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Clash of the Titans

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The financial intrigues of those years positioned Trump and Wynn for their current collision in the marina. To buy the Hilton, now called Trump’s Marina, Trump, for the first time , personally guaranteed $320 million in loans. That deal initiated an orgy of debt that eventually left him on the hook for almost $1 billion and, in 1991, nearly bankrupted him. Trump now controls at least a third of the Atlantic City gambling market, and his weighty debt load is one of the things that’s slowed the casino district’s modernization.

Wynn also plays a pivotal role in the credit history of Atlantic City. His Boardwalk Golden Nugget was the casino that junk bonds built. In 1980, Wynn was the first client Michael Milken brought to Drexel, Burnham, and as such, Wynn got better terms than clients who came later. Following Wynn’s lead, Atlantic City casino owners went to Milken and his imitators for piles and piles of junk. Ironically, if Atlantic City’s casino industry needs rescuing today -- and Trump hotly maintains it does not -- it’s in large measure because of the debt casino owners took on in Wynn’s wake. And now Wynn is coming back to save the town.

Wynn may have begun his career in a bingo hall. But these days he considers himself an artist -- the entertainmentplex his medium. All his life, he says, he’s been in touch with deep creative and spiritual impulses, from his college readings of the Buddhist Upanishads (“Those ideas were very easy for me to handle”) and James Joyce (“when I smoked a good joint”) to his epiphany two weeks ago when buying a Georgia O’Keeffe painting (“This picture is sublime. It’s got a soft gracefulness. It makes me feel good to be around it”). Wynn may have grown wealthy peddling Siegfried & Roy and their white tigers. But he’s most inspired by Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry, the architects he’s hired for Atlantic City.

“My friend Charlie Rose got me excited about working with Frank,” Wynn says. “Charlie was sending me videotapes of Bilbao even before it opened and telling me I should really reconsider the architect for Atlantic City, if we were going to change the town. And it was Frank who brought in Philip Johnson. I’m not someone to think I need two architects.”

In his Trump-centric worldview, Trump sees Johnson’s hiring as being all about him. “He was my architect in Columbus Circle!” Trump says. “It’s not hard to figure out.”

As Wynn has been steadily increasing his presence in New York over the past three years, Trump’s hostility has been intensifed. Wynn bought a $5 million apartment on Fifth Avenue and leased offices on the twelfth floor of the Barneys Madison Avenue building. He’s friends with restaurateur Sirio Maccioni, whom he’s talked into opening the first Le Cirque outside New York, in Wynn’s Bellagio, a $1.6 billion bit of Tuscany on the Las Vegas Strip, scheduled to open in October.

With New York developer Jerry Speyer, Wynn has crafted plans for the Columbus Circle project. The renderings depict a soaring, double-pyramid-shaped structure with a tower of luxury apartments topping ground-level museum space. Wynn does nothing halfheartedly, so it’s odd that he hasn’t been more prominently pushing the proposal before the MTA, which owns the site.

“I don’t expect him to be there and watch the bricks go up,” says MTA board member Alan Friedberg, “but I do expect him to sit down with us. We’re heavy-duty guys. Everybody else did -- Speyer, Steve Ross, Bruce Ratner, and Daniel Brodsky. And, of course, the Donald.”

Wynn’s lack of lobbying feeds the perception that the bid was just another way for him to mess with Trump, who owns the gold-skinned condo tower across the street. Trump, naturally, interprets Wynn’s bid as location envy.

Nonsense, responds Wynn: “It’s Jerry Speyer’s thing. He’s the one who’s in charge of leading this. Jerry says that -- I saw him just a week or so ago -- this thing, as usual, is a political football. There’s nothing important happening now. It’s a circus. So we’re just going to stay low.”

Trump hasn’t allowed Wynn to be as coy in Atlantic City. Besides filing lawsuits and railing against Whitman during the governor’s race last fall, Trump donated money to a homeowners’ group opposed to the marina project. Fed up, Wynn hired Tom Puccio and Robert Bork to slap a $150 million lawsuit on Trump, alleging he’s committed a multitude of nefarious, anti-competitive acts. Wynn’s suit points to Trump as the fund-raiser behind Donald Hurley, the president of Atlantic City’s police union, who suddenly became a candidate against Wynn’s favorite New Jersey state senator, William Gormley, the one who got the state to pay Wynn’s landfill-cleanup costs. Another twist: Hurley’s brother, Harry, is an Atlantic City radio-talk-show host who shills for Trump’s casinos. Then there’s the petition drive aimed at recalling Atlantic City’s pro-Wynn mayor, James Whelan. Wynn sees Trump fingering those strings, too.

Incredible as it sounds, Trump claims that until very recently, he enjoyed hanging out with Wynn: “We used to be friendly. Had a good relationship, would play golf. Which was always a problem. I kicked his ass in golf. Twice. Once at Winged Foot, and once at his course, Shadow Creek. I shot 73 at Shadow Creek. He was practicing and practicing. He thinks he’s a good golfer, but he’s terrible. Not that I give a damn.”

He doesn’t? Each time Trump repeats the golf story -- to 60 Minutes, to Fortune, to the New York Observer, the Atlantic City Press, Philadelphia magazine -- the thrashing gets worse. Never mind that when Wynn drops a vitamin A pill on the floor, his eyesight is so limited he has to crawl to find it.

Wynn, at curiously great length, explains that no, Trump never beat him in golf. The first time, Wynn says, they were teamed as partners and lost to Clint Eastwood and pro golfer Bill Glasson.

The second time, Wynn says, was days after a helicopter crash killed three Trump casino executives, two of whom had previously worked for Wynn. Wynn portrays Trump as a pitiable, broken man, desperate for help -- not because Trump lost three friends but because Trump is clueless about how to run casinos. “Trump said to me, ‘I’m devastated,’” Wynn recalls. “‘I don’t know how to evaluate the people that work for me. I don’t even know who’s down there. What should I do?’”

Wynn takes a deep breath as he remembers the scene at the Winged Foot country club. He slows down his words as he reenacts what he told Trump, as if he were speaking to a child -- a dim child: “I looked at him and I said, ‘The only advice I can give you is, you just have to clear your schedule, go there, stay in the hotel, start meeting in your office with the key people, ask them to help you understand what’s going on. You’ll be amazed how fast you’ll pick things up.’“

The golf, Wynn says, was an afterthought; score wasn’t even kept. So he’s mystified to see Trump crow about his glorious victory. “What is the matter with him?” Wynn asks. “How deeply is he disturbed? When he was a kid or growing up -- who did this to him? I mean, a psychiatrist would know all this.”

Trump, despite all his bluster, has lately shown signs of trying to gracefully depart Atlantic City. Two weeks ago, he floated the idea that he’d consider selling his entire casino stake to a real-estate investment trust. Wynn is hoping Trump will stick around. “What the hell,” he says, “he’s soft competition!” Wynn laughs. It’s the sound of a man who has his target in sight. “I think he’s fine right . . . where . . . he . . . is.”

Even if Trump left Atlantic City, the two would find a way to strafe each other. The rancor would still linger in the salt air. “This is going to sound funny,” says John Smith, the Wynn biographer, “because you’re talking about a guy, Steve Wynn, who is the industry leader. The movie stars hang around him. You would think Wynn wouldn’t care. But there’s nothing Steve likes better than revenge. And I truly believe that’s the way he is with Trump.”

Perhaps it’s all attributable to a childish streak in both men, or the excesses of machismo. But that’s cheap psychoanalysis. It must be nice to stroll through edifices bearing your name. And there must be some satisfaction in looking at a balance sheet and confirming that you have access to more money than a good-size European country. But these are two men who’ve made a phenomenal living by exploiting everybody’s elemental desire for thrills. So what is one of the few things that still delivers an instant high?

Making your worst enemy squeal.


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