At Ivana Trump’s funeral yesterday, her children paid tribute to their ‘trailblazing’ mother. She was the ‘embodiment of the American dream’ they said. They were right, she was focused and driven, but she was also surprisingly generous with her advice.
I sat next to Ivana Trump at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, and was struck by her good manners. We were at a dala dinner, in a Belle Époque hall, packed with stars and starlets, money men and courtiers – the delusional and desperate who mainline on the heroin of Cannes. I don’t think I was the placement Ivana was expecting: ‘Has it come to this? Stuck on the media table, with Charlotte Eagar and Nick Foulkes?’ she must have thought. For back then, Donald Trump hadn’t become president of the US, and Ivana was – in Cannes-world – just the ageing ex-wife of a (possibly) dodgy property developer/reality TV star. I was an aspiring filmmaker/journalist whose first film had, to my amazement, got into Cannes Short Film Corner, but I certainly hadn’t achieved wealth or fame.
Ivana was charming, obviously clever; still fabulous, at 61, with her signature blonde dome and international-skier’s body draped in Grecian pink chiffon. And as for me, having spent the first half of the eighties in a pre-internet boarding school, where Dynasty and the Daily Mail – a constant chronicler of Ivana’s soap opera – were rare windows onto the world, I was fascinated to meet this real-life Alexis Colby Carrington.
As we talked over dinner, and later, on the phone. Ivana gave me her Guide to Life, am old-fashioned Mitteleuropa meets the grit of the American dream made good. It probably helped that I had lived in eastern Europe, so understood the grey communist boot camp Ivana had managed to escape. Born in Communist Czechoslovakia in 1949, she left, in 1974, like a Bond Girl, skiing out from behind the Iron Curtain.
Here was her advice to me:
‘You need a plan: we were under police security, but I just walked out of the hotel, and I was gone!’ she said. ‘Sport and art were the way to the West, if you had the talent.’ She wasn’t frightened, she said; her plan included an uncle and aunt in Toronto, but she’d been sad to lose touch with her parents, for their own safety. ‘They were still under police surveillance.’
‘Go and find yourself a job. It makes all the difference. You can share a flat with someone. Jobs are a good way to meet people. You don’t meet people sitting in a closet. A lot of my housekeepers are from the Czech Republic. They are such hard workers. If you have the qualities to have a glamorous job, that’s the best way. And English is a necessity: if you don’t speak English, it’s not smart.’ No housekeeping – or closets – for Ivana: she taught skiing, started modelling and made it to New York.
‘Get dressed as beautifully as you can, all made up, looking luminous, and then go to the most expensive hotel, restaurant or bar and have a very long, leisurely drink or soda. Sit, and watch, and if you’re gorgeous, the men will notice you.’
So, one night in 1976, Ivana went with a group of other models to a bar called Maxwell’s Plum. ‘It was then NY’s hottest bar/restaurant,’ she said. ‘No tables, no reservations, just a long wait. This handsome blond, blue-eyed man, offered to get us a table.’ It was Donald Trump, a property developer on the make. ‘It wasn’t love at first sight. It wasn’t lust at first sight – perhaps it was convenience at first sight? Of course, with Donald it was done with a bargaining chip. If he got us a table quickly, he’d sit with us.’ She married him and became the co-star of his blockbuster life.
‘Try and do something you enjoy doing. We are all good at something. If you are going to be good – do something you really, really like. I am good at business. I have five companies,’ she said. ‘I used to run our casinos [when she was married to Trump] – I had 24,000 employees and a pay roll of $1.2 million a week. I used to fly to Atlantic City every day, 45 minutes, in the morning, stay in the office till 6pm. Come home, have supper with the kids, then go out to dinner.’
The couple had three children and were married for 15 years until their marriage collapsed in 1992, after Trump’s affair with Marla Maples, who Ivana famously dismissed as a ‘Show Girl’. Trump married Marla in 1993, only for that marriage to end a few years later, before he married Melania Knauss.
‘Pretty faces disappear over time. Fine minds only grow stronger and more interesting’ said Ivana.
We didn’t talk about her divorce, about which Ivana was said to be very bitter at the time. But she famously said afterwards, ‘Don’t get mad, get everything,’ and became an icon for discarded first wives world over. Certainly, Ivana got enough from Donald – in the region of $25 million plus several houses – to set her up for the next acts of her life. These have included two more husbands, but more importantly, her children, friends, businesses, TV shows, several books, including the divorcee’s self-help book: The Best is Yet to Come: Coping With Divorce and Enjoying Life Again and, in 2017, Raising Trump, a memoir of bringing up her and Donald’s children.
It was clear, by the time Donald became president, the couple were back on good terms. Donald apparently even offered Ivana the ambassadorship to the Czech Republic, something she turned down, because she said she didn’t want to spend four years in Prague. She was fussier, generally, she told me in 2010, about what she agreed to do: ‘After all these years on the triple A-list, I get about 10 to 20 invitations almost every single day’ – which must have made her placement next to me even more galling. ‘But, nowadays I choose to spend more time with my family and friends. It’s still glamorous and glittering, but just more relaxing.’
Ivana led to an extraordinary life: a Bond Girl, who survived alpha males, America and the Red Army and made it to 73. As we talked on the phone, a few weeks after Cannes, she summed up her top life tips:
‘Love, honour and stay in close touch with your parents, they are your real strength. Believe in yourself. The world will knock you down, be ready to get right back up. Make your own life, and then share it with people you love. Stay away from toxic people – you know, the ones who bring you down. Make your own money – it gives you real freedom. There is no point in giving up, always keep moving forward, and that’s where you’ll get. Ahead!’
She also gave me some very good advice – although not personally relevant (yet) – about private jets: ‘I never fly private across the Ocean. It is such a waste of money – all that fuel.’ I couldn’t agree more.
As Ivana ended our telephone conversation, I suddenly found myself back in my eighties boarding school: Dynasty mashed with the Daily Mail, as she told me she was off to have lunch with Joan Collins.