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Donald Trump’s drive to surpass his father’s success

From left: Donald Trump, Mayor Ed Koch of New York, Governor Hugh Carey of New York, and Robert Dormer in 1978.Associated Press/File

Fred Trump couldn’t understand it.

His son Donald was building a new Manhattan skyscraper, and in the process blowing huge sums on exotic materials, especially bronze solar glass that wrapped all 58 stories.

Donald’s glitzy vision for what would become Trump Tower was a dramatic departure in sensibility for the senior Trump, who built tens of thousands of middle-class apartments in Queens and Brooklyn using boring, solid brick.

“Fred called me up and said, ‘Good old Hudson Valley brick was cheaper, more efficient, and doesn’t leak,’ ” said Alan Lapidus, an architect with ties to both Fred and Donald.

Fred Trump would tour the building site, according to a project manager, finding fault and declaring, “You guys don’t know what you’re doing.’’


Donald Trump ultimately prevailed. And the midtown Trump Tower stands as tribute to the son’s obsessions with glitz and showmanship, which can seem like a direct repudiation of his father’s determinedly practical approach to life.

Fred Trump never wanted to be the center of attention, just a quietly and richly successful man. His son, from early childhood on, had a grander vision.

Unlike his son, Fred Trump eschewed the limelight. Jack Smith/Daily News/Getty Images/File

Trump rarely mentions his father on the stump. Yet the younger Trump, who enjoyed a privileged upbringing in Queens, owes his career to his father, a real-estate millionaire who not only generously staked his son with financial backing but used his own strong connections to open doors among New York’s politicians and regulators.

Trump also got his tough, shrewd, never-back-down-an-inch mentality from the man he called Daddy-O or Pops.

But on a deeper level, Trump’s early apprenticeship with his father set the baseline for his own ambition and helps explain what makes him tick. Donald Trump realized early in life that building and managing thousands of rent-subsidized housing units — even if it guaranteed a fortune — would not be nearly enough.


“He had a much bigger ego, and still has, than Fred,” Lapidus said. “Fred didn’t have an ego at all. He was a low-key guy. Donald was all ego and wanted to be a Manhattan superstar.”

In an interview, Trump acknowledged that he saw himself as distinct and apart from his father and his old-school ways.

“We were very similar in many ways. But we were also different,” Trump said in an interview. “It was a different philosophy, really.”

Trump continued to ascend from Manhattan to national fame as a self-promoting billionaire and TV reality star, taking on institutions, bucking the norm, and elbowing his way into the spotlight at every opportunity.

Now he will take the stage in Cleveland and accept the nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate to lead the free world. It is the culmination of his own ambition, schooling the brick-laying patriarchs of the GOP in how to build with glass.

An empire, one unit at a time

From an early age, Fred Trump was all about business. His father, a German immigrant, died when he was 12 years old. He started a construction firm — Elizabeth Trump & Son — with his mother, who had to sign the paperwork because he wasn’t old enough.

He built prefabricated two-car garages for $50 each and before long turned to single-family homes.

“I always wanted to be a builder — it was my dream as a boy, just as some kids want to be firemen or cops or chemists,” Fred Trump, who died in 1999, told The New York Times in 1973. “When I was a lad, I discovered that I was agile with my hands, that I could take pieces of wood and nail them together, and that it was a lot of fun.”


His single-family homes were not flashy, even though he advertised them as “the homes of tomorrow” during the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. They were solidly built — many are still standing in Queens and Brooklyn — and he was known to build them faster than anyone else and sell them cheaper.

But they lacked the flamboyance that his son would crave.

“He wasn’t a skyscraper guy,” Donald Trump would later say.

During the Great Depression, Fred Trump started a self-service grocery store in the Woodhaven section of Queens, with a motto of “Serve Yourself and Save.”

But as the post-World War II building boom took off, Fred Trump began building political connections that helped him secure new Federal Housing Administration loans to build larger subsidized apartment complexes. Eventually he amassed an empire of 25,000 apartment units.

By the time Donald was born in 1946, Fred was a millionaire. He moved the family into a mansion in Jamaica Estates, an affluent preserve in Queens.

Fred and Donald Trump after Donald Trump’s graduation from the Wharton School in 1968.Donald Trump/Courtesy of Donald Trump

Fred Trump did, in his own way, see the value of a high profile and pursue it. He hired a public relations firm, and he began making public comments on the state of the economy. Gossip columns mentioned him as a possible president of the Queens borough, according to Wayne Barrett’s book “Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth.”


In 1950, the Fashion Foundation of America named Fred Trump one of the country’s best-dressed men, joining General Dwight Eisenhower, Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto, and musician Guy Lombardo.

But his tastes were still fairly understated. He worked out of an office near Coney Island where, when guests came, he was known to serve them cheese sandwiches.

The walls were filled with newspaper clippings on his deals and honors he had received. The predominant piece of artwork was a large, wooden cigar-store Indian, with a headdress that made it taller than its owner.

He was known to go to construction sites, pick up loose nails off the ground, and make sure his workers reused them the following week.

He was said to drive a brown Cadillac, use brown ink in his typewriter, and, as his hair grew gray, use brown dye.

“His handshake was so powerful and strong,” said Abe Wallach, who worked with Donald Trump for a dozen years. “I remember it even after 20 years.”

Hiding from history

Fred Trump’s business success masked a lie it was partly built on.

The family hid its German heritage, in large part because Fred Trump was trying to sell apartments, often to Jewish tenants, in the aftermath of World War II.

“He said, ‘You don’t sell apartments after the war if you’re German,’ ” John Walter, a family historian and one of Donald Trump’s cousins, said in an interview. “So he’s Swedish, no problem.”


As late as 1987, in his bestselling book “The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump was continuing with the ruse, writing that his grandfather “came here from Sweden as a child.”

But around this time, Walter said, he got a letter from a Swedish organization wanting to do a section on Trump in one of its museums.

“Oh, boy, are we in trouble now,” he recalled thinking.

Walter said that he told Fred and Donald to knock it off and own up to their German heritage. He also said George Steinbrenner — the New York Yankees owner who was also of German descent — told his friend Fred Trump, “Cut that nonsense out. You don’t need that anymore.”

By 2000, when Donald Trump wrote another book, he had a similar section on his family history. This time it included that his grandfather “came here from Germany as a child.” The lie about a Swedish heritage had been abandoned.

When asked why his father claimed he was Swedish, Trump told the Globe, “Well, he spent time in Sweden. And he talked about Swedish because of the fact, you know, we happened to be at war with Germany, which I guess makes sense in a lot of ways doesn’t it? But he spent time in Sweden.”

“Our country was at war with Germany,” he added. “So being from Germany didn’t necessarily play so well for a period of time.”

When asked why he felt he had to perpetuate the falsehood, he said, “Well, it was never really something discussed. My father spent a lot of time there. But it was never really something really discussed very much.”

Growing up Trump

By all accounts, Donald Trump was a handful to deal with as a child. He would throw birthday cakes at parties or fling erasers at teachers. He was a polarizing figure in his neighborhood, just as he is now on the national stage.

He once asked his younger brother, Robert, if he could borrow some of his building blocks so he could build a taller building. His brother agreed, as long as the blocks were given back.

“I ended up using all of my blocks, and then all of his, and when I was done I’d created a beautiful building,” Trump wrote in “The Art of the Deal.” “I liked it so much that I glued the whole thing together. And that was the end of Robert’s blocks.”

From an early age, it was clear that Donald had a taste for the expensive that his father largely eschewed.

“I tried to bring Donald down to earth many times,” Fred Trump recalled to New York magazine in 1980. “But he always had a nose for quality, and we could never get it out of him. Once when he was a little boy, a friend was having a birthday, and he wanted to buy him a fancy baseball glove — $35 it cost, can you imagine anything so crazy! — so I took Donald to see a $5 glove Herman’s was advertising, and seeing those cheap gloves, he almost threw up.”

When Trump was 13 and still acting up, his father decided he needed some more structure. So he sent him away to boarding school.

Those who knew him at the time said that he was proud of his father — when riding home from boarding school, one classmate recalls Trump looking out the window and bragging about Fred Trump’s construction empire — but Trump also was determined not to be crushed by the burden of paternal expectations.

“I was never intimidated by my father, the way most people were,” Trump wrote. “I stood up to him, and he respected that. We had a relationship that was almost businesslike.”

Coming into his own

Donald and Fred at the opening of the Wollman Rink in Central Park.Dennis Caruso/Daily News/Getty Images/File/NY Daily News Archive/ Getty Images

Trump briefly considered going to film school at the University of Southern California, but he was drawn to following in his father’s footsteps.

At Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s undergraduate business program, Trump would tell classmates about how his father once bought a property and then developed a secondary source of income with a laundromat.

“It showed his attention to detail. And small change,” said Joseph Cohen, one of his college classmates. “It was a profit center.”

After graduating from Wharton in 1968, Trump spent time with his father. He went door-to-door collecting rents, recalling how he would stand to the side of the door frame in case the tenant attacked. He helped manage a project in Cincinnati.

Trump’s father always drove a Cadillac with license plates bearing his initials, FCT. Soon, his son, too, was driving a Cadillac with his initials, DJT. Both limos were parked outside the unpretentious office on Coney Island.

Early on, Trump noticed that his father had paid off the construction loans on many of his buildings — and he wanted his father, who was more cautious financially, to take out new mortgages to accumulate more cash. Eventually Fred Trump relented.

“Donald is the smartest person I know,” Fred Trump told The New York Times in 1973. “Everything he touches turns to gold.”

Donald Trump also began to realize that he wanted something different from his father.

“I would rather sell apartments to billionaires who want to live on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street than sell apartments to people in Brooklyn who are wonderful people but are going to chisel me down because every penny is important,” he told Playboy magazine in 2004.

“You have to be comfortable with what you’re doing or you won’t be successful,” he added. “I used to stand on the other side of the East River and look at Manhattan.”

The ever-present father

In the early 1980s, Donald Trump began assembling parcels in Atlantic City, hoping to open a casino on the boardwalk. Then, he called Alan Lapidus.

Lapidus’s father was a famed architect who designed Trump Village, a 3,800-apartment complex in Coney Island, for Trump’s father.

Trump told Lapidus that he would be ideal to design his new casino, the Trump Plaza. They could both show their fathers what they could do.

But later, when the contract was being finalized, Lapidus got a call from Trump. Only it was Fred, not Donald, on the line.

Later, inside Donald’s office, Lapidus and Fred Trump settled on a contract that was identical to the one that Fred Trump had negotiated with Lapidus’s father. It was a simpler contract, and one that rewarded the loyalty and trust — the kind that had worked for a prior generation.

Donald didn’t catch on until two years later when the bills started coming in. As the contract stated, 10 percent was added on for some of the extra architectural work.

“He was sort of smoldering,” Lapidus says. “ ‘You’re trying to screw me, and I’m not going to let you!’ ”

When Lapidus blurted out that Trump’s father had signed off on the terms — and that they were the same terms that both of their fathers had agreed to years earlier — Trump had a sly smile.

“Oh,” he responded. “Get the [expletive] out of here.”

Throughout Donald Trump’s rise to riches and celebrity, his father played a key role but kept to the background. Even when Trump was assembling one of his first offices in Manhattan — with red carpet, gold fabric walls, and a desk made from Italian wood — his father helped foot the bill.

In 1980, his father’s corporation also loaned Donald $4.6 million, according to Barrett’s “Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth.”

On Trump’s first major project, rebuilding the Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt Hotel next to Grand Central Terminal, Fred Trump was the one who signed the financial documents.

But when Donald Trump didn’t get his way, he showed that he could have some sharper elbows — and a longer memory — than his father.

“My dealings with Fred were all good. He was a totally honest guy,” said Richard Ravitch, a state official who opposed a tax exemption sought by Donald Trump. “I only met Donald Trump once in my life, in 1975. I was in public life at the time and I didn’t give him what he wanted. He has attacked me ever since.”

When Ravitch was appointed New York lieutenant governor in 2009, Trump wrote a letter to the governor protesting the appointment.

When his son was struggling with his Atlantic City casinos in 1990, Fred Trump bought $3.35 million in casino chips at Trump Castle, helping his son make an $18.4 million interest payment, according to news accounts at the time.

But Trump downplays the amount of financial assistance his father gave him.

“When I started out, he loaned me a million dollars,” Donald Trump said in the Globe interview. “I took that and turned it into a tremendous fortune. I believe I could have borrowed that money from a bank. . . . But much more important than that was the knowledge he gave me.”

“He was a builder in Brooklyn. People liked my father,” he added. “They liked him a lot, politically. That did not hurt. Having people who respected and liked your father was certainly a positive for me.”

Father and son had similarities — like always wearing a suit, or never taking a day off — but their differences were stark.

Fred Trump had only a high school education. Donald Trump frequently touts his degree from Wharton as proof of his intellect. Fred Trump worked as a caddy as a boy; Donald Trump owns numerous golf courses. Fred Trump used to love to vacation at the San Souci hotel in Miami; Donald Trump bought Mar a Lago in Palm Beach.

Fred Trump made a career — and a fortune — by building standard homes and apartment complexes in Brooklyn and Queens. Donald Trump went to Manhattan and built Trump Tower and Trump World Tower, Trump Soho and Trump Palace.

“Fred was a builder. Donald is also a builder, but he’s more than that,” said Peter Kalikow, a developer whose father was friends with Fred Trump. “He’s a great marketer. He made the name worth something.”

“Donald has more of a smile, a twinkle in his eye,” he added. “Fred was more of a serious guy.”

Disagreements and pride

Trump Tower was one of Donald Trump’s first big moves into Manhattan.Piotr Redlinski/New York Times/File

Donald Trump began the Trump Tower project in 1980 with a controversy that played out in the media. When his crews demolished the old Bonwit Teller flagship store to make way for Trump Tower, they destroyed Bonwit’s famous art deco reliefs of semi-nude goddesses — which Trump had promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He eventually claimed he could not remove the works intact without jeopardizing the safety of pedestrians below.

Trump would eventually live, work, and run his presidential campaign from the new glass-wrapped building. But before the tower was complete, his father had some opinions to share.

“Fred interfered,” said Barbara Res, the project manager. “He wanted to get involved with the trades. He brought in his contractor. He was a bit of a problem. He was very demanding and impatient. He was very problematic for me, to be honest.”

“Donald put up with him. But we all knew it was Donald’s show and not Fred’s,” she added. “It was a matter of putting up with Fred and letting Donald handle Fred.”

Father and son would argue. The father, used to being in charge, was watching his son do things in a different way.

“Fred was a character,” Res said. “He was very demanding. It was, ‘Oh no, no, no, no. That’s all wrong. You guys don’t know what you’re doing.’

“Donald was good with him though. He didn’t lose his temper with him. Fred would contradict Donald and Donald wouldn’t get mad at him.”

Res wrote in her 2013 book, “All Alone on the 68th Floor: How One Woman Changed the Face of Construction,” that Fred Trump had issues with her because she was a woman. Donald once told her that he had to reduce her reported salary to $49,000 because Fred didn’t want her making more than his own top person. Donald ended up making up the $6,000 difference himself.

When the building was almost completed, they threw a party there. Champagne was served and 10,000 balloons were on hand. Governor Hugh Carey and Mayor Ed Koch both attended — with the mayor in such a hurry not to be late that his limo got into a fender bender and he was taken the rest of the way by patrol car.

Fred Trump was happy for his son that night. He was starting to make it big in Manhattan. But soon he would have other concerns, of the sort that had long defined both the bonds and fundamental differences between father and son.

Through an intermediary, he tried — again — to convince Donald, not to be so flashy with the exterior of Trump Tower.

“I got a call from Fred,” Lapidus recalled. “He said, ‘Alan, can you tell Donald he could save a lot of money on electricity if he cut the power off on the Christmas lights during the daytime?’ ”

Lapidus said he never delivered the message. The lights remained on.

Matt Viser can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mviser.