The Long, Strange Journey of Lana Marks, Trump’s Pick for South African Ambassador

The daughter of a Jewish property developer, Marks’ story has included leaving Bermuda under a cloud of anti-Semitism, winning a bronze medal for tennis and becoming a handbag designer to the stars

In this file photo taken on February 24, 2008, Lana Marks attends the 16th Annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards viewing party at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, California.
Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images North America

President Donald Trump’s pick as the next U.S. ambassador to South Africa has been criticized for lacking diplomatic experience. But while the life story of 65-year-old Lana Marks may not involve formal training in government relations, it doesn’t lack for international intrigue.

Marks is the fourth member of Trump’s exclusive Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago, to be tapped for a role in his administration. His choice of Marks, whom he has known for 23 years, had been rumored for months and the vetting process has taken more than a year. If confirmed by the Senate, she will be filling a role that has lacked a political appointee since December 2016. 

“I’m deeply honored to be nominated as ambassador to South Africa,” the Jewish, South Africa-born luxury handbag designer told Haaretz in a brief telephone interview. However, she said she was not discussing in the media her nominations or qualifications for the job pending her confirmation hearing. 

It was the most dramatic chapter in Marks’ life that first brought her to Palm Beach in the 1980s: An incident in which she charged the island nation of Bermuda of anti-Semitism, after she and her husband were forced to leave the country.

In 1982, Marks, then 29, and her husband, Dr. Neville Marks, 43, were charged with immigration violations, and found guilty on two counts of submitting false immigration documents for employing Lucia King, a black South African nanny.

The Markses protested their innocence at the time, saying King had arrived in the capacity of a “friend of the family” and as a “nonworking house guest” – a few days after which, they said, they applied for her to work for them, with her documentation in legal order, according to the Bermuda Royal Gazette. They said they had not been informed of the charges in a timely fashion, questioned or given a chance to counter them before the legal action was taken against them.

The next year, in July 1983, the couple’s conviction was cleared on appeal by the country’s Supreme Court after 10 minutes of deliberation, which found there was no proof that Lana Marks had provided false documents for King’s employment and that the jury had been misdirected in the original trial. 

Caption: Lana Marks, left, marching with her husband, Dr. Neville Marks, when she competed for Bermuda at the Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Courtesy of Lana Marks

They were represented in their appeal by Lois Browne-Evans, the country’s first female lawyer, who went on to become the leader of Bermuda’s Progressive Labour Party and its first female attorney general. 

When the decision was announced that the couple’s names were cleared, according to the newspaper account Marks “burst into tears” and rushed from the courtroom. But the relief was short-lived. Under the cloud of this accusation, Dr. Marks – who was the only psychiatrist on the island and had been acting-medical director of the island’s psychiatric hospital – was refused permission to work there.

In 1983, a story in the Jewish Floridian of Fort Lauderdale said the couple attributed their plight to their “persistent efforts to become Bermuda’s first Jewish residents to attain citizenship.” They believed they were targeted by the government for these efforts, and that anti-Semitism played a role in their legal woes.  

Dr. Marks had applied for citizenship repeatedly, after living on the island for more than a decade and becoming a lay leader of the island’s tiny Jewish community. The Florida newspaper quoted him as saying that “it’s only when you live here that you learn about the subtle forms of anti-Semitism.”

Lana Marks told the paper in 1983: “We would like Jews in America to know what’s going on here. Jews are not allowed to own businesses and are banned from many clubs. I have won almost every tennis tournament on the island, the mid-Ocean Tennis club would not even acknowledge my application and the Coral Beach Club, which has no Jewish members, turned me down.”  

Fiona Elkinson, the current leader of Bermuda’s Jewish community, told Haaretz via email that while she personally did not live on the island in the ’80s, the Markses had been “a controversial couple” at the time. She said she has been told “that they caused a huge split in the community.” 

Elkinson added that she knows of other cases in which the work permits of foreigners were not renewed after they were found guilty of committing an illegal act. 

Born Lana Bank in 1953, Marks was raised in East London, on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, to an affluent and socially prominent family. Her father, the late Alec Bank, had immigrated to South Africa from Lithuania as a child. He was a property developer and builder, and a leader in the local Jewish community.

It was while studying business at the University of the Witwatersrand that she met her future husband, who was working temporarily in South Africa.

Lana Marks with two bronze medals for tennis, after representing the United States at the 1989 Maccabiah Games in Israel.
Courtesy of Lana Marks

After a whirlwind courtship, they married in 1976 and moved to Bermuda, where she volunteered in hospitals and played tennis – she had been a top player in South Africa, and was ranked #1 in Bermuda. 

When they were forced to leave after the legal debacle, Lana Marks had a 2-year-old son, Martin, and was eight months pregnant.  

Ultimately, though, the couple’s forced relocation to the United States – where Marks became a citizen in 1994 – turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Palm Beach was where she launched her handbag business.

Clutch purses at the Oscars 

Marks says she was inspired to begin designing handbags in 1984, when she and her husband were invited to a birthday celebration for Queen Elizabeth II aboard the royal yacht and she couldn’t find a red alligator handbag to go with her outfit. That ultimately led, four years later, to her creating a “hot pink alligator lunchbox handbag.”  

Her designs are made of exotic animal skins such as alligator, crocodile, ostrich and lizard, and are often encrusted with expensive jewels. Actress Helen Mirren carried her $250,000 Cleopatra Clutch purse with her to the 2007 Academy Awards (even having it on stage when she won the best actress award for her performance in “The Queen”). Another actress, China’s Li Bingbing, brought a $400,000 metallic silver, American alligator leather Cleopatra Clutch with her to the Oscars five years later.

According to the company website – which features photos of stars like Reese Witherspoon, Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron and Sarah Jessica Parker with her creations – Marks now has upscale boutiques in Palm Beach, New York, London, Macau, Dubai and Qatar, with four further locations in China.

Marks’ name hit the headlines following Princess Diana’s death in August 1997, when she spoke to the press about a 11-month friendship with the late princess (whom she also named a handbag after). 

Marks said she felt guilt over having indirectly participated in the circumstances surrounding the princess’s tragic death. She had intended to travel with Diana to Milan on a short vacation that month, but canceled those plans after her father’s illness and death. This, she said, was what led to Diana’s decision to travel instead with her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, to Sardinia and Paris, where she died after a car accident on August 31.

Beyond Diana, Marks has experienced her share of business and personal woes over the years. A report in the Palm Beach Daily News detailed “more than a dozen past lawsuits against her in Aspen, New York, California and South Florida,” where “Marks has repeatedly been accused of stiffing her attorneys, accountants, landlords and employees. She is also embroiled in bitter, international legal battles in South Africa and Israel with her siblings over a family trust and the care for their 89-year-old mother.”

British newspaper The Times added that Marks was being sued by her brother and sister for “unlawfully” taking $3.5 million in property and cash from their mother and a family trust. However, Marks maintains it is her siblings who have unlawfully siphoned money from her family’s estate, and that it was she who subsidized and supported her parents over the years, after they moved near her in Florida.

Pyrotechnics, cocktails and Trump

Marks first met Trump on the Palm Beach social scene in the ’90s, and became a member of his exclusive Mar-a-Lago club in 2010, ahead of the wedding of her daughter, Tiffany Marks. The event for 300 included “pyrotechnics, two cocktail receptions, a six-tiered wedding cake in six different hues and an ice sculpture inlaid with the Tiffany-blue initials of the new couple – all orchestrated by the detail-conscious mother of the bride,” the Palm Beach Daily News reported.

While she has not given press interviews regarding her nomination, Marks has launched an online defense against media portrayals of her as an unqualified socialite, chosen by Trump on the basis of her Mar-a-Lago membership.  

On her Facebook and Instagram pages, Marks has cited her qualifications for the ambassadorial post, pointing out she has built a successful international business over three decades and understands South Africa’s “political, economic, social & media landscape.” She is also fluent in Afrikaans and Xhosa, which she learned from her nanny as a child. She posted that she has “served on Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Women’s Leadership Board, and participated in a Women’s Business Leadership Initiative in Helsinki, and lectured to MBA students at Georgetown University.”

Marks also pushed back against a South African business publication,  which unearthed a 2006 interview with her and claimed she fabricated elements of her tennis career by saying she had competed in Grand Slam tournaments at Wimbledon and the French Open.

Marks posted photographs of herself competing in the French Open and a press clipping detailing one of her matches.

Marks also competed in Israel’s Maccabiah Games over the years, under several flags – Bermuda, Great Britain and the United States – and won two bronze medals in the tennis competitions.

With a backlog of confirmations to complete, the Senate is not expected to get to Marks’ hearings until after the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. If and when she is confirmed, she will face major diplomatic challenges representing the Trump White House in South Africa. Many there are still fuming after the U.S. president weighed in on farmland disputes in August, repeating a Fox News report that called the policies of the South African government racist.

South Africa’s foreign affairs minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, said Trump’s tweet was “based on false information,” while President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration said Trump was “misinformed.” And a tweet from the country’s government account said: “South Africa totally rejects this narrow perception which only seeks to divide our nation and reminds us of our colonial past.”