A Head of His Time: Donald Trump & the Battle of Aspen

 

We knew Donald Trump when he had hair, and not what he’s got on his head today. That can be taken many ways. But with Trump now the presumptive candidate for the GOP nomination to the office of President of the United States of America, this story must be told.

It was at a trendsetting Italian restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, where we got to know the arrogant miscreant. I worked  at this most well-attended eatery with a tight crew of well-seasoned culinary pros. I was a young ski bum, taking in the sun and the snow by day and cooking into the night.

In the late 1980s, Trump often came to Aspen, with his then-wife Ivana. It was Christmas and they were here to ski. That was the official word, anyway. I had seen him on the mountain. Ivana could ski, but not her husband.

2CAED7BB00000578-3246349-image-a-1_1443024435671Trump had his own fear-ridden agenda that particular year, and it wasn’t learning how to ski. His intention was to keep Ivana from discovering his mistress and next future ex-wife, Marla Maples, (also in town), from meeting on the slopes. Yet inexplicably it was he who invited her to tag along, and he put her up at a hotel. It wasn’t as if Ms. Maples had hijacked one of The Donald’s soon-to-be bankrupt airliners and flown here to personally confront Ivana. Trump set the whole thing up.

By day, he stalked the on-mountain sundeck at Bonnie’s restaurant in a black one-piece, pretending to be an expert skier, lying to anyone who would listen, about the runs he’d conquered. On his head at the time was a golden mane of unkempt and windblown hair. He wore it like a peacock’s tail. It was an era in skiing technology that Trump would soon regret, a time when helmets were rare. His ineptness on the snow was less than that of most green-run skiers.

All of Aspen could see that. So was his lack of class and inability to blend in at the dinner table. We knew that, too. And what happens in Aspen goes on onstage, in an undeniable spotlight.

In those days there existed, a true skiing aristocracy. George Hamilton was always in town, along with the counterculture Hollywood wildmen.

Jack Nicholson would come into the kitchen and order his steak au poivre personally. “Done to a turn,” he’d say, his eyebrows soaring behind his Ray Bans.

Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail ’72, was indeed another welcome guest who often visited the back of the house. He would conspire for hours at the bar with Jimmy Buffett and Bill Murray to take over a nearby nightclub’s stage. In the dining room Sally Field had the Caesar, prepared and served table side by the owner; a great chef who had hosted New York’s fine arts and movie culture at the St. Regis Manhattan.

But this was Aspen in the eighties, where the biggest names in New York and L.A. blended seamlessly with world-class athletes and the local Gonzo freaks, filling the finest places for après ski and dinner.

That a man like Trump could exist here, however briefly, at whatever time in history, was unconscionable. His ineptitude on skis was indicative of far worse things. He was nothing more than a phony, known to us off-piste for his shaky multi-million dollar real estate schemes to build pantheons to himself in Manhattan and a glitzy casino on the dilapidated boardwalks of Atlantic City.

In Aspen he tried to scoop up a city-block-sized empty lot at the base of Aspen Mountain that was in foreclosure for $17.5 million dollars. “They love me in Aspen,” he told the papers, “I’m one of them.”

Then Mohamed Hadid, a Middle-Eastern real estate tycoon who had his own ideas about what a luxury hotel in Aspen should be, swooped the land out from under Trump by coughing up $42.9 million for that and several other properties around town.

Outraged, Trump first tried to buy into a partnership with Hadid. When that ill-conceived merger didn’t work out, attempted to sue Hadid, saying he claimed the land first. Even when he paraded a battery of his New York attorneys to Aspen’s City Council Chambers in a futile power-play to sway the townspeople, Donald Trump failed. He was helpless.

We had seen Trump on TV. There was a television in the kitchen that would be on for sporting events and such. Late at night the line cooks had it turned on during clean-up. Trump had been on David Letterman, who grilled him relentlessly to put a dollar amount on his financial empire. It was as if Trump hadn’t heard the question. He never answered directly. All he admitted was that getting the money from the government to build subsidized inner city housing was impossible, and that instead he would construct the Trump Taj Mahal on the Jersey Shore. He would do it all with only a wave of his hand and a wink to the camera.

Letterman persisted with his questions concerning Trump’s estimated wealth. Trump said he was worth, “zero”. Repeated it twice, he did! Then he blamed everything on the Japanese, saying they owed us money. He never looked at Dave when he spoke, just the camera, while going off on non sequiturs, as if confiding in the audience like some down-home relative, a rich uncle in your living room, one who was going to send everyone a million dollars.

Prior to that, Trump had been interviewed by Phil Donahue. We learned that Richard Nixon had sent him a letter, praising one of Trump’s earliest appearances on network TV, saying;

“Dear Donald, I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great on the Donahue Show. As you can imagine, she is an expert on politics and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office, you will be a winner!”

Nixon praised Trump. Think about that before you vote. Remember, you have a choice.

I first heard of Donald Trump years earlier when I was a chef at the Hyatt House in Sarasota, Florida. He was working a deal with Jay Pritzker, the owner of Hyatt International, to bankroll a spectacular remodel of the old Commodore Hotel in Manhattan and transform it into a Grand Hyatt. They were partnering in the effort to revitalize a New York City landmark. Trump used a contractual technicality and surreptitiously changed the terms of their agreement, by calling Pritzker in the eleventh hour. Pritzker was on a plane to Nepal at the time and could not respond. The deal was altered then to suit Trump, giving him un-agreed-to control of the property. The Hyatt eventually had to buy Trump out.

It was evident to me then as it is now, Donald Trump is a con-man, and we witness scavengers aplenty in Aspen. They all have one thing in common: their foundations are based on lies. He was right there with that crook Richard Nixon.

Soon he would have no Ivana.

On that night in Aspen, our hostess, also a former model and thus her affinity for Ivana, came into the kitchen with a strange look on her classic Italian features. She said, “That disgusting man who orders his bistecca well-done is back, and he is bothering his beautiful wife at her table in the middle of the dining room. There are some very nice people with her, and they want him to leave.” She turned to the maître’d. “Throw him out, less gently this time.”

Behind the kitchen was a wide alley. Thompson had been there in his red Chevrolet and just pulled away. He left tracks in the snow, and for us, a gift. We had gathered to watch Trump get tossed into the cold.

The three of us were sharing a pipe full of strong Hawaiian marijuana that Thompson had given us – that and a bottle of whiskey, when Trump suddenly entered our space. He was assisted by our maître’d, who slid him out the back door, onto the ice and into the alley. Trump dropped to the frozen ground, much like he did on skis.

I stopped, holding the flame over the bowl. I was using of those long stick-like lighters we needed to ignite the pilot lights for the broilers and the ovens in the kitchen.
He got up, brushing the snow from his suit, and looked at us with what I perceived as utter disdain. “So you’re the kitchen crew?” he said. “Well, dinner was terrible.”

We had cooked his steak as ordered; turning the beautifully marbled beef into a dark brown crisp, making sure it was well done, so it clattered on the plate. The waiter caught it, settled it onto the mashed potatoes, grabbed the ketchup and trucked it out into the busy dining room where Trump sat alone, apart from his wife’s table, in a corner reserved for just this kind of misfit. Now he seemed to regret what he’d said.

“I will deal with you all in a minute” His mouth, an oval of command, no doubt meant to induce fear, only made us laugh.
Indignant, he turned to retrieve a giant walkie-talkie from his overcoat, which had been tossed into the alley after him. He dialed for what seemed to be minutes, and started to rant at Marla about fighting with Ivana on the slopes.

937249739c54235f0ae05522c7ba3166“I’ll buy you anything you want,” he was saying.

“Just go back to Atlantic City like a good girl, and I’ll show you who the boss is. Meanwhile, I’ve got to handle Ivana. I’ve got to get her to sign papers, but I can’t get into the restaurant.”

He coughed, and then he listened, no doubt hoping she would swallow his story. Trump was speaking on an early cellular phone and it looked massive next to his head.

“No Marla,” he went on. “I can’t meet her on the slopes again. I can’t have people see me falling, while Ivana skis circles around me, waving her finger at me. Just stay away from here. The conditions are bad.”

It wasn’t just I who had witnessed the events on the mountain earlier that afternoon. The sheriff was slopeside too, remarking later, “Witnesses said she took off down the ski hill with him in pursuit. But she was a much better skier and left him for dead.”

Trump stood there shivering in the falling snow. “Just do what I say …” He hung up.

To me, The Donald looked oddly out of place. A three-piece suit, pointy Italian shoes, and that gigantic cell phone in his hand were no match for the weather. His hair was plastered into strands, and melted snow dripped into his eyes.

Trump blinked at us, “I will make sure you’re all fired!” he shouted. His face was contorted by rage, and with his free hand he mimicked the trigger of a small handgun being shot, possibly a Derringer. The dishwasher and I flinched reflexively, but the butcher held Trump in his gaze.

“I’ll call Mohamed Hadid and have him buy the place!” Trump waved the phone. “You’ll be sorry you ever came to America.”

Only one of us was foreign. Bartolo the dishwasher was Mexican, and I was born in New York. The butcher, a dark haired brown-skinned man, was Native American. His nickname was Tonto.

Trump looked at Bartolo, called him a wetback, and said he would build a wall to keep his kind out of the country. The truth was Bartolo had flown into Aspen. He was a graduate of the University of Mexico in Mexico City, and worked with us for years, raising a son and a daughter, preparing them both for college.

Suddenly the Indian grabbed Trump and raised his knife. “You’re about to be the first white man scalped in America in one hundred years.”

“Wait,” I said. It was then that I chose to re-light the pipe, “The best thing we can do is have a vote.” The flame illuminated Tonto’s features; the sadness in his eyes was intense. “There are three of us here.” I wasn’t sure if what I said would stop him.

“Vote?” Tonto knew our kitchen has always been a democracy. At least that’s what I remember.

    •    *      *      *

Flash to today. What’s on Trump’s head now? His stances on race, women, immigration, expose him as nothing more than narcissistic.

When asked recently about climate change by the editors of The Washington Post, he averted to a disconnected babble about nuclear weapons. He went on avoiding every question asked by the Post’s editorial staff, stumbling through bizarre retorts, and unrelated excuses to threats only he could perceive.

What he would do if elected is beyond my comprehension. I wouldn’t give this man the powers of the presidency. I would jump over that wall into Mexico. My Spanish is good.

Trump says he wants to make America “great again.” How then? By threatening us with the same bully tactics he used in the alleys of Aspen? He wants us to forget, what he’s already done. Money and ignorance are best not combined. It is not American.

I am a child of the revolution gone right, class of 1976. We were Bicentennial 18-year-olds and America was two hundred. We could vote, drink, and rock and roll fearlessly. Tens of thousands gathered peacefully at concerts, and TV was fun. Vietnam was over and Nixon was disgraced. Jimmy Carter was a new hope, like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Man still walked on the moon, and the future was a brighter goal for which to aspire.

I thought that was “great”.

When Carter was president, we had peace, something unique to my generation. Conservatives had retreated to their dank cocoons to plot their return. And re-emerge they did, with the likes of Ronald Reagan and later George W. Bush. Now we have Trump, whose audience, like the GOP, is likely to collapse on itself. Let’s hope so

I met Tonto in Manhattan earlier this spring. He is a skyscraper high wire guy, works on those hundred-story buildings, and doesn’t even think of falling. He does that in his dreams, he says.

Tonto imagines the giant chasms between the buildings, and as he falls, he begins to fly, sailing on the wind, his hair free. He told me he flies so far, yet the dream never ends.

I asked him, “Why?”

He said, “Control is sometimes for the afterlife, white man.”

And as far as the vote that night in the alley, the Indian never did scalp Trump. It wasn’t time, and we are no longer savages. Not like Trump.