The wedding of Donald Trump to the Slovenian bombshell Melania Knauss last Saturday in Palm Beach, Fla., raised some totally unexpected questions:
Is good taste the new vulgarity?
Is self-restraint the new self-indulgence?
Is modesty the new bombast?
Among Mr. and (now) Mrs. Trump's 350 or so guests there was more than a hint of chagrin that the whole affair was carried off with such comparative (specifically, as compared with previous Trumperies) non-over-the-topness.
Let's face it: For a small, hardened core of New York A-listers who piled into the purring private jets lined up at Teterboro Airport's Million Air terminal, the only point in risking the trip in an impending blizzard was so that afterward they could kvetch deliciously to their friends about the jaw-dropping garishness of it all.
Cognitive dissonance began with the Oscar-size crowd of Donald worshipers outside the church. Why were they so well behaved? Where were the screamers, the jumpers? With their respectful, patient stares behind the paparazzi barriers, they were reminiscent of the royal subjects who waited gratefully to see Queen Elizabeth's carriage trundle by on its way to her wedding to Prince Philip.
Then there was the service itself, at Bethesda-by-the-Sea, the stately faux Gothic Palm Beach Episcopalian church. True, neither the bride nor the groom is an Episcopalian. And, yes, a few of the stuffier locals whispered that Trump had been able to secure permission for the service without the church's normally required six weeks of religious training. (The bride and groom, they said, agreed to do it later, as in, "I'll get back to you on that.")
But you couldn't fault (and, believe me, some of the guests tried) the simple freshness of the pews festooned with white flower garlands, the simplicity of the service, the ethereal solo of Camellia Johnson and the demure charm of Ms. Knauss advancing down the aisle, in her gravity-defying upswirled veil, toward the world-famous comb-over awaiting her at the altar. As one beady-eyed Park Avenue matron pointed out to me with approval, Melania may have had 150 grand worth of diamonds round her neck but she wore no earrings. The Christmas tree look went out with Ivana.
More dissonance. At the reception at Mar-a-Lago -- once Marjorie Merriweather Post's mansion, now a Trump private resort -- there were no foaming fountains imported for the night, no exhibitionist topiary, no moving statues, no multi-decibel bands. Okay, Trump did build a white and gold ballroom just for the wedding, and each of the long banqueting tables was adorned with a huge Phantom of the Opera candelabrum covered in white orchids, roses and gardenias. Conspicuous, yes. Expensive, yes. (Cheap will never be the new expensive.) But totally out of control, no.
There seems to have been a ruthless excision from the guest list of all the canape swipers and celebrity hangers-on you usually see on Manhattan nights when fashion and commerce collide. Except for a few anomalies, like some strategic press and the guy who whitens Donald's teeth, the definition was you had to be Big -- literally, as in the case of Shaquille O'Neal, whose ski-size feet could not fit under the table at dinner, or figuratively, as in the size of the bank balance.
Rudy and Judy Giuliani, both Clintons, P. Diddy, Katie Couric, Heidi Klum, Gov. George and Libby Pataki et al. exuded the kind of happiness only Making the Cut can bring. How pleasant not to see Paris Hilton, who was plunging around the celebrity scrum at Sundance. Instead we got her mom, Kathy.
Lord Conrad Black and his wife, Barbara Amiel, were there out of a combination of gratitude and defiance: Trump has bestowed his new noblesse oblige on Black since the latter's fall from grace for allegedly swindling the shareholders of Hollander International. "Don't write me off," Lord Black said darkly to me at dinner. "I am about to become a corporate governance counterterrorist."
The most elegant woman in the room was Trump's 23-year-old daughter Ivanka, who looked positively Vanderbilt or Whitney in a classic coral silk column dress and platinum French twist.
What's going on? Has Trump grown up? Not exactly. More that cafe society itself has come of age. The world has caught up to Trump, not vice versa.
One could argue that most of the legends who showed up at the wedding had big-time business agendas -- and one would be right. Bill and Hillary Clinton were there to do what they always like to do for R&R: raise money. Former Republican senator turned consultant Al D'Amato was scaring up new clients. Giuliani was prospecting donors for a presidential run. Ditto Pataki. The NBC contingent (except for Couric, who subscribes to the Trump credo of This Is Off the Record but You Can Use It by surreptitiously filming the event through a camera-converted evening purse) were there to genuflect before the star of their hit show. Casino mogul Steve Wynn was there because he's the Other Titan in Atlantic City. Vogue editor Anna Wintour was there because she had the PR cover coup of the wedding dress.
But what's refreshing about Trump is that he's always known it's all about biz and doesn't care. Unlike every other big shot, past, present and fictional, who's ascended to a social throne, he has never felt the need to submerge his own business agenda. On the contrary, he flaunts it. It doesn't make the exchange of vows less sincere that his wedding doubled as event marketing for Mar-a-Lago or the debut of the third season of "The Apprentice."
Underneath all her fabulousness and gloss, Melania Knauss's staying power in his life is based on a shrewd understanding of her quasi-commercial role. One feels she will not make Ivana's mistake of competing with the Trump brand. But she also knows, as second wife Marla Maples did not, the difference between being mere arm candy and high-definition product enhancement. As one of her friends put it, "For Melania it's never, Ask what the Donald can do for you. It's, Ask what you can do for the Donald."
In the past the arc of social ascendancy was usually tied to a narrative driven by philanthropy and art. Rockefellers, Mellons and Carnegies bought their way up with museums, hospitals and libraries, just as Wrightsmans, Kravises and Weills put their names on wings at the Met, the Guggenheim or New York Hospital. Trump is the first to get to American royalty by making his alliance instead with the tabs and the TV culture, where everything is commodified, everything is transactional. The man who first understood that the only thing that matters is protecting the brand is now the reigning aristocrat of our promotional culture. To the happy couple, a toast!
©2005, Tina Brown