Off-Again Romance

updated 10/07/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/07/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SAY THIS FOR DONALD TRUMP: THE man has chutzpah. Two weeks ago, less than 24 hours after he brashly broke off his relationship with Marla Maples—again—Trump was spotted cozying up to a raven-haired beauty in a Manhattan club. What about Marla? people wondered. Remember her? The woman you left Ivana for? "Hey, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't," said Trump with a shrug, of his split from Marla. "It's the end of an era—or whatever."

Whatever indeed. Recall that in June, Trump, 45, declared that his three-year romance with Maples was over. He wanted his "freedom." But within weeks, Marla's tycoon had come crawling back, offering his 27-year-old Georgia peach a pledge of lifelong love—and a $250,000 diamond ring. "Why go looking," Trump cooed, "when you already have exactly what you want?"

Now, facing public breakup No. 2, a warier, wiser Maples thinks she has Trump in the proper perspective. "In every relationship there are problems, and we are no different," she says. "We love each other deeply, but right now we've made a commitment to work these problems through before—uh, if—we choose to stand together in marriage."

Some of "these problems" surfaced publicly at the Miss America Pageant on Sept. 14. A few hours before the show at Convention Hall in Atlantic City, Donald and Marla strolled through a dining room where a group of the contestants were eating pizza. "I want to see the bodies that won the swimsuit contest," Trump demanded. One of three preliminary winners, Carolyn Sapp, 24, who would soon be named Miss America, stood up, blushing. "Miss...?" Trump asked. "Hawaii!" said Sapp. Trump gave an ogle, and he and Maples headed off.

Sapp was puzzled. Trump had behaved as if he didn't know her. In fact, she told her tablemates, they had met last year in New York City when Sapp had stayed at Trump's Plaza hotel on a business trip. Sapp said that Trump had repeatedly—and, she stressed, unsuccessfully—asked her out. Miss Hawaii decided to refresh Trump's memory. "She stood up and came over, very brazen," recalls Marla. "and said, 'Do you remember when we met?' " Marla, who had been standing a few feet away, approached Miss Hawaii and said, "What are you doing flirting with my fiancé?" At that point, she says, the indignation was mock: "I was just teasing."

By the time the pageant was over, though, her playful petulance had turned to real anger. Trump and his buddies kept making ribald comments in her presence about Sapp. "They were sitting around saying, 'She's got a great body!' and 'It's about time they got a good-looking one!' " Maples says. "He still thinks it's cool to act like a ladies' man. But I don't think it's very respectful. I deserve better than that."

Then, five days later, at a Broadway performance of The Will Rogers Follies, things got ugly again. During a break, Marla ran into a former agent and lingered to talk. "Donald got very mad," says Marla. "He said, 'I was waving for you to come to me, and you didn't come.' " Angrily, Maples returned fire. "This is somebody who counts," she said of her friend. "He may not be the head of a newspaper or a producer—but he counts." Back in her apartment, she and Donald argued well into the night. "I knew I couldn't go on with it like this anymore," Maples says. "I realized there was a big difference between us about what's important. I don't judge people by their material wealth or what they can do for me. If we're going to work this out, he's got to change."

And so, for now, the marriage is off. But what about the rock—Maples's heralded 7.5-carat diamond? Did Donald buy it, or was it on loan from jeweler Harry Winston? Does she get to keep it? No one will say. In Marla's eyes, there's no question. "I still have the engagement ring," she says. "It's in a safe place."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
SUE CARSWELL in New York City

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