On a June day in 2008 by the northwest coast of Scotland, a cluster of townsfolk in the Outer Hebrides gazed skyward at an approaching airplane. The islands on which they lived were shaped like a medieval club, narrow at the southern end, thick at the north, splayed amid choppy gray-blue waters. Much of the lightly populated land appeared from afar to be an endless greensward, fields reaching to ragged cliffs and rocky beaches, beyond which lay a string of islets. The islanders waited as the Boeing 727 banked toward them.
The jet was an unusual visitor, nothing like the propeller-powered puddle jumpers or rattling Royal Mail craft that frequented the island. Having traversed the Atlantic Ocean on its voyage from Boston, the craft cut through the winds, bounced its wheels on the tarmac, and taxied toward the small terminal in Stornoway, population eight thousand, the main city on the Isle of Lewis. The plane had been retrofitted to the exacting specifications of its owner, Donald J. Trump, of Manhattan. It had a master bedroom, spacious seating for twenty-four passengers, a dining area for five guests with accompanying china and crystal serving, and, for good measure, two gold-plated sinks. A single word in capital letters, TRUMP, streaked across the fuselage. As the plane’s engines shut down, Trump’s underlings unloaded cases of his books, which would be given like totems to the islanders. One case was labeled TRUMP: HOW TO GET RICH and another NEVER GIVE UP.
Trump, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and blue tie that hung well below his belt, his thatch of blondish hair flapping in the breeze, greeted the islanders. Then he and his fellow travelers headed to a black Porsche Cayenne and two BMW X5s. The entourage drove along winding roads for seven miles, past green hills rolling down to a bay, through neighborhoods of waterfront homes and small industrial buildings, until they arrived at a gray house known as 5 Tong, named for the village in which it was located. Trump exited his car and peeked inside. The dwelling was so modest that Trump remained inside for only ninety-seven seconds. Photos were taken, and the story line seemed neatly complete: Trump visits the birthplace of his mother, Mary Anne MacLeod.
“I feel very comfortable here,” Trump told the gathered reporters. “When your mother comes from a certain location, you tend to like that location. I do feel Scottish, but don’t ask me to define that. There was something very strong from my mother.” In case anyone had failed to notice, Trump added, “I have a lot of money.”
Trump had been here only once before, when he was three or four years old, and this stay seemed as brief as possible, barely three hours. There was talk of Trump’s turning a local castle into a luxury hotel. Then it was off to another part of Scotland, where Trump hoped this rare reminder of his heritage might help persuade politicians to let him build a massive golf resort and housing development on environmentally sensitive land near Aberdeen.
Trump’s mother’s story was a classic one of desire for a new life in a strange land, freighted with a seemingly unrealistic dream of unimaginable riches. The wealth, in the case of Trump’s family, would one day come. But that result could hardly have been envisioned if one could step back in time to a scene captured in a grainy photograph taken near the very spot that Trump visited so briefly on that June day.
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THE BLACK-AND-WHITE PHOTO WAS taken in 1930 at 5 Tong. A woman is slightly hunched over, wearing a full-length dress, her hair tied back, a strap around her shoulder. The strap is attached to a bundle on her back that is about ten times the size of her head. She is, according to the caption written by the Tong historical society, a Trump ancestor, possibly Donald’s grandmother, “carrying a creel of seaweed on her back.” In the background is a young lady, perhaps Trump’s mother, Mary MacLeod, then eighteen years old, and already planning to leave her increasingly destitute island and find her way to America.
Mary grew up in this remote place speaking the local Gaelic dialect. Tong had been home to Mary’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, as well as countless cousins. The land around the home was known as a croft, a small farm typically worked by the mother, enabling the father to spend much of his time fishing. It was a spare existence, with many properties “indescribably filthy, with doors so low it is necessary to crawl in and out,” according to a local history. Families struggled to cobble together incomes through a combination of farming in the acidic soil and raising animals, fishing in the nearby bay and rivers, and collecting peat to be sold or used as fuel and seaweed to be used as fertilizer on the difficult land. It was all too common for men to sink with their sailing ships, a fate that in 1868 befell Mary’s thirty-four-year-old grandfather, Donald Smith, who had the same first name Mary gave decades later to her son, Donald Trump.
Mary was born in 1912 during the height of a boom in herring, the fatty fish that had become a delicacy throughout Europe. Many young residents worked the trade, gutting the fish or traveling with the fleets. Mary was a child during World War I, when the island’s fishing industry collapsed. Ten percent of the male population died. A wave of emigration took place as families searched for economic opportunity elsewhere. One Tong man was said to have done so well that when he returned for a visit, he arrived in a big American car with white tires and gave local children a ride.
Then, in 1918, one of the greatest businessmen of the era, Lord Leverhulme, known for his family’s Lever soap empire, paid 143,000 pounds to purchase the Isle of Lewis, on which Tong was located. He moved into the sprawling Lews Castle and announced a series of grand schemes, including the marketing of local fish at hundreds of retail shops across the United Kingdom. Most of all, he urged residents to trust him.
Amid this brief period of hope came another tragedy. On New Year’s Day 1919, a yacht carrying British soldiers went off course, hit rocks, and killed 174 men from Lewis, again diminishing the island’s male population. Soon, it became apparent that Leverhulme’s grand promises would not pan out, and the islanders rebelled. A group of Tong men invaded a farm owned by Leverhulme and staked claim to the land. By 1921, Leverhulme had halted development on Lewis and focused just on neighboring Harris, best known for the wool fabric called Harris Tweed. His business dealings elsewhere were struggling, especially in a global recession, and in 1923, Leverhulme’s dream of a Lewis utopia went bust. Leverhulme died two years later, and as Mary entered her teenaged years, hundreds of people fled the island.
The MacLeods took pride in the island’s sturdy stock; their family crest featured a bull’s head and the motto hold fast. But that became nearly impossible with the onset of the Great Depression in the fall of 1929; opportunities for a young woman to be anything other than a farmer or child-bearing collector of seaweed were scarce. So on February 17, 1930, after Black Tuesday and all the other blackness brought on by the Depression, Mary Anne MacLeod boarded the SS Transylvania, a three-funneled ship built four years earlier. The vessel spread 552 feet from stem to stern, 70 feet across the beam, and carried 1,432 passengers. Mary, an attractive young woman with fair skin and blue eyes, appears to have been on her own, filing on board between the McIntoshes and McGraths and McBrides. She called herself a “domestic,” a catchall for “maid” or whatever other labor she might find once she reached New York. She told immigration officials at Ellis Island that she planned to stay in Queens with her older sister, Catherine, who had married and just given birth to a baby boy. Mary declared that she planned to be a permanent resident, hoping to gain citizenship in her adopted land.
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THE UNITED STATES HAD welcomed immigrants for much of its history, importing laborers and encouraging settlement in the West. But a combination of economic downturns, nativism, and the rise of the eugenics movement had recently made it increasingly difficult for certain groups of people to become US citizens. Crackdowns began in the early 1920s. The Ku Klux Klan sought to all but take over the 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City, urging severe limits on immigrants and bashing Catholics, prompting brawls in the aisles of sweltering Madison Square Garden. More than twenty thousand Klansmen rallied nearby, celebrating when the convention narrowly failed to pass a platform plank condemning the group. The ensuing Klanbake, as the days of rage became known, so disrupted the convention that it took 103 ballots to select nominee John W. Davis, who lost the general election to Republican Calvin Coolidge. Nonetheless, the KKK continued to wield political power, and an anti-immigrant mood gripped the country as the economy weakened. The Democrats’ 1928 nominee, Al Smith, was pilloried by the KKK because he was Catholic, and he lost to Republican Herbert Hoover. By 1929, Congress passed legislation cutting the immigration quotas for many countries, including European nations such as Germany. Soon, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans would be expelled. Those from China, Japan, Africa, and Arabia were given little chance of gaining US citizenship. At the same time, Congress nearly doubled the quota for immigrants from much of the British Isles. Mary, coming from the preferred stock of British whites, would be welcomed at a time when the United States was closing its doors to many others.
As Mary made her way across the Atlantic, the Transylvania battled a horrific storm. Finally, as the vessel reached New York Harbor, a driving rain stirred the swells, and bolts of lightning knocked out power, including the torch in the Statue of Liberty, which nonetheless welcomed the world’s tired and poor. The lead story on the front page of the New York Times on the day of Mary’s arrival seemed reassuring: “Worst of Depression Over, Says Hoover, with Cooperation Lessening Distress.” Hoover pinned his hopes on a construction boom, which he insisted had accelerated “beyond our hopes.” His hopes would prove far too optimistic. Hoover was soon replaced in the White House by New York’s governor, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and it would take years of government intervention for America to dig itself out of the Depression. But one of those who shared Hoover’s hopes for a construction boom was a young man named Fred Trump. He was the son of a German immigrant and was on his way to making a fortune by building modest homes in the same area of New York City where Mary MacLeod now was headed.
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THE TRUMP SIDE OF the family’s American saga begins with Donald’s grandfather, Friedrich. He was raised in a wine-producing village in southwest Germany called Kallstadt, which looked appealingly verdant and prosperous to the casual eye, but which held little future for the ambitious teenager who would later be Donald Trump’s paternal grandfather.
The steep-roofed two-story house on Freinsheim Street where Friedrich grew up was just a few minutes’ walk from the bell tower of the Protestant church in Kallstadt’s center. With two or three bedrooms to accommodate a family of eight, it was far from the grandest vintner’s house. But if the Trumps weren’t the richest winemakers in late-nineteenth-century Kallstadt, they secured a decent income. They owned land on which to grow grapes, and their house had several outbuildings for livestock and a great arched cellar adjoining the ground-floor rooms where the annual harvest would be fermented.
Kallstadt lies in the Pfalz, or Palatinate, a lush, undulating region of the Rhine Valley to which millions of German-American families such as the Trumps trace their roots and where the Nazis later created a Weinstrasse, or wine route, to market produce after they had driven out the local Jewish merchants. Sheltered by the Haardt Mountains to the west, the gentle topography created a Mediterranean-like climate, a so-called German Tuscany, where almonds, figs, and sweet chestnuts thrived. Grapes had been cultivated for at least two thousand years since the Romans built a villa on a hill above the village. Orderly rows of Riesling crisscrossed fields and filled tiny plots between village houses.
Years of unrest prompted many to flee, establishing a history of emigration, and cementing the interdependence of the families who stayed. Outgoing and proud of their shared past, the people of Kallstadt came to be known as Brulljesmacher, or “braggarts.” It is uncertain when the Trumps first came to the Palatinate or when they settled on the spelling of the family name. Family genealogists and historians have found various spellings, including Dromb, Drumb, Drumpf, Trum, Tromb, Tromp, Trumpf, and Trumpff. More recent headstones in Kallstadt spell the family name Trump, though in the local Palatinate dialect, the final p is pronounced with emphasis, almost like Tromp-h.
Friedrich, Donald Trump’s grandfather-to-be, was born on March 14, 1869. He was a frail child, unfit for backbreaking labor in the vineyards. He was eight years old when his father, Johannes, died of a lung disease. His mother, Katherina, was left to run a household of children ranging in age from one to fifteen, as well as the winery. Debts began to mount. Katherina sent Friedrich, her younger son, off when he was fourteen for a two-year apprenticeship with a barber in nearby Frankenthal.
Friedrich, however, saw no future in the Palatinate village and decided to join the stream of Germans looking for a better life in the United States. Friedrich traveled 350 miles north to Bremen, a port teeming with emigrants, and boarded the SS Eider. The two-funneled German ocean liner was bound for New York City, where Friedrich would find his older sister, Katherine, who had already married a fellow emigrant from Kallstadt. Friedrich arrived in New York on October 19, 1885. Immigration records list his occupation as “farmer” and his name as “Friedrich Trumpf, ” although he would soon be known by Trump. He was sixteen years old.
But Friedrich’s departure ran afoul of German law. A three-year stint of military service was mandatory, and to emigrate, boys of conscription age had to get permission. The young barber didn’t do so, resulting in a questionable status that would undermine any future prospect of return: Friedrich Trump was an illegal emigrant. Luckily, US officials didn’t care about the circumstances under which he left Germany. US immigration law at the time granted Germans preferred status; they were viewed as having the proper white European ethnic stock and an industrious nature. Friedrich was one of about a million Germans who immigrated to the United States in 1885, more than had ever before come in one year.
The SS Eider delivered him to Castle Garden, the main entry point for immigrants before the federal government opened Ellis Island in 1892. Friedrich had left a rural European town of fewer than a thousand residents for the chaos of New York City, which then had a population of more than 1.2 million, about one-third foreign-born. Friedrich moved in with his older sister and her husband, Fred Schuster, joining a community of fellow Palatinates on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He started out as a barber, but that proved unsatisfying.
Friedrich, like many before him, was lured by tales of gold strikes and other riches to be found in the West. By 1891, the ambitious young man—a government document described him as five feet nine, with a high forehead, hazel eyes, straight nose, prominent chin, dark complexion, and a thin face—headed to Seattle. The booming city of fifty thousand was crisscrossed by streetcar lines and visited by vast fleets of ships. Friedrich saw an opportunity to offer food and lodging. He set up shop among the dance halls in a seedy area of town and changed the name of an establishment known as the Poodle Dog to the more salubrious-sounding Dairy Restaurant, operating among the pimps and gamblers who haunted the district.
Trump, granted US citizenship in Seattle in 1892, began investing in land. He headed to the mining community of Monte Cristo, nestled in the nearby Cascade Range. A New York syndicate backed by John D. Rockefeller had allowed a railroad to be built, bringing ore down from the mountains. Just as Friedrich eschewed toiling in Kallstadt’s vineyards, he did not join the grueling and often unrewarding work of digging for gold and silver. Instead, he built a hotel and put placer claims on land in questionable deals that allowed him to claim mineral rights. He won the 1896 election for Monte Cristo justice of the peace by a vote of 32–5.
After returning briefly to Seattle, Friedrich joined the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon, where he and a partner opened an establishment called the Arctic, later renamed the White Horse. A vivid portrait of the Arctic, which offered food and lodging, appeared in a local newspaper, suggesting that the hotel catered to the more questionable mores of the miners. “For single men,” wrote the Yukon Sun in 1900, “the Arctic has excellent accommodations as well as the best restaurant in Bennett, but I would not advise respectable women to go there to sleep as they are liable to hear that which would be repugnant to their feelings and uttered, too, by the depraved of their own sex.”
Friedrich sold his shares in the business just as authorities began cracking down on drinking, gambling, and prostitution. While he now seemed firmly planted in the United States, he hadn’t entirely forgotten Kallstadt or his German roots. And he didn’t yet have a wife. That gap in his life was filled on one of his visits to Kallstadt, during which he saw his mother and attended family weddings. On that trip home in 1901, Friedrich met twenty-year-old Elizabeth Christ, who’d grown up across the street from the Trump family house. The following year, Friedrich returned to marry her and bring her back to New York, where their first child, another Elizabeth, was born in 1904.
Despite the close-knit community of fellow Kallstadters on the Lower East Side, Elizabeth Christ Trump never felt at home in New York, and in 1904, Friedrich renewed his passport to travel to Germany, listing his profession as “hotelkeeper” and saying he would return to the United States within a year. This time, though, he brought his savings to Germany with him—some eighty thousand marks, the equivalent of several hundred thousand dollars in 2016 currency. Kallstadt officials, happy to welcome the wealthy young American back into their village, testified to his good character and ability to support his family members. But regional and national officials asked why Trump hadn’t come back sooner to perform his military service. To them, he looked like a draft dodger, and they pressured him to leave. In early 1905, he received notification that he had to depart by May 1. On April 29, Trump pleaded that his baby daughter was too sick to travel. He won a three-month reprieve. On June 6, Trump made another attempt to stay, this time writing a personal letter to Bavaria’s prince regent, Luitpold of the House of Wittelsbach, describing in increasingly desperate and obsequious terms how he and Elizabeth were paralyzed by horror at the prospect of returning to America.
“My dear wife and I . . . are faithful, loyal subjects, true Palatinates, good Bavarians who are bound with unlimited love and devotion to the magnificent princely house of the illustrious Wittelsbachs,” he wrote. He would readily give up his right to live in the United States, Trump continued, if he could only secure permanent residence in the land of his birth. No luck: on June 28, Trump resigned himself to returning immediately to New York with the now-pregnant Elizabeth and their young daughter. The Trumps arrived in New York in the middle of the summer and settled into an apartment in a largely German neighborhood in the South Bronx, where on October 11, their first son, Frederick Christ Trump, who would become Donald Trump’s father, was born.
On December 20, Friedrich Trump made one last attempt to win the right to return to his homeland. Once again, his plea was rejected. By May of 1907, the case was closed. Friedrich and Elizabeth Trump would remain in America and raise their three children as US citizens.
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RESPONSIBLE FOR RAISING A young family in this new land, Friedrich Trump made his way to Wall Street—not as a broker or financier, but in his old profession of barber. He clipped the hair of countless residents of lower Manhattan in a block that would later be well-known to his grandson. The address was 60 Wall Street. Friedrich could have hardly imagined that, a century later, the family name would grace a seventy-two-story tower nearby at 40 Wall Street, known as the Trump Building. Friedrich eventually became a hotel manager and moved to Jamaica Avenue in Queens in the middle of a building boom—a move that would help shape the family’s future and fortune.
Then, in 1914, World War I broke out, and suddenly Trump and hundreds of thousands of others with German ancestry became targets of their own government. A German-American newspaper, the Fatherland, ran a 1915 cover story titled “Are Hyphenated Citizens Good Americans?”—a question that many unhyphenated citizens were asking at the time. A government-sanctioned volunteer group called the American Protective League, with 250,000 members, spied on German Americans amid growing fear that the immigrant families were working for their fatherland and against their newer homeland.
Soon, use of German was discouraged, and many Germanic names were Americanized. The tone was set from the top. On June 14, 1917, two months after the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson declared, “The military masters of Germany [have] filled our unsuspecting communities with vicious spies and conspirators and sought to corrupt the opinion of our people.” It was known as the Flag Day speech, a moment German Americans would long remember. Anti-German views would only intensify in later years, as World War II renewed the animus, and Donald’s father, Fred Trump, would for much of his life be defensive about his roots, sometimes insisting his family was Swedish, a claim that his son would repeat. There was never serious discussion about expelling Germans, however, and in the end the Trumps mixed into the melting pot that was America.
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SHORTLY AFTER THE UNITED States entered World War I, Friedrich Trump, then forty-nine, walked down Jamaica Avenue with his twelve-year-old son, Fred. The elder Trump casually mentioned that he felt sick. He went home, took to bed, and soon died, a victim of a worldwide flu epidemic. Friedrich had left the family with a considerable estate, and his widow, Elizabeth, made herself the head of the family real estate business, which she called E. Trump & Son. Her eldest son, Fred, had a passion for the building trades and soon took on a leading role in the company his mother led. Given enormous responsibility at a young age, he grasped it, determined to become a leading builder in booming postwar New York City. Fred constructed his first home at seventeen, then another and another, using the profits from one to finance the next.
As Fred surveyed New York City of the 1920s, he saw a landscape of opportunity. The boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens still held large swaths of undeveloped land, and streetcars and subways were being extended deeper into the outer boroughs, opening new areas to developers. The population of Queens, where Trump did most of his early building, more than doubled from 469,000 in 1920 to 1.1 million in 1930, remaining 99 percent white throughout the decade.
Even with that separation, racial and ethnic tensions were bubbling over. After the Klanbake of the 1924 Democratic convention, the Klan kept up its nativist drumbeat. The tensions climaxed anew on May 30, 1927, at a Memorial Day parade that wound through Fred Trump’s Queens neighborhood. The police had been concerned for weeks that the KKK would try to take over the event, and they had said Klan members could only join the march if they agreed to abandon their white robes and hoods. Trump, a twenty-one-year-old Protestant and now the head of the family business, joined the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who attended the parade. The KKK did not heed the police mandate. Dressed in their robes and hoods, carrying giant American flags, they passed out handbills in Trump’s neighborhood alleging that Catholic members of the police force were harassing “native-born Protestant Americans.” The KKK appealed to “fair-minded citizens of Queens County to take your stand in defense of the fundamental principles of your country.” This typical Klan tactic tried to pit Catholics against Protestants, while stirring up anti-immigrant feelings.
Having sown the seeds for a clash, more than a thousand Klansmen assembled at the intersection of Jamaica Avenue and Eighty-Fifth Street, where the Memorial Day parade was slated to begin. The commander of a small police contingent was outraged that the Klan had defied his order against wearing the robes and hoods. A policeman rushed toward a hooded Klan member with his nightstick, about to hit the marcher on the head, a moment vividly captured in a photograph published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Women fought women and spectators fought the policemen and the Klansmen, as their desire dictated,” the New York Times reported the next day. “Combatants were knocked down, Klan banners were shredded.” Fred Trump wound up in the thick of the melee, and he was arrested.
The charge against Trump was “refusing to disperse from a parade when ordered to do so.” But a Queens newspaper, the Daily Star, reported that the charge was promptly dismissed. News accounts did not say whether Trump was for or against the Klan, or whether he was at the parade merely to see the spectacle, but the implication of the Star story was that he was unjustly charged. Whatever happened, the parade and arrests underscored that the Klan remained prominent and influential, as demonstrated by the imposition of immigration quotas two years later.
Trump, meanwhile, methodically built his empire, buying vacant land mostly in Queens. Even as the Depression devastated New York City, he looked for opportunities. When housing sales fell off, he invested in what became one of the city’s thriving grocery stores. In March 1931, with the Depression still at its height, Trump announced that he was nearing completion of an upscale project in the Jamaica Estates section of Queens. Trump said he expected to build $500,000 worth of dwellings in just a few months. “The homes are of English Tudor and Georgia Colonial styles,” reported the Times, which was otherwise filled with gloomy news that day.
Trump found opportunity in gloom. When a mortgage firm called Lehrenkrauss & Co. was broken up amid charges of fraud, Trump and a partner scooped up a subsidiary that held title to many distressed properties. Trump used that information to buy houses facing foreclosure, expanding his real estate holdings with properties bought on the cheap from people who had little choice other than to sell.
At a time of financial ruin, with unemployment rising to 25 percent, and the streets lined with the destitute, Trump emerged as one of the city’s most successful young businessmen. As the economy recovered, Trump snatched up more property, building more Tudor-style homes in Queens. In 1935, Trump began to focus on Brooklyn, and he sold seventy-eight homes in twenty days, each for about $3,800. Soon, his home sales reached into the thousands.
One day, Trump, dressed in a fine suit and sporting his trademark mustache, attended a local party. He saw a pair of sisters, and the younger one caught his eye. Her name was Mary Anne MacLeod. In the several years since she had first arrived in the United States, she had gone back and forth to her little village on the Outer Hebrides island of Lewis, unsure what her future held. She was about to go on another return voyage when her sister Catherine took her to the party in Queens. Mary MacLeod, twenty-three, and Fred Trump, thirty, spent the evening together, and something clicked between the maid and the mogul. When Trump returned that night to the home he shared with his mother, he made an announcement. He had met the woman he planned to marry.
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THE WEDDING WAS HELD on January 11, 1936, at a Presbyterian church on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, and a reception followed at the Carlyle Hotel, an elegant thirty-five-story art deco confection that had opened six years earlier. Then it was off on a brief honeymoon and quickly back to work. Fred, now described in the newspapers as president of the Trump Holding Corp., of Jamaica, soon announced that he was building thirty-two homes in Flatbush in an “exclusive development.” As World War II approached, Trump boasted that the threat of combat had helped business. “In the event of war, I believe that the profit will be quicker and larger,” Trump said, trying to gin up sales. The remark might have seemed impolitic, but it proved correct, at least for his company. He showed a flair for salesmanship and showmanship, hoisting fifty-foot-long banners that were seen by “millions of bathers” at city beaches. He promoted his homes from a sixty-five-foot yacht that broadcast music and advertisements while filling the air with “thousands of huge toy balloon fish,” which resulted in “a series of near riots” as people tried to catch the souvenirs. Those who caught the balloons found coupons giving them a discount on a house purchase. The Trump Boat Show, as the marketing extravaganza was called, ensured that the family name was known throughout the metropolis.
Mary Trump focused on her new role as wife and mother to a family that would eventually include five children. On June 14, 1946, the fourth member of that brood was born. Fred and Mary named him Donald John Trump, and he would ensure that the family name would endure long after the immigrant stories of his ancestors had passed from memory.