Notes from a 1990s Bergdorf shopaholic: The E. Jean Carroll story about Trump doesn't add up

Advice columnist E. Jean Carroll is selling a book of her steamy sexual misadventures and sure enough, there's a story about how Donald Trump, circa 1995 or 1996, raped the writer in the dressing room of the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York, a pretty extreme charge buried under a big pile of stories about men who supposedly exploited her. The Trump administration has denied the whole thing as "completely false."

I find it hard to believe. Carroll does name a long string of men who abused her one way or another, and some of them are #metoo poster boys, such as Les Moonves. It's easy to believe a story about him groping her in an elevator, because he did this sort of thing to so many others. Charges against Moonves have been substantiated. Trump's a different story, though. He's also been accused of sexual misbehavior, often just bad talk, not acts, but there's never been any substantiation. Maybe that's why she placed her encounter with him at the bottom of her list, as a writer, she would know that you always put your strongest material first. Her hazy encounter with its serious charges (which are now shifting to look at Twitter) has the look of piling on, riding from other women's unsubstantiated accusations as if to score a political point. And she's not staying steady - she's now alternating between charges of assault and actual rape. Trump himself points out that he's never met her and she is out to sell a book, which might explain why she never went public until now. She never went public even in the heat of the election back when everyone was trying to take Trump down or even moreso in the bitter aftermath.

Carroll describes Trump as all handsome and confident in her 1996 Bergdorf's encounter. That's pretty questionable, actually. Trump was a billionaire on the outs at the time. He was bankrupt, and far from looking all handsome as she described, he looked shambling and seedy in 1996, according to this account of a 1996 encounter with Trump by far more credible writer Mark Bowden. Trump was having money troubles. Would someone like that have gone all criminally violent with some woman he didn't know to add to his legal troubles? I find it hard to believe - he wasn't bulletproof financially at the time. And would Carroll have been the woman he would choose? He was buying beauty contests at the time. The women he was interested in then were young models and beauty queens. Carroll is a nice-looking woman - this photo below shows her about a decade older than she would have been for the encounter with Trump, but she's not beauty contest material at that age. She looks like a wealthy housewife. Would Carroll have been the woman Trump would have found irresistable? Color me a little skeptical. I know a woman that Trump flirted with in 1996 who was quite a bit younger and far more of a "looker." I remember she sent me emails about it because she was disgusted that he was married, but all the same, he never went beyond flirting; flirtaciousness was actually his limit for those not giving him any encouragement. It's very hard to think he'd be different with someone less known.

Meanwhile, I used to be the most enthusiastic of Bergdorf shoppers at that time. I was young, fresh out of college, and had a great job that permitted shopping jaunts there in between trips to the Met and meetings at the United Nations. And yep, I shopped there all the time.

Not all of Carroll's details entirely add up. They are fuzzy and imprecise. It's fair to say that memories fade, not all of mine are precise, either. But a lot of things are easy to look up, and it's possible to see contradictions and near contradictions to what she's saying. Her account seems to be a mixture of truth and fiction.

First, the accurate stuff: Her picture of herself in the outfit she was wearing at the time does look pretty much like the fashion of the time among the Bergdorf shoppers - a black Donna Karan coatdress, inky black tights, high heels. I recall wearing similar, a leopard-print Bergdorf labeled coatdress or sometimes a longish Philip Adec black wool blazer (with a second Bergdorf tag sewed in) over a black miniskirt with the black tights, too. Mostly, the style looks about right.

But the shoes I wonder about. She had on what she called sturdy but spiked heels, also seen in her picture. That actually wasn't the fashion at the time - block heels (and block-heel- and even Doc Marten-style boots) were all the rage in 1996, and man, I took the town wearing those. She says she got them at the pricier-than-Bergdorf Barney's, but if so, they would not be so fashionable for an obvious fashionista to be wearing. Sure, they could have stocked them, but I wonder if she's gotten the timeline right. Spiky heels, albeit the less sturdy kind, only came into vogue in 1998. The really nice but sturdy spiked heels she has on could have dated from the late 1980s, possibly Calvin Kleins. She likes to save stuff (she says she saved her unlaundered coatdress) but shoes wear out, especially in New York where walking is the norm, so color me a tad skeptical. It's possible she's telling the truth, but her memory may be mixing things up a little.

She's also got Bergdorf down as the world's most exclusive department store. Was it that way in 1996? Nope. It was trying to stay above water like almost everything else in New York at the end of the Dinkins era which meant lots of markdowns for people like me. It's all ritzy and pricy now, but back then, it was struggling to keep its head above water. Markdowns and sales were pretty common at the time, even with its fancy store veneer but if you knew where to look, the place could be quite affordable.

Next up, the security cameras. Lots of attention on that. One thing is pretty sure though: 1996 was one of the last pre-Internet era years out there, and IP security cameras seen now only came on the market in 1996. Would down-at-the-heels dowdy Bergdorf's have been the first customer? No wonder Bergdorf's has no images as Carroll cites - whatever they would have had would have been nearly worthless, and the nearly useless data very bulky and hard to store. More history of the use of security cameras, particularly on the 'prevent shoplifting' angle (which would have been likely used in more mass market department stores, not Bergdorf's with its locked dressing room doors) is worth looking into. I doubt Bergdorf's had much of any of that.

There's also the details about the lingerie department, which, Carroll says, was probably with the evening gowns and bathing suits. I don't even remember a lingerie department in those years. I bought pretty much everything from Bergdorf - the designer stuff on sale on the 6th floor (man, did I score on the Donna Karan!), and lots of clothes and shoes from the young women's department on the fifth floor, always looking at the sale racks first for bargains. I bought baby clothes on the 6th floor for friends and relatives with new babies (how I loved sending those Bergdorf packages, exquisitely packed, with really fancy baby dresses!) and I bought beautiful notebooks and vases and fancy candies on the 7th floor. But lingerie? The idea that it would be packed with evening gowns and bathing suits sounds like a Macys department store set-up, not a Bergdorf's one. I had to look it up. Sure enough, this retail history shows that the lingerie department barely existed at the time, it was on the 2nd floor with the men's wear. And it was insignificant. A barely there lingerie department for shopping for lingerie? Why would Trump pick such a place to shop for lingerie when there were so many other competitors with far bigger selections, starting with Saks down the street? (Which would have been about as close to Trump Tower (built 1983) as Bergdorf's.) 



Image credit: juliannesmo, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

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