Feature story from The Brooklyn Almanac
By Joe Fodor
During these COVID times, the space in our apartment is at a premium. Areas that were once cluttered are now functional spaces. But there is one area that has resisted the cleansing purge, a closet where files from my five year career at the Brooklyn Bridge Magazine back in the late 1990s are stored in milk crates.
To write this, I first needed to go in there, lift each crate out and search until I found the one folder out of hundreds I needed. After two hours shifting these dusty crates, I finally found the file, labeled “FRED TRUMP” in red marker—my dossier on Fred C. Trump (1905-1999), father of the 45th President of the United States.
The article came out in December 1996, and was a one-page story on the legacy of Fred Trump in Brooklyn. For years I had been seeing the same design of brick homes with stairs running up to a balcony and the front door. Somebody told me those were Trump homes, built by Fred Trump before and after the Second World War. He built more than 2,500 of them in Brooklyn, including a thousand such homes in one area along Cropsey Avenue and Twentieth Avenue in Bath Beach.
I got the okay to do a one-pager, with a map. On October 7, I faxed a letter on Brooklyn Bridge Magazine letterhead to Fred Trump’s son Robert at the Trump Construction Company offices on Avenue Z in Brooklyn. In it I explained the article would be “based around the idea that the way Brooklyn looks is, to a large part, the result of Fred Trump.”
“What I hope to get from your office is an idea of the location of the houses you have put up over the last 60 years. I understand this is a pretty tall order and I would not be surprised if you don’t have the information at arm’s reach. What you would have, I imagine, are company records, old blueprints and old promotional items. Could we arrange a time when I can come and look at these items? I don’t need much access, and I am not writing a biography or an expose. My interest has to do with the “texture” of Brooklyn, including the neighborhoods of brick Trump homes, and how it got that way.”
Looking at the letter now—which ended up being longer than the resulting article–I am impressed by this very wordy young man. He also doesn’t seem like much of a threat. So a few days later I came to Trump’s Brooklyn offices in the Beach Haven Apartments. The Trump offices were indistinguishable from the other apartment buildings, and marked only by a row of black limousines parked under the trees closest to the door.
Inside, once let in past the security perimeter of the landlord’s front office, I met Amy Luerssen, Fred Trump’s personal assistant of more than 60 years. Fred Trump was not there. She briefly introduced me to Robert Trump, who was walking by, and then took me to a small room with a row of file cabinets, just to the side of a large office. The entire office was thickly carpeted, and eerily quiet.
There was another room I walked through, and I wish I had lingered more, or asked about it, as it contained perhaps six wooden cigar-store Indians. Where these real and how old where they? How many were there? In the years since I have looked without result for further references to Fred Trump’s collection of cigar-store Indians. I would love to know more.
Amy Luerssen, who was then 85 years old, was extremely nice to me, and we looked through the files together. When I found something, she would take it to another room and photocopy it. In cases where there were two copies of something in the file, she gave me the originals to keep. That’s how I came to have original Trump advertising clippings, and an official Fred C. Trump biography that had been lightly edited.
“When we look at today’s society for role models, there are few who can measure up to Fred C. Trump—a man who typifies the “American Dream”, a true Horatio Alger.” The official biography begins.
The word “he” is crossed out at one point, and a spidery hand has added “Fred C.” above it, and the number 56 in the line “Mary, his wife of 56 years” has been altered to read 57, meaning this editing was done in 1993.
While I was sitting there waiting for Mrs. Luerssen to come back from one of her many trips to the copy machine, I had the uncanny feeling I was being watched. I turned around. A smallish man wearing a suit stood in the middle of the large office next door and immediately moved out of view. I didn’t know at the time that Fred Trump had Alzheimer’s, and would die in two years, unable to recognize anyone. Instead, I had been told he went to the office five days a week, and had a regular lunch table at Gargiulo’s, the venerable Italian eatery a short limo ride away. But he just wasn’t in the office that day…
There is not much to say about the rest of my visit, other than I noticed that the man was staring at me through the crack at the hinges of the door to the big office next door, and would move away if I turned to look in that direction. Today it seems ludicrous that the man so responsible for shaping the character of President Donald Trump, for good or ill, would peep at a young reporter who was writing a 200-word story about his impact on the “texture” of Brooklyn. But I don’t doubt for a moment it was him.
The resulting article, entitled “Trump-lyn”, is dominated by a large ugly graphic. It is large and ugly because I told the designer exactly what to do, and even supplied a photo of Fred Trump (from his own files) and layout of the brick Trump homes to use as wallpaper. What resulted was a kind of designer’s revenge – and a warning that nobody should ever tell a designer exactly what to do. The various Trump projects were recreated in crude line drawings, and the areas containing Trump’s single family homes were rusty smears across the borough.
What makes me remember this article more than many others is a tremendous typo. Trump Village, the developer’s final major project in the 1960s consisting of seven, 27-storey tall buildings right next to the subway tracks in Coney Island, was transformed in editing to twenty-seven, 7-storey buildings. The sick feeling I had seeing that mistake the first time is still fresh and close to the surface –I avoid Coney Island because of it – but the worst part was that we received no indignant letters. Either the residents of Trump Village were happy with the new arrangement I described, or, more likely, they didn’t read it. Then, more than now, the area was a Russian-speaking enclave, and residents were more uninterested than a normal person would be in an English-language periodical like Brooklyn Bridge Magazine.
It turned out to be one of my shorter articles that month – I wrote much longer articles about puppet theater, whales, and sidewalks in that issue. But it has stayed in my memory. The small man darting out of sight in his heavily-carpeted office filled with wooden cigar-store Indians, turned out to be more important than anyone realized.
Writing so many articles per month, I fell into a trap of coming up with a “kicker” that tied everything neatly together, sort of as a reader’s treat for completing the article. Often they were sentimental, and this one is a particularly bad example of that style– “At 91, Fred Trump shows no signs of throwing in his cards.”
I have no idea why it’s there, and it makes little sense. The left hand column contains a lot of factoids in 10-point type that were cribbed, many of them, from Wayne Barrett’s 1991 biography of Donald Trump.
I can’t help but feel the Trumps were a little disappointed with the article, and especially Amy Luerssen, who was the one in the Trump Organization who most wanted a nice article about her long-time boss. Whatever awaits Donald Trump after he leaves office, the memory of his once-powerful father’s final years in that quiet, heavily carpeted office, flanked by life-size cigar-store Indians, is surely playing in his mind.