Reputed to have come from Donald Trump’s publicity people, the following tale found its way into the news media via the magazine Forbes in February 1996:
This may well be the public relations gesture of the year. During the 1995 Christmas holidays, Donald Trump and Marla Maples find themselves marooned in their stretch limo with a flat tire on a busy stretch of New Jersey highway. Finally, a passing motorist spots the limo in distress and offers to help the chauffeur change the tire. Driver says, sure. Before the re-tired limo rolls off, the darkened window rolls down and an effusive Trump asks what he and his wife can do to repay the favor. Just send my wife a big bouquet of flowers, says the guy, handing Trump a card with his wife’s name and their address. Two weeks later a gargantuan bouquet of orchids arrives with a card reading, “We paid off your home mortgage, Marla and Donald.” The Trumps flackery won’t reveal the lucky chap’s name, but Informer hears Trump forked over more than $100,000 for the gesture.
Eyebrows should have been raised by this tale, as even back in the mid-1990s it was already a recognized urban legend that had been told about many other celebrities. Casting doubt on the notion that it subsequently became a true legend was the lack of checkable details provided by Trump’s people, as exemplified by 1996 news reports that noted “The Trumps flackery won’t reveal the lucky chap’s name, but Informer hears Trump forked over more than $100,000 for the gesture.”
Speaking plainly, we have an unsubstantiated rumor of celebrity good-deeding being spread by those who work for a man who courts the limelight at every opportunity. The tale’s details are fuzzy, too: one version has the event occurring while Donald Trump was married to Ivana and driving in Michigan, yet other versions place it during his marriage to Marla and had him driving in New Jersey or in Canada near Casino Niagara. In every case what’s lacking is confirmation from the lad whose mortgage was paid, the limousine driver, or anyone who worked at the tire-changer’s bank (and would thus have been in on the mortgage’s retirement).
Is it reasonable to assume someone so rewarded would fail to tell his family, friends, and co-workers about his encounter with a famous millionaire, especially the part about the wealthy one’s repaying a small kindness in so overwhelming a fashion? Is it reasonable that his wife would similarly remain silent? If you think not, you should be asking why the tire-changer’s name is still unknown, why his story didn’t escape into the community where he lives and from there make its way to the media, why you’ve yet to see so much as one televised interview with him.
In fact, back in 1997, when the Donald Trump version of the tale was still relatively new, Trump’s office was actively denying its truthfulness:
The implausible story making the rounds at Toronto doughnut shops is that somebody’s newphew’s friend’s cousin, Joe, was driving down Highway 401 in his pickup truck when he spotted a white stretch limousine, with its hood up, on the shoulder.
Joe, being a good samaritan, stopped to help. Within minutes, he got the limo running and a grateful driver asked for Joe’s card so he could send him a little something.
“Nah,” Joe said. “It was nothing. I was just trying to be helpful.”
The driver insisted, so Joe gave him a card and forgot about it. A week later, he got a call from his bank informing him that his $160,000 mortgage had been paid off by Donald Trump, who was a passenger in the limo.
“We’ve heard the story,” said an irritated-sounding assistant of Mr. Trump’s at his New York office. “No, it isn’t true.”
The story also fails the plausibility check: wouldn’t the driver of the limousine be able to change a tire on his own, or at least be able to make a cell phone call to AAA for assistance with a minor mechanical problem? Trump’s first wife, Ivana, could — and indeed did — change a tire when sidelined with a flat, making it all the more surprising Trump’s chauffeur lacked this skill yet apparently kept his job (especially in light of his employer’s notorious impatience with those who fail to perform).
Gulling a number of people was The Donald’s own confirmation of the tale during a January 2005 episode of his television series, The Apprentice. When asked about the veracity of this legend by one of those vying for the show’s ultimate prize, Trump simply responded, “That’s true.” For many, his saying so was all the proof that mattered. Yet he is far from the first celebrity to claim an item of contemporary lore as an anecdote from his own life (see our page about the Hare Dryer legend for a number of such examples).
Moreover, news accounts from 2016 revealed that Trump had long been posing as a publicist to brag about himself, and he has a decades-old reputation for being less than truthful about himself, as illustrated by this excerpt from a 1997 New Yorker article:
Alair Townsend, a former deputy mayor in the Koch administration, once quipped, “I wouldn’t believe Donald Trump if his tongue were notarized.” In time, this bon mot became misattributed to Leona Helmsley, who was only too happy to claim authorship. Last fall  after Evander Holyfield upset Mike Tyson in a heavyweight title fight, Trump snookered the News into reporting that he’d collected twenty million bucks by betting a million on the underdog. This prompted the Post to make calls to some Las Vegas bookies who confirmed — shockingly! — that nobody had been handling that kind of action or laying odds close to 20-1. Trump never blinked, just moved on to the next bright idea.
The legend of the good Samaritan, the disabled car, and the celebrity’s generosity has been told of others over the years. It’s a classic windfall legend. Each of us would like to believe an ordinary kindness on our part would result in manna from heaven falling our way, which is why this legend speaks directly to us. We can see ourselves on the receiving end of all those golden goodies, and it reaffirms our faith in the world in that we want to believe good deeds don’t go unrewarded.
Oscar Wilde used a similar plot for his 1891 short story “A Model Millionaire.” In it, Hughie is a lad who has stopped to visit an artist friend. He is momentarily left alone in the company of the wretch the painter is using as his model and is touched by the old man’s tattered appearance. He slips the beggar a gold sovereign, realizing it’s all the mad money he has for the month but that the elderly fellow needs it so much more than he does. The beggar smiles, pockets the coin, and thanks Hughie. We later discover the beggar is in reality Baron Hausberg, a millionaire who for no clearly stated reason enjoys posing for this particular artist. The Baron sends a wedding gift of £10,000 to Hughie as his way of thanking the young man who was moved to help an unfortunate.
We also found a Henry Ford version of this legend in a 1954 collection of inspirational tales:
Honk-honk, honk-honk, honk-honk-honk. The old-fashioned horn was bellowing as the mechanical contraption came around the bend and rushed along the dusty road. The engine was roaring and the radiator hissing as the long-suffering warrior did twenty-five miles per hour. It was one of the earliest Ford cars; the Methuselah of engineering. Men said it would never die a natural death: it would either commit suicide or be smashed by modern unpredictables. Honk-honk, chug-chug-chug; and the wizened old farmer, with a thick growth of beard darkening his chin, steered his car homeward.
Suddenly, ahead of him he saw a beautiful car drawn up by the roadside. It was an immaculate product of modern engineering. Long and low, its lines were fascinating; but it was at a standstill! As the farmer drew nearer he recognized that some kind of engine trouble had interrupted the progress of the other travellers. The shining bonnet of the beautiful car had been lifted, and the chauffeur, with cap pushed well back on his head, was perplexedly staring at the unresponsive engine.
With a sound of squealing brakes the old car was brought to a halt, and as a rusty door swung open, the farmer came out to ask, “What’s wrong?” The stranger responded, “I don’t know. The engine has stopped.” The newcomer looked inside the bonnet, and then announced his readiness to tow the car to the garage seven miles away. The stranded driver casually lifted his eyebrows and answered, “You’ll tow me to the garage!” What with? That!” And his finger indicated the noisy model T. The farmer’s chest expanded, and he seemed about to explode; but the eruption died, and he answered, “Yes, with that. You’ll see.”
He lifted a rope from the back of his car, placed it in position, and said, “Now get in, and I’ll show you.” Slowly the great car was taken along the roads, and finally, as the garage came into view, the farmer smiled and prepared to stop. “Well! She did it, didn’t she?” The two drivers were then joined by a third man, who all the while had been sitting in the back of the broken-down limousine. Quietly he asked, “What do I owe you, sir?” The farmer’s eyes narrowed as he repeated, “What do you owe? Nothing. It’s a ____ of a do if we can’t help each other without being paid for it. No. Nothing. Pleased to help you. Good day.” He coiled his rope, climbed into the driving seat, and soon disappeared in a cloud of dust. The silent passenger calmly watched his departure, and then smiled. He nodded and quietly repeated to himself, “It’s a ____ of a do if we can’t help each other without being paid for it.”
In due course the wheezy, asthmatical model T reached the end of its career. It has not been placed on record whether the end came suddenly, or whether the closing months were marred by internal disorders. The fact is that the old car succumbed to the ravages of time, and was given a respectable funeral in the junk yard. The day after the ceremony, the bereaved farmer was somewhat astounded to find a new Ford car standing a few yards from his door. The old man paused. Had someone called? No! He rubbed his eyes; the car was so new, so glossy, so desirable. He walked around it, and then opened the door to inspect the interior. He saw a message written on a label tied to the steering wheel. “It’s a ____ of a do if we can’t help each other without being paid for it.” The passenger who had offered in vain to pay for the towing of his car had been the great manufacturer — Henry Ford. Probably he had been fascinated by the achievement of one of his earlier models, and when its proud owner refused remuneration, he thought of another way to pay his debt. Probably he commissioned the garage owner to keep watch, and when the old model T ceased to function, to present, with Henry Ford’s compliments, a new car to the kind-hearted farmer.
In 1989 the variation of the moment of the unrecognized celebrity rescued by a Samaritan starred Mrs. Nat King Cole. Car troubles supposedly stranded her on the shoulder of a Los Angeles freeway, and she was said to have rewarded the kind man who stopped to render assistance with a new car (variously reported as a Cadillac, Lincoln, or Rolls-Royce.)
In 1997 a version of the Mrs. Nat King Cole legend tied to the death of her husband was circulating on the Internet. It appears to have been lifted word for word from the 1997 book Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul:
One night, at 11:30 PM, an older African-American woman was standing on the side of an Alabama highway trying to endure a lashing rain storm. Her car had broken down, and she desperately needed a ride.
Soaking wet, she decided to flag down the next car. A young white man stopped to help her — generally unheard of in those conflict-filled 1960s. The man took her to safety, helped her get assistance and put her into a taxi cab. She seemed to be in a big hurry! However, she wrote down his address, thanked him, and drove away.
Seven days went by and a knock came on the man’s door. To his surprise, a giant combination console color TV and stereo record player were delivered to his home. A special note was attached. The note read:
Dear Mr. James:
Thank you so much for assisting me on the highway the other night. The rain drenched not only my clothes but my spirits. Then you came along. Because of you, I was able to make it to my dying husband’s bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and unselfishly serving others.
Mrs. Nat King Cole.
Though it’s a lovely story, it too didn’t happen. Nat King Cole died of lung cancer at dawn on 15 February 1965 in Santa Monica, California. He was hospitalized in December 1964, and on 25 January 1965 his left lung was removed. At least from the date of his operation until his death, Maria Cole was with him every day.
There was no opportunity for her to have been stranded in the rain beside an Alabama highway in the weeks leading up to her husband’s death. She was sitting with him when he passed away, and none of the newspapers that commented on her vigil made mention of a last-minute dash to the hospital, an automotive breakdown, or a helpful Samaritan who got her there in time.
Another version of the car breakdown legend gives the famous person as Perry Como and has him mailing his rescuer a set of keys to a new car. This tale is told as happening all over the place, so I wonder at Perry’s ability to buy all these people cars but not provide himself with reliable transportation.
Yet another twist has the disabled car story happening to Como’s wife, and the payoff she provides is either a color TV or tickets to her husband’s upcoming concert. It’s also told of Mrs. Leon Spinks, and the reward she grants are tickets to her hubby’s upcoming fight in New Orleans. (Moral of the story: if you want the big ticket items, don’t settle for rescuing the wife of a celebrity; hold out for the man himself.)
In February 2000, a version starring Bill Gates began circulating on the Internet:
Apparently a couple returning home from a skiing trip in British Columbia spots a disabled car at the side of the road and a man in distress. Being good citizens they stop to help. The car has either a flat tire and the Good Samaritan fixes it quickly. The man was very grateful, but had no cash with him to reward them, so asked for their name and address so he could send them a little something. A week later the couple receives a call from their banker stating that their mortgage had been paid and $10,000 had been deposited in their account by a very grateful Bill Gates.
Getting back to Donald Trump, we find that on at least one verifiable occasion he’s known to have bestowed largesse on a helpful stranger. Trump’s 79-year-old mother was mugged in 1991, suffering broken bones and severe facial bruises. A passing truck driver who witnessed the assault brought down the mugger and handed him over to justice. (The robber was later sentenced to 3 to 9 years in prison). The Donald had dinner with the rescuer, his sister, and his son; offered the Samaritan a better job; and gave him a check for an undisclosed amount.
Even with a straight news story like this, a bit of manufactured memory has changed many people’s recall of the event. There are those who now swear they saw Donald Trump hand over an oversized, Ed McMahon-type check on TV. Likely this “Publisher’s Clearing House” mental image fits in better with our notion of how a celebrity would reward an ordinary fellow, hence the substituted memory.