Elisabeth Christ Trump
She so wanted to go home.
It was October 11, 1905, the day after her twenty-fifth birthday. Elisabeth Christ Trump lay on a bed in a Bronx apartment, wracked with labor pains. Her sister-in-law, Katherine Schuster, was in the apartment, helping her, along with other women from the German community in Morrisania, the German immigrant neighborhood in the Bronx, the borough of New York City where she and her husband now lived.
It was a modern metropolis, but horses still pulled carts outside the apartment building. Over a prairie six hundred miles west of New York, the Wright Brothers had just flown the first airplane that could stay in the air for half an hour, but Elisabeth would be a middle-aged woman before air travel became commonplace. The mirrored skyscrapers and palace apartments and black screens that her descendants would gaze into and inhabit were decades into the future. She would know almost none of it.
And yet she was bringing it, slowly and painfully, to life.
She could hear German being spoken, but the familiar sound did
not make this place, 539 East 177th Street, home. Not at all. The passing Third Avenue elevated train outside reminded her of that fact with tedious regularity, a kind of screeching metronome to her labor pains.
Home, at this time of year, was a place where the grapevines had turned red and yellow, where in the afternoon on an October day like this one, the sun would turn the sloping fields that ended just at the back doors of the homes in the little village to shimmering gold. There were no screaming trains, no teeming muddy streets; there was no cement, no filth and plague and disease from the hordes of immigrants—like her, from Europe, but otherwise very different, not as clean—all of them jostling in the hot, loud streets and at the fruit and vegetable stalls.
She knew just how far away home was, having now crossed the ocean not once but several times, the first to accompany her new husband to this New World, New York, in 1902. She would cross the ocean twice more on steamers, trying to get the German government to let her husband stay, and failing, before finally surrendering to her fate as a German-American immigrant.
She’d had baby Elizabeth in her arms and was already pregnant again on the sad, last trip away from Europe and back to New York, a few months ago, on the steamer SS Pennsylvania. They left during high summer in Kallstadt, the season when everyone was so gay, grapes still green on the vines. They could walk through the vineyards downhill to Bad Dürkheim, the spa town where tourists came to take the healthy waters.
By the end of that day, she had delivered her second child, a boy. They named him Frederick, after his father, Friedrich, but with the new spelling. He would be, unlike them, an American. Unlike them, he would be able to hide his native origins. His mother’s homesickness, her longing for the village in Germany, her preferences and dreams and fears, would pass into him as a desperate affinity for cleanliness and efficiency, a disdain for frippery and nonsense, and a deep
attachment to order and self-control as a bulwark against chaos and urban filth. And the boy, as a man, would pass those same qualities and quirks, mutated and attenuated, but still recognizable, to his own son.
In 1885, a fatherless but resourceful sixteen-year-old German boy named Friedrich Trump, the second son in a family of two boys and four girls, set off from a tidy little winemaking village near the border with France, to seek his fortune in America. The boy had trained as a barber, but haircuts and shaves didn’t promise the great fortune that he already knew beckoned in the far, far mountains of the American West.
Millions of German immigrants were starting farms in the American Midwest. But young Trump’s American dream was in the Far West, where, legend had it, young men might make a fortune.
After a few years, he left New York and crossed the continent to Seattle, where thousands of men—grizzled, beer-smelling, unwashed, and wearing the same set of clothes for months at a time—were arriving on foot and by ship to prospect for silver and gold. As his grandson would, Trump knew instinctively what those rough men wanted and what they would pay for it. And he found a way to sell it to them, from Seattle to the Yukon and to the very edge of the Arctic Circle.
In Seattle, Trump bought a saloon and eatery called the Dairy Restaurant, serving beer, food, and “private rooms for ladies”—code for prostitutes. Long before jets and Microsoft, when it was still a rough pioneer town, Seattle’s chief industries were gambling and prostitution. Trump arrived in the city during the ascendancy of the latter business, thriving with a ratio of men to women in town of around a hundred to two. A few years prior, in 1888, legendary Madame Lou Graham—also from Germany—had arrived and built a lavish, genteel bordello opposite the city’s chief Catholic establishment, the Church of Our Lady of Good Help. To drum up business, she and other “parlor house” proprietors paraded new girls around town by carriage.
Trump stayed in Seattle for two years, then spent the rest of the decade following gold and silver rushes, running, folding, and then re-creating saloon/restaurants to serve miners following word of newly discovered lodes and seams as far north as the Yukon. As prospectors moved to more promising territory, Trump simply packed his restaurant to follow the business—once by raft. Losing half of his equipment and furniture in a mishap on river rapids during that move slowed but did not cancel his business plan.
His last establishments were near the Klondike silver seam in Canada. In the spring of 1901, just as the North-West Mounted Police announced a plan to suppress gambling and liquor sales and to banish “the scarlet women” from the area, Trump sold off the furniture, pots, and pans, and left the Wild West behind for good. After ten years, the young man had saved up the equivalent of 80,000 deutschmarks, a tidy sum for a nest egg. He had enough to return to Kallstadt, deposit his money in the local treasury, and without delay, find himself a wife.
It’s unlikely that Friedrich Trump told his ten-years-younger bride the rude details of the origins of his nest egg—at least not in the beginning. Whatever rough habits he’d picked up in the outback (and according to his grandson, he was a “hard liver”) he kept buttoned up while in Germany. But the porcelain-doll beauty who was destined to mold that small fortune into the roots of the Trump Organization was, despite her looks, no Bavarian cream puff.
In the photograph, in spite of the stern expression and the starched white, high-collar Edwardian dress, there’s a delicacy to the pale, oval face. It’s a very familiar face: Her genes are strong in her grandson Donald Trump, even more so in the faces of great-grandchildren she would not live to meet, especially the fairer ones: Eric, Ivanka, and Tiffany Trump.
Elisabeth Christ was born on October 10, 1880, the only
daughter of Philip Christ and Ana Maria Christ. The family owned a little vineyard, but that didn’t provide much income, and Philip Christ supported them as a tinker, repairing and polishing utensils and selling pots and pans out of the family home.
Elisabeth had three brothers. The eldest, Ludwig, fought for the Kaiser in World War I, survived, and became a mayor in a nearby town. The middle brother, Johannes, remained in Kallstadt and lost his own son Ernst in World War II. The larger Christ family, all distant relatives, lost a total of five men fighting in Hitler’s army.
When Elisabeth was a girl, she lived in a small two-story traditional fachwerk house across the street from a slightly larger dwelling of the same type, which was the Trump family home. Both houses were simple wooden-and-plaster structures, but the Trump home had a walled-in garden, whereas the walls of the Christ house were planted in the edge of the road.
The couple married on August 26, 1902, then sailed to New York to set up their first house in an apartment in Morrisania, the Bronx. Trump went to work as a restaurant and hotel manager, barbering on the side.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, New York City, with its electric streetlights, skyscrapers, soaring bridges, streetcars, and ferries, was a hive of human life thrumming with noise, people rushing hither and yon, and it surely overwhelmed the young village girl who was Trump’s bride. But she wasn’t entirely alone either. The city was packed with German transplants like her and her husband, as well as second-generation Germans whose parents had arrived in the city during earlier migration waves.
For fifty years, New York City had boasted the third-largest population of Germans in the world—only Berlin and Vienna had more—and by 1900, one in four New Yorkers was of German descent. Their
ranks included engineers like John Roebling, a German immigrant who built the Brooklyn Bridge (and died on it), and millionaires like John Jacob Astor, born near Heidelberg, who turned his fur trade fortune into a real estate empire.
But for every Roebling and Astor there were hundreds of anonymous Germans who would live and die in relative poverty and obscurity in the smoky, seedy neighborhoods of early twentieth-century Gotham. They belonged to a city buzzing with change and growth. Old, low buildings were being razed for steel-frame skyscrapers and office towers of more than twenty stories. The vast majority of German immigrants in New York were working as laborers, maids, or servants of other kinds. Trump’s sister worked as a cook for a member of the prominent New York Cooper family.
Fred and Elisabeth Trump were a small cut above the unwashed immigrant herd, living in one of the first Bronx apartment buildings with running hot water, private bathrooms, and electricity.
In April 1904, Elisabeth gave birth to her first child, a daughter they called Elizabeth—her name, but with the American spelling. Almost immediately, the young mother—overwhelmed by the anonymity of the big city, alone with the duties of child care so far from her family—was stricken with homesickness. The new home wasn’t idyllic either. Frederick (he’d Americanized his name) was ambitious and energetic, but a hard drinker, possibly even alcoholic, a man roughened by a decade in the mountainous West.
A few months later, as the steamy New York City summer was ripening the horse dung, sewage, and food rubbish, the Trumps were on an ocean liner again, headed to Germany. Back in Kallstadt they enjoyed the summer wine festivals, and reconnected with loved ones. Elisabeth wanted badly to stay in Germany, and so did her husband. But the government of Germany would not repatriate Trump because he was technically a draft dodger (a family trait—neither his son nor his grandson would serve in the wars of their generations either), for
having left the country before he was eligible and then returning when he was too old to serve.
During one blissful year in Kallstadt, while her husband wrangled with the authorities, Elisabeth raised her baby girl, cozily tucked away in the fachwerk home where she grew up, tending window boxes and walking among the vines.
Then, it was over.
A last letter from the German government exiled Friedrich. The Trumps—with Elisabeth now pregnant again—sailed back to New York. Trump set up shop as a barber at 60 Wall Street. The same building a century later housed the American offices of the German giant Deutsche Bank, implicated in Russian money laundering and the bank that loaned Frederick’s grandson Donald Trump hundreds of millions of dollars when American bankers would no longer touch him.
Elisabeth was no happier in New York in 1905 than she had been before the trip home to Kallstadt. Even after moving to a newer apartment in a building with iceboxes and hot water, she longed for Germany. Frederick Trump tried to get back to Germany again, sending off another pleading letter in December 1906. In it, he explicitly stated that his wife was “unable to adjust to life in the New World.”
Eventually, Trump gave up and refocused his efforts on making his way in the New World. He took a job managing one of Manhattan’s new hotels, one with a new liquor license. That job—which put him back in a more refined version of the saloon lifestyle he’d left behind in the West—kept him away from home for long hours, leaving Elisabeth alone in an apartment with two children under the age of five, and very soon, a third on the way.
Elisabeth gave birth to Frederick Christ Trump, her second child and first son and the father of the future President of the United
States, on October 11, 1905—a day after her twenty-fifth birthday. As with the first child, she delivered her second at home. The witness who signed the birth certificate was a Dr. Haas, the same doctor who would witness the birth of her third and last child, John, also at home, two years later.
Despite the doctor’s signature, American childbirth in 1905 was a social, domestic event, and even more so for the German immigrant women, who clanned with one another in the alien city. Friends and family came together during the labor, taking turns encouraging the mother and bringing fresh water and linens to the midwife. At the time, home childbirth was the norm for most American women—not just German immigrants. More than 90 percent of American women—urban and rural—had their babies in their own beds, with women around them and a midwife attending. Families with money—and the Trumps were middle class—also had a doctor on call, usually a male, with forceps and the latest medical birthing knowledge and technology at the ready. Except for the doctor, if one was invited, men were not in the birthing room. It was the ultimate precinct of women.
In 1910, Frederick bought a house and an adjacent vacant lot on First Street, a quieter street in Queens. It wasn’t Kallstadt, but it was heavily German, and at least here the children could play outside in summer, and ice-skate and sled in nearby parks in winter. The neighborhood was so Teutonic that the Kallstadt wine was on sale at a German market nearby.
In the decade before World War I, “German-American” was a hyphenated label that bothered no one. Among his own people, Frederick Trump did business in the German language. He and Elisabeth spoke German inside the home and publicly with shopkeepers and other neighbors. And their three children didn’t speak much English until they went to school. They felt no shame to being German. Even
as the Great Powers chafed against each other in Europe, the thought of an armed conflict between the US and Germany struck most German-Americans as “absurd.”
But, in 1914, war broke out in Europe, and it soon directly affected the German-American community. The United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, instantly erasing all pride in the label “German-American.” Now Elisabeth, Fred, and every other German in America could hear themselves called by a new epithet—Huns. Walking down the streets of New York, they might also hear a number of other muttered wartime slurs—Jerry, Kraut, and Fritz. Overnight, the designation “German” disappeared from businesses, and the names of practically all higher institutions. Rampant Germanophobia cost countless men their jobs, and made them and their families pariahs in non-German communities. The bands at the beer and social clubs went quiet.
And, most important for Elisabeth Trump, German speakers took their language indoors.
While war raged abroad, at home Elisabeth settled into the life of a suburban wife, toiling at domestic chores that were still not easy in the era before dishwashers and machine laundry. She had enough to do at home and did not need to join the women taking the jobs that millions of male soldiers had left behind. For American women, the war years and just after were significant. The first woman was elected to the US Congress. Women marched for the right to vote (granted in 1920) and risked jail to teach others about safe birth control methods.
None of this meant very much to Elisabeth Trump, a foreign-born woman far more comfortable in her native tongue than in English, living in a German enclave as a housewife, and financially cared for by a husband who went off to work and handled their finances. But she was forced out of domestic tranquility and isolation on a
sunny May afternoon in 1918 when Frederick Trump died in a matter of days of the Spanish flu. He was forty-nine. He did not live to see the end of World War I in November 1918, or to enjoy the short-lived rehabilitation of the German identity in his new country.
In an interview late in life, his eldest son, Fred Trump, recalled the day his father died. Fred was twelve, and he and his father were walking on Jamaica Avenue, where preparations were under way for the next day’s Memorial Day Parade. Frederick Trump suddenly turned to his son and said he felt sick. At home, Fred’s father went to bed and never got up again.
The death was so sudden—the Spanish flu killed young people with a rapid-onset pneumonia—that the boy felt nothing at first. “It didn’t seem real,” he recalled in an interview years later with family historian Gwenda Blair. “I wasn’t that upset. You know how kids are. But I got upset watching my mother crying and being so sad. It was seeing her that made me feel bad, not my own feelings about what had happened.”
Widowed and with three children under the age of fourteen to care for, a German immigrant after four years in a wartime country that had stripped German names off foods like hamburger and sauerkraut and outlawed the teaching of German, Elisabeth was suddenly very much on her own.
She faced all the social and legal restrictions that women of that era had been fighting against, plus being regarded as a Hun.
She could legally be denied an application to open her own bank account, and she could not vote. Nor—given both her circumstances as a mother and the legal restrictions on women working—could she easily find work outside the home.
She took in sewing, and applied her husband’s nest egg, worth $31,359, the equivalent today of $508,360, to the first Trump building investment. Elisabeth’s business model was an embryonic form of the debt-leveraging, borrow-build-borrow style that remains a
hallmark of the Trump Organization today. With “extraordinary determination,” a local Queens newspaper reported, she had hired a contractor to build a house on the vacant lot her husband had left her along with their house, then sold it, and used the money to buy land and build another, banking the mortgage money. When she had $50,000 in capital, she incorporated. On April 16, 1927, the newspaper announced the incorporation of a business called E. Trump & Son.
The story of Elisabeth has been written out of the official Trump saga. Her grandson, just shy of twenty when she died, gives all glory to his father, and credits Fred with the idea that became the seed of the Trump Organization. According to Donald, Fred only needed his mother around to sign the checks, because he was too young. That story would require that young Fred, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, had the financial understanding, business acumen, and wherewithal to conceive how to apply his father’s nest egg to a small piece of property and develop it using a fairly sophisticated (for a fifteen-year-old boy) scheme of development, debt, and mortgages.
As a man, Fred Trump could look back on his mother’s role in the family business and easily write it off, and write himself into the business history, because every law and custom in America in the 1920s conspired to build a wall of challenges against any woman—immigrant or American-born—who wanted or needed to run her own life. Under state laws, husbands were designated as “head and master” of the household, with unilateral power over jointly held property. Laws kept women out of the workplace. The minimum wage did not apply to them. Private employers could legally refuse to employ women with preschool children, pregnant women were legally refused employment, and at the same time women had little choice in the question of whether or not to bear children. Politically and legally women were barely citizens. In the matter of inherited money, men were granted automatic preference over women as administrators of wills.
But Elisabeth Christ Trump’s central but almost invisible role in what became a real estate empire coincided with a moment of change too. In the 1920s, a “New Woman” appeared on the scene. She was younger than Elisabeth, part of a generation that came of age with the Jazz Age and the right to vote, and who believed females could have careers and families simultaneously. These women were also beneficiaries of nascent Freudian psychology, the gateway to sexual liberation.
The Austrian Jewish doctor who had revealed the sexual underpinnings to all human behavior hailed from her neck of the woods, but Elisabeth was definitely not a New Woman. Widowed mother Elisabeth was just a little too old, and much too Old World and too formal and too busy with survival to belong to the flapper generation, the wild young things who discarded corsets and heavy, stiff dresses, aiming for a gamine, thin, flat-chested, and long-limbed look, who publicly smoked, drank gin, and swore.
The once homesick china-doll beauty would never relinquish her Victorian formality in dress or manner. In one of the few pictures of her that survive in the public domain, she is wearing the high lace collar and corseted, stiff shirtfront of the turn of the century, when she came of age. Fred inherited his mother’s stern, joyless fortitude in facing the challenges of being a single mother in Depression-era New York. Her other legacy to him was her yearning for a mythic—to him—homeland, and an Aryan sense of racial superiority.
At age twenty-one, on Memorial Day in 1927, Fred was among those arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally that turned into a melee involving a thousand white-robed men marching through Queens. Three months later, across the Atlantic and deep in Middle Europe, in August 1927, Hitler’s Nazi Party held its third congress, called the Day of Awakening, in what is now remembered as the first Nuremberg Rally.
Elisabeth’s homeland, Germany, was about to lose most of its sons—including at least one of her nephews—to Hitler’s war.