’s bigger yacht.

The buying and restoration of the Trump Princess in fact gets a numbing chapter of its own. Think of it as the script for the first episode of a new program on public TV, This Old Yacht. It contains such helpful hints as what to do when your yacht’s expensive ceiling develops water spots around the edges (no need to replace the whole thing; just add tiles in a contrasting color).

His purchases of the Eastern Shuttle (now the Trump Shuttle) and the Plaza hotel also rate a chapter each. Buried in the Shuttle chapter is this: “Gradually I’ve come to realize—as I have with the Plaza—that restoring a great asset is not enough to cover expenses when you’re paying off a large acquisition debt.” It is the closest Trump comes in the entire book to admitting personal culpability in getting into the mess that he’s in. But his heart is not in it—taking the blame for mistakes is just not his style.

For more on Donald Trump, watch this Fortune video:

The book is dedicated, for example, to the three executives who ran his casino operations until their deaths in a helicopter crash in October 1989. Trump heaps praise on the men, perhaps out of guilt over a New York Times interview after the accident in which he blamed his Atlantic City troubles on them. Not that he owns up to the interview (“a reporter made it sound as if I were criticizing the three”). Perhaps we can expect the third Trump book to be dedicated to Malcolm Forbes and contain an assertion that it was Charles Leerhsen who made it sound as if Donald said those things about the Oak Bar incident. And Donald will probably believe it himself.

For there is more than a little self-delusion in evidence here. The bankers and the writers may sniff, “Donald Trump? He used to be big.” Donald still cries, “I am big. It’s the buildings that got small.”

This article was originally published in the September 24, 1990 issue of Fortune with the headline “Trump Two.”

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