The year was 1984, and Donald J. Trump had already made a name for himself.
Just a few years earlier, the son of a wealthy outer-borough real estate developer stunned New York with the Grand Hyatt Hotel deal, in which he'd snatched up an unprecedented 40-year tax break from a city on the brink of bankruptcy. Then, he built Trump Tower. Ignoring his father's advice, he had ventured deep into the world of Manhattan real estate—a world he would dominate for years to come. And now, his eyes were set on a new property: Trump Castle.
As New York Magazine described it, Trump's vision came "complete with spires, drawbridge, and [a] moat"—a legit fortress on Madison Avenue and 59th Street; something only The Donald could conjure up. His competitors labeled the idea "lunacy," and eventually, it turned out they were right: the cost of the development spiraled out of control, climbing upwards of $135 million, and Prudential Insurance, Trump's partner on the project, decided to walk.
Before breaking ground, Trump's castle had crumbled. (He would christen an Atlantic City casino with the name the following year.) In the cutthroat world of Manhattan real estate, it was considered a big loss for the mogul. Trump had tried, and failed, to build a larger-than-life property, and, according to New York, his partner was out $15 million as a result.
But to John Barron, a "Trump spokesperson," that wasn't the case: Selling the property was Trump's idea the whole time, Barron told reporters, making it seem like the real estate mogul had never even wanted the damn castle in the first place, and was happy to see it go: "It sure is easier to get a large commission on a $105-million sale than to put up a building," Barron told New York at the time. Contrary to the public's perception, Trump actually left the bruising battle victorious—at least according to Trump himself.
Because throughout the 1980s, Donald J. Trump was John Barron—a literal alter ego that allowed Trump to say what he wanted, when he wanted, to the New York City press corps, and the world. Barron was a Trump spokesperson, a Trump representative, and was even quoted once or twice as a Trump executive. Sometimes, it was spelled "Barron," other times, just "Baron." But it was always the same person talking: Trump.
It was the billionaire businessman's first foray into media manipulation, a strategy the Republican presidential frontrunner has mastered, with his Twitter rants, his widely-publicized feuds—with networks, candidates, famous women, the people of Mexico—and his frequent threats against anyone who tries to discredit his personal narrative. By pushing the right buttons, Trump was able to get his story told the way he wanted to tell it. He was—and is—his own spin doctor, beholden to no one but himself.
"John Barron was a way for Trump to talk himself up," said Michael D'Antonio, the author of Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, a Trump biography that was rushed to publication this September. "He'd be able to express things that he wanted expressed about himself by someone that wasn't him." In other words, Trump was his own personal cheerleader, like the extras he allegedly hired for his presidential candidacy launch.
According to D'Antonio, the fake spokesperson began to appear in the early 1980s, with the construction of Trump Tower, the mogul's magnum opus on Fifth Avenue. Before demolishing the storied flagship of the now-defunct department store chain Bonwit Teller, Trump promised that he'd donate the cache of valuable artworks inside to the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then, his company's workers smashed them to pieces.
After an outcry from the art community, a man named John Barron—who, in phone interviews with reporters, vaguely gave his title as a "Trump Organization vice president"—said he spoke on behalf of his boss when he cited costs to construction that outweighed the pieces' value. And besides, Barron argued, they were "without artistic merit" anyway. Though reporters at the time may not have realized it, Americans now will recognize this as quite possibly the most Trumpian response ever.
Over the course of nearly a decade, Trump was quick to dispatch John Barron to share his position on deals with media outlets: "We have no interest whatsoever in Lincoln West," Barron told the New York Times, in response to questions about a Manhattan property in 1984.
In other, more deranged instances, Trump's alter ego emerged as a second spokesperson named "John Miller," who was used to boost his playboy reputation in between the mogul's marriages. "Important beautiful women call him [Trump] all the time," "Miller" told People.
"It was a chance for him to say that Carla Bruni and Madonna were interested in him," D'Antonio explained. "And if you want everyone to think you're a charming, dashing, and beautiful guy, maybe it's handy to have someone on hand who says that." (After listening to a tape of the People interview, Trump's ex-girlfriend at the time, Marla Maples, confirmed that John Miller was, indeed, Trump. Trump and Maples would later get back together, marry, and then divorce.)
To this day, the roots of the name "John Barron" are hazy, at best. Strangely enough, Trump named his third son Barron in 2006, long after he retired the fictional Barron. D'Antonio suggested the name may be a reference to Barron Hilton, the famous hotelier who Trump bought out in Atlantic City ("John Baron," of course, announced that deal). Another Trump biographer, Wayne Barrett, hypothesized that the name could hint at ancestral royalty for Trump, the grandson of German immigrants. "Maybe he thought he actually was a baron," Barrett joked to me.
Having a fake identity, however, does run in the Trump family. As it turns out, years before the advent of John Barron, Donald's father, Fred Trump, would call competing real estate companies in the middle of night, introducing himself as "Mr. Green," to score inside information that might benefit his business. The lie became a well-known "family practice"—a tradition, of sorts—according to Maryanne Trump Barry, Donald's sister.
"It was like 'John Barron' is for Donald," she told the Trump biographer, Gwenda Blair. "A name for an imaginary biographer who is really Donald. My husband says when he's joking that he's going to call and say John Barron's been given a subpoena, and then we'll see how quickly John Barron falls ill and dies."
We spoke to an expert to find out what would happen if Trump won the presidency.
Ironically, that's kind of what happened.
In 1990, Donald J. Trump took the stand to testify against charges that his company had knowingly employed—and withheld payments from—undocumented Polish workers during construction of the aforementioned Trump Tower. In court, the lawyer for the workers, John Szabo, said that he had received a call from someone who identified himself as "Mr. Baron," who threatened to sue him for $100 million if he didn't drop the lawsuit.
So, after years of secretly hiding behind the pseudonym, Trump finally had to explain himself. He admitted to the court that yes, he and one of his assistants had used the name "John Barron" in business matters. "Lots of people use pen names," he later told a reporter outside of courtroom. "Ernest Hemingway used one."
John Barron died that day. And once Trump settled down with Maples, his second wife, John Miller followed. As quickly as Trump's alter egos had appeared to the press, they disappeared into nothingness. But the groundwork—and the headlines—had been laid, powering Trump's celebrity, and his reality show of a presidential campaign, today. Looking back, John Barron was really just an early exercise for The Donald that America would come to know—a natural extension of Trump's uncanny ability to constantly be seen, including, but not at all limited to, his upcoming role as 'SNL' host. This is a man that has to live in the spotlight, even if he's the one tethering the cords.
"Donald seems, in retrospect, to have engaged in a kind of long con. He uses whatever he thinks he can get away with to manipulate other individuals, the press and country as a whole," D'Antonio writes in his biography. "He understands that the news cycle makes yesterday's statements irrelevant and that reporters prefer a snappy, exciting story to a narrative that is complex and impossible to distill into four words that would be plastered on a tabloid's front page."
"These are the conditions that allow hucksters to thrive," he continues, "which is all fun and amusing until we consider him in the Oval Office."
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