Poor Little Rich Boys : TRUMPED! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump--His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall, <i> By John R. O’Donnell with James Rutherford (Simon & Schuster: $21.95; 348 pp.)</i>

<i> Thomas writes weekly on getting and spending for the New York Observer and is currently working on a volume of commentary about the '80s</i>

John O’Donnell’s account of his adventures in the employ of Donald Trump is an interesting book, but a narrow one.

O’Donnell, an experienced gaming executive, ran the Trump Plaza, by his account (and others’) the most businesslike and successful of the three principal Trump casino properties in Atlantic City. It would be in Atlantic City that Trump’s exponential overpayment for commercial properties, in the belief that his “glamour” (which he seems to have accepted as an earnest of business genius) would make it all come right, took him over the financial precipice.

Thus O’Donnell’s three years with Trump would place him close to the heart of the saga, to use that word as loosely and demeaningly as it ever has been in the whole span of centuries since legend was born. It was vouchsafed to O’Donnell to watch from center stage as Trump would begin to be swallowed up, in the almost stately manner in which a sheep is devoured by a boa constrictor, by that most implacable and consuming of all the forces ever unleashed by the mind of mortal man: compound interest.

This is, in fact, the sublime irony of the tale that O’Donnell has to tell, because of all the businesses at which man sets his hand, gambling is the one most entirely reducible to arithmetic. By the numbers made, by the numbers undone, so to speak. The best and most riveting parts of O’Donnell’s spritely book are those which educate the reader in the marketing techniques and considerations which are the essence of running a profitable gambling operation on an industrial scale.


For instance, it was entirely characteristic of Trump that he “completely ignored the mass-market character of Atlantic City’s gaming industry. . . . He could not see the importance of . . . attracting loyal slot-machine players. Nor could he seem to grasp the role of the high-end player in creating an ambience for the property that would attract those same mass-market players.”

Like many “financial entrepreneurs” of the age, Trump’s notions of value were predicated on borrowing into a market that would rise forever. It is a credo that works well in real-estate-boom cycles, but invariably proves fatal to operating businesses that have a constant need to recycle resources into market development and new plant. If cash flow is excessively diverted to debt service instead of customer service, the business will go into a tailspin. That is what happened to Donald Trump.

O’Donnell isn’t very informative about Trump outside Atlantic City, and that is probably to his credit. This is intended to be the sharp book about “the Donald,” but it makes no pretentions at being the big book. In my opinion, however, it is about all the book we need on this somewhat unappetizing young man, who with Ronald Reagan and Michael Milken stands to the Great Money Con of the ‘80s as another Holy Trinity did in happier times to another religion of the people.

The fact is, Atlantic City was a perfect instrument for Trump; on it, he could play all the notes of his character, and it resonated the cacophony with an acoustic rightness that would do credit to a symphony hall. It’s fair to say that he and the place were of a piece: declasse , noisy, down-market, meat-and-potatoes, obvious, shiny-suited, in a way anachronistic: Just think of the Donald’s gel-slicked pompadour with its intimations of Kookie on “77 Sunset Strip.”


O’Donnell understood this market, was comfortable with it and knew how to spin money from it. Trump yearned for Vegas, that Orlando with slot machines, but his archrival Steve Wynn was entrenched there, so he tried to confect “Vegas East,” not realizing, in his obtuse way, that without the proximity of Hollywood, it wouldn’t work. Even at its most high-flying, Atlantic City carries a taint of seediness as inescapable as the salt in the breeze.

Trump’s sense of self-worth obviously was a function of his celebrity, a fact hideously clear to us New Yorkers who had to endure the hockey-rink hype, and O’Donnell gives us many a fine chapter and verse to substantiate the Atlantic City aspects of that. But what a cheesy celebrity, rising to heights that the Morton’s crowd might consider acceptable only on the louche occasions of championship prizefights, when Trump could “comp” the big names whose company he craved with $1,000 ringside seats that O’Donnell had set aside for his high-rollers.

There’s plenty of good Kitty Kelley-type stuff here, too, certainly adequate to sate the pruriently curious reader for whom it is enough that Ozymandias has fallen and who has no interest in pondering further. Marla Maples was regularly stashed on the Trump Plaza premises, even while, up the boardwalk, Ivana “managed” the Trump Castle. O’Donnell quotes Trump’s vulgar and pedestrian prose anthems to his paramour at length; they reminded this reader of nothing so much as those Playboy videos that only people who have lived in a cave since 1960 find racy.

We learn that Trump is a lousy tipper, who regularly stiffed the help in his own casino restaurants. We learn some genuinely ugly stuff. In 1989, three top executives of the Trump organization were killed in the crash of a chartered helicopter. Trump expressed the requisite condolences and then some, but he also quickly put into media play the little myth, entirely untrue according to O’Donnell, that he had himself barely escaped taking that flight. In fact, he had never been scheduled to fly with them. Worse still, when things started to turn really rank in 1990, Trump frequently blamed the dead executives for failings that O’Donnell makes abundantly clear were the disastrous “practical consequences of Donald’s ego.”


All in all, this is the tale of a second-rater who was able to borrow more money than was good for himself, or the people who worked for him, or for us, for that matter. Why? How? These are the questions, touching the soul of the age that put Donald Trump on a pedestal, that have to be addressed, but they are not O’Donnell’s concern. I cannot hold him culpable for that. What he might have given us would have been a closer reading of the changes in his boss’s state of mental balance.

I have been watching Trump since the late ‘60s. He was always kind of a jerk, but not much more than that, who got on a hot streak in Manhattan real estate in the mid-'70s. This left him deservedly pumped up, but by the mid-'80s he was obviously in the grip of something akin to megalomania. I remember reading in People a letter from Trump about his contest with Merv Griffin for control of Resorts International, which seemed proof positive that the boy wonder’s mental deck of cards now contained fewer than the normally allotted 52.

What caused this? Whence the myth of omnipotence in which he so totally believed? What caused hard-working loyal executives the frustration, chagrin and ultimately the antipathy that produces a book like this? The answer, dear reader, has to be us.

We’re the ones who underwrote that myth, elevated Trump’s own book to best-sellerdom and, in perhaps the most graphic of all the bits of evidence of how morally and spiritually rotten the ‘80s were, turned this blown-up sham into a national hero. It’s not a point that O’Donnell makes as such, but it’s the shaming thought that lingers long after closing his book.