Talking with Lana Marks, Trump’s handbag designer ambassador nominee to South Africa

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By Tish Durkin

“I am not the female Donald Trump,” demurs Lana Marks in the very polite, very firm way that you can tell she does many things.

At this moment, she certainly seems right about that. Perfectly coiffed, polished, and pearl-necked at her desk in the office behind the Palm Beach boutique that bears her name, Trump’s nominee to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to South Africa appears exactly as trim, sunny, and measured as her would-be boss is stout, grouchy, and combustible.

It had seemed a natural question, though. Since her nomination was announced in November, Marks has been slammed for, among other things, belonging to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, lacking any diplomatic experience whatsoever, and engaging in relentless self-promotion to advance her decidedly flashy business … all of which has given her the image of Trump in a skirt suit and heels.

Apparently, that is not how Trump sees her. “It has been articulated to me that he sees me as a sort of Pamela Harriman,” Marks confides, “but with one husband.”

Harriman, the Democratic doyenne who capped off her life as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to France, had three husbands, serial sugar daddies, one passed-around son, and no job. Marks has been married to British-born psychiatrist Neville Marks for 40-odd years; remains close to her two children, Martin, 37, and Tiffany, 35; and uses workaholic as the first word to describe herself.

And what is that work? “I have designed handbags, and I have enjoyed it very much,” she says. But not just any handbags: showpieces that sell for five and six figures, with the extra-special gem-encrusted rarity going for seven. Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon, Angelina Jolie, Cindy Crawford, and Candice Bergen have all carried Lana, as have legions of royals, aristos, and arrivistes, shopping from London to Beijing to Dubai, with Vegas soon to come. After the 2008 crash, an exorbitant rent hike drove Marks to close her Madison Avenue flagship, she says, though currently she’s “in talks” to open another Manhattan location, as well as to revive her brand’s presence at Bergdorf and Saks. (If confirmed, Marks points out, she must give up any personal business interests within 90 days. “Essentially,” she says, “I’d say that I’m getting ready to sell.”)

To hear Marks tell it, Mar-a-Lago is but lovely backlighting to her life. In addition to being an avid tennis player, she likes to take her grandchildren swimming at the club. Most Saturdays “during the season,” she and Neville, now 79 and still in private practice, have a dinner date on the patio. Once or twice a month, they go for brunch. “I don’t think it has anything to do with Mar-a-Lago whatsoever,” she reckons of her nomination. “That’s purely coincidental and tangential.”

Not if you count “the Wedding.” Marks’s daughter was married at Mar-a-Lago on Valentine’s Day 2010, and people who were there still marvel at the magical perfection of it. They’ll offer details only if you promise to point out that, even though specific aspects may sound over-the-top, the entire effect managed to be breathtaking yet tasteful. Eschewing the services of a wedding planner, the mother of the bride handled everything herself, down to the invitations, which were ordered from Scotland for lack of an American letterpress that could produce wording in a turquoise that sufficiently exactly matched the bridesmaids’ dresses. Underwhelmed by the initial menu tasting, Marks schooled Trump’s chefs until they could meet her expectations. Desiring particular kinds of lights to twinkle up from the pool, she commanded divers to lay them at the bottom. After the vows, at the precise nanosecond of the ceremony-ending smashing of the glass under the heel of the groom, fireworks burst in the sky.
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And Trump, the story goes, burst with admiration for Marks. One wedding attendee told me that even though the two had been acquainted for more than a decade, the execution of the wedding was what planted Marks in Trump’s mind. “Absolutely,” a second person agreed. “I was standing next to him at the cocktail hour, and he motioned over one of his staff, pointed at the pool, and said, ‘This is how I want this to look for all big events.’ ”

By far the most famous maven of Marks merch was — and, in fact, still is — Princess Diana, who purchased at least 15 Lana Marks bags in life and still promotes the brand in death. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the princess’s demise, the purse designer created a one-of-a-kind clutch for a charity auction and told Hello! Magazine — as she has many others — about the twist of fate that left Di in a car in a Paris tunnel rather than on a planned Italian holiday with Marks — who’d had to cancel because of her father’s sudden death. (“I constantly think, What if she’d been with me?” Marks has said.) A detail easily missed in the famous 1997 photos of Di wading through an Angolan minefield: Along with her khakis, shirtsleeves, and face shield, the no-longer-royal highness was sporting a Lana Marks belt.

In promotional videos, Marks speaks about having “pioneered” the manufacture of exotic-animal-skin handbags in bright colors, as opposed to the dreary neutrals of yore. At the time, no doubt, this sort of thing enticed customers. Now that Marks is seeking diplomatic gravitas, it serves the less helpful purpose of underscoring a professional life devoted to furnishing extremely expensive fripperies to extremely rich people.

Building an ultraluxury brand is neither a crime nor a cakewalk. But it hardly seems the ideal preparation for the top diplomatic post in South Africa, a perpetual pressure cooker of a country, where half the population lives in poverty and income inequality often ranks as the absolute worst in the world. One local news outlet called her nomination “Trump’s Middle Finger to South Africa.”

“I’m not a lighthearted individual,” says Marks by way of (indirect) reply to such criticism. “I’m not a flippant individual. I’m a very serious individual.”
It’s easy to believe Marks’s assertion that she does everything with a “velvet glove,” while strongly sensing that she can make a pretty hard fist in it.

As a tennis-mad teenager, Marks was pushed to excel in the sport but also counseled by her mother to always, always let the boys win. Reared to know the perils of naked ambition, Marks keeps hers impeccably dressed but not hidden. She is expansive on the subject of how she spent a couple of years visiting European tanneries and factories to learn the business. “The factory owners of Northern Italy think there are only two good places for a woman to be,” Marks cracks, “and the factory is not one of them.” Once she had a handful of samples ready, she telephoned the accessories buyer at Saks some “60 times” until she was allowed to show a few bags at the Palm Beach store. By her own telling, she arrived hours before the two-hour trunk show started, stayed hours after it ended, and picked the brains of the staff in between. Sales were tallied at $33,000, and the rest is astronomically expensive handbag history.

Given her taut, attentive demeanor, it is easy to picture Marks doing all of this. Likewise, it is easy to picture her diving into the mountains of papers the State Department has given her and rising at dawn every day of the five-week ambassador-in-training boot camp she recently attended, all the better to prepare questions to pepper diplomatic experts with. And it is easy to believe her assertion that she does everything with a “velvet glove,” while strongly sensing that she is more than capable of making a pretty hard fist in it.

Marks has a very delicate china set of words — humbly, extraordinary, prominent, ensconced—and a very careful way of taking them out and placing them on the table between you. No matter how pointed the question, her answer is smooth.

“I was quite limited because I am of the Jewish faith, and my husband is also of the Jewish faith,” she says, for example. “We live on the south end of the island [near the Trump estate], and we didn’t have terribly many opportunities where we could go play tennis, which is an extramural of mine, and so we decided it would be very nice if we joined Mar-a-Lago.” She seems completely unperturbed by the reality she is describing — that, as of 2010, when she and her husband joined Trump’s club, they were barred by their religion from joining the others. But given her backstory, it has to bother her a little.

Blond hair and blue eyes saved Marks’s father, Alec Bank. Fleeing Lithuania in the 1930s, his mother pointed to her family’s fair coloring as proof that they couldn’t possibly be Jews. Arriving in Johannesburg as a boy, Bank grew up to make a fortune as a property developer, eventually becoming a prominent member of the Jewish community in East London. With his wife, Blanche, he raised his three children — Marks is the eldest — in comfort. Their house had a pool, a small movie theater, and (once Lana had won enough competitions to earn it in her father’s eyes) a tennis court. Marks’s sister now lives in Australia and her brother in Israel. She is bitterly estranged from both over the family trust and the care of their mother, now 89.

Neville Marks was the first man she allowed herself to beat at her favorite game. In 1976, Neville, then 36, met Lana, then 22, on the terrace of the President Hotel in Cape Town and invited her to play tennis. Something about him made her feel free to thrash him, which she did. Two weeks later, he proposed. Within five months, the two had married and moved to Neville’s former home of Bermuda, where Marks became the island’s top-ranked singles player and, it seems, something of a local flash point.

“As I told you, I am a perfectionist,” she explains, “and I only wanted to train with the best.” At that time, the best happened to be a black player. Bermuda, of course, was no South Africa when it came to legally enshrined racial segregation, but between his color and her religion, Marks says, they had to practice on public courts. This arrangement rubbed the Old Guard the wrong way — resulting in sufficient friction, according to her, that when a minor work-permit issue arose involving the Markses’ South African au pair, it morphed into their being convicted of document fraud, though an appellate court summarily threw out the decision. Nonetheless, Neville’s work permit was not renewed, and his application for citizenship was rejected. The offer of a professorship at the University of Miami medical school brought the family to Florida.

The day I first meet Marks, shortly before Christmas, the acid is still burning through James Mattis’s resignation letter. So I ask: Does she feel no apprehension that she might become another Mattis, McMaster, Priebus, Kelly, Sessions, or any of the others who had joined Trump’s team only for him to ignore, undercut, or turn on them? “I just don’t see that at all,” she says. “I feel, in my humble opinion, that I understand the president, where other people may not have understood him.”

Does she understand him to be a misogynist? “He has always been absolutely marvelous with me, given me the greatest respect. He’s been impeccable.”

Or a racist? “I’ve never seen that for myself,” she swears. “I’ve seen the president in all sorts of company. I’ve never, not once, witnessed that. In fact, I’ve seen the opposite.”

Of course, it’s no surprise for a Trump nominee to praise him for public consumption. But Marks has a veritably Ivanka-like ability to do it without blinking.

“He is very succinct, very laser-focused, oh my gosh, and very smart,” she insists. “Very, very, very smart. Extremely smart.”

Be that as it mayn’t, Marks herself is no dummy, and as Trump appointments to U.S. ambassadorships go, hers hardly falls in the first rank of outrageousness. That distinction might go to her fellow Mar-a-Lagonian, Patrick Park; according to Laurence Leamer’s new book, Mar-a-Lago, Park’s self-described connections to his prospective posting, Austria, included having seen The Sound of Music “like, 75 times.” (Park ultimately withdrew from consideration.) Or perhaps it goes to Kyle McCarter, whom the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hesitated to send to Kenya, a country where political rivals of the powerful have been locked up, on the grounds that he’d tweeted that Hillary Clinton ought to be locked up. Or to “Papa Doug” Manchester, who referred to his prospective posting, the Bahamas, as a U.S. protectorate, even though it’s part of the British Commonwealth. That’s not counting Richard Grenell, David Friedman, or David Cornstein, current ambassadors to Germany, Israel, and Hungary, respectively, who’ve stood accused of meddling dangerously in those countries’ internal politics.

Not that Trump is by any measure the first president to use the diplomatic corps as a playground for pals. The practice is common in the U.S., to the bemusement of the international community.

Although Marks’s background falls on the British side of white South Africa’s historic British-Boer divide, she is fluent in Afrikaans. She also claims to have been fluent, though now “rusty,” in Xhosa, thanks to a nanny who spoke to her in nothing else. “My father was very good friends with Donald Woods,” Marks recalls, referring to the famed anti-apartheid journalist. “He used to come to the house to play tennis.” It was while listening in on post-match chats that she first heard of Steve Biko, after which, she says, “I was not the same person.”

Especially as recounted on Worth Avenue amid the gazillion-dollar swag, that narrative — racial enlightenment on the home tennis court, learning an African language from a black servant — is as simple to knock as it is difficult to verify. But talking about South Africa now, Marks comes across as informed and well intentioned.

She declines to be quoted on specifics, but on background she sounds many of the same themes as the experts I interviewed, none of whom depicted her appointment in and of itself as a horror.

Even if every line of her biography is read in the best possible light, however, there remains one major and inescapable problem with this appointee. That, of course, is the appointer.

I have asked Secretary of State @SecPompeo to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers. So Trump tweeted on August 22 after watching Tucker Carlson Fox-fulminate against “racist” South African president Cyril Ramaphosa because he’d started to “steal land from people because they’re the wrong skin color.”

As nearly every informed observer instantly noted, Ramaphosa had done nothing of the kind. Months previously, his government had introduced a resolution in Parliament to consider amending the property-rights clause of South Africa’s 1997 Constitution. That raised the possibility of land “expropriation without compensation,” a concept so emotionally, economically, and historically fraught that, whether the process ever takes place, South African politics was rocked by the mere mention of it. And that was before Trump picked up the issue and shook it.

“People in government were furious,” says South African political commentator Nicholas Borain. “But the country mostly rolled their eyes and said, ‘Shame the Americans have to put up with this.’ ’’

Think about that for a second: South Africa is bedeviled by, among other things, rampant crime; epic corruption; an HIV rate that, though falling, remains at crisis levels; and racial tensions that have not only outlived apartheid but, in some ways, metastasized in the quarter-century since its demise. Yet some South Africans see theirs as a more functional democracy than that of the United States.

Of course, land restitution isn’t the only hot-button issue the new ambassador will face. Others range from U.S. protectionism, which menaces South African exports, to the fallout from “shithole.”

“I still have that comment thrown in my face all the time by Africans,” says John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria who is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Affairs. “An awful lot of Africans fear that the U.S. remains racist. They know all about Ferguson, all about Charlottesville, so comments like that just reinforce the idea that the U.S. is as racist as it ever was.”

None of this even remotely dampens Marks’s enthusiasm, which seemingly remains as “gargantuan” as she describes her vetting process to be. It has taken two years and counting; as of late January, Senate Foreign Relations staffers told me that her hearing had yet to be scheduled and that they’d yet to see her completed file. Short of getting a peek at it myself, it’s impossible for me to know what to make of the length of the process. It could be, as Marks suggests, that it’s simply a matter of her being a private, previously unscoured citizen with financial interests all over the world, plus — as she certainly does not suggest — the general disarray of the Trump administration and its obsession with cramming judicial appointments through the Senate at the expense of everything else.

“I think this is a very fortunate time because I am coming in not with Jacob Zuma but with Ramaphosa,” she says, favorably contrasting the current president with his predecessor.

Marks is rightfully glad to see the back of the flagrantly corrupt exemplar of incompetence who sacrificed the well-being of the South African people for his own and his cronies’ enrichment. But Zuma still claims support from a viscerally loyal base, and given the amount of postapartheid personal wealth that has flowed, properly and not, to the ANC elite, no one mistakes the end of Zuma for the end of corruption.

Meanwhile, more broadly speaking, the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, the middle class has gotten angrier and more resentful, and race is always there for the baiting.

Diplomatic neophyte or not, Marks should find all this very familiar — although not comfortingly so. To succeed in her new job, she must come up with a way to help remedy abroad what she rationalizes at home. She’s hearteningly confident, but the waters of international politics are full of alligators. And they won’t be so easy to skin.

*This article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine.

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