On the face of it, there’s not much about the First Lady role (nickname FLOTUS) that suggests glamour or pleasure. It’s unpaid, you have to manage a staff— of around 15 people, be an all round charming White House hostess and then champion a cause or two, usually related to women or children. (www.theatlantic.com). But as we watch Donald Trump become the 45th President of the United States, it is his wife, Melania, who is keeping everyone guessing – what kind of First Lady is she going to be? (Daily Telegraph).
The journey of Donald Trump from TV Star (The Apprentice) to The President, from Trump Towers to the White House is still quite a story to swallow. Behind the scenes though it’s likely Melania will have been doing the smoothing and soothing. “She brings this quality of calm and serenity to him (Donald) …”She is not fearful. She is bold, but she is graceful.”(Harpers Bazaar)
Donald’s public profile is as big as his ambition, he has become a daily feature of our newsfeeds. But his third wife has been keeping a resolutely low-profile. Melania says she intends to remain in the shade, determined to keep on mother-duty for their 10 year old son, Barron. “I chose not to go into politics and policy,” she said. “Those policies are my husband’s job.” Prompting many American commentators to speculate on her acuity and passivity, in many feel is a bling-bling marriage. (www.newyorker.com)
Her story, though, suggests she should prove to be a more interesting First Lady then her comments suggest. Born in 1970, she grew up in Communist Yugoslavia and is fluent in 5 languages. After studying architecture and design at Slovenia’s University of Ljubljana for a year, she was tempted away by photographic bright lights. Determined for more modelling success, she moved to New York in 1996, meeting Trump at a party a couple of years later. She refused his advances, at first, and they married (with the Clintons present…) in 2005.
” I have my own mind. I am my own person, and I think my husband likes that about me.” With her own interests (a caviar skincare range?) on top of her mother duties (with staff, of course) Melania is not in any rush to take up the First Wife mantle. And because Trump likes to do things very firmly his (family) way, Ivanka Trump, his daughter will, initially at least, take on the public supportive role.
Maybe Melania, whilst she waits for Barron to finish school in New York, is working on a more dignified public persona (erasing the sore memory of that Republican National Convention “speech“…)
She could start with Jackie Onassis, “The one thing I do not want to be called is First Lady. It sounds like a saddle horse.”
Jackie Kennedy brought beauty, intelligence, and cultivated taste to the White House. Her interest in the arts, publicized by press and television, inspired an attention to culture never before evident at a national level. She devoted much time and study to making the White House a museum of American history and decorative arts as well as a family residence of elegance and charm. But she defined her major role as “to take care of the President” and added that “if you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”. Her dignity after the assassination of her husband, JFK, was all part of her public persona, in private she was a mess.
If Jackie’s impeccability feels like to hard an act to follow she could look to Martha Washington who much preferred to live a quiet private life. But she knew how to put on the show when she had to; was always fashionably dressed and a gracious hostess at public events. She took on managing the presidential household and played the society game – paying social calls to the wives of important bigwigs and hosting a weekly reception at the presidential mansion for the “ordinary”. Maybe not quite the reserved Melania’s style?
It’s unlikely Melania will find herself in tune with Mary Todd Lincoln though;
“I would rather marry a good man, a man of mind, with a hope and bright prospects ahead for position, fame and power than to marry all the houses, gold and bones in the world.” (owlcation.com)
Perhaps then she should look to her East European heritage. Like the First Lady of Yugoslavia, Jovanka Broz, (wife of Communist Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito) who oversaw the 32 houses assigned to Yugoslavia’s “president for life.” She looked after Tito’s yacht, his airliner and the “Blue Train,” which consisted of 20 luxuriously appointed railroad cars and two engines. She accompanied him on trips around the world, and to their summer residence on the island of Brijuni (where they entertained Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, Carlo Ponti and Gina Lollobrigida). She was also a lieutenant colonel in the Yugoslav People’s Army.
Melania is likely to be more impressed that Jovanka was also known as “the mother of the Yugoslav fashion industry”. She wore clothes manufactured and designed in Yugoslav fashion factories – to demonstrate the concept of lifestyle and values propagated in socialism (although of course, hers were tailored, not mass produced).
But she also carved out a role beyond that of society hostess, caring for Tito, with notes and messages, and nudging him to keep him alert. Jovanka Broz always claimed that this was part of her service to him, another aspect of a devotion that saw her soothe his sciatica and steer him away, when possible, from cigars and whisky.
Or she could look further East, to Russia, for an examplar; like the impeccably dressed and eloquent Raisa Gorbachev. She broke with Kremlin tradition to share the spotlight with her husband, President Mikhail Gorbachev, and did so with bold self-assurance and flair. At home and abroad, she emerged as a First Lady who had her own mind, her own style and very loving marriage “I am very lucky with Mikhail. We are really friends, or if you prefer, we have great complicity.”
Initially unpopular at home; too flashy, too influential, attitudes have since softened. She is now remembered for the spousal support she bought to the role, a pioneering spirit and a cultural leader. (www.nytimes.com)
But Melania, take heed; Vladimir Putin’s wife, Ludmilla, opted for a quiet life – her marriage suffered as a result and it really hasn’t ended so well for her.
Perhaps then Mehriban Aliyeva, the First Lady of Azerbaijan is a more appropriate role-model. Born into a well connected, oil-rich family, she’s known for her good-looks and good works, and for bringing glamour and goodwill (as a Unesco ambassador) to the supportive role. More recently there has been speculation she has her eye on her husband, President Ilham Aliyev’s job.
Is this Melania in 10, 20 years? Will the power and politics rub off? Will she find it enticing for herself? Now, that would be a thought-provoking twist to this already rather alarming, Trump Presidency.
A timely release – Jackie, the Oscar tipped film about Jackie Onassis in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination, is on release here next week. Pablo Larrain’s film explores the mystery of Jackie (Natalie Portman, in what some say is her performance best) and the huge gulf between her public and her private persona.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield. Fiction or faction? An imagining of life as a First Lady “inspired” by Barbara Bush.
First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Kate Andersen Brower. From the heartwarming to the shocking and tragic here are some new insights into the First lives of Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama. She also offers insight as to what Melania Trump might hope to accomplish as First Lady.
And more on this list here; www.goodreads.com
BBC R4 Woman’s Hour – The Legacy of Michelle Obama
Letter From America – 1981 Alistair Cooke reports on Nancy Reagan. All eyes on the president’s wife as her style becomes much-loved, but also lampooned.
First Ladies on the History Chicks – Dolley Payne Madison and Mary Todd Lincoln
The Gloomy Life and Times of Louisa Adams, First Lady
Featured Image: First Lady, Michelle Obama and all five living former First Ladies – Laura Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, and Rosalynn Carter