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Did Their Father Really Know Best?

The three surprising apprentices of Donald and Ivana Trump.

Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric in Don Jr.'s apartment.  

There is nothing in New York quite like the smoked-glass, gold-trimmed, pink-marbled splendor of Trump Tower. It is part shopping mall, part residential high-rise, part Trump Organization HQ, part reality-show setting, and, for our purposes, the childhood home of Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric Trump. When I arrive to meet Donald Jr., the lobby is filled with shoppers and tourists. And waterfalls. And the smell of food and perfume. Frank Sinatra is booming over the speakers. And a fellow dressed like a royal manservant stands guard over the elevator reserved for the Trump Organization, on the 26th floor.

The Trump offices, like the rest of the building, shriek 1983. The waiting area is decorated with mohair sectionals and potted palms and is strangely dark—like a disco in the daytime. A pretty young receptionist sits inside a leather-covered lobby-pod with Lucite stalactites hanging over her head. As I wait, enjoying the view of Central Park, I realize that I don’t even know what Donald Jr. looks like. His parents have been famous for nearly his entire life, and, at 26, he has been working for his father for three years. Yet as I’m sitting here this day a couple of months back, I can’t remember ever seeing a picture of him.

I look up as he strides purposefully down the hallway. He is tall and tan and has a thick mane of brown wavy hair that’s slicked straight back. It’s not so much that he looks like his father but that he seems like his father: big and masculine and slightly intimidating, but somehow also affable. He has the charm of the professional ballplayer who has recently signed a multi-million-dollar, multiyear contract. There are pinstripes and flashy cuff links and a perfectly knotted tie. If Don Jr. were to lose about 25 pounds, he’d be dangerous.

He flashes a toothy smile, shakes my hand, and tells me that his office is a mess, so we’ll have to talk in a conference room. He excuses himself to get us some water and returns with plastic bottles of Trump Ice. The label features a picture of his father’s face, scowling as usual, floating over a background of fire. The package design suggests that when you get to hell, Donald Trump will be there, running the joint. I look at the label again and then at Don, who rolls his eyes and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Don’t ask me, I just work here.”

With that one small, winning gesture, he acknowledges that he knows that I know just how strange life growing up Trump has been. It’s the reaction of anyone who’s ever been slightly embarrassed by his parents, yet loves them just the same. It’s so surprisingly normal.

And it occurs to me: Through all of Donald and Ivana’s striving and building and redecorating and self-promoting and bankrupting and divorcing and remarrying and divorcing and dating much younger people, had they somehow managed to raise at least one decent human being? In a city of vain, self-absorbed, pathologically competitive parents, Donald and Ivana seem to have won the race for the A–No. 1 biggest monsters of all. But like some kind of real-life Addams Family, are they not nearly as spooky as they appear?

The Trumps certainly would not have won any parenting awards when Don Jr. was a child. With Donald busy building his empire and Ivana helicoptering to Atlantic City six or seven days a week to run Trump Castle, there wasn’t a lot of time for helping with homework or taking weekend trips to the park. Ivana hired two Irish nannies, Dorothy and Bridget, to care for the children. But the most important early influence came from Ivana’s Czech parents, Milos and Maria Zelnicek, who lived with the family in Trump Tower for six months out of the year.

Don Jr. blamed his father. “And that’s, perhaps, not what it was. When you’re living with your mother, it’s easy to be manipulated.”

Donny, as he was then called, grew exceptionally close to Milos. As a child, he spent several weeks every summer in a town four hours west of Prague doing father-son things with his grandfather: fishing, boating, hunting. He also learned Czech, which he speaks fluently.

“My father is a very hardworking guy, and that’s his focus in life, so I got a lot of the paternal attention that a boy wants and needs from my grandfather.” He says this without a trace of bitterness.

In the winter of 1990, life as Donny knew it began to unravel. Donald was courting a pretty young girl from Georgia named Marla Maples, right under Ivana’s nose. The whole thing blew up in their faces on the slopes of Aspen. Donald moved ten flights down in Trump Tower, and war was declared. Liz Smith broke the story in the Daily News just before Valentine’s Day, when Ivana called Smith to a secret meeting at the Plaza Hotel to tell her that Donald was having an affair. “I advised her to get psychiatric help and to hire John Scanlon as a press agent,” says Smith. “Which she did, and so then he fed me all of her side of the story.”

The story stayed on the front pages of the tabloids for three months, which, as Donald likes to point out, must be some kind of a record. “The biggest story I ever covered that didn’t amount to anything,” says Smith. “It was about a fight between two people over money. And in the end, he pretty much won. Which motivated her to then innovate with all these crappy ideas she’s had that have made her a lot of money. So more power to her.” But it was also a fight over the right to raise three children, and Ivana won that battle hands down and was granted full custody. At the time of the separation, Eric was just 6, Ivanka was 8, and Donald Jr. was 12.

Between the separation and the divorce, Milos died. And shortly after that, Donald declared bankruptcy because he was $2 billion in debt. The months that followed, says Don, were especially difficult because he was, unlike his siblings, old enough to sort of understand. “Listen, it’s tough to be a 12-year-old,” he says. “You’re not quite a man, but you think you are. You think you know everything. Being driven into school every day and you see the front page and it’s divorce! THE BEST SEX I EVER HAD! And you don’t even know what that means. At that age, kids are naturally cruel. Your private life becomes very public, and I didn’t have anything to do with it: My parents did.”

Donny blamed the divorce on his father. “And that’s, perhaps, not actually what it was,” he says, a bit haltingly. “But when you’re living with your mother, it’s easy to be manipulated. You get a one-sided perspective.” He didn’t speak to his dad for a year.

At the height of the media frenzy, Ivana took the kids to Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, for three months, hiring tutors so they could continue their studies. Eventually, Ivanka went off to Choate, and Eric and Donny were sent to the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, an institution known for being regimented. “Dysfunctional families in the city all send their kids to boarding school, and that’s when they’re doing coke and getting completely messed up,” says a friend who went to school with Ivanka. “It’s like they shuffle them off.” But the Trumps, she says, did it “with love instead of being like, ‘Get lost. Go to Choate, and don’t call us.’ It was more a way of protecting them.”

For Donny, the Hill School was a huge relief. He was just old enough to have tasted what life was like without obscenely famous parents. But just as he was coming of age, the family was thrust into the public sphere. “There was a time when my parents had a lot of security guards around. Again, one of those things that I probably rebelled against,” he says. “And then, when I went to boarding school, it all kind of went away—all those inconveniences that I found obtrusive.”