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THE LADIES AT THE BRIDGE CLUB IN DALTON, GA. (POP. 22,000), GOT A HINT OF trouble brewing. When Marla Maples Trump returned to her hometown on April 26 to speak at Dalton's 150th-birthday celebration, she arrived with her mother, Ann Maples, 57, and 3-year-old daughter Tiffany—but without her famous husband. At the time, Mrs. Trump dismissed the absence with a smile. "He works all the time," she sighed. "That man!" Yet eyebrows were definitely raised. Meanwhile, in Palm Beach and Manhattan—where Donald, 50, and Marla, 33, split their time between their lavish two-bedroom suite at Mar-a-Lago and their 50-room Trump Tower penthouse—no one had reason to suspect anything was amiss. "I hadn't heard any rumors of a breakup," gossip columnist Liz Smith, who attended an Alzheimer's benefit in New York City with the pair on April 30, told PEOPLE. "I wish I had. It's a great story."

She would know. Seven years ago, Smith broke the news of the Donald-Ivana battle—a knock-down-drag-out that outdid anything on Dynasty. (Who can forget Ivana's "You bitch, leave my husband alone!" suggestion to then-mistress Marla in Aspen?) Ivana took away from her 13-year marriage $25 million and a motto: Don't get mad, get everything. But so far nasty breakups don't seem to be a desirable option for Maples, a former Miss Hawaiian Tropic who has always seemed more interested in spiritual cleansing than social climbing. She and Trump jointly announced the final chapter of their glittery but not-quite fairy-tale romance on May 2. The date is several months shy of a milestone in their prenuptial agreement that would have upped Marla's divorce settlement from $1 to $5 million to an undisclosed but presumably healthy percentage of Trump's fortune, estimated at $2.5 billion. "For the sake of our family," reads their press release, "we ask that the members of the media...move on to coverage of more important issues."

Right. This is The Donald we're talking about. As the master of a universe that includes Atlantic City's Taj Mahal and Trump Castle and New York City's Trump Tower and the new Trump International Hotel, he firmly believes there is no issue more important than (you guessed it!) Trump. Sources close to the magnate said that he gleefully followed the coverage of his marital problems in the New York City dailies, which speculated that the end had been brought about by a combination of extramarital flirtations and a god-awful mother-in-law ("Marla's Beverly Hillbillies' family drove Donald crazy" blared the New York Post). Since the separation announcement, Trump has been linked to everyone from Hawaiian Tropic beauty contestant Jennifer Yon, 21, to Mar-a-Lago staff chiropractor Ginger Southall, 28, liaisons he flatly denies. "I've heard Sharon Stone's name mentioned," a delighted Trump told a friend last week. "I've heard Princess Di! It's wild!" Ivana doesn't seem to be broken up by the development, but so far has refused all comment. The simple truth, though, was that the once-torrid love affair between Donald and Marla had run out of steam. "Marla's a good girl," Trump reportedly told a friend last week. "But I wanted out."

Some people close to the couple were not surprised. "Marla worked very hard thinking she could bring intimacy and spirituality into their world," a close friend says of Maples. "But it's very hard to have a real emotional life when everything is so business-oriented." New York Post columnist Cindy Adams, Trump's longtime friend, concurs: "He basically didn't want to get married. It was lust, not really love. She loved him very much. But Donald is somebody who's in love mostly with himself."

Trump himself admitted last week that "being on the other side of a relationship with someone like me must be difficult."

At one point, of course, everything seemed dreamy. A source close to Maples says Trump first met his 21-year-old future wife at a 1985 celebrity tennis tournament in Atlantic City. She was a bit actress; he was a real estate tycoon at the top of his game. By 1987, during services at the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, Trump was secretly romancing Maples as he found ways to temporarily ditch Ivana and their kids, Donny, now 19, Ivanka, 15, and Eric, 13. But as I' affaire Marla became public, his world began crashing. On the heels of headlines reporting Marla's "The Best Sex I Ever Had" ballyhoo came word that Trump's empire was overextended by junk bonds and easy bank loans. By 1991 he faced $1 billion in debt and had lost his Trump Shuttle and 282-foot yacht, the Trump Princess. Yet Maples remained loyal. Trump once told the Daily News that while he and Maples were walking, "I pointed to a homeless man and said, This guy is worth $900 million more than me' [a reference to his debt]. I wanted to see if she'd move her ass down the street away from me, but she didn't, and she's my loyal, great friend."

Her commitment wasn't immediately rewarded. Though Trump slipped a $15,000 "friendship" ring on Maples's finger in 1991, he stepped out with other women. At one point, Maples cut off all contact with him. But within days the two were back together, and she was sporting a $250,000 engagement ring. "This relationship is going to be built on trust," Maples told PEOPLE at the time, "and that's it." Translation: No prenup. But Trump thought otherwise, and while negotiations dragged on, wedding plans were postponed at least five times. Then in early 1993, Maples became pregnant. A few months later she issued a marry-me-or-else ultimatum.

On Dec. 20 that year, two months after the birth of Tiffany, Donald and Marla exchanged vows at his Plaza Hotel while a crowd of 1,300 watched and a prenup sat safely in his files. At the reception, Donald seemed happy, especially when mingling with such VIP guests as Howard Stern and Evander Holyfield, who were separated by a velvet rope from the run-of-the-mill friends and relatives. Despite his initial resistance, Trump seemed, at last, domesticated. "Donald and Marla," says Trump's brother-in-law James Grau, a concert and TV producer, "were very close, very warm."

But before long, their differences showed. Maples hoped to make the 65,000-square-foot Mar-a-Lago a family retreat, but Trump turned it into a private country club (cost: $75,000 initiation plus $6,000 a month). And for his 50th-birthday bash at Trump Tower last year, "his idea was to have a party for hundreds," says a friend of Marla's. "She's the type to have wanted to have dinner alone with him."

Most difficult, perhaps, was Trump's obsession with business. "All he likes to do is work," says a source. "Marla wanted to do things, go places, vacation in Europe. He'll go to Europe—but to go shopping for businesses." Left to her own devices, Maples looked to her mother, Ann, a former office worker (who had divorced Marla's father, Stan Maples, 56, a real estate developer, in 1980), as companion, confidante, nanny. Says the source: "She gave Marla somebody to talk to." But Trump resented Ann's frequent presence. "He felt it was wrong that she was always hanging around, always mooching," says the source. "He'd say, 'Get your own life.' "

Though he swears he's remained faithful, Trump has told people that one of his "major challenges" in life is handling approaches from women. "If you get hit on a hundred times, it's tough to go home to Marla and say, 'Hi. How you doing?' " says one pal. Marla got attention a year ago, when she was spotted by police 12 miles from Mar-a-Lago on a beach at 4 a.m. with bodyguard Spencer Wagner, 35. Maples said he was standing guard while she relieved herself. "Trump had it checked out," says a source. "She would have been thrown out that day if there had been anything to it."

In the end, it seems, economics more than anything hastened the rift. With the stipulations of the prenup looming, says an insider, "unless he was 100 percent certain he wanted to stay in the marriage, something had to be done." Don't expect a reconciliation with Ivana, who has been married to Italian businessman Riccardo Mazzucchelli for nearly two years. Trump has been angered by what he may have misread as Ivana's "crowing" in the press. "Ivana called me 15 times recently, and I haven't answered her calls," he says. But so far neither Donald nor Marla has moved out of their apartment, Tiffany's custody hasn't been resolved, and neither side has a lawyer. Egad: could this be a publicity stunt for, say, the Trump-owned—and Marla-hosted—Miss Universe pageant on CBS May 16? Doubtful. But one woman in Maples's hometown of Dalton says not to count Marla out yet: "She just might get pregnant again."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
DON SIDER in Palm Beach, MARY GREEN and ELIZABETH McNEIL in Manhattan, KRISTA REESE in Atlanta and ULRICA WIHLBORG in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Don Sider,
  • Mary Green,
  • Elizabeth McNeil,
  • Krista Reese,
  • Ulrica Wihlborg.