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Merv Griffin's Outrageous Fortune : When Millionaire Griffin Took on Billionaire Trump, They Said It Was a Mismatch. They Were Wrong.

July 24, 1988|NINA J. EASTON | Nina J. Easton is a Times staff writer.

MERV GRIFFIN is headed for a 2:30 appointment with the crown prince of Manhattan real estate in New York City's Trump Tower. That's the glassy skyscraper at 5th Avenue and 56th Street, not to be confused with Trump Plaza over on 3rd, near Bloomingdales, or Trump Parc, the art nouveau condominium complex on Central Park South where $4 million buys a three-bedroom apartment. Trump Tower is the one with a six-story pink marble atrium and an 80-foot waterfall; there's a Cartier store and a Bonwit Teller's in the lobby. You can't miss the tower--it's always packed.

Against the best wishes of his advisers, Griffin has agreed to meet Donald Trump at Trump's office. This is a delicate business negotiation, the advisers warned, and delicate business negotiations should not take place on your opponent's home turf. Griffin just smiled.

As he boards the security elevator to Trump's 26th-floor office, Griffin passes Trump's face on a poster advertising his best-selling book, "Trump: The Art of the Deal." ("This reads like Trump unvarnished--vainglorious, combative, ambitious and unafraid to let us know about it," says a quote on the cover from CBS news correspondent Mike Wallace.)

When he reaches Trump's office, Griffin doesn't have a lot of time to look around. If he did, he would notice a wall full of Trump's face on magazine covers--Time, Newsweek, Business Week, Fortune, Manhattan Inc., GQ, People, New York (twice), the New York Times Magazine. He also would see a model of Trump's 282-foot yacht, the Trump Princess (formerly a favorite toy of international arms merchant Adnan Khashoggi), the Trump plane (Boeing 727) and the Trump helicopter (a black Super Puma).

But there's no time for wandering eyes. Trump shakes Griffin's hand and guides him to the window to show off his latest acquisition--the Plaza Hotel. Griffin is impressed: The Plaza is the crown jewel of New York. A marble-laden national landmark built in the style of a French chateau, the Plaza has 800 rooms overlooking Central Park. "Gee, Donald," Griffin says, interrupting Trump's description, "that's how many rooms you're going to need to house all the lawyers it will take to fight me." Trump laughs. It's time to get down to business.

Merv Griffin is here this April afternoon because he has thrown a gigantic wrench into Trump's plans to buy out the public shares of Resorts International, a hotel-casino company with flashy properties in Atlantic City and the Bahamas. Trump is anxious to take the company private to get the control and financing he needs to complete construction on the company's Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey's seaside gambling resort.

There's nothing quite like the Taj Mahal, a massive entertainment complex that will resemble its 17th-Century Indian namesake, but with a modern twist: New Jersey's Taj Mahal will be topped by glowing minarets to light up the city night. After its opening, scheduled for next year, it will be the biggest hotel and casino in the world. With construction costs nearing $1 billion, it will also be the world's most expensive building, Trump says.

But days before Trump expected to close his Resorts purchase, Griffin appeared out of nowhere with a competing offer for the company. Now the two men are locked in a nasty, name-calling, lawsuit-swapping takeover fight.

Still, there's hope for this meeting. Like any good talk-show host, Griffin has studied up on Trump, and he suspects that all the New Yorker really wants is the Taj. After all, it's big and glitzy and risky--tailor-made for Trump. And it will give the ambitious young developer yet another high-profile chance to save a troubled project. Costs for the Taj had escalated under the previous Resorts management when its construction hit several snags, including the 1986 death of Resorts Chairman James Crosby. But Trump has boosted costs further with glamorous touches such as Italian marble and crystal chandeliers.

As Trump sizes up Griffin, he has a hunch that the Californian doesn't want the Taj: The former crooner and talk-show host is a hotelier, not a developer; Griffin even likes to think of himself as a maitre d' of sorts. Why would he want to become involved in a massive construction project plagued by cost overruns?

But Trump isn't ready to agree to anything--yet. The New York developer has a net worth he estimates at $3 billion; he has a battery of lawyers, and he relishes a good fight. After what Griffin describes as some "saber rattling" by Trump, Griffin finally asks, "Are you finished?" Griffin's own net worth is $300 million, he's got plenty of cash on hand and his own battery of lawyers. And unlike Trump, he has the luxury of time on his side. All of which Griffin points out to Trump.

The dealing starts. Trump says he wants the Taj. OK, Griffin says. And the Steel Pier jutting out from the Taj boardwalk. OK. "Is that all?" Griffin asks. "Yes," Trump says.

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