How Donald’s Dad Fred Trump Tried to Kill Coney Island
When The Donald’s dad destroyed a Coney Island landmark with big plans for a development, he expected the Brooklyn Democratic machine to smooth the way.
Four fashion models—all in white hardhats, two in bikinis—posed in an earthmover’s scoop with an ax-wielding Fred Trump while his guests at the big “V.I.P. Farewell Ceremony” sipped Champagne and hefted bricks.
The Trump patriarch had personally distributed the bricks and urged everyone to take a turn throwing them through an iconic smiling face that had become the symbol of Coney Island when it was America’s capital of merriment.
The smiling face was painted on glass at the entrance to the Palace of Fun at Steeplechase Park, the country’s original and longest running amusement park. Fred Trump had bought Steeplechase from the founder’s aging daughter in 1965 for $2.5 million. He shut it down with the intention of building seaside apartment towers in its place.
The tract was not zoned for residential use, but Fred Trump figured the Brooklyn Democratic machine would be able to make that obstacle disappear. His particular pal with the machine, Abe Beame, was the favorite to become the next mayor of New York in the 1965 election.
And being connected with the machine also meant being connected to the Mafia along with the construction industry the mob controlled. The fix was in for the towers to rise by the sea and dispel the scandals that had swirled around the Trump name.
Fred Trump had at one point been charged with seeking to overcharge veterans for subsidized housing. He also had been the subject of front-page allegations that he had run up millions in overcharges in a government-funded project. He had denied it all and had not been criminally charged. Now he would show them all with Trump’s triumph by the sea.
Then, in a big surprise, the Republican candidate, John Lindsay, won the mayoral election. Lindsay was a liberal patrician who thought zoning restrictions should actually be zoning restrictions. He seemed receptive when the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce proposed that the area be turned into a public park. This stretch of beach was, after all, where the courts had made the precedent-setting ruling that the sand between low and high tide was public domain.
Fred Trump feared that Lindsay’s people might go so far as to designate Steeplechase’s famed Pavilion of Fun and its world famous smiling face a landmark. He resolved to ensure there was nothing left to preserve. He set about ensuring that the press would not portray the maneuver as another Trump scheme.
Engraved invitations went out for a V.I.P. Farewell Ceremony at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 1966. Reporters and TV news crews were on hand for what was presented as the prefect sendoff to the fabled Steeplechase. Fred Trump’s 20-year-old son, Donald, may have been present, though this was the middle of the week and he had just transferred from Fordham University to the tonier Wharton School and was likely in Philadelphia. The son does not appear in the photos showing the elder Trump posing with the models. Everybody was beaming as if they were sharing the spirit of the smiling face even as they smashed it.
After the guests departed and the models stepped down from the scoop, the earthmover proceeded to level Steeplechase Park, leaving only the pier and the famous parachute jump, which was by the boardwalk and did not interfere with Fred Trump’s plans. The destruction of the parachute jump would no doubt have caused more trouble than it was worth.
Fred Trump was still unable to secure a variance, and the towers were never built. He finally sold the tract to the city for $3.7 million. He walked away with a $1.2 million profit, but the vacant sky over the site remained a testament to what the Trump name could not achieve without political connections.
After eight long years, Lindsay was on the way out and Beame was mounting another run for mayor. But the seemingly prohibitive favorite to replace Lindsay was Mario Biaggi, a retired, highly decorated NYPD lieutenant who had gone on to serve in the U.S. Congress. Biaggi remained a puppet of the Queens Democratic boss, Matty Troy, who reportedly vowed to cut out the Brooklyn Democratic machine—and therefore Trump—once he gained control of City Hall.
Some years before, Biaggi had been a crucial defense witness for Roy Cohn, a lawyer and fixer extraordinaire who was on trial for extortion. Biaggi had proven his loyalty to Cohn, and he must have figured that it would be reciprocated when he sought the lawyer’s advice about an upcoming grand jury appearance. Cohn advised Biaggi not to take the Fifth Amendment. Biaggi afterward reported to Cohn that he had done so anyway at least 30 times with the belief that the proceeding would remain secret.
Cohn is said to have promptly called Meade Esposito, boss of the Brooklyn machine. The New York Times soon after ran a front-page article reporting that Biaggi had taken the Fifth Amendment at least 30 times. Biaggi was finished. Beame became the next mayor.
On top of having his pal Beame in City Hall and Roy Cohn as his lawyer, Fred Trump also had very close ties to the new governor, a son of Brooklyn named Hugh Carey. Fred Trump set out to prove what the Trump name could do with political connections.
Fred Trump arranged for beyond favorable financing and an unprecedented tax abatement that enabled his son Donald to transform the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan into the glitzy Grand Hyatt. The younger Trump was actually telling the truth when he later denied getting a $200 million inheritance from his father. Donald Trump in fact got his start through his father’s connections and with his father’s continued backing. Some believe that The Donald was for years essentially a Fred front man.
That might help explain why the son would become so self-obsessed, so insistent on celebrating his own magnificence.
Even connections such as Fred Trump’s were tested when he and his son then contrived to secure a huge tax abatement for what would be the ultra-luxury Trump Tower. The situation was complicated by static between Donald Trump and Beame’s successor as mayor, Ed Koch. The Trumps still managed to pull it off with the help of Cohn and Stanley Friedman, a one-time deputy mayor and current Bronx Democratic boss who would later go to prison for corruption.
The site of the tower-to-be was occupied by the Bonwit Teller department store, whose façade featured a trademark limestone bas-relief. Donald Trump—who was officially in charge but seemed afraid of his father and did his bidding—pledged to preserve the sculpture and donate it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
No engraved invitations went out for the start of this demolition. No Champagne was served, and the hard hat-wearing figures were not models in bikinis smiling for the press but a group of illegal immigrants from Poland nicknamed “the Polish army.” They had already set to work and smashed the artwork before anybody noticed.
Fred Trump was ever present during the ensuing construction, arriving in a brown limousine that matched his hair dye. The son chose such things as the marble for the lobby (the most expensive) and for the apartments above (the cheapest), but dad decided such things as which concrete company to use.
The grand opening of Trump Tower was held on Valentine’s Day, 1983. The gleaming structure on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue far outshone what Fred Trump had hoped to build on Brooklyn’s Surf Avenue.
The parachute jump in Coney Island still stands, a surviving presence in the absence that is a monument to what the Trump name cannot do when things are legit. The Trump-less sky was bright blue this past weekend.
A chunk of the old Steeplechase site remains a vacant lot these 50 years later and is used for parking and storage by the Paul Bunyon Tree Service. The rest is occupied by the new Thunderbolt roller coaster and by a minor league baseball park.
A banner hanging from the fence outside the Thunderbolt depicts three figures in a roller coaster. The middle one has a variation on the iconic smiling face before it was destroyed at Fred Trump’s demolition party a half-century ago.
Opening Day for the 2016 season at the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones is weeks away, but passers-by were pausing to gaze upon the two bronze figures out front. The statues depict Brooklyn Dodger Pee Wee Reese standing with his hand on the shoulder of his teammate Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. The inscription reads:
“In 1947, on Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Robinson endured racist taunts, jeers and death threats that would have broken the spirit of a lesser man. Reese, captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers, walked over to his teammate Robinson and stood by his side, silencing the taunts of the crowd. The simple gesture challenged prejudice and created a powerful and enduring friendship.”
To look at the two figures is to be reminded that real American greatness lies not in erecting towers but in becoming a bridge, reaching across what divides us to make us truly one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
By that same measure, anybody who divides us makes America less great, no matter how grand a tower he and his father were able to build thanks to government subsidies and tax breaks once they got the political juice.
The statues and the message remain, no matter who wins what primaries.