Ivana Trump's Longtime Friend Says She Was 'Like an Angel' and Believes 'She Could've Been Saved' from Death

Zach Erdem, owner of a popular restaurant in the Hamptons, tells PEOPLE about his gentle, 19-year friendship with Ivana — and their final conversations before her passing

Ivana Trump was "like an angel" who was willing to help anyone regardless of their politics or religion, one of her close friends shares with PEOPLE.

Zach Erdem, owner of the 75 Main restaurant in Southampton that is featured in the TV show Serving the Hamptons, describes Trump as an "incredible mom" who "raised incredible kids" as well as a great wife and advisor to former President Donald Trump.

"She was always supporting charities and everything. She was like an angel. Whoever needed help, she would be there. She didn't care about any politics or religion or whatever, she was ready to help whoever needed it," Erdem says about Ivana's passing at the age of 73 on Thursday.

"I don't really usually get close to people, but when you find good people, you're always attracted to good people. And I always said she was kind of like a mother to me," he adds.

Longtime Friend of Ivana Trump Recalls the Little Things That Made Her Special: 'Like an Angel'. Photo credit: Zach Erdem
Zach Erdem

Erdem first met Ivana in 2003 when he was a busboy at a high-end restaurant in New York City who did not speak much English. He eventually left the restaurant and opened 75 Main in the Hamptons in 2010.

"One day I'm sitting in my restaurant with a couple friends and this lady walks in, I get up, I hug her before even saying any words. It was like, so crazy. I saw her like, I missed her. I hadn't seen her in a couple years," he recalls. "And I hugged her very strong like you're missing your mom. She was like, 'Darling, I heard that you own this place. Let's sit down.' We sat down and had a great time."

The two exchanged personal numbers and stayed in touch. Erdem said she would visit him at the restaurant when she was in the area with friends.

His restaurant is a celebrity hotspot in the Hamptons, attracting stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kendall Jenner. Erdem made headlines in 2020 when he set fire to a table that Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein dined at, telling the press it brought bad energy to his restaurant.

Ivana Trump during Paris Fashion Week - Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2006 - Christian Dior - Arrivals & Front Row at Polo de Paris in Paris, France. (Photo by Adrianne Olivera Lacroix/WireImage)
Ivana Trump. Adrianne Olivera Lacroix/WireImage

Ivana offered to help Erdem with his show Serving the Hamptons.

"Actually that was the last time she was on TV, an hour and a half. My production company put her on and we filmed a whole lunch between her and I and there were also some other friends that joined us," he says before recalling a conversation she had with him about his career.

"'I want you to be more successful. I know how hard you work. I know where you came from,' which was really cool, when someone knows you and gives you credit. She knew that I was a busboy. She knew that I didn't speak English when I was a busboy," he adds.

Erdem says he had hoped to see her over this past winter but it didn't work out.

"I know that she had health issues and didn't want to talk about it much. I only wanted to talk to her about positive things and make her happy," he says. "And when I talked to her I was always like, 'I love you, I miss you. Can't wait to see you.'"

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 13: Ivana Trump does a television interview at the book launch party and reception for Ivana Trump and Gianluca Mech's "The Italiano Diet" at The Oak Room at the Plaza on June 13, 2018 in New York, New York. (Photo by Rebecca Smeyne/Getty Images)
Ivana Trump. Rebecca Smeyne/Getty

Erdem says he last spoke with Ivana a few weeks ago.

"For the first time, she's like, 'I don't know if I can make it to the Hamptons this summer,'" he recalls. "And she was very excited to go to Europe. She hadn't gone to Europe for a couple years. She loved Saint-Tropez, that's her favorite place in the world," he says.

"And I think her ticket was for Friday, or Saturday or today, she was supposed to go there. But then she was like, 'I want to get back. I'm coming back to see you and I can't wait to see you,'" he adds.

Erdem believes Ivana mentioned an issue with her hip, but he does not know for sure because their phone connection was cutting in and out.

"She said she was going to surprise me but that she didn't feel good and she didn't want to get out of the house," he says. "She was kind of upset."

Longtime Friend of Ivana Trump Recalls the Little Things That Made Her Special: 'Like an Angel'. Photo credit: Zach Erdem
Zach Erdem

Someone informed him of her death while he was at his restaurant.

"[The person] comes back like, 'I know you loved Ivana. I know she loved you. But she's dead.' I was having coffee and dropped the coffee on my shirt and I started crying," he says. "I just spoke with this lady two weeks ago. She was excited to go to Europe and come back to the Hamptons. I Googled it and I saw the news all over. I was really heartbroken. It's really unexpected."

According to Erdem's recollection, the townhouse Ivana lived in had stairs that were sort of narrow or "tight," and being dizzy or missing a step could have caused her to fall down.

"When we were walking on the street, she used to get on my arm. She was like, 'Darling, slowly, slowly, I'm not a 20-year-old anymore.' I mean, we were going like really slow, so I had to go extremely slow for her to catch up with me," he says.

He hasn't seen the cause of death, but assumes she fell and hurt herself. According to a New York City medical examiner, he's right.

Erdem says Ivana had an assistant that she regarded as a best friend.

"She's the only person who was with Ivana all the time. She was like kind of her assistant, her cleaner, her care, the lady was her everything," he says. "If she was home early, she could have saved her. That was another upsetting thing. If there was someone there she may not have died. She would be alive right now."

Erdem hasn't had a chance to speak to the woman directly about Ivana's passing.

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Ivana (nee Zelnickova) and Donald Trump pose together at a Betsey Johnson fashion show in Bryant Park, New York, New York, 1997. (Photo by Rose Hartman/Getty Images)
Rose Hartman/Getty

Erdem also remembers Ivana frequently giving advice to her ex-husband, Donald, during his tenure in the White House, describing her as a "big advisor" to the former president.

"She was very smart. Trust me. She was tough even at that age. She would call Donald and give all the direction and advice for him. She was the one who told him to stay away from media. Stay away from everything," he says, referring to the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot.

Anyone who knew Ivana would describe her as incredible overall, Erdem says, noting that he isn't overly political and didn't associate her with politics.

"She was kind, she was an incredible mom. She raised incredible kids, and was a great wife for Mr. Trump and she helped him," he says. "I wish I could have learned more from her. I was joking with her that I want to be a Trump. 'Can you make me Trump as well?' And she was like, 'I'm working on it.'"

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