THE WASHINGTON POST – One of my most treasured possessions is a collection of 14-inch dolls, 36 in all, portraying every First Lady from Martha Washington to Jacqueline Kennedy, created by the doll impresario Madame Alexander. My late mother spent years amassing the collection; she was an immigrant, and I’ve often wondered if this was her way to bond with her adopted country.
In some sense, the collection represents how first ladies have been regarded through the centuries: built in the same mould, expected to adhere to conventional notions of feminine beauty and behaviour, only minor deviations tolerated.
For her three years in the White House, Melania Trump has seemed like a doll in my collection: not a hair out of place, wearing her best, saying little, doing what’s expected, and sometimes not even that.
But as Mary Jordan details in her fine new book, The Art of Her Deal, this First Lady also has been as willing as her husband to break the mould – and the rules.
As Jordan reported, Melania is only the second First Lady, and the only one in modern history, to have been born outside the United States (US).
Melania also made the exceptional decision after moving into the White House to retain her dual citizenship with her native Slovenia. Despite reports soon after her husband’s election that she was unhappy at the prospect of serving as First Lady, Melania had carried the dream with her for decades, even before she married the future president.
And she knew what kind of First Lady she wanted to be. “I would be very traditional. Like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy. I would support him,” Melania Knauss told an interviewer in 1999, when her boyfriend Donald Trump was first publicly flirting with a presidential run.
The interview took place only months after Trump divorced his second wife, Marla Maples, and more than five years before Melania became wife No 3.
As Jordan wrote, “A common narrative about Melania is that she simply wanted to marry a wealthy man, and that she was horrified when Trump entered politics in 2015 and disrupted her comfortable world.
But there is ample evidence that from the very beginning, Melania not only accepted and embraced Trump’s political aspirations but was also an encouraging partner.” It could not have been easy to report and write this book, given the Trumps’ disdain for real journalism, their aversion to transparency and obsession with controlling their images.
But Jordan, a political reporter at The Washington Post, has assembled a solid narrative, written without embellishment or much editorial comment, allowing the facts to speak for themselves.
The Melania she presents is sympathetic occasionally, but not always. She is enigmatic, glamourous, secretive, strategic, a quiet loner and master compartmentaliser who made her deal with the devil and made it work because in many ways, deep down, she and Trump are cut from the same shiny cloth. Truth serves their own purposes, not the other way around.
“She works at remaining mysterious,” Jordan wrote. “In her own way, she is as complex and complicated as her husband. She is also much more like him than it appears.” And later, “Both are avid creators of their own history.”
Unearthing that history took years, Jordan said, her reporting stymied by the Trumps’ aggressive attempts to erase her past. It took more than 120 interviews in five countries for this portrait to emerge – and it still leaves much unsaid.
Jordan said Melania had “the most unconventional path to the White House in history”.
I’m not sure that beats being the great-great-great granddaughter of a slave, as was her predecessor, but it certainly was unlikely that when Melania Knavs was born in a small town in Slovenia 50 years ago, she’d become the second First Lady – the other was Louisa Johnson, John Quincy Adams’ wife – born outside the US. Her father, Viktor – who bears an uncanny resemblance to his son-in-law, only five years his junior – was a chauffeur.
Her mother, Amalija, worked in a clothing factory. From an early age, Melania was aware of her beauty, her tall, lithe figure, perfectly erect stature, and startling blue eyes.
A good student, she began a competitive architecture programme at the University of Ljubljana in the fall of 1989.
She immigrated to the US with the help of an Italian modeling agent on a visitor’s visa and then secured an H-1B work visa, normally reserved for “distinguished merit or ability”.
This is a pattern in Melania’s life, revealed by Jordan’s careful reporting. As a citizen, she was able to petition to bring her parents and sister to the US, participating in the very “chain migration” that President Trump has repeatedly derided and curtailed. And that’s the crux of the matter.
Plenty of celebrities exaggerate and even lie about their past; reinvention is an American trope, after all, and it’s often accompanied by a rewrite of personal history.
But as described in this book, Melania repeatedly stretches and even abandons the truth if it’s inconvenient for her, and her alone.
She is either unaware of the hypocrisy in such actions – of, for example, championing anti-cyber bullying when her husband is the world’s No 1 culprit – or, to paraphrase the infamous jacket she wore on a visit to the administration’s deliberate humanitarian crisis on the Mexican border, she just doesn’t care.
Here is where I wish Jordan’s book more deeply analysed the consequences of Melania’s behind-the-scenes behaviour – whether and how she should be held accountable for supporting an administration that has broken democratic norms, endangered lives and ruined America’s standing in the world.