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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Chicago’s Democrat “Trumpette” Counts Donald a Long-Time Friend

Nikki Haskell recalls Trump’s decades-long desire to be president, and why he passed up a chance for Andy Warhol originals.

Haskell interviews Donald Trump in the '80s on what the New York Times called a "charmingly low-budget" television show.  Photo: Courtesy of Nikki Haskell

Nikki Haskell, now 75, wears many hats—which makes sense for the daughter of a Chicago milliner.

Then known as Nikki Goldbus, she left a posh Lake View childhood at age 13 for Beverly Hills. Since leaving Lake Shore Drive behind, she has had more than her share of fame and fortune, but today she seems best known as a “Trumpette.” Haskell calls herself a Democrat but has been lambasted and ridiculed for her all-out support for her friend of 40-plus years, Donald Trump.

A recent New York Times profile delved deeply into details of the post-election fury Haskell has faced, and the old friends she has lost because of her support of the president. But what most intrigued me in the long, lively Times piece was the description of Haskell’s ultra-entitled Chicago start.

And then there’s her friendship with Donald Trump and his first wife Ivana. Haskell was introduced to Trump in the ’70s by his lawyer, Roy Cohn, a man infamous for advising Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare. Cohn sat her beside the young developer at a dinner at 21, the Manhattan restaurant and bar frequented by celebrities and politicians. The socialite (and erstwhile stock broker, inventor, talk show host, and more) grew close to Trump’s first wife, Ivana, whom she continues to see and “love”—an affection that also extends to Donald.

We talked on Monday night by telephone from her home in Los Angeles. The transcript below has been condensed and edited.

First, Chicago: You went to public school here?

I went to Nettelhorst on Broadway and we lived at Aldine and Lake Shore, 3300 North Lake Shore Drive. My mother was glamorous. Didn’t work. My father was in the millinery business. He owned a company called Merit Hats, which also made beautiful beaded purses and fur muffs.

My father started me on riding lessons when I was six. I became a champion horseback rider. We owned six horses, which were stabled on Broadway. The first show I was in was the Chicago Sun-Times horse show, which was held in Lincoln Park. The first time I won a blue ribbon, [Sun-Times gossip columnist] Irv Kupcinet gave it to me. I had the most beautiful riding outfits—silk top hats, tuxedo coats, shirts with white wing collars.

Every weekend my parents took me to the Chez Paree [a glamorous Chicago nightclub, closed in 1960]. I saw [entertainers] Carmen Miranda, Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle, Mae West. We went to Fritzel’s, the Pump Room, the 885 Club, Mr. Kelly’s.

Haskell with Ivana and Ivanka Trump Photo: Courtesy of Nikki Haskell

Any memories of Nettelhorst?

I must have been about 10, walking to school. This one girl used to wait for me and she would beat me up and stick my face in the snow. One day I walked back to our building, crying. This man standing outside said, “I’ll never let that happen to you again. I’ll walk you to school every day and pick you up after school every day.” I later found out he was one of the Fischetti brothers—mobsters. He lived in my building under the name Mr. Fisher. So I had mafia protection when I was a little girl.

Why did your family leave Chicago?

In March of 1954 my father was in a head-on auto crash [in Chicago] and in the hospital for six months. He went to Los Angeles to start a construction business with his closest friend. When we left Chicago I had just finished seventh grade. I did eighth grade in Beverly Hills at a grammar school called El Rodeo and then high school at Beverly Hills High. [Media executive] Barry Diller was my classmate at both schools. My father drove me to my first day of eighth grade and died that night of a heart attack. My mother went to work as a buyer for a furrier.

What happened to the horses?

When my father was injured, the horses were gone.

You didn’t go to college but, directly out of high school, you traded in the name Goldbus for the made-up name Greer. Where did Haskell come from?

It was my ex-husband’s name and I kept it. We married twice and divorced twice.

You call yourself a Democrat, yet you support Trump. Explain.

I don’t agree with everything he says and everything he does, but I think things will end up being really good. Donald is used to doing things his way, so it has taken him a little time to settle in.

[Here, she repeats a few unsubstantiated right-wing rumors, that Obama is running a “shadow government” and that Hillary Clinton is “inciting people to riot on her behalf.”]

If Hillary had become president, I would have been supportive of Hillary. I wouldn’t have been hysterical if Donald didn’t win. I find it all so counterproductive for everyone to be so anti-American.

Do you think Donald Trump really wanted to be president, or do you think he was as surprised as everyone else and would secretly prefer to return to his old, predictable life?

He always wanted to be president. You know, some kids grow up and want to be fire chief. He wanted to be president. [Haskell recalls that Trump pressured his first wife Ivana to get citizenship papers because he was thinking about running for office as early as the ‘80s.] It has always been on his mind.

The Chicago native says she supports her long-time Donald Trump but has lost other friends because of it. Photo: Courtesy of Nikki Haskell

After Donald and Ivana got divorced, did you have to pick sides?

I ended up being closer to Ivana. I was with her every day. I was matron of honor at her [subsequent] weddings. She had the big boat. She took the kids [Don Jr., Ivanka, Eric] every summer and I went with her. But Donald was my friend first.

You remained involved with Donald—socially, in business?

When he built the Trump Tower in Manhattan, I was photographed at the groundbreaking, the topping off—in one photo I’m on top of the Trump Tower in a hard hat and mink coat. I did the opening night party.

Your Twitter bio says you’re a “socialite, weight loss expert, and internationally recognized hostess.” But you also were a successful stockbroker at Burnham and Company, later Drexel Burnham, when women generally weren’t. You claim to be “among the first five female stockbrokers in the world.” So why would you say publicly that, in your opinion, the country wasn’t ready for a female president in 2016?

I think Hillary Clinton is fabulous, but it wasn’t the right time. Again, I’m a Democrat. I would never have voted for any of the Republicans. I would have voted for Hillary. When Donald Trump came along, I just thought this was an interesting opportunity to try something different.

Where were you on election night?

I was in New York. I was at somebody’s home and they were all [voting for] Democrats except me. They all left after Donald took Florida. I went back to my apartment [an Upper East Side penthouse]. I was on the phone with Ivana. We were saying to each other, “Can you believe this?”

Does Ivana support Donald?

She is very supportive. They’re friendly today. When Donald and Ivana bought Mar-a-Lago it was in shambles. Ivana restored it to its original grandeur. He kept that in the divorce, but she got it for the month of March. When he turned it into a private club, he bought her a home in Palm Beach.

You told me that you were there when all three of Ivana’s and Donald’s children were born and married. What were the Trumps like as parents?

There’s no sibling rivalry the way there is in some families. Everyone gets along. Ivana is very straitlaced, a tough mother. She and Donald were very much on par with how they brought up the children. Donald said, “If the kids want to see me they have to come to the office.” So they started to work early.

When was the last time you saw Trump?

I saw him at the various events surrounding the inauguration. I was at the Pence dinner, for example. I waved to him and he came over and said, “Hi, Nikki, how are you?” He’s not a big hugger, because he’s a germaphobe.

Melania hasn’t selected a social secretary yet. Do you want that job?

I want to be a consultant. I have my own projects. In the ‘80s I hosted and produced a television show, “The Nikki Haskell Show,” now available on Amazon Prime. I had lots of interviews with Roy Cohn and with Donald. We’re working on getting all 300 of them on Amazon Prime. I’m also an inventor and have a product called a “Star Shooter,” a phone case that lights up and stands up and turns into a selfie stick. I also invented a piece of exercise equipment called “The Star Cruncher.” I’m an entrepreneur, an artist, a party planner. I’m writing my memoir, titled Overdressed When Naked. There is tons of stuff on Donald in it. Now that my television show is on Amazon Prime, I’ll live forever.

You claim to have introduced Trump to Warhol. Tell me the back story.

Andy wanted to do a portrait of the Trump Tower. [It was to hang over the entrance of the residential section of the building.] I arranged the meeting and Andy went ahead and did preliminary paintings. Donald killed the whole thing, which is too bad because they would have been worth millions. I don’t think Donald really understood who Andy Warhol was and I think he thought it was a waste of money.

In his diaries, Warhol says he did eight paintings in black, gray, and silver. He claims that the Trumps rejected them because they wanted color: oranges and pinks that would match the Tower’s interior.

I don’t think either recognized his talent. I always knew that Andy would live on forever. At the time, when he was selling portraits for $25,000 each, it seemed like a lot of money. They didn’t realize his talent would be worth $150 million.

[Two and a half years after his works were rejected, Warhol wrote in his diary, “I still hate the Trumps because they never bought the paintings I did of the Trump Tower.”]

Back to the social stigma and lost friendships that your public embrace of Donald has provoked: you told the Times that you’d “never have another friend." Are things easing up?

A lot of people have told me, “I’m not for Trump, but I’m still your friend.” Others won’t speak to me and told me they don’t want to be my friend. I have thousands of friends. I have interviewed 2,000 people. I’m very close to producer Robert Evans and had lunch last week with [actress] Jacqueline Bisset.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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