From the Magazine

Inventing Ivana Trump: Her Improbable Rise and Tragic Death

Ivana Marie Zelníčková escaped from behind the Iron Curtain to storm New York City and help create the twisted miracle of Donald Trump. From her “greed is good” heyday to her post-divorce denouement cavorting with a series of “freaky” Italian lovers, it was Ivana, all along, who gilded the Trump name.
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Ivana Trump in 1986 at Mar-a-Lago, which she restored.
By Norman Parkinson / Iconic Images.


She is alone in her seven-story East 64th Street town house, atop the steep, spiraling stairs that friends and family have warned could kill her. Tomorrow, July 15, 2022, she is scheduled to fly to St.-Tropez, her first flight since the isolation of COVID. No one knows when she takes her final step, but some will find comfort when her body is reportedly found in pajamas, with a coffee cup, instead of a Champagne flute, nearby. They hope she fell in the early morning hours instead of the darkness of night.

It’s been nine months since she buried her fourth husband, the handsome Italian playboy Rossano Rubicondi. Rossano might have been financially needy, and more than two decades her junior, but he made her feel young again.

Now 73, or so they say, Ivana has more memories behind her than ahead. But her Louis Vuitton suitcases are filled with her famous shoes, and she is ready to dance on the French Riviera once again. Those shoes, Christian Louboutins and Manolos and Jimmy Choos, became part of her legend when she was the first wife of Donald J. Trump, whom she, in her Czech-inflected English, famously called “The Donald.”

A Trump family portrait, complete with junior power ties, 1986; with her children, Don Jr., Eric, and Ivanka, 2006.Young Children: Norman Parkinson / Iconic Images; Grown Children: By Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images.

By the time he became president, they had both remarried a couple of times. But in 2017, Ivana told ABC News, “I’m basically first Trump wife. I’m first lady, okay?” her stoic, smiling façade reflecting her pride but hiding her terror.

Her true feelings would come pouring out in the New York atelier of her longtime fashion designer Marc Bouwer, to whom she had come for a fitting on January 11, 2017, nine days before Trump’s inauguration.

“Always with Ivana it was fun—fun fittings and Champagne and parties,” says Bouwer. But this time, he noticed something as soon as she stepped off the elevator: “The Manolo Blahniks looked slightly scuffed, the toes dented a bit and not nearly as immaculate as they always had been.”

Ivana ordered a half dozen tight-fitting, body-hugging, jewel-toned dresses. Then they retired to a couch, the designer and his business partner, Paul Margolin, sitting on either side of Ivana.

“So how’s everything going?” they asked. “Do you need a dress for the inauguration?”

“She said, ‘I don’t know if I am going to go,’ ” remembers Bouwer. “Then she started sobbing. Uncontrollably, tears pouring down her face. We both cradled her in our arms, saying, ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’ ”

Her words came out in a torrent. “They hate me! They all hate me!” Bouwer remembers Ivana wailing. “Everywhere I go they say things and they shout things at me! Outside my house, in St.-Tropez, Palm Beach, everywhere! They hate me!”

Through her sobs she added, “It’s not my fault. I am not him! I divorced him a long time ago. I do not deserve this!

The designer was taken aback. “I had to fight back tears myself,” he says, “because here was this woman I greatly respected and loved, totally broken down.”

But wait. Ivana wouldn’t want you to see her like this, gone from a size 8 to a 14, according to Bouwer, and, as her longtime nanny turned assistant would say at her funeral, adrift in a “sinking swamp” of “parasites” with “illicit dreams and schemes.” Especially not in the pages of Vanity Fair, which so lavishly chronicled her heyday that a blowup of her May 1992 cover would stand near the casket at her funeral.

No, Ivana would want to turn back the clock and let the spotlight shine on her in her 1980s prime: heels high, shoulders padded, blond hair big, her smile flashing at 100 watts. A superstar straight out of the era’s defining prime time soaps, Dallas and Dynasty.

To get there, she had made an unfathomable journey across geographic and social divides, escaping Communist Czechoslovakia before flying into Canada on the wings of a marriage of convenience and her credentials as a competitive skier. She was 27 when, in 1976, she finally made it to New York as a runway model. It was there, rocking a blood-red minidress in the company of seven other models, that she met her prince.

Her first wedding, to “an Austrian guy” named Alfred Winklmayr, 1971; an early modeling shot, 1971; Ivana’s hometown, Gottwaldov, 1949. Zelnickova, Modeling: By Sipa/Shutterstock

“I love a good-looking man,” she said on The Oprah Winfrey Show, then added: “But you know it’s really with the look and the brain and the energy and the really potentials, and, you know, Donald always had a great head on his shoulders, and I saw the potential there.”

“She speaks a little lousy, but she’s gorgeous and I’m going to marry her,” Trump would later be quoted as saying.

Their wedding, technically her second, took place on April 7, 1977, at Marble Collegiate in Manhattan. So began the fertile period when Ivana helped her husband design, construct, decorate, and run his landmarks. “I will pay her one dollar a year and all the dresses she can buy,” Trump famously said, a comment that supposedly devastated his wife, who was rising fast in the ranks of the Trump Organization. She took the dresses and the shoes, and buildings rose in her wake: the Grand Hyatt (1979), Trump Tower (1983), Trump Plaza in Atlantic City (1984), and the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City (1990). Ivana restored the couple’s new home, Marjorie Merriweather Post’s gargantuan 118-room Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, as well as Trump Princess, the 282-foot yacht Trump purchased from the Sultan of Brunei for $30 million in 1987.

Under her influence, The Donald traded his burgundy Queens suits for Brioni, and he and Ivana ascended from developers to stars. “In a decade of glitz, they were the glitziest; in a decade of greed, they were the greediest,” reported People.

Thirteen years and three children later, the fairy tale fractured, spawning the decade’s biggest tabloid divorce scandal. Then Ivana staged an explosive comeback, fueled by the realization that her first name was as powerful as her last.

“She was indomitable,” a friend says. “Her mother is still alive at 96! She would never have thought she would fall down those stairs.”

Ivana’s story is in many ways even bigger, grander, and more extraordinary than her ex-husband’s. It’s a saga worthy of a Broadway musical, or an opera. But before the fall on those cursed stairs—where she would be found by her housekeeper at 12:40 p.m.—her story begins with a climb.

Act II: The climb

How does a barbed-wire girl from a shoe-factory town behind the Iron Curtain escape to America, define the “greed is good” 1980s, and help create the twisted miracle of Donald J. Trump?

An only child born eight weeks premature on February 20, 1949, she is bestowed with a Russian first name—“Maybe they thought it would help me with the Soviets”—by her parents, an electrical engineer and a telephone operator. The family lives in a concrete house on the grounds of the Bata shoe-factory complex in the town of Gottwaldov, where everyone toes the party line but Ivana Marie Zelníčková.

She meets the competitive skier George Syrovatka at 14 and starts dating him at 17. When the Communists relax restrictions during the Prague Spring of the 1960s, they begin traveling together. “She has acquired the taste of the Western world: freedom, fashion, money,” Syrovatka will remember. She models, she acts, she wins roles in Czech movies and comparisons to Brigitte Bardot. “And she changed her brown hair to blond to look more like her,” says Syrovatka.

Then, in 1968, the Prague Spring ends, and Ivana is grounded once more. To defect would mean never seeing her parents again and possibly putting them in danger. Syrovatka finds a solution when he meets “a young Austrian guy” named Alfred Winklmayr and in 1971 persuades him to “marry Ivana on paper” so she can come and go between Czechoslovakia and other countries. “Surprisingly he agreed,” says Syrovatka.

Syrovatka moves to London for work but arranges for Ivana to live in his family’s “large and beautiful apartment” in Prague while she earns her master’s degree in physical education at Charles University. Here, she finds true love for the first time, not with Syrovatka but with Czechoslovakia’s premier young poet and songwriter, Jiri Staidl, 30. He writes her love songs; she becomes his muse. A heavy boozer and reckless bon vivant who a friend will say “drove like he was grabbing death by the ass,” Staidl is speeding in his sports car on the night of October 9, 1973, “with several shots in him and an unknown beauty in the passenger seat,” reports a Czech newspaper. When a truck slams into the car, Staidl is propelled out of the vehicle and hits the guardrail, dying on the spot. The unknown beauty is thrown into the back seat, but by some miracle she walks away without a scratch. According to Syrovatka, the newspaper identifies her only by her initials: I.Z.

Ivana Zelníčková? “It probably was Ivana in the car, but she has denied it, and I have never pressed her further,” says Syrovatka, who invites her to share his home and new life in Montreal. At 24, she drives her Fiat to the Prague airport and, with her pet poodle, Chappy, flies off into the New World.

She stays for a time with an aunt and uncle in Toronto. They take her on a Caribbean cruise, where, for a shipside costume party, she dresses as a Playboy Bunny. “And I won first prize!” Seeking friends, she accepts an onboard date with a sailor, who shows her that Western men can be worse than the Communists back home: “He invited me to his cabin and tried to rape me,” she will write in her 2017 memoir, Raising Trump.

In Montreal, Ivana begins her rise as a model, walking runways and posing in fashion magazines. “I wish 10 more like her would walk through the door right now,” the modeling agency director marvels, noting her “perfect height and size” and her “good head for fashion”—attributes that will soon entice a rising Queens-born real estate developer.

It is SUMMER 1976. Donald Trump has just turned 30, but in his mind he’s already a mogul. After a long day of looking at properties, he and Gerald Goldsmith, the chairman of a private club in Manhattan, are unwinding at Maxwell’s Plum, a vast restaurant and bar at 64th Street and First Avenue known for its selection of “sex and food.” Trump’s eagle eyes focus on a blond woman in a red minidress surrounded by seven other models. Having just arrived in New York from Montreal, Ivana Zelníčková Winklmayr, age 27, is in town for a fashion show to promote the 1976 Olympics.

“Gee, I like that girl,” says Trump, and he is immediately upon her, his uninvited hand on her arm. She spins around ready to give whoever has the gall to touch her “the commie death stare.” Now she sees him for the first time, the man The New York Times will describe two months from now as “tall, lean and blonde, with dazzling white teeth…like Robert Redford,” with a self-proclaimed net worth of “more than $200 million.”

Attending Roy Cohn’s birthday party with Donald Trump, 1980; flaunting serious fur at the Plaza Hotel, 1989. Ivana and Donald: Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images; Alone: Norman Parkinson / Iconic Images.

All of which means absolutely nothing to Ivana. “I wasn’t a blushing virgin,” she’ll later explain, adding that she’d been “hit on by countless men since the age of 14. I knew every seduction trick in the book.”

She had to cross a world to get to Manhattan. Trump only had to cross a bridge.

To her, he is just “a nice guy,” gallantly offering to get her and her fellow models a table, where he joins them for dinner and pays their $400 tab. With that, Trump begins his relentless courtship—“a Trump number,” he calls it, “all-enveloping.”

Trump, whose whole life has been all about him, is suddenly all about Ivana, gushing to friends and family: “Have you ever seen anybody more beautiful? You know she speaks French, Russian, and Czech. Do you know that she is the greatest skier in the world?”

“Donald says I am his twin as a woman,” Ivana will later say. In an ABC documentary, the columnist Linda Stasi will add, “He’s such a narcissist, it was like being married to himself.”

After months of dating, she gives in to his onslaught of marriage proposals. But before they can wed, on April 7, 1977, she must survive a negotiation with Trump’s notorious attorney Roy Cohn over the prenuptial agreement. “I did not speak very well English…and it did not exist in Communist Czechoslovakia,” she will later say. It includes a “giveback clause,” requiring Ivana to return any and all gifts, including jewelry, that she receives over the course of her marriage. No the fucking way, she will say, demanding a “rainy day fund” to compensate her for the $50,000 a year she is making as a model.

Trump reportedly deposits $100,000 into Ivana’s independent bank account and promises $20,000 for the first year of wedlock and an escalating amount for each year up to $90,000 after 30 years. Then, before a congregation of 200, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Trump begin their epic ascent.

She becomes pregnant on their honeymoon with Don Jr.; Ivanka and Eric follow in rapid succession. “I would give the birth and I would be at my office two days later,” she tells Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. She becomes a devoted mom, whose family is her “number one priority.”

On the May 1992 cover of VF; debuting her post-Donald hairstyle on the cover of Vogue, 1990. Vanity Fair Cover: Eric Boman/Courtesy Peter Schlsinger. Vogue Cover: Patrick Demarchelier.

Quick to spot an unutilized asset, Trump dispatches his twin into the trenches of New York City real estate development. “I’m going to work for The Donald,” Ivana tells her pal Nikki Haskell over lunch early in the marriage. “I’m going to work on the construction site.”

“What?” Haskell exclaims, knowing Ivana is referring to the old Commodore Hotel, the dump Trump is redeveloping as the Hyatt Grand in a dangerous, run-down neighborhood near Grand Central Station.

Ivana laughs. “They don’t know who they’re dealing with.” She moves a mountain of marble into the soaring, soon-to-be-pink lobby of Trump Tower; renovates the ancient, crumbling Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach; and becomes CEO of the Trump Castle hotel and casino in Atlantic City. Finally, in March 1988, after Trump buys the iconic Plaza Hotel in the heart of Manhattan, he installs Ivana as its president. “If Ivana hadn’t been involved in his business, there would have been no business,” Haskell said on the ABC News Studios documentary The Ivana Trump Story: The First Wife.

As the buildings grow, along with the dresses (a wardrobe the Times estimates costs Trump $1.5 million a year), Ivana becomes a pivotal force in building the phenomenon of Donald J. Trump.

“He didn’t know a king and a queen and a princess if he fell over them,” the gossip columnist Cindy Adams said on The Ivana Trump Story. “She opened up all of that to him.”

With fourth husband Rossano Rubicondi, 2003. By Michel Dufour/WireImage/Getty Images.

“He would have never been on The Apprentice without the image that she created, and he would never have been president without The Apprentice,” said the author Paula Froelich. Ivana not only loved Trump, she was tethered to Trump, so tightly that he would tell Oprah Winfrey in a joint interview, “We get along very well…because ultimately Ivana does exactly as I tell her to do.”

Until she didn’t. Some said she began to aspire to things he despised: society, charity boards, fashion shows, grand balls, and grand people. “The phonies,” Trump called them. “He didn’t want a copilot,” one longtime Trump observer will later say. “He wanted a cheerleader.”

Soon, the cameras shone more on her and less on him, “and he was not going to have it,” said Adams.

The divorce sweeps the world. A tawdry romance novel sprung to life, it opens with Trump and his mistress Marla Maples creasing the sheets in Trump-owned hotels. Everyone seems to know except Ivana.

“I always stand by the man,” she says.

Now she is standing in the three-bedroom suite in the Little Nell Hotel in Aspen. It is the Christmas holiday of 1989, and Ivana, at 40, has been reborn via a makeover by the renowned cosmetic surgeon Steve Hoefflin. She’s had “a face-lift, a bosom inflation, and heaven only knows what else,” wrote Liz Smith, who didn’t recognize the new Ivana—until she spoke.

Inside the suite, she picks up a landline and hears her husband on the extension speaking to a local real estate agent about someone whose name she hasn’t heard before.

“Who is Moolah?” she demands.

“Well, that’s a girl who has been going after me for the last two years,” Trump replies.

Somehow, Trump has juggled Ivana and the 26-year-old Maples at holiday parties, keeping them separate and seemingly satisfied. But his luck runs out at Bonnie’s, the rustic lunch spot at the top of Aspen Mountain. He’s sitting with Marla and some friends when Ivana walks in, trailed by Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric.

Marla, in a black ski suit, approaches Ivana, in red and pink, and delivers a line that, as an aspiring actor, she has surely rehearsed: “I’m Marla and I love your husband. Do you?”

In an instant, Ivana replies: “Get lost. I love my husband.”

Then, as she has done all her life, Ivana charges. Not at Moolah—at The Donald. “We were halfway through lunch, and she’s coming toward us, screaming, ‘You no good son of a bitch!’ ” says someone who was at Trump’s table. Trump intercepts her halfway across the crowded room. “And she’s just flailing on him.” (Asked for comment, Marla Maples did not respond.)

They exit and the lunch crowd rises as one to watch from the deck. “He clicks into his skis and you could tell that she’s looking at him, like, ‘Really? You’re going to try to ski away from me?’ ” He tries, but she is fast on his tail. Back at the Little Nell, Ivana hurls her husband’s clothes and Rolex watch out of the windows of their suite and into the snow.

Next comes the unthinkable, at least for Trump. Everyone seems to side with her.

If the new tabloid media is born with the Trump divorce, it grows through the all-access rise of the new Ivana. “She’s exactly like Donald in that way,” someone tells writer Bob Colacello for his 1992 VF story. “They live for publicity. It’s like a drug for them. A lady getting a divorce—a lady—doesn’t get photographed for getting a divorce…. Ivana did the cover of Vogue!”

Trailed by paparazzi and Trump’s “killer lawyers” in the midst of her bloody divorce, she rushes breathlessly into the studio of the photographer Patrick Demarchelier, who is waiting alongside famed hairstylist Maury Hopson, makeup artist Vincent Longo, and creative director André Leon Talley—all gathered to style and shoot Ivana for the May 1990 cover of Vogue.

In the arms of Count Roffredo Gaetani, 1998. By John Barrett/Globe Photos.

Hopson knows Ivana’s hair. Everyone does. It’s been emblazoned on the cover of every tabloid for weeks: blond and worn down in the “teased flip” favored by the East Side ladies of the day. As Ivana sits before the mirror, Hopson grabs a handful of her lustrous blond hair and holds it aloft, letting some of her blond tendrils fall down around her face. “We all looked in the mirror and agreed, Well, that’s it.” In that moment, Ivana Trump’s famous new hairstyle is born. Soon it will be imitated worldwide.

“You don’t have to put down the second name,” she commands a writer for The New York Times. “Ivana is what the people call me.... They say, ‘Hi, Ivana! ”

The name becomes emblematic for women around the world who love her because she won. She and her legal team go to war over the $25 million stipulated in Cohn’s prenup, fighting Trump’s fire with fire. In a deposition, she states that Trump, infuriated over a scalp reduction, raped her in 1989. (Trump repeatedly denies the allegations. Later, when the deposition is referenced in the book Lost Tycoon by Harry Hurt III, the publisher will insert a statement by Ivana at the beginning saying that it wasn’t rape in “a literal or criminal sense.”)

When she walks away with both her millions and sole custody of her three kids, the crowds cheer. Best of all, her rise is concurrent with Trump’s early-’90s financial decline and the bust-up of his marriage to Maples after six years. Ivana launches two companies: Ivana Inc. sells “my books, advice columns, commercials, appearances, and lectures,” and House of Ivana handles her fragrances, clothes, and jewelry.

The TV studio lights beat down upon her now famous hairstyle as she butchers the King’s English and sells a king’s ransom in downmarket clothes and costume jewelry to Home Shopping Network viewers in the US, UK, and Canada. “Ahb-so-LUTE-ly fahn-TAS-tic!” she seems to say of each and every item, from the $49.95 hoop earrings to the $280 Ivana women’s tuxedo that smashes HSN records.

“If you went down the street with her, I guarantee you that women of all sizes will stop and say, ‘Look how good I look! I’m wearing your jacket!’ ” says her friend Vivian Serota.

Ivana is now a mogul in her own right, spending money as fast as she makes it. She buys her seven-story town house on East 64th Street in 1992. There’s also a 12,000-square-foot hacienda in Palm Beach, which she names Concha Marina (Spanish for seashell), and a 98-foot, four-stateroom yacht, which she christens the MY Ivana (probably with a bottle of Cristal, the bubbly she promotes as its US spokesperson).

One summer day in the late 1990s, Ivana is sunbathing on the bow of the MY Ivana off St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat when a helicopter crashes into the bay. “Let’s go rescue whoever is in there!” Ivana’s captain, Alberto Batani, remembers her telling him. They jump into the tender and race to the scene, where they pull two bobbing pilots into their little rescue boat. Upon regaining their senses, the men look at their swimsuit-clad rescuer and shriek, “Ivana Trump!”

In October 1990, Ivana’s beloved father, Milos, dies of a heart attack. The Donald flies with her to Czechoslovakia for the funeral and tries to win her back, according to Vivian Serota. “On the grave of Milos he said to her, ‘I still love you. I don’t want a divorce. Let’s get back together again.’ ” As for Maples, whom Ivana refers to only as “the showgirl,” he says, “We’ll take care of it.”

“And if she wasn’t so brokenhearted, maybe they would have stayed married,” Serota says.

Flying by luxury helicopter from Atlantic City to NYC, 1987.By Joe McNally/Getty Images.

Instead, she rents a house in London’s Eaton Square and escapes there for weekends from the stress of her divorce. Ivana is ubiquitous: from Buckingham Palace to St. Moritz, where, four months after her father’s death, she falls into the arms of Kenneth Lieberman. He’s almost perfect: rich, handsome, successful, and, in his late 60s, wise and consoling. But married. Their very public relationship makes international headlines.

Then Lieberman returns to his wife, and Ivana moves on to the first of her “freaky Italians,” as she will call them.

At the horse races at Ascot, she meets Riccardo Mazzucchelli, a London-based international businessman. “He was not a parasite,” says Serota. “He had his own life, his own business. He knew a lot of the people she knew.”

Before their wedding, at Le Cirque in New York, Ivana’s attorney asks Mazzucchelli to estimate his net worth for the prenup: “He said, ‘Five million, more or less,’ ” remembers the attorney. “And I thought, I’m betting on the less.”

“A zero,” is how Trump rated Mazzucchelli.

He becomes involved in Ivana’s businesses. “Ivana was on Home Shopping, she took cabs, stayed in motel rooms, never said boo,” says Serota. “She marries Riccardo, and he starts making demands. He became a prima donna.”

He “felt he was sort of morphing into Mr. Riccardo Trump,” says Haskell. “He was very upset that nobody referred to Ivana as Mrs. Mazzucchelli. So we went to Las Vegas and she had all the rooms reserved under Mr. and Mrs. Mazzucchelli, and everybody was supposed to make sure that they called her Mrs. Mazzucchelli.”

“We went to see Wayne Newton, and he came out onstage and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, my dear friend Ivana Trump is here!’ Riccardo got up and left and we never saw him again. That was the end of the marriage,” says Haskell.

With Mazzucchelli gone, Ivana turns to Massimo Gargia, an Italian publisher known as “the king of the jet set.” “Start looking,” she tells Gargia, who “began to search for a man worthy of this beautiful and talented woman.”

With third husband Riccardo Mazzucchelli, 1997. By Walter Weissman/Globe Photos.

He finds him in Rome: Count Roffredo Gaetani dell’ Aquila d’ Aragona di Laurenzana Lovatelli. The eldest of four sons and two daughters of one of the oldest and most regal families in Italy, Roffredo grew up in a vast Roman palace, and his family tree includes two popes. Moreover, he is “startlingly handsome,” a former professional boxer who shares Ivana’s love of adventure and speed.

Still in his 40s, with the drive of the Ferraris on display at his two New York–area dealerships, Roffredo would bound up Ivana’s spiral staircase and into the second-floor living room, where she would be waiting beside the grand piano. “She said, ‘He would grab me, and we would make love on top of the piano,’ ” says Serota. “The best sex she ever had in her life! She would tell everybody that he was the best lover. And he was a gentleman. And he was very protective.”

Even Trump gives his blessing, despite being unable to remember Roffredo’s name. “Wilfredo is a terrific guy,” he tells The New York Times during their courtship. “I hope they both have a good time spending the money that I gave to Ivana.”

Then, on December 23, 2005, Roffredo goes to visit his mother in the family home, a castle in Tuscany. Driving through the frost in a rental car, he falls asleep at the wheel and runs off the road. The car rolls over several times and Roffredo, who suffers multiple head injuries, is dead at 52.

By then, though, their romance is over. Mostly due to a third person in the relationship: Roffredo’s boss and mentor Gianni Agnelli, the principal shareholder of Fiat, which owns Ferrari. “Gianni Agnelli was very jealous,” says Serota, and his constant demands on Roffredo’s time became too much for Ivana. “They had a very big fight. I’m sure if Roffredo was alive, that other creep would have never come into her life.”

Act III: The Fall

In August 1999, Francine Eternod, 71, who claims to be a Swiss countess, tells police in Porto Cervo, Sardinia, that she has been held prisoner in the bedroom of her villa by her 27-year-old boyfriend. A bodybuilder and aspiring actor from Rome, he wants to attend a party with “important people,” according to an Italian newspaper. She prefers another “intimate evening.” She claims he locked her in her room, returning at 4 a.m., drunk, from the disco: “He kicked in the door…beat me up…taking with him three checkbooks and the two phones.”

Both parties go to the police. He insists he took only the lodging she offered. “Sex? Are we crazy? She could be my grandmother.”

Eternod eventually withdraws her complaint. “Ah, Rossano, he’s a wonderful person,” she tells a newspaper. “And don’t call him a gigolo.”

His name is Rossano Rubicondi.

A few years later, Massimo Gargia and a group of friends walk into an after-hours bar in Rome known for its famous clientele. There among the night owls sits Rubicondi.

“Rubicondi was a nobody,” Gargia will recall. “Very good-looking. Amusing. He tried to go all the places in fashion. To know people. But without one penny.”

The supremely well-connected Gargia helps Rubicondi get a job as a salesman at the Versace boutique in London. And when Rubicondi learns that Gargia is close friends with Ivana Trump, he becomes fixated on meeting her. “He was very pushy,” Gargia says.

At the ready-to-wear collection in Milan, Gargia is sitting with Ivana when Rubicondi appears. But Ivana isn’t impressed. “He’s a little bit too vulgar,” she tells Gargia. Rubicondi engineers a second meeting—“He sold his car in London to go and see her in Palm Beach,” says Gargia—with similar results.

Reuniting with her friend, fellow competitive skier, and sometime savior George Syrovatka, 2000.By Jon-Pierre Lasseigne/AP Photo.

Fast-forward to the French Riviera. Gargia has joined Ivana for a two-week cruise on her yacht. And Ivana, usually so effervescent, is uncharacteristically down. “She was alone for more than one year,” he says. “And Ivana was not a woman who can be without a man.”

That’s when Rubicondi turns up again. “Finally, one night she was drunk and she brought him on the boat,” says Gargia. “The day after, she told me, ‘I’m so happy. He’s so nice.’ ”

For two weeks they cruise the Med, the 57-year-old soon-to-be grandmother (“The kids call me Glam-ma or Ivana-ma”) and the 30-something playboy, each able to party until 3 or 4 a.m., then hit the gym at 8 and start all over again.

From Dancing With the Stars to the beach in St.-Tropez, she is in love again, Ivana again. “I’d rather be a babysitter than a nursemaid,” she will write.

Friends who hear about the scandal with Francine Eternod try to warn her. But Ivana is blinded by Rubicondi’s charms. “In the beginning, he was very charming,” says Serota. “He bowed and kissed her hand…all the BS.”

“He was very good company, you know, beside the sex,” says Gargia. “He was very good at sex, like all Italians.”

Rubicondi learns to speak English, his deep, booming baritone filling the drawing rooms and dance floors of the Upper East Side, St.-Tropez, Aspen, and Gstaad, always with the lady paying. “Signora was a mega-financial support for him,” says Paolo Alavian, owner of Ivana’s regular neighborhood restaurant Ristorante Altesi.

“He always wanted something,” says Baroness Marianne von Brandstetter.

“He was like a lion in a cage,” says his friend Roberto Manfe. “He couldn’t be who he wanted to be: a businessman.”

“He would have 15 or 20 coffees in the morning before tennis,” says Brandstetter. “Ten to 12 Aperol spritzes, no problem,” says Alavian.

More dangerous than the espresso or the alcohol were the dreams. “The scheme of the week,” Haskell says of Rubicondi’s endless quest to launch himself into the world of business. “One day he’s going to open a pizza restaurant in Palm Beach. The next he has a restaurant in St.-Tropez [the short-lived Da Rossano]. People would come at 11 o’clock to watch him and Ivana fight.”

Through it all, he is in the Ivana business, which might have been the toughest enterprise of all. “It’s very difficult to take advantage of Ivana,” says Haskell. “She sees through everything and everybody.”

“He threatened her: If you don’t marry me, I leave you,” says Gargia. “Everybody was against. Me too.”

Ivana still believes in the impossible: “She honestly believed that if she married Rossano, he might start behaving himself, and he would feel more secure,” says her longtime London friend, adviser, and agent, Liz Brewer. “But that was unfortunately not the case.”

The wedding date is set: April 12, 2008. It will be a multimillion-dollar blowout: more than 400 guests, a 24-piece orchestra, 25 bridesmaids, 17 groomsmen, a 12-foot-tall imported wedding cake—all paid for by Ivana. “Decorations, flowers, and arrangements like I’ve never seen,” says Brandstetter. All under the eaves of Mar-a-Lago, with Trump reportedly waiving the $20,000 event fee.

On March 17, two weeks before the vows, the police race to Ivana’s Palm Beach home on Jungle Road, responding to a report of a “disturbance.”

“They were screaming,” says Gargia. “Rossano wants money before the marriage.”

“He wanted a piece of money she was getting for the wedding,” says Haskell, who served as Ivana’s maid of honor and says Ivana earned about $2.5 million from wedding-related sponsorships. “He was part of the show, and he wasn’t going to sign the wedding certificate unless she gave him money. So she reluctantly gave him $75,000.”

At the wheel of MY Ivana, 1996. By Ivan Agostini/Getty Images.

Then, before the sovereigns of Trump World, Rubicondi becomes a member of the family. Everyone wears white except Donald, who arrives in a black tuxedo. “We are a construction company and we have job sites, we lose people,” Don Jr. says in his toast. “You better treat her right because I have a .45 and a shovel.”

At the wedding, Rubicondi enters to the theme song from the movie Rocky. He sings—“Terrible,” says Haskell—and dances until the party ends at 4 a.m.

Then, he disappears.

Ivana’s groom, who fed his bride day-old sandwiches at a 7-Eleven in the wee hours after their wedding, has gone first to Miami and then to Rome for a stint on the reality show L’Isola dei Famosi. “She was hurt and didn’t want it to get out that she wasn’t honeymooning with Rossano,” says Liz Brewer. “So for three weeks everyone assumed she was, even though she was home alone in Palm Beach.”

When he returns, and he always returns, the gallantry and even the sex evaporate and the fighting escalates. “Rossano did not understand that Ivana was the chance of his life,” says Gargia. “He thought he could get rid of her and have a career. He starts to treat her very bad.”

They are staying on a boat near St.-Tropez. Rubicondi has left for the evening, returning “like always at 4 a.m.,” says Brandstetter. The ship soon sets sail. “Ivana checked Rossano’s bag and she found a condom. She said, ‘Why do you have a condom? With me you are not doing anything!’ She called the captain and said, ‘Stop the cruise!’ She wanted to leave Rossano in the middle of the ocean.”

The marriage lasts one year. But for the next 13 years, Rubicondi boomerangs back and forth, despite marrying another woman in 2011.

Without Rubicondi, Ivana begins to unravel.

In 2009, she is escorted from a plane set to fly from West Palm Beach to New York after unleashing an F-bomb-heavy tirade over children playing in the first-class aisle. At some point, she reportedly enters rehab in Malibu, where she hosts a dinner for her fellow “inmates” and drinks forbidden Champagne, according to the writer Ivana Lowell in Air Mail.

Then, the pandemic. She rarely ventures out of her East 64th Street town house. Instead, Rubicondi comes thundering back in.

“He wasn’t a gigolo,” says the model Kamini Chin Loy, who accepted Rubicondi’s marriage proposal on Italian TV in 2014. “He and Ivana had this intense on-and-off relationship, but they still loved each other. If she called in the middle of the night, he was there for her.”

Needing money, he calls Ivana from Italy in 2020 to tell her that he is sick. She flies him back to New York, and the final scenes of her saga begin.

Repping her namesake brand, 1994. By Alpha Press.

“Paolo, tell this freaky Italian what I want,” she tells Alavian at Ristorante Altesi, which becomes the couple’s second living room. “And I knew it was for Rossano to stop smoking,” he says. “She would say, ‘Stop smoking and you can have anything you want.’ ”

He will never stop. Not the daily pack of Marlboro Reds. Not the multiple Aperol spritzes by day and the endless Chianti and Fernet-Branca, which “he drank like water,” by night. When he says he has been diagnosed with stage IV melanoma and has only four months to live, Alavian thinks it’s a lie, “another scheme to get the money from La Signora.”

Ivana pays for his medical treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering. His Upper East Side apartment, which she rents and furnishes, “cost her $200,000,” says Brandstetter. And she spends her time and energy trying to get him into remission. “She had wanted to be a babysitter but ended up a nurse,” New York magazine will report.

On October 29, 2021, Rubicondi dies, taking part of her with him. “I think the day after that, Signora started to go down,” says Alavian.

She would sit in the back of his restaurant over a single glass of Pinot Grigio. “She would say, ‘Do you mind to play it?’ And I know she means Andrea Bocelli, ‘Ave Maria.’ ” But Bocelli’s rendition of Franz Schubert’s 1825 funeral favorite only invokes the frenzied spirit of Rubicondi. “Don’t go to that place,” Alavian warns her. “Don’t be depressing yourself to die for him! I put on Celine Dion.”

He last sees her early on the evening before her death, walking toward his restaurant, her feeble steps, impaired by a hip injury, supported by her housekeeper, Fabiana. “Send me the carrot soup,” she says.

The next morning, he gets a call from his staff. “Something happened at La Signora’s house. A lot of people. A police van.”

Her housekeeper isn’t able to open the fortresslike steel front door, which is locked from the inside. Finally, a workman opens it by force. “I was told that Eric, who was very close to his mother, rushed over and held her in his arms until the police got there,” says Haskell. (Eric Trump declined to comment.)

But Ivana wouldn’t want to reflect on all this death, darkness, and despair. Not in the last moment of her life. Because on July 14, she isn’t thinking about death. She is surely thinking about her impending flight to St.-Tropez.

The mayor has made a special exception for Ivana to land in a helicopter on the beach near her home, according to a friend, saving her the drive from the Nice airport and enabling her to have dinner with Gargia immediately. “She said, ‘I don’t want to be alone,’ ” says Gargia.

Will she wear the red dress or the gold one? Both are packed in her luggage. “She wanted to start to live again,” says Gargia. She might have even been ready to take another lover, once again commanding him to “Start looking.”

But between dusk and dawn, she takes that final step, tumbling down the stairs, dying of what the coroner will call “blunt impact injuries.”

In the days after Ivana’s death, I stood outside her town house and watched a young man pull out his iPhone and begin taking photographs, as if this house were one of the new tourist attractions of New York City.

“This is home of Ivana Trump,” he told me in a distinctively Eastern European accent. Like Ivana, he mangled his English, but his admiration was clear.

“The casket was gold, and she was wearing the gold dress,” says Haskell. Her hair was frozen forever in her famous hairstyle, and “she looked like she was going to jump right up and out at any minute.”

Trump, who declined to comment to Vanity Fair, reportedly stood beside his ex-wife’s open coffin during the viewing in the Frank E. Campbell Chapel on Madison Avenue, pacing back and forth “as if he were talking to her,” says Vivian Serota. Later that day, at the grave site, Serota waited until Trump was alone, then approached him and said, “You broke her heart. She loved you, she still loved you, and I know you loved her. You could have been the couple of the century. You made a mistake.”

“He didn’t say anything,” she says. “But when he turned around, there were tears running down his face.”