Donald Trump often claims that he does not now nor has he ever imbibed alcohol, explaining that he wanted to avoid the fate of his alcoholic older brother Freddy, an airline pilot who died at 43 in 1981. It has always seemed unlikely that Trump, who has regaled other writers with raunchy tales of partying in the 1970s at Studio 54, never tried an intoxicant. But sobriety has been part of the persona he peddles. Let everyone else get sloppy, the subtext goes. He wants consumers of the Trump brand and would-be lenders to believe he always keeps it together.
Trump separated from his second wife, Marla Maples, in May 1997, but he was out on the town for years before that. Nights spent among the famous and infamous during his 1990s bachelorhood gave Trump meat to feed gossip writers. Downtown, especially SoHo, had become home to a new type of nightclub. Small lounges like Spy Bar, Wax, and Chaos drew fashion models, artists, and a few Wall Streeters, along with Trump and his friend John Casablancas, founder of Elite Model Management. On any given night, the A-list at Wax reported in gossip columns might include Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter "cozying up to a stunning blonde" or indie film actress Parker Posey hosting a party with MTV News personality Serena Altschul, designer Alexandra von Furstenberg, and actor Chris Noth. On another, film actors Nicolas Cage and Stephen Dorff might be spotted "escorting three ladies to Chaos for Candyland night."
There beside Casablancas and in pursuit of European models, Trump drank, according to Laraby (a bartender who has long used only one name professionally, sometimes spelling it Larabee) and Michael Ault, a titan in clubland who is credited with inventing bottle service. One of the models Trump met in this era was Melania Knauss, a Slovenian invited to New York by the founder of the ID Models agency, Paolo Zampolli.
Donald Trump at a 2018 press conference: I'm not a drinker. I can honestly say I never had a beer in my life.... Whenever they are looking for something good, I say I never had a glass of alcohol.
Caron Bernstein, model: I was at clubs like eight nights a week in those days and ran with an entourage. We'd have all these club kids and models, and the night would start at a place called Pure Platinum on 21st Street, which is basically a strip club. There'd be all these girls that were known for their bodies, like Maureen Gallagher. They would get onto the poles with the strippers. It was more lax about doing drugs out in the open in public than the regular nightclubs, so we would start the night out at these strip clubs and it became a frenzy. I would see [sex offender Jeffrey] Epstein, Trump, like all the old geezers, at that place too. It would be the prequel to whatever club we were going to, like the earlier part of the night, 11:00, 11:30.
Laraby, bartender at various 1990s clubs: I served him. And he drank at the bar. He'd come in with John Casablancas. He'd go to the side of the bar [at Spy] by the waitress station, because he liked the waitresses. He would order light beer. It was usually Miller Lite or Bud Light. John ordered vodka-based drinks. If they could get some large-breasted beautiful young European girl's attention, they would get a nice bottle of wine, sometimes champagne, and move to a table. He drank his beer out of the bottle. He would nurse his beer. Even if they were there for hours, he would have three beers at the most.
Michael Ault, owner of 1990s Manhattan lounges Spy Bar and Chaos: I would hear from the doorman that he was on the way to our table. I'd think, Oh, it's going to be one of those nights. People talk about how he's such a genius PR guy and marketing guy, and I guess that's true. But it felt like you were in the presence of someone who was constantly selling you something. He would talk about his successes, he would talk about how he started from nothing. At the time, he was opening his Atlantic City casinos, and he was talking about how big they were going to be, like they were going to be the best casinos in the country and no one had spent this much money on a casino. He didn't want to know how my day was, but he was certainly prepared to talk about how his day was. Maybe that’s what you do when you’re a real estate mogul, you’re selling something all the time. I just wish occasionally he would turn that off and say how are you, what are you doing? It was boring.
Laraby: John was really nice, he would say, "Hey Lara, what's going on? Where you been?" Whereas Trump was very fucking awkward, and it was like John was Trump's wingman to get him laid. That was his dynamic. Like, this is how you be a human in a club.
Ault: We had champagne on the table, always, and we had vodka usually, some scotch. He was drinking champagne or vodka, a liquor and not really a beer so much, but I could be wrong on the beer, I just never saw him with one.
Laraby: Trump was not a good tipper at all. He would stand at the bar, and if he was paying, which he sometimes did, John would have like three drinks, and he would have his beer and then they would get their bottle of wine, and the wine was expensive, and then he would leave me, like, two dollars. He never paid with a credit card. He'd have a wad of cash, and he'd leave me two dollars. I wanted to kill him.
Sara Conca, model, artist, and patron at Wax, Chaos, and Life: Everybody would couch surf and end up at a table and have a drink. Donald Trump was there, and he was always a gentleman with me. He would hang out with John Casablancas and there was a bunch of Brazilian girls, but it was John who really loved the Brazilian girls.
Ault: We paid girls to come every night. Modeling agency bookers were on our payroll. Owners of agencies were on our payroll. Plus, when all these girls were there, they attracted all the other girls.
Paolo Zampolli, ID Models founder: We were at the Kit Kat Club, and I introduced them. "Melania, please meet Donald." You could see champagne and vodka on the table, but for sure Mr. Trump had only Diet Coke. That's what he drinks since I've known him. This was a Fashion Week party. Melania was a successful model. I met her in Milano. I invited her to come to my agency in New York. She was hanging out a lot with my girlfriend, eating healthy, going to the gym, what girls do. Two weeks later I did a dinner at my house with Roberto Cavalli and [Donald and Melania] show up together.
This article is adapted from The Method to the Madness: Donald Trump's Ascent as Told by Those Who Were Hired, Fired, Inspired—and Inaugurated by Allen Salkin and Aaron Short Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.
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