Chat Transcript: Gwenda Blair on The Trumps

ByABC News
September 18, 2000, 1:54 PM

Sept. 18 -- Most of us know the name Donald Trump, which has become synonymous with large buildings, flamboyant media stunts and 80s excess. But few know of the family legacy that propelled him to stardom.

In her new book The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire, author Gwenda Blair traces how The Donald drew on a family legacy of entrepreneurial know-how which stretched back to his grandfather Friedrich, and then went on to realize his own great insightthat being famous for being rich could make him even richer.

Blair joined us online today in a chat.

Moderator at 3:00pm ET

Welcome to the chat with author Gwenda Blair. Let's begin.

Moderator at 3:00pm ET

What motivated you to write this book?

Gwenda Blair at 3:02pm ET

Everybody including me had heard about Donald Trump and the size of his ego. But given that it's a country full of people and their large egos, the fact that he has a particularly large ego did not seem to explain his success or why we had all heard of him. So I began to look for a framework to understand how he harnessed that ego and made it work for him. And the framework I thought was most informative was looking at his family and the background of his successful father and lo and behold, his successful grandfather.

Gwenda Blair at 3:04pm ET

This is a family that knew how to make the system work for them. Each man in his own period figured out what he could get away with, just how far he could push the envelope, and he did so. His grandfather came to the U.S. from Germany as a teenager, alone. Five years later, he was in the Northwest, running a restaurant that provided lonely prospectors with what they wanted, which was liquor and women. He figured out that the way to make money in mining was to mine the miners instead of digging in the ground himself.

Gwenda Blair at 3:05pm ET

Donald's father saw that the next frontier in the American economy was going to be the new deal and the federal government. He figured out how to mine that.

Moderator at 3:06pm ET

Your book shows how at particular moments in American history the Trumps were able to profit from circumstance. If any one of these events had not worked out is it possible that the Trump family legacy would have been stopped in its tracks?

Gwenda Blair at 3:08pm ET

I don't think that the Trumps' success depended on the accidents of history, except possibly for one accident and that was, that back in Germany in the 17th century, the original spelling of their name, which was Drumpf, shifted to Trump, which was an immense boost to later generations to America, because it allowed them to associate with the word trump: trump suit, trump card; it's a wonderful name. But otherwise I think they had remarkable energy and drive and a very sharp eye for the main chance. And they would have found that chance no matter what the circumstances around them.

Moderator at 3:08pm ET

What was the most interesting piece of information you unearthed about the Trump family?

Gwenda Blair at 3:10pm ET

When I found out this remarkable story that stretched from Germany to the Yukon and then back again to New York City, each thing I found out seemed utterly remarkable. I think that's true of any immigrant, actually. There's a million stories and they're all fascinating. But the kicker to this one was that it was associated with Donald Trump, the person above all, that we all felt we knew all about. And possibly too much about.

Gwenda Blair at 3:14pm ET

It was interesting right up to the end, when Donald hoisted his second presidential candidacy flag up the flagpole to see what would happen. He had already done this in 1987 when his first book came out. He went to New Hampshire, gave a speech, commissioned a poll, and when the book hit the best seller lists, withdrew his candidacy. In an exactly identical fashion in 1999, he commissioned a poll, made a lot of noise, just as another book by him was coming out. What a coincidence. I went to a book signing in the lobby of Trump Tower, at which he said, perhaps three sentences and began signing books.

And I was at the end of the line and asked how many books had been sold. The clerk said, "This is about 200." Pretty good for an hour and a half book signing. In the paper the next day, I read Donald's account of this event. He said, "850 had been sold and signed in an hour and a half." Which would have been not just remarkable, but herculean. But this is who he is. He exaggerates everything, even when what he's starting with is pretty good.