Three miles outside Atlantic City, Donald Trump comes into view. At first there’s just a fuzzy glow of neon against the night sky as the two narrow lanes of the Atlantic City Expressway churn relentlessly, straight ahead, across a dull expanse of marsh. Then huge letters come blazing into focus above the flat, unobstructed landscape: Trump Marina. Trump Taj Mahal. Trump Plaza. It feels as if the very horizon is branded.
Right about here, at the 0.5-mile marker of the expressway, a new piece of road will soon rise, leading to Le Jardin, florid centerpiece of a gargantuan new casino complex planned for Atlantic City’s marina district. The project is a partnership between the state of New Jersey and Nevada’s preeminent resort mogul, Steve Wynn, a man routinely lauded as a “visionary” for reinventing the Las Vegas Strip as a family-friendly fun house that just happens to have gambling on the side. Wanting to be helpful, Wynn had his architects draw up a design for the expressway interchange. It was a clever piece of engineering. It would whisk cars and buses to the marina, where Wynn plans a $1.5 billion habitat for slot machines and baccarat tables. And with a ramp and a bridge soaring 25 feet in the air, Wynn’s massive heap of concrete and asphalt would completely obliterate any glimpse of Donald Trump in the distance.
A completely unintentional side effect, of course.
Steve Wynn, 56, and Donald Trump, 52, have been slugging it out for more than a decade. Theirs is an especially colorful, spleenful contempt, all too rare in modern-day big business. Larry Ellison hates Bill Gates, but the chairman of Oracle doesn’t run around calling the chairman of Microsoft “this scumbag,” as Trump does Wynn.
For most of the ten years’ war, the fighting has been long-distance and sporadic. Trump, from his Fifth Avenue headquarters, would occasionally poach one of Wynn’s executives; Wynn, from behind his fake volcano in the desert, would mock Ivana’s accent and occasionally sic a squadron of lawyers on Trump.
Now the brawl is raging at Columbus Circle’s Coliseum, where Wynn proposes to plunk luxury condos down on the doorstep of Trump’s brassy new International Hotel and Tower. And in Atlantic City, where Wynn’s megalo-marina project – with its three acres of year-round-blooming flowers, its glistening streams, and its exotic performance troupes – will arrive in the backyard of Trump’s weakest casino.
How bad is the blood? Trump and Wynn despise each other so much that they’ve aligned themselves with rival morning-radio proxies. “I do like Trump,” Don Imus says, “but he’s kind of a Howard Stern butt-boy now. Trump appeared on Howard’s program as opposed to mine; therefore, his new book bombed. I was happy to see that.”
The Wynn-Trump feud could easily be laughed off as a petty (albeit highly entertaining) game of Mine’s Bigger – that is, if there weren’t millions of tax dollars and tens of thousands of jobs involved. Trump, the self-proclaimed “biggest real-estate developer in New York,” is finally building his enormous Riverside South project after dodging bankruptcy. Just as the health of Trump’s empire is improving, Wynn has gone to federal court charging him with restraint of trade; if Trump, Atlantic City’s largest employer, loses the $150 million suit, his casino license may be jeopardized. Even if Trump prevails, he’d better hope Wynn’s new pleasure dome increases revenues across the Boardwalk. Trump, despite his impressive comeback, is still deeply leveraged, and casino cash is his lifeblood.
For Wynn, the stakes are equally high. Not only is building in Atlantic City important to the growth of his company – especially after Connecticut and Detroit rebuffed him in the past three years – but the marina project is likely to be the last major piece of construction Wynn will ever see. Retinitis pigmentosa, diagnosed when he was 29, is gradually robbing Wynn of his eyesight. In four years, when the doors of his long-awaited lido are scheduled to swing open, blindness will be closing in on Steve Wynn.
A few things Donald Trump and Steve Wynn have in common:
Military school – Trump, five years at New York Military Academy, at Cornwall-on-Hudson; Wynn, five years at Manlius Military Academy, near Syracuse.
Wharton School of Business – Trump, class of 1968; Wynn took courses there as a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate, class of 1963.
Alleged work done by cosmetic-surgeon-to-the-stars Steven Hoefflin – Trump, scalp-tightening; Wynn, face-lift.
Unlikely “close friends” – Trump, Monica Seles, Puff Daddy; Wynn, Ron (Pocket Fisherman) Popiel, Julius Erving. Both: Michael Jackson.
Number of marriages – Two apiece. Trump, to Ivana and Marla; Wynn, to Elaine – twice.
Donald Trump calls for silence from his dinner guests at the Scheherazade, the most expensive restaurant inside Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino. At the head of a 50-foot-long table drowning in crystal, silver, and gilt, Trump beckons a nearby diner. The man grins awkwardly as Trump gets up and slings a fleshy arm around his slight shoulders. “This is the richest man in Argentina!” Trump shouts. “The richest! He flies up four times a year, gambles $6 million! And where does he gamble? Right here! The Taj Mahal! The richest man in Argentina!”
The man’s expression falls. “Actually, Donald,” he says quietly, “it’s Venezuela.”
Trump isn’t rattled. “Argentina! Venezuela! Whatever! It’s all the same! The point is, the richest man in Venezuela, he gambles with us!” Trump’s enthusiasm is so childlike and overwhelming, even the richest man from wherever dissolves in laughter.
It’s fight night at the Taj Mahal. Tubby old muffler salesman George Foreman is pitted against dreadlocked but punchless young heavyweight Shannon Briggs on this Saturday in early December. But the most entertaining show in town, as always, is Trump.
He’s flown in a fifteen-person entourage from New York by private jet. The group struggles to keep pace. When Trump pivots abruptly and dashes from the blackjack section to the poker tables, there’s a bejeweled pileup. Trump’s date, busty faded model Kara Young, crashes into the wife of Trump’s lawyer, who smacks into the chest of NBC talking head Stone Phillips, who collides with fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier.
But Trump is already gone, into the high-stakes Pai Gow Poker room, where the minimum wager is $2,000. “It looks like Vietnam in here!” Trump cackles, glancing at the crowd of Asian gamblers. “People who don’t come down here don’t understand this – Atlantic City is hot! It’s the hottest! Atlantic City is the most underrated gaming jurisdiction in the entire world. It does more business than the Indian reservations – by far! It does more business than the entire Las Vegas strip! Atlantic City is a fucking monster. It’s huge! It’s tremendous! And people don’t write about it!”
Then Trump shakes his head, narrows his eyes, and says, out of the blue, “I don’t believe Wynn is really going to come in here.”
By here, Trump means Atlantic City. Enveloped as he is by the Taj Mahal carnival, Trump has Wynn on the brain. Later, back in his twenty-sixth-floor office atop Trump Tower, Trump snaps whenever his opponent’s name is mentioned.
“In Las Vegas, he’s building a very ugly new facility for $2 billion,” Trump says, trying to sound dryly analytical as his face turns crimson. “It’s one of the ugliest masses I’ve seen – and that’s my business. I’m hearing the construction expense numbers could be double what they anticipated. They’re way over budget in Biloxi where Wynn is building another new casino, by hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a real problem for them. To be honest, I don’t know if they’re coming to Atlantic City or not, because they have such problems with their construction costs. Perhaps they’ll have to refocus on constructing buildings rather than trying to steal land in Atlantic City.”
Nearly two years ago, Governor Christine Todd Whitman promised that New Jersey would spend $220 million building a tunnel and highway to Wynn’s marina-casino compound; Wynn is supposed to pitch in an additional $110 million. Without the new road, Wynn won’t come, because it’s quicker to drive straight ahead to the competing Boardwalk casinos. The state expects to mine political gold: 20,000 new jobs and “untold millions to the local economy and tax base,” says a wide-eyed state spokesman.
The price for the 170-acre casino site? One dollar. And thanks to a new law crafted by William Gormley, Atlantic City’s man in the State Senate, Wynn will be reimbursed for 75 percent of the cost of cleaning up whatever lurks in the underlying landfill.
Trump is still pushing his original, and strongest, argument – that New Jersey taxpayers are being looted to subsidize the wealthiest casino company in America. But that’s boring pocketbook rhetoric, and it has failed to hobble the deal. And while Trump has plenty to fear from Wynn on a pure business level, it’s his pride that has been more grievously assaulted. Granted, Trump has alienated numerous politicians and businessmen in Atlantic City, but he did stick it out in the early nineties, when the town was struggling. Without Trump’s presence, Atlantic City would be an economic disaster instead of merely a mess.
Now the city and state are begging Trump’s mortal enemy – a man who declared that he “wouldn’t go back to Atlantic City if they gave me a hotel for nothing” – to come to the rescue. And they’re rubbing Trump’s nose in unflattering comparisons: “Donald is a soap opera; Steve Wynn is a Shakespeare play,” gushes Lou Toscano, a top aide to Atlantic City’s mayor.
So now Trump is going for the big scare . If citizens in search of good, clean entertainment set foot in Wynn’s marina casino, Trump suggests, they’ll be risking their very lives! “Everybody knows about the content of what was dumped there,” he says. “It was industrial waste.”
And it isn’t just the casino customers who will be taking their fate into their hands if Wynn comes to town – every man, woman, and child in Atlantic City will be threatened merely by sipping a glass of municipal tap water! “If you start to fool around with that aquifer,” Trump claims, “the entire water supply in Atlantic City could be severely polluted – and may be destroyed.”
How could anyone propose such a dastardly scheme? Maybe, Trump suggests, it’s because Steve Wynn is out of his mind.
“You know, I think Steve’s got a lot of psychological problems,” Trump says. “I think he’s quite disturbed. That’s just my feeling. I think he’s a very disturbed person” – he pauses, groping for sincerity – “sadly.”
On this late January night, Steve Wynn seems to be in full command of his wits. He’s the guest of honor at a hotel-industry awards ceremony. During the cocktail reception at the Hilton on Sixth Avenue, Wynn is in full schmooze, even as he keeps one arm wrapped around the younger of his two daughters, Gillian, who is subtly steering him through the obstacle course of 1,000 guests. Wynn greets Fran Reiter with a practiced, bone-white grin. Reiter, the former deputy mayor and City Hall insider, now runs the city’s convention and visitors bureau. Wynn asks for an update on Mayor Giuliani’s casino plans for Governors Island. “It’s never going to happen,” Reiter says confidently. “I don’t know what he was thinking about.” Wynn nods happily; that’s one less competitor.
As Wynn glides through the small talk, looking tan and serene, you’d never suspect that hours earlier he’d ignited an enormous furor: Wynn suddenly announced he was dropping his partners in the Atlantic City project, the Circus Circus and Boyd Gaming companies, citing vague contractual loopholes.
Back in Las Vegas, his ex-collaborators were screaming. “Out of nowhere, we got a three-sentence letter on the fax machine,” says a stunned Boyd executive. “This is incredible, incredible arrogance.” Over at Circus Circus, the bosses were mulling lawsuits to enforce their signed agreement to build a hotel and casino on Wynn’s marina land.
In New York, Wynn shrugs. “We’re just expanding our development,” he says calmly. “Instead of 2,000 hotel rooms, I’ll build 4,000. It’s going to be even more incredible! Today I was meeting with my architectural colleagues” – Wynn pauses, leans forward conspiratorially, and lowers his voice to an I’m-about-to-awe-you tone – “Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry. We’ve decided we need to build something breakaway if we’re going to change the character of Atlantic City.”
So trashing the deal with his two partners isn’t a ploy to get them to pick up more of the construction costs? Wynn doesn’t want to talk about that, instead turning to his daughter with a gleeful suggestion: “You should come with me to check out Bilbao next month!” They agree to fly to Spain to see Gehry’s new Guggenheim. Then Wynn drifts off to the Grand Ballroom.
Minutes later, Wynn delivers his speech and goes out of his way to take a swipe at Trump – a reminder that Trump remains the real nemesis.
In his office four blocks away, Trump is ecstatic, working the phone to spread his theory that Wynn is stretched too thin to build on schedule in Atlantic City. “Wynn just fucked Circus Circus and Boyd! It’s total dissension!” Trump says. “The theory being they’ll sue and they’ll delay. He’s looking for a delay. Think of it – New Jersey is gonna have a tunnel going to one hotel? That was not the deal! This will require a whole new filing, and a whole new everything. It’s back to the drawing boards!”
Even on the bustling, blinking Las Vegas strip, the Mirage stands out: The windows of the three-winged, 30-story hotel have been coated to glimmer gold in the sun. Then there’s that sidewalk volcano, belching flames and spouting steaming plumes of water 60 feet into the sky.
A dazzling 20,000-gallon aquarium, burbling with brilliantly colored fish and plants, is the backdrop for the hotel front desk. As a father props up his 5-year-old son for a better view, a couple of leopard sharks swim past. The tourists have no way of knowing that behind the tank are Wynn’s offices.
Mirage’s mastermind sits behind a stark, minimalist white desk, his back to a corner, like a gunslinger who doesn’t want anyone sneaking up behind him. He’s wearing a plush gray polo sweater, the top button rakishly undone, and understated, perfectly coordinated gray-and-black plaid pants.
Wynn rarely grants interviews, which is a shame: He has a stage actor’s supple baritone, and he illustrates his points and stories with a range of funny accents. Astonishment comes with an aw-shucks southern drawl; anger sounds chillingly like Jack Nicholson. Simply by elongating a word, Wynn is able to convey his contempt for New Jersey’s casino owners. ”Trump builds a-part-ment build-ings,” Wynn says. “Office space! His big thing is, he hires an architect who comes up with a scheme that’s bronze, or one that’s silver.” A slow shake of the head. “That’s kid stuff. There’s nobody in Atlantic City. There’s such a lack of imaginative talent in that town.”
Wynn seduces with hilarious, intimate stories about traveling with his pally Frank Sinatra, and he teases with inside tales of mob payoffs in old-time Las Vegas. But Wynn’s preoccupation these days is designing Le Jardin, his gift not just to Atlantic City but to the entire flair-deprived region. “I mean, you’re on the East Coast – gray, nasty, ugly, squalid East Coast,” Wynn says. “Yeah, there are moments of beauty in New York or Philadelphia, but you gotta go looking for ‘em. But in this building, like Joel Grey says in Cabaret, ‘ev’ry-ting eez beaut-ee-ful.’ That’s it. We don’t have to rewrite history here. What we gotta do is exercise integrated, fanciful good taste.” He’s projecting a $200 million annual profit.
Wynn has seen gambling evolve from its shady past to the corporate-dominated, government-legitimized, orchid-scented present. He was literally born into the business. His father, Michael “Mickey” Weinberg, changed the family name to Wynn in 1936, eminently fitting for a man who came to run bingo parlors from Savannah to Syracuse.
Michael Wynn was himself a compulsive gambler (his bookie, Charlie Meyerson, today works for Steve Wynn as a casino host, coddling high-rollers). Wynn’s father wasn’t home much, but he provided well enough for Steve – who was born in New Haven and raised primarily in Utica – to attend a military academy, summer at a lake resort in the Adirondacks, and graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. Father and son took one memorable trip together, when Steve was 11 years old, to Las Vegas, where Michael Wynn dreamed of opening a bingo parlor. Steve was enchanted by the raffish Vegas of 1953, where silk suits mingled with Stetsons.
It was during Steve’s senior year at Penn that his father needed heart surgery. As Michael Wynn lay in his hospital bed awaiting the experimental operation, he dictated to Steve a list of his gambling debts. Michael Wynn died shortly after, at the age of 46, leaving his family $200,000 in the hole.
Steve went to work running the family bingo joint in Maryland; he was so successful that he soon decided to test himself in Las Vegas. Wynn bought a small ownership stake in the Frontier Hotel and Casino, then sold out when the majority owners were exposed as Detroit gangsters. (Wynn wasn’t implicated.)But he had managed to ingratiate himself with Las Vegas’s most powerful banker, E. Parry Thomas, who directed him to a lucrative liquor distributorship and a quick profit on a real-estate deal. Several years later, Wynn reentered the casino business, this time for good, accumulating a controlling share of Golden Nugget stock by 1973. In 1980, he expanded into the new and thriving Atlantic City market, running a highly profitable Boardwalk version of the Golden Nugget for seven years before selling it and returning to Las Vegas to build the Mirage.
There’s very little Wynn has allowed to stand in the way of his dreams. When wildlife laws interfered with plans for a live-dolphin attraction in the Mirage, Wynn flew to Washington and testified that the exhibit would be purely educational. So now school groups are herded past the slot machines to watch the bottle-nosed dolphins frolic.
By making nearly as much money from shows, food, and rooms as he does from gambling, Wynn has revolutionized the industry. Four years after opening the Mirage, Wynn concocted Treasure Island right next door. The newer casino-hotel features a curbside lagoon where actors stage a smoky sword fight between two full-scale ships. In the sliver of land between Mirage and Treasure Island crouches a 36-unit, two-story hotel, the Villa de Flores. Hotel owner Mike Flores refuses to sell Wynn the land. Now a colossal garage is going up on Wynn’s property a few feet from the hotel’s swimming pool – bulldozers, cement mixers, and cranes emit nonstop noise and dust. Not long ago, Flores arrived to find three 40-foot-long propane tanks stacked near his office window. “One spark,” Flores says, “and I’m splattered against the wall of the Mirage.”
Wynn says Flores is playing the victim to drive up the price of the land. But in his confrontation with rascally New York publisher Lyle Stuart, Wynn sees more malevolent forces at work.
For Stuart, issuing The Anarchist Cookbook and the racist Turner Diaries wasn’t dangerous enough. In 1995, he published Running Scared, a compilation of every rumor and allegation ever hurled at Wynn. Running Scared was written by Las Vegas newspaperman John L. Smith, and the book is built on a tangle of accusations that Wynn had mob ties. Stuart, however, advertised the book as explaining “why a confidential Scotland Yard report calls Wynn a front man for the Genovese crime family.”
Overstating Scotland Yard’s conclusions could cost Stuart his company. Six months ago, Stuart lost a defamation suit filed by Wynn; Stuart says the $3 million judgment awarded to Wynn will bankrupt him. He’s now appealing the decision.
Wynn boils at the mention of Stuart and Smith, whom he’s suing in a separate libel action. “They knew the Scotland Yard report was false. It’s the single most vicious and aggressive thing done to me,” Wynn says. “Yup, I want to put Lyle Stuart out of business. Every law-enforcement agency has always vouched for me, that any suggestion of me and organized crime is preposterous. I know one thing: If anybody says any different, they’re a fucking defendant.”
Several months ago, as the 75-year-old Stuart was considering his next move, First Amendment lawyer Victor Kovner called Stuart to let him know an anonymous benefactor wanted to bankroll his appeal. Stuart may be a rogue, but he’s no dummy. “Let me guess,” Stuart said to Kovner. “Donald Trump?”
“Yesss,” sighed Kovner.
Trump eventually wriggled out of the offer, telling Stuart it wasn’t wise for him to show malice toward Wynn.
Over the years, Wynn has labeled Trump a “cartoon,” a “perverse exaggeration,” and a “second-string adolescent.” But now he says he’s determined to stay out of the gutter. “No sane or rational guy would respond to Trump,” Wynn says coolly. “His statements to people like you, whether they concern us and our projects or our motivations or his own reality or his own future or his own present, you have seen over the years have no relation to truth or fact. And if you need me to remind you of that, then we’re both in trouble. He’s a fool.”
Still, even unworthy adversaries can be fun to humiliate. A pair of private detectives, one a former FBI agent, have been digging around in Trump’s personal and business life, dredging up material for Wynn’s legal team to use in the federal lawsuit. The prospect of his lawsuit surviving preliminary motions-to-dismiss has Wynn salivating. “You get past that, and Trump’s in for a baaad time. Then we get full-scale discovery, and we will share that publicly with everybody – and it will be very embarrassing and damaging to Trump. Then we have a real good time for several months.”
Wynn dismisses all talk of his being over budget on Bellagio and Biloxi. And there will be no delay in the marina: “We’re irrevocably committed to this project.” What of the imperiled water supply? Wynn guarantees there’s no risk.”We’ve had extensive testing for several hundred thousand dollars,” he says. “We’ve drilled about every twenty feet.”
Even so, two years after Governor Whitman announced the signed marina agreement, Wynn’s negotiators are still pushing for a better deal. When frustrated by state officials, Wynn’s envoys have gone to local Atlantic City politicians for cheaper terms.
“There are so many goddamn back doors out of the agreement that Wynn created,” says a member of New Jersey’s team. “He truly is a master; I have the utmost respect for him on a business level. But working with him is hell. When you put all these pieces on the wall and look at it, you say, I’m dealing with the devil himself here. Steve Wynn controls every angle.”
Marla was in exile. After an argument with Trump, the not-yet-second-wife had split for California. Along the way, Maples took a side trip to Las Vegas. Arriving at Wynn’s Mirage hotel, she was upgraded to a suite, with all her expenses on the house.
An innocent courtesy for the girlfriend of a gambling-industry colleague? So says Wynn. But if he intended to irritate Trump, he succeeded, because the two Las Vegas newspapers soon received a Trump press release explaining that Donald was in and out of Vegas for “undisclosed purposes” and that he was being accompanied by Marla Maples. “It was a total bullshit ploy so people wouldn’t talk about Wynn screwing Marla,” says Chuck Jones, the P.R. man turned Trump antagonist who says he wrote the press release at Trump’s behest. “Trump never was anywhere near Las Vegas.”
The feud, however, is rooted in real estate, not romance, and it was in Atlantic City, at the lonely edge of the marina district, that the Trump-Wynn co-dependency began. In 1985, the Hilton Corporation had nearly finished construction of a mammoth hotel and casino when it was stalled by licensing problems. Wynn and Trump both made offers to take the place off Hilton’s hands. For $320 million, Trump won – or so it seemed at the time.
Wynn continued to run his Boardwalk Golden Nugget. He’d speed high-rollers from Manhattan to Atlantic City by helicopter for Sinatra and Diana Ross concerts. But Wynn was also enduring ugly headlines: New Jersey’s annual casino relicensing hearings aired lurid rumors of cocaine use by Wynn. He vehemently denied them, and they’ve never been substantiated.
In 1986, a vice-president of the Golden Nugget, Mel Harris, was forced to quit when investigators learned of Harris’s visits to Genovese-family crime boss “Fat Tony” Salerno. But no wiseguys have ever been connected to Wynn, and he’s always been approved for gambling licenses. “I’ve never had one dissenting vote. They’ve investigated every deposit I’ve ever made in my checking account, every check I’ve ever written since I was 20 years old. How many people can say that?”
This treatment left Wynn bitter, and in the mood to sell. New Jersey, at the time, limited casino owners to three properties. Trump, who already owned two, was buying stock in Bally, which owned another Boardwalk casino. Bally, fearing a hostile takeover, offered Wynn a panic-inflated price of $440 million for the Nugget – thereby fending off Trump, since he couldn’t buy the newly combined Bally’s-Golden Nugget without exceeding the state limit. Bally then paid Trump $20 million to go away.
Wynn took his huge profit from the Golden Nugget sale and exited Atlantic City, calling it “the slum by the sea.” He plowed the unexpected cash into Las Vegas expansion. The $630 million Mirage opened in November 1989.
Trump couldn’t let Wynn go without a few parting shots. In his book The Art of the Deal, Trump claims that Barron Hilton took less money from Trump because Wynn was “anathema” to Hilton. Trump ridicules Wynn as “very slick and smooth … a very strange guy … . He’s got a great act. He’s a smooth talker, he’s perfectly manicured, and he’s invariably dressed to kill in $2,000 suits and $200 silk shirts. The problem with Wynn is that he tries too hard to look perfect and a lot of people are put off by him.”
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.