Okay, first Donald left Ivana for Marla. Right? Then he dropped Marla for Carla. And then he shunned Carla for Marla. Wait a minute. Who’s on first? Call Abbott and Costello. Or call Marla Maples and Donald Trump. The last time anybody sorted it all out, it seems that they were engaged to be married—to each other—and Marla was sporting a sparkler as big as the Plaza.
Just two weeks ago, though, Ms. Maples was not even taking The Donald’s calls. Not after a PEOPLE reporter played her a tape on June 26 of a man saying that he was a Trump publicist named John Miller. A shocked, devastated Marla identified the voice as that of Trump himself. He announced, among other things, that he’d traded in his Georgia peach for an Italian model (Carla Bruni). “When I heard his voice on that tape saying those things, I said, ‘Whoa! Uh-uh. No more,’ ” says Marla. “If he could say all that stuff and act like it’s cool to have this playboy image, then oh my gosh, all I could say was, ‘Baby, you’re on your own.’ ”
So she packed a bag, ducking the press as well as The Donald’s persistent appeals to reconcile, and took refuge at the Greenwich, Conn., home of her close friend, morning talk show host Kathie Lee Gilford. There she talked, prayed (she and Kathie Lee are both devout Christians) and came to a Donald-less conclusion: “I realized I was not going to die without this person in my life.”
Meanwhile a penitent Don Juan-ald had come to the opposite conclusion. The John Miller fiasco he called a joke gone awry. “What I did became a good time at Mar-la’s expense, and I’m very sorry,” says the newly humbled tycoon. As for his wandering eye, “I’d felt that I needed space and freedom after the divorce, so I took the opportunity to go out with other women, but I kept coming back to Marla. I realized, why go looking for something when you already have exactly what you want?”
The problem: By the time he knew what he wanted, he didn’t have her anymore. So he pleaded with Marla’s mother, Ann Ogletree. He reasoned with Marla’s friends. But to no avail. “I knew he was trying to reach me for days, but I just couldn’t bear to hear his voice,” says Marla, 27. “I wasn’t ready.” Finally she agreed to see him because, she says, “I couldn’t really move on until I looked him in the eyes and knew that it was truly over.”
Donald, 45, drove to the Giffords’, and, says Marla, “proposed to me for the millionth time.” Was it the sparkle in his eye—or in the 7.5-carat, estimated $250,000 emerald-cut Harry Winston diamond engagement ring he brought with him—that made her say yes? “When I saw him, I could feel the truth, that we had to push it to this point to be able to truly make the commitment to each other,” she muses. “Whether he did [the John Miller stunt] as a joke or as a final straw to try to push me farther away from him, it ended up bringing us to a new level.”
Yeah, yeah. But what about the diamond? “I always told him the size doesn’t mailer, it’s the symbolism,” she says. “When he gave me a Cartier [friendship] band a couple of years ago, it was such a symbol of love that it didn’t have to be diamonds. But I tell you what,” she adds, laughing, “it sure feels better having this. It’s something that my parents can see and know how serious he is.”
How serious she is, the family already knows. The breakup, in fact, has only strengthened her commitment to Donald. “I was into this relationship for so long, I was just going with it without knowing if it really made me happy,” says Marla. “When I realized I could be happy alone, it made me love him more freely—now instead of out of desperation, it’s out of choice.” As eager as she is to marry Donald (sometime this winter, she hopes, in a small, quiet ceremony), in Marla’s book, wedlock is not a financial contract. So while Maples may be changing her name to Trump, she will not follow the first Mrs. T into prenuptialized marital bliss. “I don’t think we’re doing it that way,” she says (that’s Marlaspeak for I know we’re not doing it that way). “This relationship is going to be built on trust—and that’s it.”