Near the end of Richard “Skip” Bronson’s “War at the Shore,” the author says he had lunch “not long ago” with former MGM Resorts International CEO Terrence Lanni. That’d be a neat trick, since Lanni’s been dead almost a year. It’s one of many aspects about this once-over-lightly memoir of the Steve Wynn/Donald Trump feud that makes it read as though the manuscript’s been kept in cold storage for years. Someone must have suddenly thawed it out — perhaps to cash in on “birther” Trump’s current notoriety as the loudest, most brazen racist in America.
From start to finish, Bronson’s first-person account of working for Wynn seems to have emerged from a time warp. On the first page, he writes that today’s Atlantic City is “a born-again destination” (its casino revenues peaked in 2006 and have fallen 36 percent since) and that Connecticut’s Foxwoods Resort Casino, presently staving off default, “is currently the largest, most profitable casino in the world.” We are informed that MGM “will one day get around to building” atop Atlantic City acreage it has been trying to sell for more than two years. Historical detail is not this fuzzy, error-pocked narrative’s strongest suit.
Why does “War at the Shore” even matter? It semi-adequately chronicles a pivotal episode in casino history: the three-year legal and propaganda war conducted by Trump to keep Wynn from returning to Atlantic City. Since Wynn’s proposed development, Le Jardin, was in a remote area, access would have to be facilitated by digging a tunnel, mostly at taxpayer expense. Constructing the tunnel would require demolishing part of a traditionally black, middle-class neighborhood. (“Middle class” is a term rarely mentioned in connection with infamously squalid Atlantic City, which has seen scant benefit from the casino biz.)
All this, plus the justifiable fear of competition for his rattletrap casinos — never mind his spitefulness — provoked Trump to file myriad lawsuits. Most were frivolous and all failed. Flouting New Jersey law, Trump also secretly funneled money to neighborhood groups who were suing Wynn. And got away with it.
More to the point, Atlantic City lost three irreplaceable years in which it could have made a much-needed conversion from day-tripper hangout to resort destination. Wynn squandered additional time dithering over plans for Le Jardin, then got bought out of Mirage Resorts by Kirk Kerkorian. That wrote finis to Le Jardin. Trump, who nowadays is a minority shareholder and paid shill for the few casinos that bear his name, sabotaged Atlantic City’s future rather than move with the times, doing more than any other individual to seal its fate.
Had “War at the Shore” been placed in this historical context, its belated publication would make sense, explaining the decline and fall of the Boardwalk. Instead it’s a dinosaur footprint. Post-Wynn, Bronson went into business with Trump and — shocker! — “discovered him to be a great guy.” Those who would point out that Trump World’s Fair was subsequently demolished, Trump Marina was sold for a pittance and Trump Plaza is on the market “just don’t get it … nor HIM!” Gotcha, Skip.
To give Bronson his due, the slim volume reads fast and offers amusing glimpses into the Wynn cosmos. For instance, Wynn hired Frank Gehry to co-design Le Jardin, yet was genuinely surprised to get a model resembling “a large tin can that had been run through a blender.” It’s Frank Fucking Gehry, man! What did Wynn expect? El Steve looms large in Bronson’s memoir, but new friend Trump is a minor supporting player, glimpsed mainly through quotes he bloviates to newsmen.
Finally, it’s impossible to overlook or forgive Bronson’s squirm-inducing descriptions of dealing with African-American activists or Native American clients. A meeting with anti-Wynn black citizenry is the “one day I was truly afraid for my life.” A group of Atlantic City ministers is depicted like cartoon pimps. Few stereotypes go unemployed. It’s enough to make you crawl under your chair. Looks like Bronson and Trump deserve each other.
WAR AT THE SHORE, Richard D. “Skip” Bronson, Andrew Meisler, A.M. Silver; Overlook Press, 220 pages