What I saw as the editor of “The Art of the Deal,” the book that made the future President millions of dollars and turned him into a national figure.

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Editing Donald Trump

By Peter Osnos – The New Yorker

Donald Trump in 1987, at a book party in Trump Tower for the release of “The Art of the Deal.”

Photograph by Sonia Moskowitz / Getty

In the fall of 1984, a few months after arriving at Random House as a senior editor, I was at lunch with the publishing house’s proprietor, S. I. (Si) Newhouse (whose family owns Condé Nast, which publishes The New Yorker), and its C.E.O., Robert Bernstein, who had hired me away from the Washington Post. We were in the Bahamas, at a sales conference. Newhouse was ordinarily a quiet, phlegmatic man, I had been told, but on one subject he was very animated: Donald Trump. By then, Trump, who had recently completed the construction of a shimmering tower on Fifth Avenue, had been around for a decade. A profile in the Times, in 1976, had called him New York’s “No. 1” real-estate promoter. “He is tall, lean and blond,” the story noted, “and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford.” More recently, at the suggestion of Roy Cohn, the notorious New York lawyer and fixer, who had been Newhouse’s close friend since their days together at the Horace Mann School, Trump had appeared on the cover of GQ, a Condé Nast magazine. The issue had sold especially well.

This Trump fellow, Newhouse now said, was more than a comer. He had arrived. The word was that Newhouse was hands-off when it came to acquiring books, but on this occasion he emphatically was not. He said, “Let’s do a book with Trump.” I had been brought to Random House to acquire and edit, among other things, high-profile books by public figures. Newhouse said that he would arrange a meeting with Trump, and it was decided that Howard Kaminsky, the new publisher of the Random House trade division, and I would accompany him. Kaminsky was a friend of Newhouse and was clearly his choice as publisher, not Bernstein’s.

The day of the meeting arrived, and we were led into Trump’s office, on the twenty-sixth floor of Trump Tower, by his personal assistant, an elegant woman named Norma Foerderer. (She would later have an assistant of her own, Rhona Graff, who is still Trump’s personal assistant in New York.) The office had a spectacular view of Central Park and the Plaza Hotel, which Trump coveted. The walls were covered with magazine spreads he’d appeared in and some plaques. There was a large phone console, but Trump summoned Norma and others with a shout.

Newhouse made the pitch. We had brought along a cover proposal––black background, a photograph of Trump, and his name and the title in gold letters. Trump liked the cover but said his name should be larger. It wasn’t clear to me whether he was being serious or engaging in self-parody. In any case, by the end of the meeting, Trump was ready to do the book. We soon learned that a writer named Tony Schwartz, who had worked at Newsweek and the Times, had come to Trump with a concept for a book they could do together, to be called “The Art of The Deal.” All the pieces were in place. The advance was five hundred thousand dollars, to be split evenly, from the first dollar, with Schwartz as the co-author. I don’t remember dealing with either an agent or a lawyer.

It was now 1985 and I was acquiring other books, including the memoirs of House Speaker Tip O’Neill, and Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter’s “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.” I also contracted with Natan Sharansky, a Russian-Jewish dissident I had known while working as a reporter for the Post in Moscow, a decade earlier. We had both been attacked by Soviet authorities: he for supposedly being a spy and I for supposedly being his American handler. Sharansky was tried for treason and went to prison for nine years. When he was released, in 1986, Bernstein, a staunch human-rights activist, flew with me to Israel to meet him and sign him up.

I was still learning how to be a book editor and publisher. With O’Neill and the Carters, I was a reporter as well as an editor, asking questions and reviewing interview transcripts. When Sharansky had a draft, I went to Israel again and he read it to me in Russian. The Trump process, however, was quite different. In 2016, Tony Schwartz told Jane Mayer that he now deeply regrets being Trump’s writer. But he was not a “ghostwriter” exactly, certainly not an anonymous one. His name got full billing on the cover. I have no reason to doubt that Schwartz is sincere in his chagrin, but he did do a masterly job on the book. He shadowed Trump, channelled his stories, and made the narrative readable. He presented Trump in the best possible way—the way Trump wanted to be seen. Tony left very little for an editor to do.

Instead, my responsibility became all the publishing elements: how the book looked, how it would be marketed and publicized. I became the Random House sponsor of what we thought would be a significant seller during the holiday buying season of 1987. Kaminsky would normally have been at the helm of our efforts, but in October, 1987, he was fired by Bernstein, who had kept a distinct distance from the project. Kaminsky’s successor was Joni Evans, who came from Simon & Schuster. While she was getting her bearings at Random House, I was the point person on “The Art of the Deal.”

I accompanied Trump to meetings with the heads of major book-retail chains, the biggest of which at that time was Waldenbooks, which had more than a thousand stores in malls and storefronts around the country. The C.E.O. was Harry Hoffman, a big man with considerable self-regard, who tended to think that publishers were fusty and backward in their understanding of how books should be sold. Over lunch at some swank French restaurant in midtown Manhattan, I watched Hoffman and Trump bond. They agreed that they could make “The Art of the Deal” a No. 1 best-seller.

The book party took place in December, 1987, in the atrium of Trump Tower. It was a black-tie affair, with photographers and spotlights everywhere. On the receiving line, standing next to Trump, Newhouse, and Schwartz, I found myself shaking hands with Mike Tyson, Roy Cohn, Barbara Walters, Barry Diller, and Norman Mailer, who was, surprisingly, a close friend of Cohn’s. I gave the celebratory toast. The mood was jubilant. At that very moment, my wife, Susan, was in Moscow with a delegation from Human Rights Watch, where she worked, meeting with prominent dissidents who were under the surveillance of the K.G.B. Susan and I have been a couple since the early seventies. Never in our marriage can it be said that we were farther apart, in terms of both distance and circumstance.

The book went to No. 1 and stayed there. The media interest from the outset was intense. The top shows of the time—Phil Donahue in daytime, Larry King at night, and everyone in between, including programs in the United Kingdom—were eager to book New York’s glamorous young real-estate mogul. Random House had put out about a hundred and twenty-five thousand copies in the first printing. They disappeared very quickly. Reprints were ordered and shipped on an almost daily basis to keep up with demand. Trump was thrilled. Schwartz, on the other hand, was frustrated to learn that some booksellers were out of stock. He had stores on speed dial and would report shortages back to us in furious calls. I’ve always believed that of the book’s two credited authors, Schwartz was the more frenetic. Given the fifty-fifty split in the contract, he was on the way to making a fortune in royalties.

There was a rumor adrift that Trump was buying his own book to boost his sales numbers, which seems unlikely: Trump doesn’t spend money when he doesn’t have to. He was hardly passive, however. Joni Evans told me that Trump called her at home a few days before Christmas to say that he wanted a thousand copies delivered to Aspen for his upcoming ski vacation.

“Donald, it’s Christmas,” she said. “All the warehouses are closed.”

“Figure it out,” was his command. He offered the use of his plane.

Evans managed to reach Newhouse. The warehouse was mobilized. The copies reached Aspen and were sold. By mid-1988, “The Art of the Deal” had sold a million hardcover copies.

Through all this, my relations with Trump were smooth. He was so glad to have been solicited by Newhouse, and he had, in an easy climb, become a national celebrity. The Times review ended with this notable sentence: “Mr. Trump makes one believe even for a moment in the American dream.” Then there was this ambiguous closing line: “It’s like a fairy tale.”

The following spring, my son, Evan, who was then about twelve years old, expressed a fascination with professional wrestling. There was a World Wrestling Federation extravaganza coming up in Atlantic City. This was a Trump-promoted event. I called Trump’s office, spoke to Norma, and was sent three free tickets. On the day of the event, Trump arrived at the arena to wild applause. This was well before his days on “The Apprentice,” but he was already at least as big a star as Hulk Hogan or whoever was in the ring that day.

As was probably inevitable, either Trump or Newhouse eventually proposed doing a sequel to “The Art of the Deal.” And so the planning began. Newhouse and I were invited to lunch on Trump’s yacht, the Trump Princess, a two-hundred-and-eighty-foot vessel that he’d bought from the Sultan of Brunei. The Trump Princess was anchored in the East River. What I most remember was that, by dessert, Newhouse had authorized an advance of two and a half million dollars, five times what we had paid for the first book. Once again, I was to be the editor.

At the time, I sensed that Trump’s world was starting to darken. In October, 1989, three of his top casino executives were killed in a helicopter crash. When I expressed my condolences to Trump, he replied, as I recall, “You know, I was supposed to be on that chopper.” Then word spread that Trump and Ivana’s marriage was faltering, despite her executive role in his recent acquisition of the Plaza. There was reportedly a new woman in his life, but her identity had yet to be revealed. Trump was still opening casinos in Atlantic City, most notably the Taj Mahal, but there were rumors that he was becoming overstretched.

By the end of May, 1990, we had a manuscript in draft. (Schwartz was unavailable, so we recruited Charles Leerhsen, a gifted Newsweek writer who had co-authored the memoirs of the pilot Chuck Yeager.) The only time I ever saw Trump lose his temper came when we sent a photographer to do a cover picture in his office at Trump Tower. Arriving early, the photographer attached black garbage bags to the ceiling, in order to reduce glare. When Trump saw the bags, he demanded that they be removed and angrily told the photographer that he would be charged for any damage to the paint job. The photograph that we eventually chose was of Trump tossing an apple into the air. The text on the back of the jacket said, “This is Phase Two of my life, in which the going gets a lot tougher and the victories, because they are harder won, seem all the sweeter.… I know that whatever happens, I’m a survivor—a survivor of success, which is a very rare thing indeed.”

The big annual convention of publishers and booksellers was in Las Vegas that year, in early June. Trump was invited to be a speaker at a breakfast at which about three thousand people would be in attendance. The night before, Random House hosted a reception for about a thousand people at the Mirage hotel, in honor of Trump and of the novelist Jean Auel and her “Clan of the Cave Bear” series.

I was to be Trump’s escort at the event. Our arrangements were elaborate. I went to the airport in a stretch limo, and, when Trump exited his jet and settled into the car, he said that he had a surprise. And there was Marla Maples, his secret paramour. At the Mirage, Trump and Maples checked into an enormous suite, which was equipped with its own swimming pool. At the appointed hour, I went to pick him up for the party. Maples opened the door wearing a bikini.

After the book party, Trump, Newhouse, Alberto Vitale, who was now the C.E.O. of Random House, Joni Evans, and I went to dinner in a private room with a small group of top-tier booksellers, including the owner of Barnes & Noble, Leonard Riggio, and E. Bronson Ingram and his wife, Martha, the owners of the country’s largest book wholesaler. As we were about to start, Maples appeared. Given that she was still supposed to be incognito, her presence caused a stir.

Early the next morning, I picked up a copy of the Wall Street Journal, which featured a front-page story about Trump’s finances. To summarize, they were a mess. He was billions of dollars in debt. The Journal’s account was, by any measure, a full takedown. At the bookseller breakfast that morning, Trump gave a spirited talk. My assumption was that the only people in the ballroom who had read the Journal story were those in the Random House contingent. The enthusiastic audience seemed oblivious.

Trump left the stage and we rushed off to his plane to fly to New York. Vitale whispered to me, in effect, “Get this book out fast. He is a wasting asset.” On the flight, I was watching Trump carefully to see how he was doing. I couldn’t spot a trace of anxiety. I don’t remember anyone mentioning the story or his finances. After a sumptuous lunch of shrimp, charcuterie, and assorted desserts, Trump took Maples into his private cabin and reëmerged about ninety minutes later. Considering the Journal story, I would not have been surprised had he opened the jet’s door and jumped out. And yet he seemed unfazed. We landed in early evening.

Our Random House team scrambled to get the book finished and distributed as quickly as possible. The publication date was moved to mid-August. Around that time, I learned that New York magazine was planning to run a feature on the book and Trump’s financial and marital dramas. I was asked to provide a picture of myself to accompany the story. My private dread was that the caption would be something like “He edited this dog.” I called Ed Kosner, New York’s editor, whom I knew slightly, and asked him if he would leave me out if I could find a better picture than mine to go with the story. He told me to try.

Along with Carol Schneider, Random House’s publicity director, I studied contact sheets of snapshots taken at the Mirage party. We found one of Trump with Newhouse, Vitale, Evans, and John Updike. That satisfied Kosner, and I was spared, although I was quoted in the piece saying that we had positive expectations for the book, which was to be titled “Surviving at the Top.”

Random House shipped hundreds of thousands of copies. Reviews this time were sparse and not altogether friendly. In the Times, Michael Lewis wrote that the book was “a portrait of an ego gone haywire.” Nevertheless, the book spent seven weeks in the top fifteen on the Times best-seller list. Warner Books bought the paperback rights for a million dollars. (They changed the title to “The Art of Survival” and released it in July, 1991.)

I haven’t looked at the book since, but I found a copy recently and discovered that it included a paragraph excerpted from a Times editorial that was published shortly after the Journal story about Trump’s finances broke. The paragraph closed: “Arrogance? For sure, and yet in a world lacking individual heroes, even some of Donald’s critics must confess to a sneaking respect for his insistence on being himself, however outrageous, and catch themselves hoping that he’ll find the strength and luck to escape.”

With “Surviving” now in the past, my regular contacts with Trump came to an end. He continued to flounder in business. In 1990, Trump hired Stephen Bollenbach, who was previously the C.F.O. of the company that owned Holiday Inn, and gave him a mandate to straighten out Trump’s debts. It would be hard to penetrate how Bollenbach undertook this task, but a number of Trump assets, including the Trump Shuttle, the Plaza Hotel, and his yacht were off-loaded. At the time, the word was that Bollenbach put Trump on a four-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar monthly allowance. In two years, Trump was apparently out of the worst trouble. When I asked Trump how he had found Bollenbach and persuaded him to salvage his finances and the standing of the Trump Organization, he said he had read about him in Businessweek. Like that.

I am often asked if I regret having been the editor of the book that made Trump a national figure. The answer is no. I was trained in journalism and Trump was a terrific story. I was tasked by Si Newhouse to manage him on that first book. On the second book, I was working with a successful repeat author. A decade or so after the publication of “The Art of the Deal,” I was asked to edit a third Trump opus. By then, I could sense that my time at Random House was coming to an end. I was eager to start a small publishing company called PublicAffairs. I left Random House a year before “The Art of the Comeback” was published, in 1997. And that is a fact that I definitely have never regretted, then or any time since.

  • Peter Osnos is the founder of PublicAffairs Books and a writer in New York.

 

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