The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The time Donald Trump’s empire took on a stubborn widow — and lost

Vera Coking’s house on Columbia Place in Atlantic City is dwarfed by Trump Plaza in 2011. The house was the focus of a prominent eminent domain case involving Donald Trump. (Helayne Seidman/For The Washington Post)

There once was a widow who lived in a house by the sea.

It wasn’t much of a place, just a fading, clapboard-clad box a few steps from the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Yet, somehow, that house has turned into a clogged intersection of American celebrity and wealth, an odd mash-up of failed dreams, bombast, stubborn indignation, name-calling, angry taunts and legal bombardment.

The cast of characters populating that house’s curious history over the past three decades includes a friend and co-author of Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a legendary pornographer, and a famed investor. But the central figures in its life and death saga are a feisty, obstinate woman named Vera Coking and a billionaire, the Republican presidential front-runner, Donald Trump.

Trump is dominating his Republican opponents in the polls. But in the long melodrama that is Trump’s business career, the house in Atlantic City is the place where all the billionaire’s money and all the billionaire’s men couldn’t keep a 5-foot-3 widow from whupping him.

Trump wanted Coking’s house — not to live in, but as a place to park limousines for his casino next door. But Coking wouldn’t let him have it. No way. No how. Never.

“It is a classic case of a schoolyard bully growing up,” said Clint Bolick, who co-founded the legal institute that defended Coking in a 1990s lawsuit with Trump and years later co-authored an immigration book with Bush, Trump’s nemesis and Republican presidential opponent. “He’s a thug.”

A Trump spokesman did not respond to an interview request.

The tale of Trump and the widow who wouldn’t sell arcs across the panorama of Atlantic City’s recent ups and downs. Coking and her husband bought the white, three-story house at 127 Columbia Pl. in 1961, long before the area was transformed by mega-casinos. She raised her children there. For a time, she operated it as a boarding house.

For Coking, it was a place worth fighting over. And fight she did.

In the early 1980s, Coking tangled with Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse magazine. Guccione wanted to build a casino, and Coking’s house was in the way. He offered a million bucks, she said. She snubbed him. She wouldn’t budge.

So he started building a giant structure right next to her house, and then even took possession of the air space above her house, erecting a metal structure that loomed over it like a raptor.

Guccione’s project went bust.

Enter Trump.

The billionaire developer stripped away the remnants of Guccione’s failed project and set about planning to expand his own casino empire.

Like Guccione, he tried to rid himself of Coking and her house.

In Coking’s telling, Trump first tried to charm her, then tried to stomp her.

“He’d come over to the house, probably thinking, ‘If I butter her up now, I’ll get her house for a good price,’ ” Coking told the New York Daily News in 1998. “Once, he gave me Neil Diamond tickets. I didn’t even know who Neil Diamond was.”

Coking, who is now more than 90 years old and was not available to be interviewed, was having none of it. This was her “dream house,” said Dana Berliner, an attorney with the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm that represented Coking in her case against Trump and Atlantic City’s casino development authority.

“She was a very determined person,” Berliner said.

Coking held firm, even as the 22-story Trump Plaza soared outside her windows with its ever-flashing lights. The house was deteriorating, but Coking’s will wasn’t. Demolition crews had set fire to her roof, broken windows and smashed up much of the third floor, according to her attorneys. Still, she didn’t move.

In May 1994, Coking got a letter from the city’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority offering her $250,000 — a quarter of what Guccione had offered a decade before — and threatening to use eminent domain powers to take control of the property if she didn’t take the deal, according to a summary of the case by the Institute of Justice.

Coking had stared down Guccione. Now she was going to battle with the government, armed with lawyers. But the government had an important ally: Trump, the man whose company would benefit if Coking could be shoved out of her home. Trump’s company took the casino authority’s side in the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for the casino authority did not respond to an interview request.

The feud over Coking’s house pitted two big personalities. Berliner remembers Coking as “quite a character,” a woman who favored huge sunglasses and bright clothes. Her nemesis, the brash developer, was unfiltered, pugnacious and supremely confident.

In her interview with the Daily News, Coking called Trump “a maggot, a cockroach and a crumb.”

Trump responded by suggesting that Coking was making a play for sympathy in the media in hopes of getting him to pay more for her land.

“Did she put on her old clothing for you?” Trump said to one reporter.

Bolick saw the case as a key moment in the battle over eminent domain and property rights. It was a struggle over precious liberties but lacked an obvious embodiment of the stakes.

“What was needed was a villain so heinous that a court would rule against him,” Bolick likes to tell audiences. “Out of central casting came Donald Trump.”

It used to be a reliable laugh line.

“Now I suspect a lot of people wouldn’t find that funny,” Bolick said.

Trump, Coking and the casino authority pounded away at one another in court. Then, one day in the summer of 1998, the Superior Court of New Jersey put an end to the conflict. The court ruled that the casino authority and Trump were wrong. The government couldn’t take Coking’s house and let Trump have it.

The widow had won.

She lived there for about another decade, happy to boast about her triumph over a man she despised. From across a parking lot, she saw Trump's casino fizzle. Last year, Trump Plaza closed its doors, another in a long line of casualties in the precipitous decay of a once-sizzling casino strip.

By then, both of the headstrong types who’d fought with such vim and vitriol were gone.

Trump’s name was still on the casino, but he no longer ran the enterprise — and he’d sued to have his name removed from the building, claiming it was too shabby to be associated with him.

Coking had moved to California to be with relatives, and her once-coveted home had to be put up for auction because she couldn’t find a buyer. Oren Klein, the managing partner at AuctionAdvisors, the company that handled the bidding, stepped delicately through Coking’s old house while preparing for the auction. The place was “basically falling down,” he said.

Inside, he felt as if he was touring a bygone Atlantic City dotted with relics. In one room, he found an ancient roulette wheel.

Coking’s grandchildren, Klein said, looked at the home as a symbol of their family’s grit and determination.

“They were proud that their grandmother had fought Trump and won,” he said.

A mystery bidder paid $583,000 for Coking's house last summer. The Press of Atlantic City later dug up real estate records revealing that the winning bidder was a subsidiary of a company owned by Carl Icahn, the renowned Wall Street mogul.

With Trump and Coking no longer around to squabble over the house, the wrecking crews moved in.

The storied house by the sea is no more.