Donald Trump likes to boast, falsely, that he made his own fortune in real estate. Donald Trump’s father also liked to boast, falsely, that he made his own fortune in real estate. In truth, both Donald and his father inherited a real estate fortune that was developed by a woman: Donald Trump’s grandmother, Elizabeth Trump. Their lies have nearly erased the woman who nurtured and expanded the real estate empire that both men later inherited.
Throughout his career, Fred Trump portrayed himself as a hard-working orphan who founded the family business as a child. Fred Trump claimed (and reporters uncritically repeated) that “because of his age – he couldn’t sign checks until he was 21 – the business was in his mother’s name.” Fred Trump also told tales of working as a “horse’s helper,” hauling loads of lumber up rain-slicked hillsides that horse-drawn carts couldn’t manage, to provide for his deprived family:
“My father died when I was 11, and I took odd jobs to help with the family finances. […] Just after I graduated from high school, I got a job as a horse’s helper.” (New York Times, January 28, 1973)
It is true that Fred Trump got his start working for his mother, Elizabeth Trump. It is true that after Fred reached adulthood, she renamed her company “Elizabeth Trump & Son.” Fred Trump’s father, Frederick, died in 1918, when Fred Trump was 13 years old. At the time of his death, Frederick Trump owned real estate and personal property worth $31,642 (which would be worth $512,837 in today’s money).
There is clear evidence that Elizabeth Trump carried on her husband’s business after he passed. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that Elizabeth Trump had purchased mortgages on August 3, 1918 and on November 23, 1918. Elizabeth Trump listed a newly constructed house for sale on September 13, 1924. By September 4, 1927, Elizabeth Trump was listing houses under “E. Trump & Son.” Fred Trump was 22 in 1927, which was the same year that he was arrested at a Klan rally.
Did Elizabeth Trump fall into hard times before her son took over the business? There is no evidence that this happened. In fact, the local newspaper reported in 1928 that Elizabeth Trump was traveling in Paris with her son Fred and her daughter Elizabeth in tow. Fred Trump would have been 23 at the time of this “grand tour” with his mother.
Donald Trump’s finances were investigated extensively in 1981 by New Jersey casino officials. While much of Donald’s income came from his father, he was also the beneficiary of a trust that had been established by his grandmother in 1949. That trust paid Donald $11,000 in 1980. (which would be worth $32,670 in today’s money)
We have found records indicating that Donald’s niece and nephew (the children of Fred Trump Jr., who died in 1981) each received 5% interests in several Brooklyn buildings through their great-grandmother’s trust. Donald’s niece and nephew later surrendered their property interests in the properties conveyed by Donald’s grandmother.
Donald Trump was one of five siblings. If each sibling received an equal 10% interest from their grandmother, that would mean that Elizabeth Trump was 50% owner of several buildings established by Donald’s father, Fred. This would suggest that she remained a significant player in Fred Trump’s businesses long after she took her adult son with her to Paris in 1928.
Why would Elizabeth Trump have been written out of the family history after playing such a crucial role?
Donald’s sister (also named Elizabeth) became a bank secretary and once told a reporter “It’s a man’s family.” Her sister Maryanne became a federal judge who publicly lamented the decline of sexual harassment in the workplace, asking an audience “where has the laughter gone?”
Donald’s own daughter, Ivanka, has explained how Trump would physically yank his then-8-year-old daughter back on the ski slopes to prevent her from winning against him:
Ms. Trump was bred by her father and her mother, Ivana, who have since divorced, to show competitive mettle. She recalled racing down a ski slope, at age 8, during a family trip to Aspen, Colo. “At one point I remember thinking it was rather bizarre that I had started moving backwards up the hill,” Ms. Trump said. “It took me not too long to realize that my father had hooked his ski pole around the cuff of my unitard. Clearly he wanted to win.” (New York Times, December 27, 2007)
Donald Trump is the third generation scion of a New York real estate dynasty that owes much of its fortune to his grandmother. The Trump Family’s official story of “self-made men” inventing themselves each generation is false. The lies told by Donald and his father obscure the role of the woman who helped make them rich.