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.
The dolls have similar looks, build, skin color and facial features. Their distinction lies in what they wear. Each is outfitted in the dress she wore to her first inaugural ball, reflecting and defining a singular historical moment, if only by a swatch of fabric or the length of a hemline.
In some sense, the collection represents how first ladies have been regarded through the centuries: built in the same mold, expected to adhere to conventional notions of feminine beauty and behavior, only minor deviations tolerated. Some tried to break the mold and paid dearly for it. Others have been content to promote a worthy cause, project an individual style, protect their man and retain their doll-like composure.
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 mold – and the rules. As Jordan reports, Melania is only the second first lady, and the only one in modern history, to have been born outside the United States. 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 writes: “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, glamorous, secretive, strategic, a quiet loner and master compartmentalizer 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 writes. “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 says, 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 says 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 Melanija 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’s wife – born outside the United States.
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, Melanija was aware of her beauty, her tall, lithe figure, perfectly erect stature, and startling blue eyes. Thanks to her mother’s skill at sewing clothes, she and her sister were always impeccably dressed, unusual in drab, conformist, Communist Yugoslavia.
A good student, she began a competitive architecture program at the University of Ljubljana in the fall of 1989. Less than two years later, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Slovenia declared its independence. But by then, Melanija had dropped out of college to pursue a modeling career; she changed her name to Melania Knauss and roamed through Europe seeking success, leaving few traces behind.
She immigrated to the United States 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.” (She later received a green card through the elite EB-1 program, designed for those with “extraordinary ability.”) Her career was hardly distinguished, and suspicion about her immigration status lingers because the Trumps have never made the documentation public, despite promises to do so.
This is a pattern in Melania’s life, revealed by Jordan’s careful reporting. As late as July 2016, Melania’s official biography claimed that she graduated from university; she did not.
For decades, she said she spoke five languages, allowing others to point to her fluency as evidence of her intellect. But Jordan could find no evidence that she speaks anything other than Slovenian and English – even when presented with high profile opportunities to use French, Italian or German.
On becoming an American citizen in 2006, Jordan reports, Melania kept her Slovenian citizenship and subsequently ensured that her son Barron was also a dual citizen. Both renewed their Slovenian passports after moving into the White House. It is, Jordan notes, “very unusual for members of the first family to be citizens of another country.”
As a citizen, she was able to petition to bring her parents and sister to the United States, 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.
This would be of prurient interest and not public importance if she weren’t, by all accounts, fully complicit in her husband’s corrupt, dangerous presidency. Here is where I wish Jordan’s book more deeply analyzed the consequences of Melania’s behind-the-scenes behavior – 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.
Melania Trump has been one of the least visible first ladies in modern times. (She made eight speeches during her husband’s first year in office, compared to Michelle Obama’s 74.) Jordan says she is growing more comfortable in the White House and genuinely hopes for a second term for the man she praises above all else. No need to #FreeMelania. She is doing exactly what she wants.