President Trump cursed mildly, taunted President Obama, and reminisced at length about Nov. 8 (“that incredible night with the maps”) while speaking to a crowd of Boy Scouts in West Virginia on Monday night. But one of the strangest passages in the speech at the Scouts’ annual National Jamboree was an anecdote about Trump seeing the real estate developer William Levitt at a party hosted by another developer, Steve Ross. It’s the kind of story Trump loves to tell, but is it true?
Levitt was the creator of midcentury housing developments known for affordable and nearly identical houses. The original Levittown, on Long Island, was popular among returning World War II veterans, and notorious for its refusal to accept applications from anyone other than whites. For Trump, however, Levitt’s story is meaningful primarily as an illustration of what happens when a great businessman makes the fatal error of “losing momentum,” which I guess he thinks is a good lesson for Boy Scouts to learn.
In his speech on Monday, Trump rambled his way through a summary of Levitt’s career and personal life: His spectacular rise, the sale of his company to a New York conglomerate, his purchase of a yacht, his ensuing “very interesting life” (“You’re Boy Scouts so I'm not going to tell you what he did”), his repurchase of the company, and ultimately his bankruptcy. Years later, Trump’s story goes, he saw William Levitt, former titan of real estate, at a cocktail party:
And it was very sad because the hottest people in New York were at this party. It was the party of Steve Ross—Steve Ross, who was one of the great people. … And I was doing well, so I got invited to the party. I was very young. And I go in, but I'm in the real estate business, and I see a hundred people, some of whom I recognize, and they're big in the entertainment business.
And I see sitting in the corner was a little old man who was all by himself. Nobody was talking to him. I immediately recognized that that man was the once great William Levitt, of Levittown, and I immediately went over. I wanted to talk to him more than the Hollywood, show business, communications people.
So I went over and talked to him, and I said, “Mr. Levitt, I'm Donald Trump.” He said, "I know." I said, "Mr. Levitt, how are you doing?" He goes, "Not well, not well at all." And I knew that. But he said, "Not well at all." And he explained what was happening and how bad it's been and how hard it's been. And I said, "What exactly happened? Why did this happen to you? You're one of the greats ever in our industry. Why did this happen to you?” And he said, "Donald, I lost my momentum. I lost my momentum."
Trump has told versions of the story before, including last year at a speech at a Catholic college in Wisconsin, in which he referred to Levitt’s wife as “La Belle.” (Levitt’s yacht, La Belle Simone, was named after his wife Simone.) The anecdote also appears in his 2004 book Trump: How to Get Rich. (The book was written “with” Meredith McIver, the longtime Trump Organization staffer who took the fall for Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech at the Republican National Convention last summer.) The chapter “Maintain Your Momentum” is less than a page-and-a-half long, and it consists entirely of the Levitt story. In the 1950s, Trump writes, Levitt “was the king.” He scoured his work sites for nails and wood chips to make sure nothing went to waste, and he eventually sold his company for the equivalent of billions. Then, alas, he retired, “married the wrong woman,” squandered years on the Riviera, and so on. Again, Trump arrives at the fateful party:
I saw William Levitt at a cocktail party in 1994, two weeks before he died. He was standing by himself in a corner, looking defeated. I didn’t know him well, but I approached him, hoping to acquire some wisdom from the master. “Mr. Levitt,” I said, “how are you doing?”
“Not good, Donald, not good.” Then he said the words I’ll never forget. “I lost my momentum. I was out of the world for twenty years, I came back, and I wasn’t the same.”
There are small differences between the two stories, and between each story and the historical record. In the Jamboree speech, Trump is a “very young” man who brashly introduces himself to the older developer. In the book, he is 47 years old and already an acquaintance of Levitt’s. In the book, Trump writes that the party took place two weeks before Levitt’s death. But Levitt’s 1994 obituary in the New York Times reported that he had been at a Long Island hospital for the last 18 months of his life. He entered the hospital after suffering a ruptured intestine and died of a progressive kidney disease, which makes his appearance at a swank Manhattan cocktail party mere weeks before his death seem somewhat unlikely.
Did Levitt really dispense a perfectly packaged nugget of Business Wisdom to the upstart 47-year-old just before he died? Did the party even take place? Who knows. We do know, however, that Trump has a long history of mangling facts and distorting details. The important thing is that he’s maintaining his momentum.