A Magical Merger

updated 02/07/2005 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/07/2005 01:00AM

The groom had taken his place at the altar. The soloist was singing "Ave Maria." And in the air at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Fla., the scent of gardenias and roses lent a heady sweetness. Then shortly after 7 p.m. Jan. 22, the doors at the back of the chapel opened, and some 450 guests—from Hillary Clinton to Katie Couric to Billy Joel—were riveted by the sight of Melania Knauss, standing tall and serene in a custom-made Christian Dior gown. As she began to walk, she briefly faltered, her attendants struggling to hold her 13-ft. train and 16-ft. veil. And from the pews a cell phone rang. But nothing could spoil the moment for Knauss, 34, and her beau of six years, Donald Trump, 58. In a traditional ceremony, they knelt, they prayed, and in voices so low many guests could not hear them, they exchanged vows. "We had a little smile, but we were serious, because they are serious words," says Melania. Then her new husband kissed her not once but three times. "We completely forgot everything around us," she says. "It was just us two. It was beautiful."

And so the billionaire lord of real estate and reality TV and his Slovenian bride began life together—with the help of 45 chefs, 28 seamstresses, 100 limousine drivers and the guys who drove dozens of refrigerated trucks with some 10,000 flowers from New York to Florida to provide the all-white roses, hydrangeas, gardenias and peonies the bride had her heart set on. "I love white and wanted [the look] clean," says the new Mrs. Trump, who succeeds Ivana Trump, 55, and Maria Maples, 41, to the title. Though Knauss hired Manhattan event planner Preston Bailey, "a lot of it Melania took care of herself," says Bailey. "She really was very clear with her vision."

From selecting the size and pattern on the dinner plates (10-in., gold borders) to the soprano for the reception (New York's Camellia Johnson), Knauss micromanaged her fete with a zeal worthy of The Apprentice. While on Jan. 21 her groom played golf and guests from across the country settled in—meaning, for Kathy Lee Gifford, dropping $565 on some Manolo Blahnik mules; partying at the nightclub Resort for Star Jones Reynolds; and for Kelly Ripa, just going to bed early at her hotel—Melania checked on the silverware. And centerpieces. And a candle that had been lit only once before—at her baptism in Slovenia—that she had asked her mother, who still lives there, to bring to light again at her wedding. "I arranged everything," says the model. "I made sure everything was exactly where it should be." And it was. Inside Bethesda's stone arches, Tiffany, 11, Trump's daughter with Maples, handed guests programs before taking her seat with sister Ivanka, 23, Trump's daughter with Ivana. As an organist played selections from Handel and Bach, best men Donald Jr., 27, and Eric. 21. Trump's sons with Ivana, took their places at the altar. Meanwhile, in a private room, Knauss was figuring out how to make it down the aisle in her 60-lb. gown. As she says, "I didn't practice walking with the dress."

In the end, it was more like she floated anyway. "I just saw Donald's happy face," Knauss says, "and everything happened like, fast, wow." The Rev. Ralph R. Warren Jr. led the ceremony, Ivanka read from the Bible, and the next thing the bride and groom knew, the crowd was clapping and throwing rose petals. "It was quick but beautiful and perfect," says American Idol judge Simon Cowell. "I give it a nine."

As in Cloud Nine, no doubt. Back at Mar-a-Lago, five violinists serenaded guests chatting over caviar, lobster and truffle appetizers. Hillary Clinton talked kids with Ripa. Paul Anka playfully complained that, seated behind a pillar during the ceremony, "I couldn't see a thing!" And Katie Couric tried not to get caught videotaping the event with a camera hidden in her purse. "Life's more fun when you do illegal things," she joked. Around 10 p.m., with guests seated for dinner in the Louis XIV-style ballroom, the Trumps had their first dance, to Puccini's "Nessun Dorma." The mister dipped the missus, and the fun began. Leading the toasts, Trump's son Eric welcomed Melania into the family, saying, "I know this is the last time I'll ever have to stand up here." Donald Jr., meanwhile, told the happy couple, "I look forward to spending many years annoying both of you." Then Trump took the stage to toast his bride. "Melania and I have been together for six years," he said. "They've been the best six years of my life in every way."

And just the beginning, judging from the sight of the giddy groom onstage hugging Anka, who, like Billy Joel and Tony Bennett, sang for Trump. Cutting the cake just after midnight, Trump winked at the crowd and told everyone, "We made a wish." The specifics were secret, but his wife, who at 1 a.m. changed from her gown into a lightweight tulle Vera Wang dress, making it easier to, as she urged guests, "party all night!" offers a clue: health, happiness—and children. "We want to have a family, yes," says Melania. Trump, who carried his bride over the threshold of their Mar-a-Lago suite at 4 a.m., seems off to a good start. "Donald has always said he used to make a bad husband and a great father," says his pal and The Insider host Pat O'Brien. "He says this time around he wants to make a great father and a great husband."

Karen S. Schneider. Natasha Stoynoff, Jon Warech and Steve Ellman in Palm Beach and Liza Hamm in New York City

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