Confident. Incorrigible. Bully.
Little Donny was a lot like candidate Donald Trump. Long before he attained vast wealth and fame, the aspiring president was making an indelible impression HE WAS TRUMP IN MINIATURE, AN EMBRYONIC VERSION OF THE BOMBASTIC, FLAMBOYANT CANDIDATE WHO HAS DOMI
AS A FIVE-YEAR-OLD, the boy followed his babysitter on an urban safari, descending into a sewer that was under construction beneath New York City. The light fading, the sitter grew concerned that the boy would panic. But little Donny Trump kept walking into the gathering darkness.
In elementary school, Donny impressed classmates with his athleticism, shenanigans and refusal to acknowledge mistakes, even one so trivial as misidentifying a popular professional wrestler.
No matter his pals’ ridicule, one recalled, he doubled down, insisting wrestler Antonino Rocca’s name was “Rocky Antonino.”
At the military academy where he attended high school, Donny grew taller, more muscular and tougher.
Struck with a broomstick during a fight, he tried to push a fellow cadet out a second-floor window, only to be thwarted when two other students intervened.
Long before he attained vast wealth and far-reaching fame, Donald J. Trump left an indelible impression in the prosperous Queens neighbourhood where he evolved from a mischievous, incorrigible boy into a swaggering young man.
He was Trump in miniature, an embryonic version of the bombastic, flamboyant candidate who has dominated the 2016 presidential race, more than three dozen of his childhood friends, classmates and neighbours said in interviews.
Even Trump has acknowledged the similarities between himself as an adult and when he was the boy friends alternately referred to as “Donny,” “The Trumpet” and “Flat Top” (for his hair).
“When I look at myself in the first grade and I look at myself now, I’m basically the same,” the 70-year-old presumptive Republican nominee once told a biographer. “The temperament is not that different.”
His face crowned with a striking blond pompadour, young Donald commanded attention with his playground taunts, classroom disruptions and distinctive countenance, even then his lips pursed in a way that would inspire future mimics.
Taller than his classmates, he exuded an easy confidence and independence.
“Who could forget him?” said Ann Trees, 82, who taught at Kew-Forest School, where Trump was a student through seventh grade.
“He was headstrong and determined. He would sit with his arms folded with this look on his face — I use the word surly — almost daring you to say one thing or another that wouldn’t settle with him.”
A fierce competitor, Trump could erupt in anger, pummelling another boy or smashing a baseball bat if he made an out, two childhood neighbours said. In school, he misbehaved so often that his initials became his friends’ shorthand for detention.
His father Fred C. Trump’s success as a real estate developer paid for the private schools, limousines and 23room house to which Donald and his four siblings grew accustomed.
Yet Donald also learned that comfort and security could be fleeting if his grades and behaviour were poor.
When Donald was 13, his father abruptly sent him to a military boarding school, where instructors struck him if he misbehaved and the requirements included daily inspections and strict curfews.
“He was essentially banished from the family home,” said his biographer, Michael D’Antonio. “He hadn’t known anything but living with his family in a luxurious setting, and all of a sudden he’s sent away. That’s a rough way to start out in life.”
Trump, in an interview with the Washington Post, described his years at the military academy in rosier terms, saying his parents thought the discipline “would be good for me because I was rambunctious.”
“I was a wise guy, and they wanted to get me in line,” he said. “Thinking back, it was a very positive influence.”
If nothing else, the military academy taught young Donald a lesson that would prove valuable in adulthood as he navigated two divorces, bankruptcy and regular spasms of bad publicity: No matter the crisis, he could prevail.
IN JAMAICA ESTATES, the Queens neighbourhood where Donald grew up, the Trumps’ house on Midland Parkway was distinct, if not for its size then for what it suggested about the wealth of its builder, Fred Trump.
Seventeen brick steps led up a sloping hill to the entrance, which was framed by a colonial-style portico, a stained-glass crest and six white columns. Two Cadillacs were in the driveway, their licence plates bearing their owner’s initials, “FCT1” and “FCT2.”
“No one had individualized licence plates in those days,” said Ann Rudovsky, who grew up nearby. “Everyone talked about the Trumps because of the house and the cars.”
Unlike most families in the neighbourhood, the Trumps had a cook, a chauffeur and an intercom system. Their colour television, a rarity at the time, was among the Trumps’ accoutrements that most impressed Mark Golding, Donald’s childhood friend.
“He had the most amazing train set,” recalled Golding, a lawyer in Portland, Ore. “He had all these special gadgets and gates and switches, more extensive than anything I’d seen. I was very envious.”
Donald is the fourth of Fred and Mary Trump’s five children, the first of whom, Fred Jr., a gregarious airline pilot, suffered from alcoholism and died at the age of 43. Maryanne Trump, Donald’s older sister, became a U.S. Appeals Court judge. Another sister, Elizabeth, was an administrative secretary. His younger brother, Robert, went into business.
Their mother, Mary, a Scottish immigrant, relished attention, thrusting herself to the centre of social gatherings. She also loved pageantry, spending hours watching on TV the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth.
Mary Trump suffered a hemorrhage after Robert’s birth that forced doctors to perform an emergency hysterectomy. She also developed an abdominal infection that required several more surgeries, during which she nearly died.
At one point, Fred Trump informed his daughter that her mother “wasn’t expected to live, but I should go to school and he’d call me if anything changed,” Maryanne Trump once told Gwenda Blair, who authored a detailed history of the family. “That’s right — go to school as usual!”
Maryanne Trump declined to comment for this article except to say, “He’s still a simple boy from Queens. You can quote me on that.” Neither Elizabeth nor Robert Trump responded to messages.
Fred Trump, with his thick moustache and hair combed back, was a stern, formal man who insisted on wearing a tie and jacket at home. A conservative Republican who admired Barry Goldwater, Fred Trump and his wife forbade their children from cursing, calling each other nicknames and wearing lipstick.
Fred Trump “was really very kind of tight-fisted,” said Peter Brant, a newsprint magnate who was among Donald’s closest childhood friends. “He didn’t give Donald a whole bunch of rope.”
When Fred Trump visited one of his contractors, he sometimes brought Donald along and hired a teenage boy who lived next door to watch him during the meeting. One afternoon, recalled the sitter, Frank Briggs, 81, he led Trump on a sewer adventure during which “it was pitch black and you couldn’t see the entrance.”
“The thing that amazed me,” Briggs said, “was that Donny wasn’t scared. He just kept walking.”
Dennis Burnham was four years younger and lived around the corner from Donald. He inherited his own impression of his neighbour from his mother, who warned that he should “stay away from the Trumps.”
“Donald was known to be a bully. I was a little kid, and my parents didn’t want me beaten up,” said Burnham, 65, a business consultant in Texas.
Once when she left Dennis in a playpen in a backyard adjoining the Trumps’ property, Martha Burnham returned to find Donald throwing rocks at her son. “She saw Donald standing at the fence,” Dennis Burnham said, “using the playpen for target practice.”
FOR KINDERGARTEN, Donald went to the private Kew-Forest School, which required skirts for girls and ties and blazers for boys. Everyone had to rise when their teacher entered the classroom.
Donald was among a group of boys who pulled girls’ hair, passed notes and talked out of turn. “We threw spitballs and we played racing chairs with our desks, crashing them into other desks,” recalled Paul Onish, a classmate, describing himself and Trump as “probably the two worst.”
Donald spent enough time in detention, Onish said, that his buddies nicknamed the punishment “DTs” — short for “Donny Trump.”
“He had a reputation for saying anything that came into his head,” said Donald Kass, 70, a retired agronomist who was a schoolmate. When Trump misidentified Rocca, the pro wrestler, Kass recalled, “We would laugh at him and tell him he was wrong, and he’d say he was right. The next time, he would make the same mistake, and it would be the same thing all over again.”
In his neighbourhood, Donald and his friends were known to ride their bikes and “shout and curse very loudly,” said Steve Nachtigall, who lived nearby. Nachtigall said he once saw them jump off their bikes and beat up another boy.
“It’s kind of like a little video snippet that remains in my brain because I think it was so unusual and terrifying at that age,” recalled Nachtigall, 66, a doctor in New Jersey. “He was a loudmouth bully.”
At times, Trump’s classmates fought back.
After he yanked her pigtails, Sharon Mazzarella hit Donald over the head with her metal lunch pail as she followed him down the stairs outside the school. “I must’ve been quite annoyed,” Mazzarella said.
In his memoir, “The Art of the Deal,” Trump wrote that his main focus as a youngster was “creating mischief.” As a second-grader, he wrote, he “actually” gave his music teacher a black eye because “I didn’t think he knew anything about music, and I almost got expelled.”
Asked about the punch recently, Trump said, “When I say ‘punch,’ when you’re that age, nobody punches very hard.”
IF HIS GRADES SUFFERED and he annoyed his teachers, Trump found success on the playground.
During dodge ball games, he was known for jumping and pulling his knees up to avoid balls thrown at him.
“The Trumpet was always the last man standing,” recalled Chrisman Scherf, 70, a classmate who is a surgeon in Arizona.
IN 1958, when they were 12, Trump and Brant (the newsprint magnate) liked to board an E train bound for Manhattan, a distant land of soaring, exotic promise. They did not ask their parents for permission for their Saturday expeditions. Manhattan was too far and too dangerous for two boys from the tranquil, lowslung reaches of Queens.
Exiting the train at 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue, Donald and Peter felt like an urban version of Lewis and Clark. They explored Central Park’s bucolic recesses, watched African-American men play basketball on courts along the East River and observed the panhandlers and hustlers in midtown.
Around Times Square, they discovered novelty shops, where they bought stink bombs, hand buzzers and fake vomit — perfect accessories for pranking their pals.
The shops also sold switchblades. On Broadway, “West Side Story” was a smash, and the boys, imagining themselves as gang members, bought knives to fit the part.
Near the end of seventh grade, Fred discovered Donald’s knives and was infuriated to learn about his trips into the city. He decided his son’s behaviour warranted a radical change. In the months before eighth grade, Fred Trump enrolled Donald at the New York Military Academy, a boarding school 70 miles from Jamaica Estates.
AT THE MILITARY ACADEMY,
Trump wore a crew cut, a thick wool uniform and was awoken daily with a recording of reveille.
Instead of steaks prepared by his family’s cook, Donald sat in a crowded mess hall and filled his plate from vats of meat loaf, spaghetti and something called “mystery mountains,” a stew of deepfried leftovers remade as meatballs.
Instead of his own bathroom, he had to shower with fellow cadets.
Instead of his father, Donald’s new taskmaster was Theodore Dobias, a nononsense combat veteran who had served in the Second World War and had seen Mussolini’s dead body hanging.
Dobias, who died recently, would smack his cadets with an open hand if they ignored him, students recalled. He set up a boxing ring and forced students with poor grades and disciplinary problems to fight each other.
Dobias said he recognized in Trump an innate drive: “He wanted to be No. 1. He wanted to be noticed. He wanted to be recognized. And he liked compliments.”
Trump won medals for neatness and took pride in his grades. He distinguished himself on both the baseball and football teams.
IN HIS SENIOR YEAR, the academy appointed Trump to the prestigious position of captain of A Company.
As a leader, recalled Peter Ticktin, a company platoon sergeant, Trump could inspire respect without raising his voice.
“He never yelled at anyone,” said Ticktin, now a Florida lawyer who touts Trump’s candidacy on his Facebook page.
“He’d just look at you, the eyebrows kind of raised. The kind of look that said you can’t disappoint him.”
Once, Trump led a drill team in New York City’s Columbus Day parade. Standing on Fifth Avenue, Trump turned to Maj. Anthony “Ace” Castellano and declared his ambition.
“You know what, Ace?” Castellano recalled Trump saying.
“I’d really like to own some of this real estate some day.”
In his 18th year, Donald Trump had a clear sense of his own destiny, a vision he shared with a fellow cadet, Jeff Ortenau.
“I’m going to be very famous one day,” Donald promised.
“You know what?” Ortenau recalls telling Trump. “You’re probably going to be president.”
“I REALIZED THEN AND THERE THAT IF YOU LET PEOPLE TREAT YOU HOW THEY WANT, YOU’LL BE MADE A FOOL.” DONALD TRUMP
From left, Mark Golding, Donald Trump, Irik Sevin, Peter Brant, Paul Onish and Malcolm Mallory at Onish’s bar mitzvah. All six boys attended Kew-Forest School in Queens.
Donald Trump stands next to his school teacher in the top row. This photo is from the yearbook for Trump’s last year at Kew-Forest.
Donald Trump and Peter Brant, both about 11 years old, playing with snorkel gear in the pool of the Roney Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach.