The following article was printed in Life magazine, September 18, 2011. It is used here with the author’s permission.
Where is Donald Trump? It is the question, it seems, that nobody is asking. Since disappearing from the public eye in 1974 he has quietly built a fortune without putting in one day of work. He has, some believe, travelled the world, mastered a dozen languages and many more philosophies. He has argued with Derrida and meditated with the Dalai Lama, built schools in Nepal and may have prevented civil war in Sudan. His influence may be why Americans can afford a whole host of vital pharmaceuticals, why New Yorkers still have affordable housing. All without the world ever once seeing his face and with few knowing his name.
Donald John Trump was born in 1946 to Frederick and MaryAnne Trump, in Queens, New York, the fourth of five children. A difficult student from kindergarten to middle school, Donald was enrolled in the New York Military Academy at age thirteen. He seems to have flourished here, attaining the rank of Captain before graduation and having a spotless disciplinary record. He studied at the Bronx’s Fordham University for two years and left for the University of Pennsylvania, entering one of the few colleges that offered a program in real estate studies. Though the other Trump children have gone on to success in many fields (all declined to be interviewed for this piece) Donald intended to follow his father into the real estate business. Fred Trump’s Elizabeth Trump & Son company owned middle class rental properties across New York and was expanding: Donald’s first project was to revitalize a foreclosed apartment building in Cincinnati, Ohio. His $500,000 investment increased the building’s occupancy from 34% to 100%.
Tragedy stuck the Trump family on April 2nd, 1971, when a three car collision killed both of Donald’s parents. All of his siblings grieved, but his sister Maryanne, in one of the few interviews that mentions him, noted that ‘(Donald) seemed to be hit hardest. He was inconsolable.’ A grainy black and white photo taken at the funeral is the last record the world has of him, wracked with grief, sobbing into his younger brother Robert’s jacket. At twentyfive years old Donald held the reins of a multimillion dollar company, but he bought a modest apartment in Queens and rarely attended meetings. He gave simple directives to the company’s board: “Buy property, make sure that regular people can afford it.”
Two years before, Donald had unsuccessfully tried to become a Broadway producer his only production, the comedy ‘Paris is Out!’ flopped. After his parent’s death he once again turned to theater. His only indulgence was Broadway shows: before his parents death he would turn up on opening nights in his white convertible with a beautiful woman on his arm, after he took the bus to matinees alone. On a whim he decided to take in Arthur Miller’s first musical, The Creation of the World and Other Business. The slapstick retelling of the story of Genesis flopped badly, and perhaps Donald was recalling something of his own experiences with theater when he asked to meet with Miller after a performance. The playwright recalled this experience in a 1998 Time Magazine interview:
“Trump came to me and he said, Mr. Miller, I’ve been thinking about some of the issues your play addresses and I’d like to ask you a few things. He wasn’t, I remember, well versed in what we’d now call the humanities, the liberal arts he had studied business. He had spent the past year reading and I recall he had this little satchel full up with paperbacks, and every so often during our conversation he’d pull one out like it was a revolver and he’d say ‘well St. Augustine said this’, ‘Sartre says that.’ He was trying to come to terms with good and evil, and how a man can be good. He was looking for a businesslike, programmatic way to do good in the world.”
Tellingly, when gossip columnists mentioned Trump it was to report that he was visiting a small library in Queens ‘almost daily.’ Desperate to turn him into the next Howard Hughes, they reported that he ‘live(d) like a vagrant’, that he had ‘turned his back on friends and family’, that ‘sources close to the troubled multimillionaire worry for his sanity.’
In 1973 the Justice Department accused The Trump Organization of violating the Fair Housing Act, using sham ‘No Vacancy’ signs and inflated rent prices to exclude the poor, particularly poor people of color, from apartments owned by the company. Donald was furious and immediately convened a meeting of the company’s board, where they tried to persuade him that such practices are ‘just how things are done.’ He immediately forced through an amendment to the company’s policies that forbade any Trump Organization employee from discriminatory practices. Against the objections of his lawyer, Roy Cohn, he pled no contest to the charges and paid the $1.2 million dollar fine in full. News that Trump apartments were open to anyone caused a sudden drop in their occupancy rates as white families fled and a meteoric rise as black and Latino families moved in. Though his property empire was dissolved these apartment blocks continue a legacy of nondiscrimination, becoming bulwarks against gentrification in many cities.
In 1974 Trump vanished. The Fair Housing Act trial had made him something of a folkhero to many poor Americans but the press had long since moved on consequently, his disappearance wasn’t noticed until at least six months after it happened. Rumors swirled that he had taken his own life, that he was killed by the Mafia after his ethical stance cost them money, that the company’s board of directors had him killed in order to wrest control of the company. Somewhere in the world news of his disappearance reached Donald, who sent a letter to his brother and sisters reassuring them that he was ‘alive, and happy for the first time in a long time.’ He also sent detailed plans for the Trump Organization to be liquidated while ensuring that his ethical policies remained in place by binding any prospective buyers to a strict code of conduct. He also left instructions to establish a successor to his father’s company, the Trump Organization Ltd.
An unassuming street of simple redbrick houses in Queens is the last place anyone would look for the headquarters of a major corporation, but it is here that The Trump Organization Ltd. carefully and quietly handles the vast fortune of the Trump family. Sitting in his small office, rarely checking the Bloomberg terminal covered in postits on his desk, Walter Callahan spends his days working on his ‘little projects’: watercolours, a ship in a bottle, a biography of George Washington written for the sheer joy of it. He is the polar opposite of the preening, self-obsessed Hedge Fund managers across the East River, balding and combedover with a spray of liver spots at his temples, wearing four different shades of brown from his jacket down to his tie. His job, he says, is an easy one: keep Trump’s billions in safe, dull Index-tracking funds where over the years they slowly build in value. Through this, financial analysts theorise, Trump has managed to increase his fortune from the five-hundred million he made upon liquidating his father’s property empire to anywhere between fourteen and twenty billion dollars.
Upon agreeing to meet me Callahan laid out the ground rules: he cannot tell me how much money Trump has, he cannot disclose where the last package Trump sent came from he cannot even confirm if Donald Trump is alive or dead. He can show me the gifts his employer has sent him, something new and heartfelt with each of the packages that arrive at the Trump Organization every few years. A small jade Buddha, a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s M editations that appeared to have been bought at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, a piece of the Taj Mahal carved into the god Ganesha. These, Callahan says, are old, and he won’t show me anything new for fear of revealing his employer’s current whereabouts.
I ask if they have ever met.
“No,” Callahan says. “The previous managers never met him either. I feel like I know him though. My wife, she picks me up on always calling him ‘Donald’ when I get home at night, like he’s some work friend. He’s a beautiful writer, has a real knack for it, and you get such an impression of the man from just reading his words that it’s like you’re right there in the room.”
Callahan says that if his job performance was judged by Wall Street standards he would be ‘fired on the spot’, but that “Mr. Trump’s wealth is such that you’d have to be actively trying to lose money to even make a dent in it.” Two previous managers have held his position but both left within a year because “they were money-driven, performance-focused guys, and that’s not this job. Since 2009 I haven’t had to make any moves, at all. If there’s another market crash then sure, I’ll allocate the funds somewhere safe until we’re in the clear, but otherwise the job is this.”
This being his watercolor of the street he grew up on, painted from memory. For his service Callahan receives a ‘reasonable’ salary and the month of December off so he can ‘spend his Christmas bonus.’ His three children had their education paid for.
So what’s it like working for an eccentric, reclusive billionaire?
“I don’t see him as a ‘recluse’,” Callahan says. “That, to me, implies that he’s holed up somewhere, alone. I don’t see, and I’m wary of betraying his trust here, I don’t see any indication from his expenditures that have come through the company that he stays in one place for very long. ‘Eccentric’, I can’t speak to, having never met him. Nothing he has ever done has indicated to me that he is anything but sane. He is extremely lucid in his letters and very… Sympathetic. Seeing suffering in the world moves him deeply and I think, and this is only a hypothesis, that wherever he is he’s trying to make the world better.”
Tabloid speculation around Donald Trump’s disappearance ended only a few weeks after it began. His family have made it known that it is not a topic that they will discuss. Mr. Callahan is bound by a web of nondisclosure agreements. Where does that leave us if we are looking for Trump?
Several philosophers and academics claim to have met him throughout the late seventies and early nineties. Among them is Jacques Derrida and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as we have noted, but also Noam Chomsky, Allan Bloom, bell hooks and Richard Rorty. The latter remembers a “Polite and very perceptive man who seemed to be at once intensely focused and completely relaxed.” They spoke about Rorty’s take on the Pragmatist tradition, about analytic philosophy, civic society and, above all, fairness as a moral principle. Google’s Sergey Brin took a meeting with Trump, where the topic was artificial intelligence and theories of mind. Brin remembers being “astounded by how much he understood about computer science based on, he said, about six months of study.”
His meetings with public figures are rare his visit to Brin in 2004 was the last we know of. Beyond this is only speculation: rumors that he was the apocryphal figure who averted a civil war threatening to split Sudan by paying the local militias to disarm in uncut diamonds. A rare western visitor to the kingdom of Bhutan describes an ‘older man, perhaps in his fifties, with an American accent who the king allows to travel freely into and out of the country (visitors normally must pay a $250 a day fee) and who, it is said, persuaded the former king to create the country’s first parliament.’ A Nepalese news website makes a passing reference to ‘the wealthy American Donald Trump’ providing funding for the building of over two hundred and fifty schools in rural regions. A major wind power development in Argentina lists him as a consultant.
The latter refused to take calls and in emails made it very clear that further enquiries were not welcome. The Bhutanese consulate refused to discuss matters relating to their king’s decision-making process. The Nepalese Ministry of Education couldn’t confirm the identity of any donors, but invited me to tour the ‘modern and effective Nepalese school system.’ The small measure of encouragement was enough to convince me to buy a flight to Kathmandu and a bus ticket north, into the Himalayan steppes.
The article gave me the rough location and, with a few hours of horseback riding from the more touristfriendly areas of the Kaski region I had found a school that, the locals say, was built in part by a white man who gave his name as Donald. Although he had given money to various NGOs for the project he had also assisted with the building of dozens, spending a few days at each location.
The village, she said, was small and had yet to be connected to the country’s expanding power grid. Aside from ‘the Donald’, as he was known, she was the only Westerner who had visited in over a decade. The people there were subsistence farmers with lifestyles little different from those their ancestors would have lived a hundred generations past. Aside from the school, a game of cricket being played was the only evidence that there was a world outside the dozen houses clinging to the side of a steep river valley.
The school was a deceptively simple brick building designed to retain heat in the winter and stay cool in the summer. Rather than rows of desks facing a chalkboard the students sat in a circle on cushions and for the most part were responsible for their own education. An older woman was on hand to offer explanations or resolve disputes but she was not in any sense a ‘teacher’. After being taught to read at a young age by their parents the village’s children would select a textbook from the library that covered one of the building’s walls and, in collaboration with other children, they would begin teaching themselves.
The books were written in a local dialect that my translator could speak but not read. The locals were reticent to speak about ‘the Donald’, as they called him, and he had only spent two days there several years ago. They would say that he was a good man, that he had helped them and several Nepalese workers build the school and that he had played cricket with the children. The older woman who was supervising the children had served him dal bhat, a simple dish of lentil soup and rice.
One of the children, a young girl, had heard me mention ‘the Donald’ and ran to the bookshelf, where she retrieved a slim white book with a title written in the Tibetan alphabet and Gurung language, both of which my translator had trouble with. She pointed to what I presumed to be the author’s name and said ‘the Donald.’
My translator asked the girl to translate the title for us. After much discussion he came back with ‘The Art of The Selfless Act.’ He was also able to glean that every school in the district was given one and that it was the girl’s second favorite book, losing out to an illustrated world map that devoted two page spreads to major cities. She opened it to the page on New York and, pointing to the Empire State building, told us that it was the Donald’s hut and this was his village.
Perhaps the closest he has come to showing his hand was in his alleged purchasing of the copyright for various drugs from, perhaps, the mid nineties onward. Businesses that exist in name only, their registered addresses empty lots, were found to be buying pharmaceuticals used to treat rare diseases with, in some cases, only a few hundred sufferers in the U.S. The patent on these unprofitable drugs is often left to expire and is then picked up, quickly and quietly, by major pharmaceuticals companies who say that they cannot make a profit on small batches of drugs unless they charge sometimes upwards of $8,000 for a single month’s supply. A 2004 Boston Globe story on this practice among the top three pharmaceuticals companies in the U.S. uncovered a ‘shadowy netherworld’ of cutout corporations purchasing the rights to produce medication for diseases that were rare, and often fatal, but which were largely ignored.
The Globe traced payments to their source: a small house in Queens, New York and it’s sole occupant, a confused Walter Callahan.
The story, in which the Trump Organization is just a footnote, seems to have emboldened Trump, who in the past five years has bought the rights to the heart drug Isuprel, the antiparasitic drug Daraprim and the hepatitisC drug Solvaldi and made the antiretroviral treatment AZT widely available across subSaharan Africa. A month’s supply of these lifesaving medications will give you change from a twenty dollar bill. The lives he has saved are beyond counting.
The only recent evidence of Trump’s whereabouts is tenuous at best: a Youtube video clearly shot on a cheap cameraphone of a debate between Buddhist monks in Tibet’ Sera monastery. A throng of crimsonrobed monks surround two figures. The one standing is a senior monk attacking the point of view of a novice, who is sat in the lotus position. These are not the serene bohdisattvas that Western backpackers imagine: it isn’t even as structured as a highschool debate tournament, though both participants are speaking just as quickly. The atmosphere is more like a rap battle, with both combatants permitted to speak at once and their audience encouraged to cajole and mock them. The seated monk, the novice is, according to theology Professor Shen Hsu, who is semifluent in Lhasa Tibetan, ‘completely destroying’ the more senior monk.
“It’s brutal,” he explains. “The novice is utterly humiliating the master. He’s calling into question everything that the older monk believes, questioning his very status. He’s drawing on sources that I have only heard reference to, quoting discourses verbatim. I have studied Tibetan Buddhism for my entire career and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
And what is it that they’re debating?
“The doctrine of all beings containing Buddhanature. Essentially, whether it is truly possible to be good.”
The novice monk is a white man in perhaps his late sixties, his blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, glasses resting above his nose, the beginnings of a beard visible on his face. When he has reduced the senior monk to a stuttering mess he rises to the crowd’s cheers, looks to them and, in American accented English, asks:
“Okay guys, how’d I do? Am I a winner?”