President of Smut

By

The inauguration of Donald Trump marked many unsettling firsts in our nation’s history. Trump is the first billionaire president, the first president to have appeared on the cover of Playboy, the first president to star in a Pizza Hut commercial, the first president with no prior political or military experience, the first president in over a century not to bring a pet with him to the White House, and the first president to have been divorced twice (the other divorcee president being Ronald Regan, another man who was a celebrity first, a president second.) Trump is also the only president—though executive historians, please challenge me on this—whose ex-wife has written a steamy, semi-autobiographical romance novel inspired in large part by their relationship. That novel is Ivana Trump’s For Love Alone.

For Love Alone is not a good novel by any stretch of the imagination, though it is written in more or less clear English by an ostensibly sentient human with a semi-firm grasp on the emotions and motivations of others. I do not necessarily recommend that you slog through its 628 pages, but like it or not, a book that could easily have been dismissed alongside so many other smutty romance novels written by rich, lonely women has unexpectedly emerged as a significant historical document. I am chagrined to imagine desperate academics of the future unearthing a tattered mass market copy of For Love Alone (the cover of mine features a heart-shaped diamond pendant dangling from loopy cursive lettering over a pink silk background) and studying its pages for any drop of historical consequence they might contain, any insight into the character, psychology, and intimate life of the man who would become our nation’s 45th president, any pertinent renderings of the corrupt world and decadent times that helped bring a bigoted, ignorant, unqualified demagogue to the world’s highest office. Does the novel really do any of this? Perhaps no more so than any New York Post exposé or article in Vanity Fair. But For Love Alone exists, and for the sheer fact that it does, it deserves attention.

The novel was published in 1992, shortly after the Trumps’ highly publicized split due, in part, to Donald’s dalliance with the much younger Marla Maples. It was a petty tabloid scandal that now has arguably been elevated to a semi-relevant piece of American history. The divorce also had something to do with Trump’s regret at giving Ivana too much power as CEO of Trump Castle in Atlantic City and his growing aversion to her thick Eastern European accent, which he likened to Chinese water torture. For Love Alone is not quite the tell-all that you might expect, considering both the contentiousness of the divorce and the fact that Trump cannot read and therefore would not bother suing Ivana for libel. Though Harry Hurt III’s unauthorized biography, Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald Trump, alleges that Trump abused Ivana, apparently pulling out her hair and raping her in a rage after an especially painful scalp surgery, For Love Alone makes no mention of Trump as either abusive or balding. She doesn’t mention the book of Hitler’s speeches that Trump supposedly kept by his bedside (along with, we can assume, All Quiet on the Western Front) or any nefarious brainwashing and pump priming by Vladmir Putin. We learn nothing of a penchant for golden showers, father-on-daughter fantasies, or the size of Trump’s hands. Instead, we get a mildly amusing, sex-and-melodrama studded novel about a young Czech woman by the name of Katrinka Kovar who falls in love, marries, and eventually bitterly divorces a charismatic and volatile billionaire by the name of Adam Graham.

The reality is that the novel is not nearly as salacious, revealing, or dimwitted as you might think. I even found myself sort of liking Ivana’s character, Katrinka. Sure, you get your fair share of lines like “I’m too comfortable to bother going to Paris” and “Perhaps I should leave? Bjorn and I can take a gondola back to the yacht” and “I want you to meet me friend, Nigel Bevenden, the Duke of Cumber.” And yes, the book is filled with a near-constant parade of rich and famous names—Malcolm Forbes, William Goldman, Barbara Walters, Dianne Keaton, David Mamet, Carolina Herrera, Calvin Klein, Ed McMahon, and Robert DeNiro all make brief appearances—along with an expansive list of luxury goods including but not limited to: Aubusson carpets, Lalique paperweights, Baccarat crystal, Frette sheets, Sévres porcelain, a Piaget watch, Ungaro dinner suits, Scherrer gold lame dresses, Roederer Cristal… Ivana is apparently unable to write a noun without attaching a designer label to it. We visit various locales around the globe, from Paris to Abu Dhabi to the Caribbean islands, and we meet French designers, Saudi princes, and high profile lawyers defending Mafia bosses. Occasionally, lines from the novel feel plucked straight out of Austen (“It never occurred to her that what passed for love might simply be pride of possession”), or Breitbart (“It was not that she was anti-Arab, she assured herself, just practical”), or Trump’s own campaign speeches (Katrinka buys Donna Karon and Bill Blass because she likes to “support American industry”).

And there are indeed plenty of sex scenes. Katrinka and Adam make love in five-star hotels, atop beds of mink coats, on the decks of yachts, and under wool blankets while flying first class. The sex scenes are your basic romance novel fare, tolerable enough until you remember that Adam is basically Trump, at which point the nausea sets in. We get lots of fingers sliding in between silk underwear (but those are Trump’s greedy little fingers!), hands cupping voluptuous breasts (but those are Trump’s tiny hands!), mouths suckling round nipples (but that is Trump’s endlessly vitriolic mouth!), and Katrinka’s full lips wrapping across a “soft mushroom tip” (but that is Trump’s mushroom tip!). Though Ivana remains more or less discreet about Trump’s anatomy and sexual ability, she does seem to imply that he might have a thing about being watched, or at least having sex in public. Trump, an exhibitionist? Who knew.

In truth, we don’t even really meet the quasi-Trump character, Adam Graham, until page 246. The first act of the book takes place largely in communist Czechoslovakia, where the real Ivana Trump (née Zelníčková) was raised before moving to Montreal to pursue her modeling career. Katrinka Kovar grows up in the small town of Svlitov, and like Ivana, she is a fearless and lissome skier with grand Olympic ambitions (the real Ivana actually competed in the 1972 Sapporo Olympics.) Katrinka has “skin as smooth as a rose petal,” eyes the color of “czarist turquoise,” and a perfectly proportioned body that Trump would certainly rank a ten. But Ivana is careful to stress that Katrinka “is beautiful not just because of the perfection of her features, but because she [is] so full of life and energy.” Katrinka is surprisingly sympathetic. While described by the New York Times Book Review as “a quite decent heroine,” Katrinka is “not some mama’s girl, happy to sit in a corner all day.” She dreams of a career that will “provide her with a reliable income not tied to the freshness of her face or the shape of her body.” While she picks up some additional funds from modeling and the occasional acting gig, the young Katrinka’s true passion is for skiing. In the mountains, Katrinka feels free. There, she experiences “no fear, no pain, but only the rush and swoop of her skis on the snow, the exhilaration of her glide down the mountain… a brief glimpse of salvation.” Once the Red Army invades Czechoslovakia in the wake of the 1968 Warsaw Pact, skiing literally offers Katrinka salvation when, during a race near the Swiss border, she skis to freedom and starts a new life far away from the Soviet enemy.

For Love Alone is never completely detached from the political or cultural moment, whether that is Czechoslovakia in the 1960s or Manhattan in the 1980s. Ivana conjures a communist Svlitov of well-stocked, price-controlled shops and cinemas that show only Soviet films. In college, Katrina frequents the Maxmilianka Café, where “intense intellectual discussions frequently gave way to blows as students tried either to make a point or keep a girlfriend. Love affairs often began and ended in the heat of passionate debate.” Despite the student protests that fill the streets demanding immediate democratization, Katrinka remains steadfastly apolitical, believing “political involvement led inevitably to prison, never to change, or at least not change for the good.” Instead, Ivana focuses on Katrinka’s burgeoning sexual desires, her career as a skier, model, and sometimes actress, and her many lovers, including a Formula One race car driver named Franta and a much older film director, Milek Bartos, who eventually impregnates her despite being married to the daughter of a prominent communist official.

While pregnant with Bartos’s baby, Katrinka relocates to Munich to avoid the scorn of being a young, unmarried mother and takes work as a chambermaid at a hotel. One day, her water breaks only moments after learning that her parents were driven off the road and killed by a convoy of Red Army vehicles while driving to Germany to meet her for the birth. While in a delirium of pain, grief, and drugs, Katrinka’s fiendish obstetrician Klaus Zimmerman convinces her to sell the baby to a German socialite for a paltry sum. The remainder of the book is centered largely around Katrinka’s regret about this decision and her hopeless search for the son she agreed to sell. She hires a French private detective to find the child and spends years sending him money for his fruitless investigation. The death of her parents and loss of her baby change Katrinka. As Ivana writes, “Milek Bartos had taken Katrinka’s virginity, but not her innocence. That remained intact until after the death of her parents [and] the loss of her child, until finally, the invasion of Czechoslovakia shattered it completely.” She returns to Czechoslovakia no less radiant than before “but with a suggestion of unexpected depths, dark and troubling like the swift currents in a lake whose still surface reflects only the sun.”

After fleeing to Switzerland via skis some chapters later, Katrinka buys her first hotel, the Golden Horn (in the novel, it is Katrinka who runs a successful hotel business while Adam makes his millions off luxury yachts and a Hollywood studio). When not managing the hotel, Katrinka spends her days on the slopes. “Even on a good day,” Ivana writes, “no place in the world seemed as desolate to her as a gondola moving slowly in space high above a snow-covered mountain.” In this appropriately dismal setting, Katrinka finally meets Adam Graham. She admits that she does not immediately find Adam, “with his brown eyes set too close, his nose too big, [and] his long narrow teeth,” handsome, but she is intrigued by him nonetheless. Adam immediately falls for Katrinka despite the fact that he is in Switzerland with another woman, and soon he is whisking her away on exotic vacations, plying her with an endless succession of expensive gifts, from a ruby-studded broach to a Louis XV gold-mounted porcelain snuff box, and making love to her in a variety of bizarrely public locations.

They marry quickly and without the approval of Adam’s parents, and Katrinka plunges into the high-flying social life of 1980s Manhattan. She balances a busy schedule of buying and running luxury hotels, throwing galas, maintaining her charity The Children of the Streets, dodging the horse-faced British tabloid columnist Sabrina, waking up at 6 a.m. to exercise with a personal trainer, and lunching at La Grenouille and Le Cirque with rich, bejeweled women who gossip and complain about their philandering husbands over champagne and warm chicken salads. Despite their glamorous life, a nagging darkness lingers over Adam and Katrinka’s relationship: their struggles to conceive. In sections that feel closer to modern-day fertility memoirs than a sexy romance novel, Ivana describes the “humiliating, inconclusive process” of “taking pills, making charts, keeping track of her temperature, and trying to get Adam to make love when the signs indicated she was most fertile.” Mature and selfless man that he is, Adam balks at these measures, insisting “he was not going to be bullied by his mother or Katrinka into fucking to order.” As luck would have it, one of the best fertility specialists in Europe and the United States is the very fiend who sold Katrinka’s baby: Klaus! This, along with the economic downturn of the late 80s and early 90s and Adam’s affair with Katrinka’s best friend, Natalie, eventually results in a messy divorce not far off from the one you could read about back in the good old days when Trump was a regular feature in society columns and on Howard Stern instead of the Washington Post and Politico.

Like in the early chapters, Ivana mentions just enough current events and cultural details to remind us that this story takes place not in a gilded vacuum of glamour and greed but in a real world where real things happen, things that, in part, have helped bring us to the distressing moment we find ourselves in today. Ivana mentions the Gulf War, the collapse of Drexel Burnham, the Velvet Revolution, and AIDS. When the Berlin Wall falls, she is with friends at the Golden Door, a resort-spa in California where they “poured over newspaper accounts and talked about nothing else over their lemon water and vegetables.” With the fall of the wall, Adam, Katrinka, and the elites of their circle feel that “their capitalist way of life had been vindicated, and the archenemy was going down in defeat.” Though Katrinka had occasionally told Adam that life in a communist country wasn’t quite as sterile as he might expect, Adam maintains that “he would fight for a market economy with the fervor his revolutionary forbears had displayed at Bunker Hill and Valley Forge.” When Ivana penned these worlds, Trump was just another greedy businessman whose ambitions for world domination seemed comically misguided. Now, it is hard not to read lines like these and wonder just what type of revolution awaits us in the next four years.

Throughout the novel, Adam Graham is portrayed as an intensely private, power-hungry man with a wandering eye and mean temper. Though he is never unduly cruel or malicious, he often flies into rages flecked with ‘fucks’ and ‘goddamns’ and the cruelest of all: “Keep the hell out of my business.” What we get from For Love Alone is a man driven “not by the desire for either thrills or money, but arrogance. It was not danger he wanted, but power.” Not only would Adam never “listen to an opinion contrary to his own, but he always did exactly what he wanted, no matter whom he inconvenienced or hurt in the process.” He is “perpetually restless, and each successful coup he pulled off failed to ease his dissatisfaction.” As the twentieth century comes to a close, Ivana describes Adam’s blistering anger and resentment at the fact that he is experiencing “rapidly depleting capital” while “rising pop singers and television actors, film directors and computer designers” easily gain the fame, power, and fortune he lusts after with such blind hunger. And here is where Donald Trump as Adam Graham comes most clearly into focus: a bitter, greedy, small-minded narcissist who seizes upon the ascendency of celebrity as a surefire way to assume the power and universal devotion he feels he so righteously deserves. By the end of the novel, we understand that Trump/Adam Graham is not only a man unfit to rule a nation. He makes a pretty awful romantic lead as well.

In the end, everything turns out peachy keen for our quite decent heroine. She falls in love with Mark Van Hollen, the head of a media conglomerate whose wife and children recently died in a house fire. She is financially independent with three successful hotels and ambitions to open more. She even eventually reunites with her long-lost son, a German boy named Christian who at first mistakes her request for a meeting as a sexual proposition. “God,” he declares once she explains that she is actually his mother, “I thought I wanted to fuck you.” Adam Graham, on the other hand, is single, in debt, and still pining after Katrinka. By page 628, we get no sense that things are going to turn around for Graham, at least not nearly enough to make him leader of the Free World. For that, you might have to read the sequel, Free To Love, or wait for Ivana’s forthcoming memoir, Raising Trump.

So is Ivana telling us anything we couldn’t infer from watching thirty seconds of any Trump speech ourselves? Perhaps not. If For Love Alone is a testament to anything, it is a testament to the complete corruption and dissolution of the integrity of American higher office. Our newest president is the stuff of smut: tabloid exposés, talk radio, Access Hollywood, reality TV, tweet storms, and pulp romance. He is not a man of integrity, decency, morals, or learning. Our country has always been ruled by and for the privileged, but never has this glaring injustice in the system been made so shamelessly clear. Writing For Love Alone, Ivana couldn’t possibly have imagined that her novel would one day be read with all of this in mind, or taken as a harbinger for the decadence, corruption, and hate that would overwhelm American politics fifteen years after its publication. And maybe this is giving the novel a little too much credit. But the fact is, we are now living in a world where things like celebrity gossip rags and trash TV suddenly have tremendous political significance. We are now living in a word where the very same culture that could spawn a vapid romance novel filled with exotic vacations, designer name-dropping, and tacky love scenes can also spawn the President of the United States of America.

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Image credits: feature image, image 2.


Marlena Williams is a writer and filmmaker living in Portland, Oregon. More from this author →