The despicable Roy Cohn — Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the McCarthy hearings — was Donald Trump’s mentor:
. . . They came together by chance one night at Le Club, a hangout for Manhattan’s rich and famous. Trump introduced himself to Cohn and sought advice: How should he and his father respond to Justice Department allegations that their company had systematically discriminated against black people seeking housing?
“My view is tell them to go to hell,” Cohn said, “and fight the thing in court.”
It was October 1973 and the start of one of the most influential relationships of Trump’s career. Cohn soon represented Trump in legal battles, counseled him about his marriage and introduced Trump to New York power brokers, money men and socialites.
Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize. . . .
☞ So if you’re thinking Trump might be your man, read the whole thing.
But much as I could tell you about Roy, with whom (bizarrely) I shared two close friends and many of the same high school teachers — though I met him only once — I want to tell you about a different Trump icon.
Trump has regularly cited him as the kind of great deal maker he’d recruit (“Donald Trump’s first Cabinet pick is just as controversial as he is, and a lot richer”). And he owns the Trump Taj Mahal, recently shutdown by a strike. (Four other Atlantic City casinos reached last-minute agreements with the union, but Icahn, like Trump, knows how to be tough on workers.)
To tell you about Carl Icahn, I need to tell you about MaryAnn Smilen.
And to tell you about MaryAnn, I need to tell you about her husband Ken.
Ken Smilen in the Seventies was widely regarded as one of the smartest big-picture analysts on Wall Street. He had his own firm — Smilen and Safian — and clients paid a ton for his insights, printed on dark blue paper that made them impossible to photocopy and share.
On his office wall — in a super-cheap frame — hung a valuable copy of Rudyard Kipling’s most famous poem — “If “– in Kipling’s own hand. (“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs . . .” If for some reason you don’t know this poem, you must.)
That was Ken — able to see past the noise on Wall Street.
Wise, gentle, and generous, he used to take me to lunch once or twice a year, back when I was writing for New York, and comped me to his newsletter
A confirmed bachelor in his mid-forties with a little bit of a facial tic.
But then he got married! (I didn’t see that coming.) His beautiful bilingual European bride, MaryAnn, was elegant and educated, yet down-to-earth and modest. She cooked us dinner at their lovely Park Avenue apartment; just the three of us in a large, somewhat spare dining room with a chandelier.
At some point I started to hear rumors about Ken — he was in a bad way, embarrassed by having made some bad calls (who can possibly get the market right all the time?!) . . . and over a period of weeks or months I’d hear that he was depressed. I called once or twice to buck him up. And then one day (I would come to learn), MaryAnn walked into that dining room to find Ken hanging from the chandelier.
Decades later, it still hurts to write that. Ken was such a nice man. He had killed himself out of depression, yes, but also embarrassment. He was so used to doing well by his clients, but now had misread the market; he so enjoyed funding worthy causes, like the literary prize and symposium I attended, but now he couldn’t say yes when people asked for contributions. He was embarrassed.
So there I am with hundreds of others at Ken’s memorial service and Carl Icahn, Ken’s great friend, is the principal speaker.
He speaks — and speaks and speaks — on the theme, “How could Ken and I have been so much alike, yet I am so successful, while Ken’s life went so tragically wrong? What is there about me that makes me a winner?”
Of course he didn’t use quite those words, and memory fades as to the specifics, but it was (to me at least) jaw dropping. The first and last time I’ve ever been in a room with Mr. Icahn, but I will never forget how appalling I thought it was.
Meanwhile, to add to MaryAnn’s agony, it developed that, because of his depression, Ken had stopped paying his life insurance premiums. She was left with next to nothing but an expensive Park Avenue apartment to maintain. (This was before such apartments were worth a fortune.)
With no career of her own to fall back on, but wonderfully poised and bright, she went to one of her husband’s best friends — billionaire and eulogist Carl Icahn — and asked whether she could work for him in some capacity while she got her footing.
Analyst, receptionist, anything.
He said no.
She eventually took a job selling ties at Barney’s on Madison Avenue.
And a couple of years later, about to lose her home, she opened one of the windows in that Park Avenue apartment and jumped.
So that’s my Carl Icahn story.
With Roy Cohn and Carl Icahn as mentors — and Hitler’s speeches as bedtime reading — what’s not to like about Donald Trump?
This is a guy who knows how to manipulate crowds, fire people, stiff venders . . . the self-proclaimed “king of bankruptcy” and, next week, it seems, the Republican nominee to lead the country and the world.
And he could win.