Authors: Mary L. Trump;
When eight-year-old Freddy Trump asked why his very pregnant mother was getting so fat, talk at the dinner table ground to a halt. It was 1948, and the Trump family, which now consisted of four childrenâten-year-old Maryanne, Freddy, five-year-old Elizabeth, and one-and-a-half-year-old Donaldâwere weeks away from moving into the twenty-three-room house that Fred was in the process of building. Mary looked down at her plate, and Fred's mother, also named Elizabeth, an almost daily visitor to the house, stopped eating.
Table etiquette at my grandparents' house was strict, and there were certain things Fred did not tolerate. “Keep your elbows off the table, this is not a horse's stable” was a frequent refrain, and Fred, knife in hand, would tap its handle against the forearm of any transgressor. (Rob and Donald took over that task when Fritz, David, and I were growing up, with a bit too much enthusiasm.) There were also things the children were not supposed to talk about, especially in front of their father or grandmother. When Freddy wanted to know how the baby had gotten there, Fred and his mother stood up as one, left the table without saying a word, and walked off. Fred wasn't a prude, but Elizabeth, a stern, formal woman who adhered to Victorian mores, very likely was.
Despite her own rigid views regarding gender roles, however, she had, many years earlier, made an exception for her son; a couple of years after Fred's father had died suddenly, Elizabeth had become her fifteen-year-old son's business partner.
That was made possible in part because her husband, Friedrich Trump, something of an entrepreneur, had left money and property valued at approximately $300,000 in today's currency.
Friedrich, born in Kallstadt, a small village in western Germany, left
for the United States when he turned eighteen in 1885 in order to avoid mandatory military service. He eventually made the bulk of his money through ownership of restaurants and brothels in British Columbia. He lit out for the Yukon territories in time for the Gold Rush, cashing out just before the boom collapsed near the turn of the century.
In 1901, while visiting his family in Germany, Friedrich met and married Elizabeth Christ, a petite blond woman nearly twelve years his junior. He brought his new bride to New York, but one month after the birth of their first child, a girl they named Elizabeth, the couple returned to Germany with the intention of settling there permanently. Because of the circumstances under which Friedrich had originally left the country, he was told by authorities that he could not stay. Friedrich, his wifeânow four months pregnant with their second childâand their two-year-old daughter returned for the last time to the United States in July 1905. Their two sons, Frederick and John, were born in 1905 and 1907, respectively. They eventually settled in Woodhaven, Queens, where all three children grew up speaking German.
When Friedrich died of the Spanish flu, twelve-year-old Fred became the man of the house. Despite the size of her husband's estate, Elizabeth found it difficult to make ends meet. The flu epidemic, which killed upward of 50 million people worldwide, had a destabilizing effect on what otherwise might have been a booming wartime economy. While still in high school, Fred took a series of odd jobs in order to help his mother financially and began to study the building trade. Becoming a builder had been his dream for as long as he could remember. He took every opportunity to learn the business, all aspects of which intrigued him, and during his sophomore year, with his mother's backing, he began building and selling garages in his neighborhood. He realized he was good at it, and from then on he had no other interestsânone. Two years after Fred's high school graduation, Elizabeth created E. Trump and Son. She recognized her son's aptitude, and the business, which enabled her to handle
financial transactions for her underage middle childâin the early twentieth century, people didn't attain legal majority until the age of twenty-oneâwas her way of supporting him. Both the business and the family thrived.
When Fred was twenty-five years old, he attended a dance where he met Mary Anne MacLeod, recently arrived from Scotland. According to family legend, when he returned home, he told his mother that he had met the girl he was going to marry.
Mary had been born the youngest of ten in 1912 in Tong, a village on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, located forty miles off the northwest coast of Scotland; her childhood had been bracketed by two global tragedies, the latter of which also deeply affected her future husband: World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic. Lewis had lost a disproportionate percentage of its male population during the war, and in a cruel twist of fate, two months after the armistice was signed in November 1918, a ship carrying soldiers home to the island from the mainland crashed into rocks just a few yards offshore in the early hours of January 1, 1919. More than 200 soldiers of the approximately 280 on board died in the brutally cold waters less than a mile from the safety of Stornoway Harbor. Much of the island's young adult male population was lost. Any young woman hoping to find a husband would have better luck elsewhere.
Mary, one of six daughters, was encouraged to journey to America, where the opportunities were greater and the men more plentiful.
In early May 1930, in a classic example of “chain migration,” Mary boarded the RMS
in order to join two of her sisters who had already settled in the United States. Despite her status as a domestic servant, as a white Anglo-Saxon, Mary would have been allowed into the country even under her son's draconian new immigration rules introduced nearly ninety years later. She turned eighteen the day before her arrival in New York and met Fred not long after.
Fred and Mary were married on a Saturday in January 1936. After a reception at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, they honeymooned in
Atlantic City for one night. On Monday morning, Fred was back at his Brooklyn office.
The couple moved into their first house on Wareham Road, just down the street from the house on Devonshire Road that Fred had shared with his mother. In those early years, Mary was still in awe of her head-spinning change in fortune, both financial and social. Instead of
the live-in help, she
live-in help; instead of competing for limited resources, she was the woman of the house. With free time to volunteer and money with which to shop, she never looked back, which perhaps explains why she was quick to judge others who came from similar circumstances. She and Fred put together an entirely conventional life with strictly drawn roles for husband and wife. He ran his business, which kept him in Brooklyn ten, sometimes twelve hours a day, six days a week. She ran the house, but he ruled itâand, at least in the beginning, so did his mother. Elizabeth was an intimidating mother-in-law who, during the first few years of her son's marriage, made sure that Mary understood who was really in charge: she wore white gloves when she visited, putting Mary on notice regarding the expectations she had for her daughter-in-law's housekeeping, which must have felt like a not-so-subtle mockery of her recent employment.
Despite Elizabeth's hazing, those early years were a time of great energy and possibility for Fred and Mary. Fred whistled his way down the stairs on his way to work, and when he returned home in the evening, he whistled his way up to his room, where he changed into a clean shirt before dinner.
Mary and Fred hadn't discussed baby names, so when their first child, a daughter, was born, they named her Maryanne, combining Mary's first and middle names. The couple's first son was born a year and a half later, on October 14, 1938, and named after his fatherâwith one small change: Fred, Sr.'s, middle name was Christ, his mother's maiden name; his boy would be named Frederick Crist. Everybody except his father would call him Freddy.
It seems as though Fred mapped out his son's future before he was
even born. Although he would feel the burdens of the expectations placed upon him when he grew older, Freddy benefited early on from his status in a way Maryanne and the other children would not. After all, he had a special place in his father's plans: he would be the means through which the Trump empire expanded and thrived in perpetuity.
Three and a half years passed before Mary gave birth to another child. Shortly before the arrival of Elizabeth, Fred left for an extended period to work in Virginia Beach. A housing shortage, the result of service members' returning from World War II, created an opportunity for him to build apartments for navy personnel and their families. Fred had had time to sharpen his skills and gain the reputation that got him the work because while other eligible men had enlisted, he had chosen not to serve, following in his father's footsteps.
Through his growing experience with building many houses simultaneously and his inherent skill at using local media to his own ends, Fred was introduced to well-connected politicians and learned through them how to call in favors at the right time, and, most important, chase government money. The lure in Virginia Beach, where Fred learned the advantage of building his real estate empire with government handouts, was the generous funding made available by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Founded in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the FHA seems to have strayed far from its original mandate by the time Fred began taking advantage of its largesse. Its chief purpose had been to ensure that enough affordable housing was being built for the country's constantly growing population. After World War II, the FHA seemed equally concerned with enriching developers such as Fred Trump.
The project in Virginia was also a chance to hone the expertise he'd begun to acquire in Brooklyn: building larger-scale projects as quickly, efficiently, and cheaply as possible while still managing to make them attractive to renters. When the commute back and forth to Queens became too inconvenient, Fred moved the entire family to Virginia Beach when Elizabeth was still an infant.
From Mary's perspective, other than finding herself in an unfamiliar environment, things were much the same in Virginia as they had been in Jamaica Estates. Fred worked long hours, leaving her alone with three children under the age of six. Their social life revolved around people he worked with or people whose services he needed. In 1944, when the FHA funding that had been financing Fred's projects dried up, the family returned to New York.
Once back in Jamaica Estates, Mary suffered a miscarriage, a serious medical event from which it took her months to recover fully. Doctors warned her against further pregnancies, but Mary found herself expecting again a year later. The miscarriage created large age gaps between the older and younger children, with Elizabeth floating in the middle, almost four years younger or older than her two closest siblings. Maryanne and Freddy were so much older than the youngest children that it was almost as if they belonged to two different generations.
Donald, the couple's fourth child and second son, was born in 1946, just as Fred began plans for the new family house. He purchased a half-acre lot directly behind the Wareham Road house situated on a hill overlooking Midland Parkway, a wide tree-lined thoroughfare that runs through the entire neighborhood. When the kids found out about the impending move, they joked that they didn't need to hire a moving truck; they could just roll their belongings down the hill.
At more than four thousand square feet, the House was the most impressive residence on the block but still smaller and less grand than many of the mansions that dominated the hills in the northern part of the neighborhood. Set at the top of a rise, the House cast shadows in the afternoon over the wide flagstone steps that led from the sidewalk to the front door, an entrance we used only on special occasions. The lawn jockeys, racist reminders of the Jim Crow era, were first painted pink and then replaced with flowers. The faux coat of arms on the pediment over the front door remained.
Although Queens would eventually be one of the most diverse places on the planet, in the 1940s, when my grandfather bought the land and built the imposing redbrick Georgian colonial with the twenty-foot columns, the borough was 95 percent white. The upper-middle-class neighborhood of Jamaica Estates was even whiter. When the first Italian American family moved to the neighborhood in the 1950s, Fred was scandalized.
In 1947, Fred embarked on the most important large-scale project of his career up until that point: Shore Haven, a proposed complex in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, comprising thirty-two six-story buildings and a shopping center spread over more than thirty acres. The draw this time was the $9 million in FHA funds that would be paid to Fred directly, just as Donald would later capitalize on tax breaks lavished on him by both the city and the state. Fred had previously described the type of people renting the 2,201 apartments as “unwholesome,” the implication being that upstanding people lived only in the single-family dwellings that had been his early specialty. But $9 million can be very persuasive. Around that time, when it became clear that Fred's fortune would only continue to grow, he and his mother set up trust funds for his children that would shield the money from taxation.
Though an iron-fisted autocrat at home and in his office, Fred had become expert at gaining access to and kowtowing to more powerful and better-connected men. I don't know how he acquired the skill, but he would later pass it on to Donald. Over time, he developed ties to leaders of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, the New York State political machine, and the federal government, many of whom were major players in the real estate industry. If getting funding meant sucking up to the local politicos who held the FHA purse strings, so be it. He joined an exclusive beach club on the south shore of Long Island and later North Hills Country Club, both of which he considered excellent places to entertain, impress, and rub elbows with the men best positioned to funnel government funds his way, much as Donald would do at Le Club in New York in the 1970s and at golf clubs everywhere.