By Richard Turley
Back in the day, Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley, once close friends, had a falling-out, and he played a naughty trick on her. After he gleefully recounted the tale to Richard Johnson and me, we published it in Avenue magazine. To Donald’s delight, it was picked up by The New York Times, who told the world. This is the story.
During the years 2002 to 2004, Richard and I wrote columns for Avenue, including one called Original Dinner at 8—where we invited three or four famous people to join us at a snazzy restaurant, recorded the repartee, typed it up, edited it in the nature of a theatrical play, and laid it out with photographs of the swells having a swell time.
One evening in January of 2003, Mr. Trump invited us to his penthouse to have a drink with Melania before we joined our other guests at nearby La Côte Basque. Donald had known both Richard and me for many years and was in fine fettle.
We walked to the restaurant—even then Trump was drawing salutations from passersby on the street—and met up with architect Richard Meier, TV legal analyst Cynthia McFadden and prima ballerina Irina Dvorovenko. The chemistry was combustible and the conversation sparkled, although Donald never touches the firewater.
In the course of the evening, we asked Mr. Trump about Mrs. Helmsley, herself a flamboyant and controversial character. He said, “We were very good friends, once. Then we had a falling-out, and became very good enemies. And now I’m advising her because she said, ‘Donald Trump is the smartest man I’ve ever met except for my Harry’.”
But during their feud, said Donald, “If I saw her, if she were sitting over there, I’d be giving her the finger. And people would see it.” At this point, he described an adolescent prank he had pulled on the hotel heiress (who, according to Wikipedia, “had a reputation for tyrannical behavior that earned her the sobriquet Queen of Mean.”)
We printed the transcript of the dinner in Avenue. Joyce Wadler, who was writing a gossip column in The Times called Boldface Names, read it and called Mr. Trump for more juicy details. On February 12, 2003, The Times published this report:
A Gentleman Knows: For Spilling, Choose a Red
Donald Trump is normally so shy, so reserved, such a well-behaved builder, that we were shocked to read the following in Richard Turley and Richard Johnson‘s original dinner at 8 column in Avenue magazine: He and Leona Helmsley, Mr. Trump said, were now on good terms, but there was a time when they were not. Both were attending a gathering. And she had her coat, which had a hood, on the back of a chair, which was rather near him.
“I took an entire bottle of red wine and poured it into the hood,” Mr. Trump said. ”And I left early that night.” Lawyers for Ms. Helmsley said yesterday afternoon that she could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Trump, asked to elaborate, said it had happened more than 10 years ago. ”I don’t take it back and I hope Leona didn’t get overly wet,” Mr. Trump said. ”I hope the dress she was wearing wasn’t an expensive one, though that’s not likely.” Had Mr. Trump had a choice between red and white? ”Yes. White’s not nearly as effective.’’
The dinners Richard and I hosted were fun because we established certain rules: we insisted our guests come alone and never disclosed in advance who the other guests would be. When they arrived and saw the other celebrities with whom they were dining, there was electricity. Their gift for histrionics kicked in. It loosened tongues and made for memorable dialogue.
When casting the evening, we went after The Big Names, people we had been aware of all our lives, people who had been center stage in New York during the second half of the 20th century. Thanks to the heft of Page Six at the time, where Richard was the editor, we usually managed to get them. (One inspired trio was Ed Koch, Polly Bergen and Macaulay Culkin.)
At a certain point, we began to notice that we had nabbed several of our starry guests at the end of their long lives, so in some cases our articles were their last pre-mortem appearances in print. Some kibbitzers commented that for prominent New Yorkers, the Johnson/Turley dinner party was the last stop before the Pearly Gates. There was even a rumor the manager of Frank Campbell monitored our column to preview upcoming clients.
Looking back, here are some of the glamorous guests we were privileged to dine with and to interview, and the impressions I remember most:
George Plimpton—Weeks before he died suddenly in bed, the writer, editor and society scion was a figure of vitality as he lounged on a sofa next to his billiards table, barefoot, in jeans and tee shirt, giving me his last-ever interview. He revealed for the first time that the reason his membership in the most exclusive club in Southampton had come to an end in the 1960s was that he had brought along to play tennis a chum whose skin was ebony, not ivory. A reproval from a panjandrum had propelled his resignation. George couldn’t have cared less.
Kitty Carlisle Hart—The singer, actress and arts patron became famous in the 1930s when she starred with the Marx Brothers in “A Night at the Opera” and was pals with George Gershwin. She was 92 when I called at her apartment to escort her to The Four Seasons to dine with Debbie Harry, but she was seductive as a femme fatale as she cozied up to me on the loveseat. She told me her father, working at a haberdashery in Washington in 1863, had sold a tie to the President of the United States. This has enabled me ever since to say, “I knew a woman who knew a man who knew Abraham Lincoln.”
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—When I arrived on the dot for lunch, a double martini sat in front of him, already half-emptied. It merely honed his razor-sharp wit and recall. What was remarkable about Professor Schlesinger was his generous esteem for his fellow historians and his nonpartisan openness toward Republicans, unusual for a doctrinaire liberal. Arthur told me that his friend George Plimpton had had a premonition about his own death.
Walter Cronkite—He was not unaware of his status as a mythological figure in broadcast journalism, but was not smug or self-important in any way. He indicated he had been not altogether comfortable with having had such outsize influence that after returning from a trip to Vietnam in early 1968 and editorializing against the war, his fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson thereupon declined to stand for re-election. Cronkite suggested he had not been pleased with the heavy-handed way Dan Rather’s agent had pushed him out of the anchor chair at CBS Evening News.
Oleg Cassini—The aristocratic couturier invited us to his townhouse for a cocktail before going on to Swifty’s to meet up with Amy Fine Collins (they dished about Edith Head.) Oleg introduced us to “my personal assistant Marianne Nestor” and her sister and asked if they could join us for dinner. We said no but they could arrive at the end for coffee, which they did. After he died two years later, the world was shocked to learn that Cassini had been married to Marianne since 1971 and she was his (almost) sole heir. Today she lives in splendor and was billed in New York Social Diary as Countess Cassini. The always vivacious Oleg, who lived to age 92, told me the secret to long life is to always eat small portions and to drink prune juice every morning.
So bottoms up, to all of the above. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.