In 1996, during Fashion Week, in early September, the Italian fashion designer Valentino Garavani was opening a new Valentino flagship store on Madison Avenue and 65th Street. Vanity Fair was throwing a dinner and party at Le Colonial, a recently opened, high-end French-Vietnamese restaurant on 57th Street, in his honor. There were a handful of movie stars and others from the literary, social, fashion, and media worlds coming.
I had been the assistant to Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, for more than two years at that point, and I was charged with working the door. (Carter is also the founder and co-editor of AIR MAIL.) It would mean hours on my feet, clipboard in hand, trying to manage the chaos, while knowing that, behind me, there was a really fun party going on that I wasn’t part of.
That night, the dinner was to be followed by a bigger after-party. The door during the dinner portion of the night was easy—a civilized, mostly recognizable, small, manageable crowd. It was the after-party where things would take a turn, where the guest list went from a manageable size to hundreds. I’d have to deal with a horde of uninvited party crashers, B-list socialites, low-rent celebrities, and coked-up fashionistas pissed off that they weren’t deemed important enough to have been invited to the dinner.
At that Valentino party, I would have a memorable run-in with an enfant terrible fashion designer whose identity I’ll protect since he’s been in and out of recovery for years and was clearly having a rough go of it that night. He would go on to become one of the world’s most famous and successful designers, build a massive brand and fashion empire, but was more interested that night in berating me for not letting a friend of his, a veteran Vogue fashion editor named Candy Pratts Price, in as his plus-one, rocks of cocaine flying out of his nostrils as he screamed at me.
“Do you know who I am?! Do you know who she is?! Who’s in charge?! I want to talk to who’s in charge! Fuck you, you little shit! Who do you think you are?!” The designer’s struggles with substance abuse would dog him at times during his career, although he eventually got sober. (What the hell, it was Marc Jacobs.)
The Trump Card
The day of the Valentino party, I got a call from a young publicist named Jason Weinberg. I’d known Jason for a few years—my brother worked for his eponymous P.R. company, which represented young actors and musicians, New York socialites, and a faded star or two.
One of Jason’s clients was Marla Maples, then trying to make her way as an actress. Success was thus far eluding her in that field, as she was known only for her real-life role as Donald Trump’s second wife. Marla really wanted to come to the Valentino dinner that night—after all, it was a hot party during the height of Fashion Week—and Jason asked if we could squeeze her and Trump in.
It didn’t seem like an outlandish request. Trump was famous, and he and his wife had even been on the cover of Vanity Fair a few years earlier. I told Jason I’d ask and get back to him. What I didn’t know at the time was that Graydon had had his battles with Trump in the 80s, personally coining the nickname “the short-fingered vulgarian” in the pages of Spy, which drove Trump absolutely nuts and still does to this day.
Over the years Trump would occasionally mail Graydon a ripped-out page from a magazine or newspaper with a photo of himself, his hands circled in Sharpie and something along the lines of “See, not so small!” scrawled on it. This was clearly a man by whom no perceived slight went unaddressed.
Their one-sided feud would go nuclear when Twitter arrived, with Trump hurling insults at Graydon constantly. Graydon delighted in the abuse. Years later, after Trump had been elected president, Graydon had all of Trump’s nasty tweets from over the years framed and put on the wall outside his office.
But in 1996, Graydon’s relationship with Trump was a little more cordial. I asked Graydon about his and Marla’s coming to dinner. “It’s completely full, or maybe even overbooked at this point,” he said, adding that we could extend an invitation to them for the post-dinner after-party, when the guest list would expand. This sounded reasonable, so I called Jason back and explained that the dinner was completely full, but we’d be happy to have them after dinner. He thanked me and hung up, and I had Trump and Marla added to the list for the after-party.
About an hour later, Jason called me back. “Look, they really want to come to dinner.”
“I’m sorry, Jason, but they can’t. It’s a seated dinner and it’s totally full, and it’s in, like, a few hours.”
“Is there anything you can do? As a favor to me?”
I sighed. “O.K., I’ll ask Graydon again, but I can’t guarantee anything.”
I went into Graydon’s office and apologized for bringing it up, but Marla and Trump really wanted to come to dinner. Again, no luck. I called Jason back, said I was sorry, I’d taken it as far as I could, and there wasn’t anything else I could do. He understood, thanked me for trying, and hung up.
A few minutes later my phone rang. “He’s not taking no for an answer. They’re coming to the dinner.”
“I tried to sell them on the idea of going after dinner, but Donald’s refusing. He feels slighted. They’re going to show up—and you can’t not let Donald Trump in!”
“I’m going to be at the door! And I’m telling you, I am not going to let Donald Trump in!”
“Look, they’re coming!”
“Jason, you have to stop them!”
“I’ll try. But you don’t know Trump!”
We both hung up. I hoped Jason would come up with some sort of diversion. I mean, what kind of person would just show up to a party after being told they wouldn’t be let in?
Disaster at the Door
Dinner was in full swing. Things were going smoothly as far as I could tell. The guests had been seated and seemed to be having a good time as I stood outside with my clipboard, flanked by a few security guards. At the door, this was the lull between the dinner and the after-party, which would begin the moment dinner ended, the tables cleared for the arrival of a much larger crowd. In a few hours, an angry mob would be in front of me, with uninvited guests trying to force their way past the velvet rope.
I thought about Trump and Marla, and assumed Jason had managed to stop them from showing up. I was relieved. It was a beautiful evening, a perfect New York night, one of those nights when you’re grateful the city took you in and even more grateful it let you stay. But that was all about to change.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a stretch limo barreling across 57th Street, headed right for us. Somehow, I knew right away. The limo pulled up to the curb, then to a stop. A driver scrambled out and opened the rear door. In my memory he was wearing one of those ridiculous double-breasted chauffeur jackets and one of those little hats with the tiny patent-leather brim, though maybe he wasn’t—it just seems like the sort of thing Trump would force his driver to wear because he thought it was “classy.”
Slowly, Trump, Marla, and Jason emerged. Marla was blonde and perky, Southern and pretty. Trump, who would have been around 50 and was in the early stages of his hue metamorphosis—he was closer to marigold than carrot at this point—oozed confidence, power, masculinity, and really poor tailoring decisions. Though we were firmly in the middle of the 1990s, they both appeared unable to wipe off the stain of the previous decade, and they wore it with defiance and élan. They were perfect for each other.
(They’d also be separated in a matter of months, divorced before the decade was over. In fact, within a year, the Donald would meet a young Slovenian model named Melanija Knavs.)
Trump and Marla approached. Jason trailed behind them, nervously looking on. My back stiffened. I gripped the clipboard, my knuckles whitening. Moments later, there he was, standing in front of me. We locked eyes warily, like gunslingers in the Old West.
I drew first: “I’m very sorry, Mr. Trump, but this is a seated dinner, and I’m afraid you were not invited. You’re welcome to come back later, at 10, for the after-party.”
Gasps. From the security guards. From the other lingering flacks and hacks hanging around the door. From Marla.
Trump went quiet. His eyes tightened, his lips puckered. “Do you know who I am?” That was an odd response. I had addressed him by his name just seconds earlier, so I clearly knew who he was. It must have been some Pavlovian response to being turned away from parties.
I stared back at Trump. “I am well aware of who you are, Mr. Trump, and as I explained, this is a seated dinner, and you were not invited. Even if I let you in, there would be nowhere for you and your wife to sit. You’re more than welcome to come back later.”
The details and specific expletives are hazy, but Trump went fucking off on me. Throughout his tirade, I had an out-of-body experience, floating above, watching from overhead, floating up, and up, and up, the world getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller. This is apparently a common psychological defense mechanism, a way to detach oneself from being present during a traumatic experience. From above, I could see Trump’s little mouth spitting invective, his hands spinning around like tiny little propellers.
And just like that, it was over as quickly as it had begun, and I fell back to earth. Trump, Marla, and Jason walked off, Marla perhaps a little embarrassed by Trump’s public upbraiding of an underling, something she had clearly witnessed before. They got back in the limo, sped off into the night, and never returned.
The morning after the Valentino party, Graydon got a call from Steve Florio, the hard-charging, cigar-chomping president of Condé Nast. It was a brief conversation, and after hanging up, Graydon called me into his office. He had a mischievous grin on his face.
“Did you refuse to let Donald Trump and Marla into the party last night?” he asked.
“Well … yeah. Remember, we told him he could come later, and then he just showed up for the dinner.”
“Apparently he’s friends with Steve Florio. They’re working on some sort of business deal. He called Steve this morning and demanded you be fired.”
“Ummm … shit, O.K.—so, does this mean you’re firing me?”
He smiled. “No, you moron. I’m proud of you. You were just doing your job.”
Of course, Trump assumed the directive to deny him entry came from up high, and the cease-fire, the fragile peace between him and Graydon that had developed over the previous few years, would come to an end, igniting a war that would escalate with the advent of Twitter a decade later.
Dana Brown is a writer and producer and a former deputy editor for Vanity Fair