I have always tried to avoid the voice of Donald Trump. But the election—the debates in particular—made it unavoidable. Now, when the discussion has turned to the lingering effects of Trump and Trumpism, I have been thinking about another, similar voice—whimsical, at times mocking, or menacing, but always returning to the sing-song salesman’s pitch that entices you to imagine another, better world, a world in which you have bought whatever he is selling which is, inevitably, himself. The voice of a figure who was nearly as ubiquitous in my adolescent consciousness as Trump is my current adult life: A TV personality named Ugly George.
Ugly George was one of several figures with late-night shows on public access cable in Manhattan in the late 1970s, all of which were sexually suggestive. From these shows, for example, I learned that there was a place called Plato’s Retreat where adults went to disrobe and grope and fondle each other, at the least. Some of the shows were essentially talk shows in which not terrible attractive people spoke to one another in the nude. Ugly George, in this context, was a figure of action and intrigue. He roamed the streets with a television camera, looking for women to proposition. He was somewhere between a talent scout for a modeling agency, a casting director, and a photographer, but he conducted his business not in a studio, or an office, behind closed doors. Rather, he strolled the boulevards of midtown Manhattan, dressed outlandishly. Even though the drama of his half-hour shows culminated—or did not culminate—in revealed breasts, some of which I still recall, the most vivid imagery of the show were the shots of Ugly George himself, a lunatic in hot pants, shirtless in the summer, with a huge camera on his shoulders, strolling through midtown amidst a sea of people in suits. As much as it was about tits and ass, it was also a kind of theater of shamelessness which, if you were 13 in 1978, as I was, seemed pretty cool.
I would not propose Ugly George as a kind of skeleton key that can unlock the cultural mystery and horror of Donald Trump. But the parallels between them never cease to amaze me.
Like the outgoing President, Ugly George came from Queens but established himself in Manhattan. Trump established himself in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street. Ugly George lived in what he referred to as “The Polish Penthouse.” The location was never disclosed. But his beat was the main boulevards of Midtown, Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue from 42nd Street to 57th Street, the part of the city where the world of business, shopping, and tourism are most expressly concentrated. On Seventh Avenue, the tchotchke stores selling luggage and souvenir art have banners hung out in front saying, “Going out of Business, 90 Percent Off!” year round. Sixth Avenue—at the time—was swarming with executives from the media business (The ABC Building was 54th and 6th Ave, CBS’s Blackrock was 52nd and Sixth) and all those other suits filling the giant glass towers. Fifth Avenue was a combination of the two, with Harry Winston, Bergdorf Goodman, and Tiffany’s the high-end counterpart to the tchotchke stores and their banners. Both men created out of this landscape a kind of hall of mirrors. With Ugly George the familiar landscape of the avenues would give way to all sorts of strange alleys, vestibules, and corridors. They were interiors. But interiors of what? You could never guess.
As for Trump, I present a famous photograph taken on May 5th, 2016, the day after he won the Republican primary, which featured him at his desk in Trump Tower, smiling and giving a thumbs-up sign over a taco bowl. I will resist the urge to parse the language of the accompanying tweet, as it will start to seem funny and absurd, and in turn remind me of when Trump as a candidate seemed funny and absurd, a kind of entertainment. Instead, it is the image itself that immediately fascinated me, and which is relevant to Ugly George: the view out the window behind Trump looks North up Fifth Avenue. The tops of a couple of buildings are visible behind him, including a bit of the ornate, old-school facade of the Sherry-Netherlands hotel on 60th Street, but mostly you see Central Park’s expanse of verdant green stretching back to the horizon. What was so fascinating about this photograph as soon as I saw it was another patch of green that appeared to the right of the buildings behind Trump, as though Central Park encompassed Madison, Park, and Lexington Avenue, as well. I stared at this picture for a long time, fascinated at the thought that it had been photoshopped to create the illusion of a more commanding view, and finally concluded that it’s merely the effect of a mirror. A much less nefarious explanation, except the photograph still presents, as with all of Trump’s endeavors, a version of reality that is distorted in a way to flatter him.
As for Ugly George and his mysterious Polish Penthouse, which is where he would bring the most willing women, the ones interested in not just the camera but the guy holding it, I discovered its location by accident, in summer of 1982. I had an egg cream cart that summer. My weekday spot was in front of the ABC building. Weekends, I moved to the corner in front of Harry Winston until they threw me out, after which I set up in front of 666 Fifth Avenue, later to be purchased by the Kushner family. When I was done with my work day, I stored my cart in the basement of a midtown garage. One day I pushed the cart into the elevator and, instead of going down to where my spot was in an unused corner amidst the cars, we went up. This had never happened before. I looked up to see Ugly George and a young lady. In this way I learned that the Polish Penthouse was an apartment above a garage located on 55th Street and 7th Avenue. The building is long gone. The high rise that replaced it is now home to Penguin-Random Publishers.
Both men were made for, and to some extent by, television. George Trow, writing about television and by extension all electronic media in 1980—at which point both Trump and Ugly George’s worldview had been fully formed—could have been writing about them both when he wrote: “A tease is a con. You press a spot because you know that it can be pressed, and while the sucker is feeling the pleasure or the pain resulting from the pressure, you take something from him.”
This fall, I watched the debates holding the remote control. The second debate’s mute button, whose presence was meant to reassure the public that Trump would not be allowed to hector and talk over everyone, as he had in the first debate, did not, as far I could tell, get used very often, or often enough, so I supplemented it with the mute in my hand. Watching the faces was, for stretches of minutes, information enough. When the sound came back on, it was bracing. Trump’s voice, in particular, now in a more subdued and coherent mode, felt sinister—and familiar.
Long after I’d gotten to know Ugly George as a teenager, by watching his show, I met him in person, as a grown man. I’d written him into my novel The Sleepover Artist, a real-life character whose show the teenage protagonist watches, observes, absorbs. In an interview after the book’s publication in 2000, I tossed off the remark that if I knew where Ugly George was, now, I would give him a hundred dollars, just for being such a character. Ugly George, as was his wont, reached out.
We met in the booth of a diner on Varick Street. The man across from me was fat, cynical, living in an SRO, a bit deranged. Yet I recognized the seductive lilt in his voice, the cajoling tone and “say anything to close the deal” style that propelled the dramatic arc of his public access cable TV show and compelled attractive young women to take off their shirts for him. The similarities of intonation, accent, and, most of all, method, between this guy and the President of the United States are stunning. What was most striking to me, as I watched the final debate, was the way Trump would default to a soothing, almost singsong mode of reassuring people how great things would soon be. Ugly George had a similar lilt in his voice, a playful, questioning, insistent, bedtime story lilt. Like the President he was grandiose and deluded, but the claims also had a ring of truth, or some grain of it that made you pause to think.
“I created Time Warner,” was one of these claims on that day that we met, for the first time, in the diner. His rationale for this was that in the company’s earliest days, when it was trying to get its cable TV business off the ground with clunky set top boxes that had all the numbered channels and lettered ones, too, it was The Ugly George Show, on Chanel J, that drove subscriptions. “They sold a hundred thousand subscriptions to people in Manhattan who wanted to watch my show,” he said, while pouring multiple sugar packets into a large coffee with milk.
The number is whimsical but the claim felt right—were 13-year-old boys imploring their parents to subscribe to cable all over Manhattan because they had heard about The Ugly George Show? It’s not so far-fetched a notion. Was The Ugly George Show the most watched bit of original programming on Time Warner Cable? If it wasn’t, its main competition were other similar late night public access lewdities like Midnight Blue and The Robin Byrd Show.
One of the show’s tropes was Ugly George imploring his many fans, all of them men, to leave him alone when they saw him on the street. It wasn’t just that he had no desire to talk to them as individuals, but also that they impeded his task of finding and seducing women. In this sense, too, there is a Trump echo: the President flatters his fans, but there is also the unmistakable contempt for the masses; they crowd in to hear him and are shuffled off; he isn’t interested in any of them individually unless they can pay dues at one of his clubs. This contempt is a feature, not a bug—a fascist twist on the Groucho Marx aphorism about not wanting to belong to any club that will have him.
Nevertheless, I was shocked, for some reason, in that first encounter at the coffee shop, to discover that Ugly George was a staunch Republican. At the time, this meant supporting George Bush. My novel, and the profile by Phil Weiss in the New York Observer in which I’d made my outlandish claim that if I could find him, I would pay Ugly George a hundred dollars just for being who he was, came out in 2000. Our coffee shop meeting pre-dated 9/11. I was charmed by him and also grossed out by him, his corpulence, his poverty, but most of all, his grandiosity. The way he spoke of the imminent huge business deal that would rescue him and turn everything around. The sense of grievance and injustice, of persecution. The feminists, the whipped, politically correct men, the scolds of the left surged forth in conversation like vivid monsters. They sent him into an aria of persecution. Them and Time Warner, who never gave him his due for starting a billion-dollar company. All of it delivered in an aggrieved voice that could be mistaken for the President’s.
He painted himself as both politically afflicted and artistically misunderstood. He had made some deals with video companies to package his show—he showed me the cover of one of the VHS packages—but, like an auteur whose director’s cut is brutalized by coarse producers, he objected to the packaging, which implied that the contents were all hardcore sex. In fairness to Ugly George, this was not the case. Most of The Ugly George Show was about The Quest. The Search. These terms have the resonance of Don Quixote and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—novels that examine male self-interest and self-delusion in the context of a picaresque propelled by strong ethical and philosophical questions. Questions neither the President or the pornographer seems to ask. They both have the unfortunate superpower of avoiding not only self-reflection, but the part of the inner dialog that includes morality as anything other than a chess piece to be deployed when useful. It is this absence, inside, that makes the pitch so compelling, when it is made manifest in the voice.
My fascination for Ugly George was not entirely nostalgic. The diner where he arranged for us to meet was on Varick Street, near Canal street. It was like a mushroom from the 1970s that had somehow survived amid an otherwise arid landscape of cars and trucks swarming the Holland Tunnel. The old industrial world in which each of the nearby streets of Tribeca were associated with a singular import/export industry—I am most familiar with Harrison Street, “cheese street,” where J.D. Salinger’s father had his business—was long gone, replaced at first by artists and later by bankers. But it could still be felt in that old diner. Which, needless to say, has not merely vanished. It has been replaced by a glass tower; possibly the glitzy glass tower located, improbably, in the maw of the Holland Tunnel entrance, built by Donald Trump.
That Ugly George still patronized this old diner, knew about it, walked some distance to get to it, spoke to his talent as a collector of the unofficial nooks and crannies of the city. That he collected these in the spirit of found stage sets for filming the undressing of women, live and on camera, mitigates whatever charm lies behind the impulse, but his show was not about assault or even abuse, explicitly. It was much darker than that. It was about seduction, cajoling, and manufacturing consent. He did it with lies so old and hackneyed it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for them: “You want to be a model?” and “You want to be in show business?”
In this respect, maybe most of all, the parallel between the two guys from Queens seems most vivid. Both integrate the absurdity of their pitch into the pitch. For those of us—an increasingly large group—horrified by Trump, we look at his supporters and wonder how they could be so duped, and what mechanism of rationalization and self-delusion allows it to persist. Of all of Biden’s jabs, the one I thought most profound was calling Trump a country club guy.
That I am even writing about Ugly George forty years after his heyday, and almost twenty since we met, and then re-met, as adults, is a testimony to his particular music—the seductive conman from Queens. His voice has stayed in my ear. His voice is so similar to Trump’s except for one enormous difference, which I guess I will call irony. Calling himself Ugly George, living in the self-dubbed Polish Penthouse, these seemed amusing and funny names when I was a kid, and they seem amusing and funny, now. Trump, of course, would never append a name to his own that didn’t have an unambiguous superlative attached. No irony allowed. Imperviousness to irony and tragedy—a complete refusal to admit they exist—are Trump’s superpower and his disease. His money came from his father’s holdings in Queens, and he has been trying to launder it in Manhattan and Palm Beach ever since. Yet Trump’s song of the Queens con-man remains the same.
In the end, I paid Ugly George the hundred dollars I claimed I would. He bothered me about it, once he had my phone and email. I paid in cash. I left it with the guy behind the counter at my local deli. I didn’t want to hand it to him in person. I wonder if, on some level, the Trump saga will have a similar denouement—us paying him something to go away. And if, like Ugly George, who called and emailed me for some time after, popping up in intervals of years, he won’t stay gone.