When Ivana Trump announced in the spring that she was writing a memoir about motherhood, many people—and surely the book’s publisher—hoped that she would use the book to settle scores, or at least drop a few new juicy details about her marriage to the future president of the United States. In Raising Trump, out this week, she makes a half-hearted attempt at gossipmongering. She refers to Trump’s second wife, Marla Maples, as a “showgirl,” and dutifully recounts the spectacular disintegration of her marriage. In an interview with ABC News this week, she cheekily said that because she was Trump’s first wife she is basically “first lady.” The actual first lady then joined the publicity dance, issuing a humorless rebuttal that called the interview “self-serving noise.”
There was really no reason to expect that Raising Trump itself would be anything more than “self-serving noise,” too. “I believe the credit for raising such great kids belongs to me,” Ivana writes in the introduction. “When each one finished college, I said to my ex-husband, ‘Here is the finished product. Now it’s your turn.’ ” The book’s foundational premise, that the three eldest Trump children are all admirable people, is plainly absurd. Would you read a warm-and-fuzzy parenting memoir by Fredo Corleone’s mother, or Marie Antoinette’s? (Actually: probably.) The most surprising thing about Raising Trump, as it turns out, is not any one particular bit of gossip. It’s the fact that it’s a pretty good book.
The early chapters evoke the first years of communist Czechoslovakia with poignant texture. She describes hand-sewn tights, government housing that looked like “concrete cubes,” routine bribes, carrots buried in sand to last the winter. (The book was written with Valerie Frankel, who also co-wrote with Joan Rivers.) And she hints that the lessons she learned under communism prepared her to become a Trump. “Being less than the best was simply not an option, because, in a very real way, one mistake could doom your life,” she writes. “We couldn’t be sure to trust outside the family.”
Ivana was a talented skier, which ultimately gave her opportunities to see the world beyond the Iron Curtain. In 1960s Vienna, she fell in love for the first time with the abundances of capitalism. She saw strawberries for sale in February, and people laughing in packed restaurants with extravagant menus. Subject to official interrogations every time she returned to Czechoslovakia, she had to feign nonchalance about the everyday opulence she had seen in the West. But she vowed to herself that she would someday live a life of “cakes and champagne, enormous shiny cars and fur coats.”
Famously, she did. The blond beauty made her way to Prague, then Canada, and finally to New York City, where she met Donald J. Trump on her first night in town on a modeling trip. He proposed on a ski vacation, telling her, “If you don’t marry me, you’ll ruin your life.” She was barely involved in the planning for her extravagant Manhattan wedding and knew just six of the 600 people who attended. Their honeymoon lasted just two days, because her new husband had to rush back to New York to finalize a real estate deal.
Raising Trump is just as attentive to the wonders of 1980s New York as it is to the deprivations of communist Czechoslovakia. She describes high fashion, fast cars, caviar, big hair, and a gossip eco-system ruled by doyennes like Liz Smith and Cindy Adams. The young girl entranced by fancy furs in Vienna went on to become the muse of furrier Dennis Basso, walking down the runway in a full-length sable coat and swanning around Manhattan in mink. Decades later, she seems to retain no real ill will toward the husband who discarded her so easily. They remain cordial, and Raising Trump makes inadvertently clear why they once got along so well: They are, in some fundamental way, the same. “Together, we made three children who have the best of both of us,” she writes. “And, as I’ve always said, if you can’t be the best, don’t bother.” (She makes zero reference to the allegations of sexual assault she once directed at her ex, then later disavowed.)
Ostensibly, of course, the book is about Ivana’s experience as the mother of Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric Trump. She makes no attempt to portray herself as a traditional parent. She is refreshingly open about the fact that the family relied on multiple nannies through her children’s childhood. She is grossed out by breastfeeding—“totally unsexy”—and childbirth. She delegated playdate duty to nannies, never volunteered for school committees, and skipped recitals and sports events when they didn’t mesh with her work schedule. I laughed out loud at her description of helping with homework assignments. “History wasn’t my strong suit,” she writes. “They’d ask me about things that happened hundreds of years ago and I would say, ‘I live in the now!’ ”
It doesn’t take much squinting to recognize that the Trump kids’ childhood was awful. Ivana insists that she was a strict parent, but she also relates that Donald once called Ivanka’s teacher to request that an exam be rescheduled so the teenager could attend a birthday party in Las Vegas. (She does not mention the fact that Ivanka was “politely asked” to leave her first private high school, as the Financial Times reported last month.) The children seem like lonely pawns of their parents’ egos. Soon after their split, Donald sent a bodyguard to the family’s apartment to fetch 12-year-old Don Jr. and bring him to Trump’s office. He then called his ex and said, “Ivana, I’m keeping Don. You’re not getting him back.” At this point, Don Jr. was not even speaking to his father. “Okay, keep him,” Ivana replied. “I have two other kids to raise.” Ten minutes later, the bodyguard returned the boy to his mother. Trump, naturally, was only bluffing. Reflecting on this cruelty decades later, an untroubled Ivana writes that his defeat made her feel strong.
Long-divorced, Ivana has retained the Trump name and, it seems, the family’s particular values: the importance of appearances, money, and public victories. When Ivana cradled their first child in the hospital and suggested they name him Donald Trump Jr., her husband recoiled in horror: “What if he’s a loser?” When Ivana and Donald attended the U.S. Open together, they would root for whoever was winning.
What kind of person roots against the underdog and calls a newborn baby a loser? The book steers so clear of politics that it’s almost possible to block out the present horror for a few hours and enjoy the preening, delusional Trump clan as an imaginary family of entertaining 1980s cartoon villains. Raising Trump is an effective reminder that once upon a time, when nothing was at stake, the Trumps’ collective atrociousness was merely fun.
Raising Trump by Ivana Trump. Gallery Books.