Trump Tower, a Home for Celebrities and Charlatans

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    Pre-opening reports of Prince Charles and Princess Diana moving in turned out to be false, but that didn’t stop Mr. Trump from using them to his advantage. The “sale that never occurred,” as Mr. Trump called it in “The Art of the Deal,” was “the one that most helped Trump Tower.”

    Trump Tower, at 721-725 Fifth Avenue, opened to the public on Feb. 14, 1983, when the man who would become the 45th president was in his first flush of flame. It was 58 stories, but that didn’t stop the developer from promoting it as a 68-story building, to the chagrin of its chief architect, Der Scutt. The first 19 floors housed commercial enterprises; the first residential floor, the 20th, is listed as the 30th.

    With its grand atrium, made largely of Italian Brecchi Perniche marble, and with retail tenants that eventually included Gucci, Landau jewelry and the Trump Store, the building is not exactly homey. “When we were there, most people seemed to own more as an investment,” said Marina Fareed, who lived there recently with her husband, Qazi Shaukat Fareed, a Pakistani diplomat. “It was not full-time people.”

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    Mr. Trump in 1980 with a model of Trump Tower before it was built on the site of the Bonwit Teller building.

    Credit
    Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

    The completion of a grand tower in Midtown’s high-end retail district cemented Mr. Trump’s status as a force to be reckoned with in New York while also setting him apart from his father, the developer Fred C. Trump, who made his fortune with an empire of middle-class housing units in boroughs outside Manhattan.

    “Not many sons have been able to escape their fathers,” Donald Trump told The New York Times in 1983.

    Until he moved into the White House in January, he made his home in the building. His primary residence was a three-story penthouse apartment estimated at more than 10,000 square feet by Forbes. Originally designed by Halston’s interior designer, Angelo Donghia, it had a smoky Helmut Newton vibe, with black lacquered walls, velvet furniture and handsome midcentury tables. A private elevator connected Mr. Trump to the 26th-floor office where he conducted Trump Organization business.

    Then Mr. Trump went to the nearby Olympic Tower for a dinner held by the Saudi billionaire Adnan Khashoggi, encountered a living room bigger than his own and decided to remodel.

    Out went the mirrors, brass and mahogany. In came the Greek columns, gold leaf paint and Louis XIV-inspired furniture.

    For the rest of the go-go 1980s, Mr. Trump lived in that airy show palace with his wife, Ivana, and their children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric. In the 1990s, after a tabloid divorce and a wedding at the nearby Plaza hotel attended by Howard Stern and O. J. Simpson, he was joined by his second wife, Marla Maples, and their daughter, Tiffany.

    In 2001, two years after his divorce from Ms. Maples, Melania Knauss moved in. She and Mr. Trump were married in 2005, and their son, Barron, was given a floor of his own, with quarters for his mother and a nurse, after he came along in 2006. (Mrs. Trump and Barron made the White House their new home in June.)

    The plan for a gleaming tower in place of the 12-story Bonwit Teller store, a stately structure built as Stewart & Company in 1929, was hatched in 1978. At the time, Mr. Trump was renovating the old Hotel Commodore, which became the Grand Hyatt, near Grand Central Terminal. The work on Trump Tower began in 1980, and its namesake developer was soon revealed to be someone who did not mind playing the villain.

    After he declared his intention to donate the building’s pair of two-ton limestone relief panels of dancing women to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which wanted them for its sculpture collection, work crews instead demolished them, resulting in a torrent of negative publicity. Edward I. Koch, then the city’s mayor, lambasted Mr. Trump for “ignoring the interests of the city.” In an editorial, The Times said he seemed to be in a race “to win a stupendous new unpopularity prize.”

    Never one to apologize, Mr. Trump told New York magazine that all the negative publicity had only helped him sell more units. “It was fantastic promotion,” he said.

    The demolition crew included undocumented Polish laborers, which kept costs down but subjected Mr. Trump to litigation. The contractor for the job of razing the Bonwit Teller building, William Kaszycki, of Kaszycki and Sons Contractors, ultimately served time in a New Jersey prison for employing illegal immigrants on another project. After a legal battle lasting many years, a federal judge found that Mr. Trump, a group of his associates and a union official had conspired to avoid making payments to the Housewreckers’ Local 95 union.

    By the time Trump Tower opened, more than half the building’s condominium units had been sold, and all but a small percentage would be gone within the next few years. Paul Goldberger, then The Times’s architecture critic, whom Mr. Trump had once called “an idiot,” sounded amazed by how much he actually liked it.

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    Michael Jackson and Mr. Trump at the 1990 opening of the Trump Taj Majal in Atlantic City.

    Credit
    Ron Galella/WireImage, via Getty Images

    “If overbearing publicity and overdressed guards do not a good building make, neither do they a good building deny,” he wrote. “Trump Tower,” he added, “is turning out to be a much more positive addition to the cityscape than the architectural oddsmakers would have had it.”

    Three years after the building’s opening, The Times reported that it had “turned out to be a gold mine, with economics as glittery as the building itself.”

    Few residents garnered as much publicity for the building as Michael Jackson, who for 10 months around 1994 rented a duplex apartment near the top and turned one of the bedrooms into a mirrored dance studio.

    Mr. Trump made Mr. Jackson’s acquaintance in 1988, when he attended a Madison Square Garden concert that was part of the singer’s tour in support of his “Bad” album. After the show, he made a backstage visit.

    In 1990, Mr. Trump persuaded Mr. Jackson to show up at the opening of the Trump Taj Majal in Atlantic City, parading him in front of camera crews and reporters. The next day, Mr. Jackson’s friend Ryan White died of AIDS, and the developer accompanied him on a visit to the grieving family in Indianapolis, bringing along a journalist to document the deed.

    After Mr. Jackson moved into his Trump Tower apartment, Mr. Trump took him to a low-key dinner at Le Cirque. “There was no entourage, no posse,” said Mario Wainer, the restaurant’s longtime maître d’hôtel. “He came as a guest of Mr. Trump, and that was it.”

    Mr. Jackson barely touched his risotto, Mr. Wainer recalled, and Mr. Trump had fish and drank no alcohol.

    Given Mr. Trump’s feuds with celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell and Snoop Dogg, it may not come as a surprise that some of his relationships with well-known tenants ended poorly.

    Johnny Carson left the building in 1987 after an episode with Mr. Trump over a missing vicuna coat: The talk show host accused two Trump employees of stealing it and demanded that they be fired. Mr. Trump went along with the request, only to hear back from Mr. Carson after he had found the coat.

    A few years later, Mr. Trump traded insults with the singer and actress Pia Zadora during a dispute with her husband, the dime-store magnate Meshulam Riklis, who rented office space in the building.

    When Mr. Trump sued Mr. Riklis for $1.2 million, charging nonpayment of rent, Ms. Zadora, who had been performing at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, called the lawsuit a publicity stunt. Mr. Trump hit back, telling a reporter, “If she were better looking and had a lot more talent, maybe she could at least partially sell out some of her Atlantic City dates.”

    Later, when Ms. Zadora heard Mr. Trump using similar language in his feuds with Megyn Kelly and Ms. O’Donnell, she realized — as she said in an interview last week — “I was a pioneer!”

    Photo

    The building has 58 stories, but was promoted as having 68; the first residential floor, the 20th, is listed as the 30th.

    Credit
    Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

    As Mr. Trump wrote in his 1987 best seller, “The Art of the Deal,” “the cycles of buyers at Trump Tower were always something of a barometer of what was going on in the international economy.”

    The first group, Mr. Trump wrote in the book, included many people hailing from the Middle East, some of them from nations the newly elected president would later seek to put on a travel ban list. There have also been residents of Mexico, a country Mr. Trump targeted through his candidacy. Juan Beckmann Vidal, who has a majority stake in Jose Cuervo Tequila, purchased and combined three units on the 31st floor in 2007.

    All along, there has been a strong European contingent. Gianna Lahainer-Lombardi, a Palm Beach socialite originally from Trieste, Italy, lives in a duplex on the 62nd and 63rd floors with her second husband, George Guido Lombardi, who has described himself as an “unofficial representative” of Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League.

    In January, Mr. Lombardi, who is suspicious of Islam, open borders and the European Union, held a cocktail reception in honor of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front party, at his apartment. The next day, he took her for a very public cup of coffee in the Trump Tower cafe.

    Although Mr. Trump called himself “the law and order candidate” in 2016, his namesake tower has been welcoming to those who have run afoul of the law.

    “Criminals got to go somewhere,” said Robby Browne, a broker at the Corcoran Group.

    Joseph Weichselbaum, an executive at a helicopter company that flew gamblers to Trump-run casinos in Atlantic City, knew Mr. Trump well. His firm also took care of Mr. Trump’s $10 million Super Puma helicopter.

    After being charged with drug trafficking, Mr. Weichselbaum rented an apartment owned by Mr. Trump himself at the Trump Plaza building on East 61st Street. Mr. Trump wrote a letter on his behalf to the presiding judge in the case, calling him a “credit to the community” shortly before Mr. Weichselbaum pleaded guilty and was given a three-year sentence.

    In 1990, after serving his time at Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan, Mr. Weichselbaum moved into adjoining apartments on the 49th floor of Trump Tower that had been purchased by the woman he was with at the time. He moved out of the building in 1994 and has not had legal troubles since then.

    Another notorious resident was Jean-Claude Duvalier, the former Haitian dictator overthrown in a 1986 popular uprising, who owned a $2.5 million condominium through a Panamanian holding company.

    In 1988, Jay Weinberg, a New York-bred career criminal, moved into Unit 63-A while under indictment for running what prosecutors said was the largest Medicaid fraud in history. After being convicted of using his low-cost, Brooklyn-based medical clinic to improperly bill Medicaid for $16 million in fees from 381,000 appointments that never took place, he was sentenced to seven to 21 years in prison. As prosecutors noted, he was literally robbing the poor to feed the rich.

    Mr. Weinberg wouldn’t even be the only convict who obtained keys to that particular unit. In 2009, it sold to Vadim Trincher, a Russian-born poker champion, for $5 million. In 2013, Mr. Trincher was convicted of running a gambling ring catering to Russian mobsters and sentenced to five years.

    Helly Nahmad, an art dealer who owns six apartments on the 51st floor of Trump Tower, pleaded guilty to a federal gambling charge of running a related ring with Mr. Trincher’s son Illya Trincher, who was also convicted.

    At least Mr. Nahmad and Mr. Trincher have not been charged in connection with anyone’s death, a dubious distinction held by Isaac Chehebar, a real estate investor and scion of the 1,300-store Rainbow retail chain.

    In 2001, Mr. Chehebar was 20 years old and driving a friend’s Porsche when he struck and killed Inna Shetman, 15, and her sister, Svetlana, 10. While Mr. Chehebar was under indictment, his family donated $80,000 to the re-election campaign of the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles J. Hynes, whose office prosecuted the case.

    Mr. Chehebar served a four-and-a-half-month sentence for criminally negligent homicide. In 2006, Mr. Chehebar spent $4.3 million for a 2,200-square-foot apartment on the 42nd floor of Trump Tower, property records show.

    Steven Hoffenberg, who was convicted in 1997 of bilking investors of Towers Financial Corporation of $462 million, leased office space on the 16th floor shortly after his legal difficulties began.

    Asked last year by Bloomberg why Mr. Trump rented to him when he was facing charges of running one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history, Mr. Hoffenberg said: “He’s very objective. Renting space has nothing to do with color or race — or indictment. It has to do with if you can pay the rent.”

    Since Mr. Trump’s political career took off, there have been questions about his possible ties to Russia. In January 2017, he took to Twitter saying, “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”

    But in 2002, the Bayrock Group, a real estate investment fund run by two Russian-born entrepreneurs, Tevfik Arif and Felix Sater, moved into office space on the 24th floor of Trump Tower, where they began work on the future Trump SoHo and used their connections to explore a possible Trump building in Moscow.

    In 2006, Mr. Sater stayed with Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump in Moscow across from the Kremlin. The next year, The Times reported that Mr. Sater had been convicted of a felony assault and had pleaded guilty to running what authorities called a “pump and dump” scheme” — buying large blocks of stocks in four companies, then flooding the market with false and misleading information about them.

    He avoided jail time by becoming a government informant who, according to the former attorney general Loretta Lynch, provided crucial intelligence about a variety of international crime syndicates.

    Mr. Trump has repeatedly tried to play down his involvement with Mr. Sater.

    In 2007, he told The Times that he “didn’t know [Mr. Sater] very well.” In 2015, he told a reporter from The Associated Press that he was “unfamiliar” with him.

    In 2017, Mr. Sater met with Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, at the Loews Regency on Park Avenue. There, Mr. Sater gave him a letter proposing the lifting of sanctions against Russia.

    The letter, The Times later reported, was delivered to Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser at the time. The next week, Mr. Flynn was fired.

    Of late, Mr. Trump has also been distancing himself from another Trump Tower resident with ties to Russian interests. In addition to holding the deed to an apartment on the 43rd floor of Trump Tower since 2015, he was for several months last year the manager of his landlord’s presidential campaign.

    His name: Paul Manafort.

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