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The nation has come a long, long way since Martha Washington took on the role of the first First Lady in 1789. Images of the women who held the position over the last two-and-a-quarter centuries reflect less on the role of women in a modernizing nation than the moral standards of what was considered appropriate conduct or public representation for a “good wife” of an historical period. Since Eleanor Roosevelt played the part during the Depression and World War II, only two of the subsequent nine First Wives projected a strong sense of their own sexuality, Jackie Kennedy and Michelle Obama. Until Mrs. Trump became First Lady.
Melania Trump was born Melanija Knavs [Germanized to Knauss] in 1970 in Novo Mesto and grew up in Sevnica, Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia). Her father, Viktor Knavs, was a member of the League of Communists who, after the fall of the Marshall Tito government, became a car and motorcycle dealer. She began modeling as a 5-year-old and doing commercials as a teenager. She met Trump in 1998 at a party at New York’s then-hip Kit Kat Club thrown by Paolo Zampolli, owner of a modelling agency. She married Trump in 2005 and is the mother of an 11-year-old son, Barron.
Melania Trump is the First Lady to pose nude, for GQ and a French men’s magazine. In July 2016, as her husband’s presidential candidacy gained momentum, the New York Post, a Murdoch-controlled tabloid, published a nude shot of the future First Lady on its cover page. And Melania is the president’s third wife, signifying the instability of postmodern marriage.
Traditionally, the First Lady represents the perfect good wife, unquestionably supportive of her husband and embodying an a-sexual, if not anti-sexual, persona. At first glance, Melania Trump appears to break the traditional historic mold, perhaps representing the 21st century version of the next-generation First Lady. How deeply will she challenge the conventional moral hypocrisy regarding private sexuality and public life? Will she revise the classic contradiction between Jackie Kennedy’s repressed poise and Marilyn Monroe’s assertive sexuality?
Press reports claim that Melania Trump will remain in New York until her son finishes school this spring and then move to the White House and assume the traditional role of the First Lady. And when she relocates to Washington, DC, will this former professional sex symbol and nude model become another First Lady good wife? Trump’s campaign promise to “make America great again” seems to begin at home by returning to traditional marriage of the 1950’s, thus turning today’s First Lady into yet another of yesterday’s good wife.
First Ladies have long been portrayed as high-minded if not saintly creatures, women representing the nation’s deepest female virtues – loyalty, propriety and sexless. Sadly, many of them didn’t have an easy time in either their public roles or private lives — in their relations with their often-adulterous husbands and serving as a good wife.
Martha Curtis, a widower, suffered the indignity of George Washington’s flirtatious relations with Mrs. Sally Fairfax, a friendship that “crystallized into a full-blown love affair.” While engaged to Martha, Washington was bedridden with dysentery and, for six months before his marriage, Fairfax spent many days attending to his needs. However, as his wedding approached, Washington broke off their relations, writing:
You have drawn me, dear madam, or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a simple Fact—misconstrue not my meaning—doubt it not, nor expose it—The world has no business to know the object of my Love—declared in this manner to you—when I want to conceal.
Once married, Washington and Mrs. Fairfax remained on friendly terms.
Melania Trump is the second First Lady to be born outside the continental U.S. The first was Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, the nation’s sixth president. Louisa Johnson came from a socially well-connected family that regularly traveled between England and its newly independent colonies. Critics raised this issue to discredit her and her husband, the president.
Rachel Donelson Jackson is the only First Lady to be assailed as a bigamist. In the 1828 election, Andrew Jackson ran for president and his wife was attacked because they had married before the divorce to her first husband was legally finalized. Zealous Christian revivalist raised this issue to discredit her and her husband, the president.
Lucretia Rudolph Garfield discovered that her husband, James Garfield, who she married in 1858, had an extramarital affair with Mrs. Lucia Gilbert Calhoun, a young New York Tribune reporter, four years earlier. In 1862, while a Union general during the Civil War, Garfield visited New York living through, as he wrote, “years of darkness,” suffering greatly, both physically and emotionally, from the bloody struggle. (Was this an early example of PTSD?) Lucretia discovered the affair and the couple worked out their differences
Grover Cleveland is the only president to be elected to two non-sequential terms, 1885-1889 and 1893-1897. When first elected, he was a bachelor who brought to the office a reputation as a lady’s man. Earlier in his career, newspaper reports claimed that he had an affair with Mrs. Maria Crofts Halpin, who accused him of fathering her illegitimate 10-year-old son, Oscar Folsom Cleveland. Taking office, he invited his sister, Rose, to serve as First Lady. Rose was a 19th-century “spinster,” an unmarried woman with a successful career as a teacher, novelist and literary critic. In 1889, following her brother’s marriage, she began a romantic friendship with Mrs. Evangeline Simpson, a wealthy 30-year-old woman. The two women exchanged a series of love letters. In one, Rose admits: “I tremble at the thought of you” and “I dare not think of your arms.” Simpson replies, calling Cleveland “my Clevy, my Viking, my Everything.” After Simpson’s husband died, the women moved to Italy in 1910 and lived together until Cleveland’s death in 1918.
Cleveland married Francis “Frank” Folsom, a woman he knew since she was a child, serving as her legal guardian when her father, his long-time legal partner and best friend, died. Frank called him “Uncle Cleve” and he served as the executor of her estate. He was 27 years older than Frank and some moralists thought the relationship indecent. Folsom was a worldly woman, a college graduate who had spent nine months on the continent before the marriage. She supported education and social-welfare programs for the poor, especially African-Americans, and advocated abstinence from alcohol, but engaged in social drinking.
Florence Kling De Wolfe, known as the Duchess, the daughter of the leading banker and wealthiest citizen of Marion, OH, was married to Warren Harding, a notorious philanderer. He served from 1921-1923 and had numerous affairs including with chorus girls Maize Haywood and Blossom Jones. His most notorious liaison was with Nan Britton, “a slim, pretty, jut-jawed blonde,” 30 years younger, and with whom he had an out-of-wedlock child. However, he had a fifteen-year affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips, “blue-eyed, strawberry blond. One of his love poems to her includes the following lines:
I love your back, I love your breasts
Darling to feeling, where my face rests,
I love your skin so soft and white,
So dear to feel and sweet to bite …
I love your poise of perfect thighs,
When they hold me in paradise.
Eleanor Roosevelt is the most celebrated modern First Lady, a woman who endured vicious attacks from her – and her husband Franklin’s — innumerable critics. She also suffered FDR’s numerous extramarital “friendships.” His affair with Lucy Page Mercer, Eleanor’s secretary, is openly acknowledged, but its nature is still debated. Eleanor apparently discovered love letters between the two and, in a painful showdown, threatened to divorce FDR if he didn’t end his relations with Mercer. However, while ostensibly ending their friendship, FDR continued to occasional see Mercer; she was with him at Warm Springs just before he died. FDR is rumored to also have had affairs with Marguerite Alice (Missy) LeHand, his secretary, and Crown Princess Marta of Norway, who lived at the White House during World War II.
Eleanor’s own “friendships” with both women and men is the subject of much speculation. She maintained close, some historians suggest sexual, relationships with Nancy Cook, a carpenter; Marion Dickerman, a teacher; and Lorena Hickok, a leading journalist. Allegations surfaced about her friendships, and rumored affairs, with Earl Miller, a New York State trooper who served as her bodyguard while FDR was governor, and with Joseph Lash, a New Deal activist and biographer of both Eleanor and FDR.
Mamie and Dwight Eisenhower married in 1918. Decades later, when commanding the Allied forces preparing for the Normandy invasion, he had an affair with Kay Summersby, his English driver. It is said that Ike wanted to resign from the army, divorce his wife and marry Summersby, but General George Marshall told him it would ruin his career. Years later when suffering from cancer, Summersby wrote a tell-all memoir, Past Forgotten: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower, about their affair. She claimed that she and Ike never had sexual intercourse, but stole kisses and held hands like a couple of school kids. She asserted that Ike was impotent due to the pressures of the war!
Jacqueline Kennedy endured the numerous affairs of her husband, John Kennedy, and is recalled for her gracious role as First Lady, suffering through his assassination and her subsequent life with Aristotle Onassis and her own accomplishments (e.g., saving of New York’s Grand Central Station). In an era before “gotcha” media scandals, JFK’s affairs were notorious if hidden from the public. They reportedly involved movie stars Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Angie Dickinson; Inga Arvad, a Danish journalist; the stripper, Blaze Starr; Judith Exner Campbell, mistress to mob boss Sam Giancana; reputed Soviet spies Eva Mensch and Mariella Novotny (she claims to also have had an affair with Robert Kennedy); Pam Turnure, Jackie’s Press Secretary, Mimi Alford, a 19 y/o White House intern, and White House secretaries Priscilla Weir and Jill Cowan, who were referred to as “Fiddle” and “Faddle.”
Claudia Alta Taylor — “Lady Bird” — Johnson married Lyndon Johnson in 1934 and, in ’37, LBJ began an affair with Alice Glass that lasted 30 years. Lady Bird only casually knew Glass at the University of Texas, but Glass became a notorious Texas character. A 6-foot tall beautiful blonde woman, Glass was the mistress — and later wife — to Charles Marsh, the publisher of the Austin American-Statesman and one of Johnson’s patrons. Over the three decades of the affair, Lady Bird,
LBJ and Glass engaged with one another on numerous occasions. As key figures in the Texas social set, these must have been awkward, uncomfortable situations. Sadly, the good First Lady is reported to have never expressed her outrage about the affair, insisting her husband was faithful: “I never saw that side of him.”
Pat Nixon suffered many political scandals, most notably Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech and his later near-impeachment and resignation. However, little reported was her reaction to gossip about his long-term friendship with Marianna Liu, a Chinese cocktail waitress he met in Hong Kong as vice-president. Nixon first met Liu in 1958 while she was a tour-guide. It is reported that, in the mid-60s, Liu and a female friend had a party with Nixon and his buddy, Bebe Rebozo, in a suite at the Mandarin Hotel. What gives this scandal a sleazy cast is the alleged role of FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, exploiting the affair to gain leverage over Nixon. As the story goes, one of Liu’s closest friends was a general in the Communist Chinese army. In 1969, Liu moved to Nixon’s hometown of Whittier, CA, and denied that there ever had been an affair. For all she endured, Pat Nixon remained a sad good wife.
Nancy Reagan was First Lady from 1981-1989, the good wife to Ronald Reagan who sought to end the era of New Deal progressivism. Pres. Reagan championed not only worldwide military intervention, but domestic culture wars promoted by the religious right. Reagan had come under Christian scrutiny because he was the first, and only, divorced man elected president until Trump. He married Jane Wyman in 1940, her third husband; she filed for divorce in 1948. In 1952, Reagan married the actress Nancy Davis. In 1991, People magazine published a story put forward by the gossip-journalist Kitty Kelley in an unauthorized biography of Nancy Reagan, claiming that the former president raped an actress four decades earlier. Perhaps most disturbing, she went along with her husband’s refusal to acknowledge AIDS and rumors that her son was gay; he isn’t. (Rumors long circuited that Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra had an affair.)
Barbara Bush’s perfect role as First Lady was undercut by George W.H. Bush’s reported two adulterous affairs. It is claimed that he had a long-term affair with Jennifer Fitzgerald, who served as his personal assistant in 1974 while special envoy to China and as White House deputy chief of protocol while Bush was president. A rumor also circulated that he had an affair with an Italian woman named “Rosemarie,” with whom he supposedly lived with in New York during the 1960s.
How Hillary Clinton endured Bill Clinton’s sex scandals during the 1990s is a testament to the tyranny endured by the First Lady as a good wife. In January 1992, just weeks before the all-important New Hampshire primary, Star, the gossip tabloid, published an exposé claiming that Clinton, Arkansas’s governor and a presidential candidate, had a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers, a state employee and cabaret singer. Moving quickly to contain the scandal, Hillary appeared with Bill on CBS’s “60 Minutes” immediately following the Super Bowl, thus ensuring a huge national audience. The couples’ denial, offered with a sincerity not seen since Nixon’s famous Checkers speech four decades earlier, was so convincing that it helped him defeat the incumbent president, Bush-1, in a three-way race with Ross Perot. Subsequent allegations of Clinton’s inappropriate sexual escapades, including his liaison with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, culminated in his impeachment.
One can only wonder if Laura Bush chuckled when the tabloid paper, The Globe, reported that “George W. Bush‘s recent heart surgery has sparked a ‘tearful confession’ to Laura Bush about his past affair with Condoleezza Rice.”
A similar response might well have come from the Obamas, Barack and Michelle. They appear to be a loving couple, the first African-American First Family in the White House. However, the National Inquirer reported that the president had an affair with Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of John and Jacqueline Kennedy and U.S. Ambassador to Japan. The scandal sheet claimed the “first lady Michelle Obama is furious!” It goes on to assert, based on unnamed sources, “Michelle suspects Barack of having an affair with every woman he’s alone with, especially if it’s a woman he finds attractive. She also knows Caroline and Barack share a mutual admiration for each other.”
And now Melania Trump is the First Lady.
Pres. Trump embodies a profound, 21st century contradiction. He seems to love sex as much as money, both embodiments — assertions — of masculine power. Like an over-drawn character in a daytime soap opera, Trump prances about on the media stage, a public spectacle making boastful assertions, citing false facts and threatening war. He seems a profoundly insecure man, the embodiment of Charlie Chaplin’s great dictator.
The leaked Access Hollywood tape reveals Trump’s misogynist character. His sexuality embodies the banality of sexual perversion, one suggesting pleasure in abuse. He seems to embody an old-fashioned notion of rugged – but smart, calculating – masculinity that rejects the traditional upper-class sensibility regarding sexual taste or sophistication. With Trump, there seems no art, erotic pleasure in achieving sexual satisfaction, especially for the other. In response, some two-dozen women have publicly declared that they were groped or otherwise sexually assaulted by the nation’s 45th president.
How far would a once oh-so hip, adventurous 1990’s Club-54 regular like Trump push the boundaries of sexual culture? In 1990, Playboy magazine featured him on the cover of its annual issue, along with a self-promotional interview. He also – fully clothed! – appeared in three Playboy soft-core films. In 1994, Trump appeared in Playboy Centerfold in which he plays part of a group searching for the magazine’s 40th anniversary Playmate. In 2000, he was featured in Video Centerfold, a video that featured2000 Playmates Darlene and Carol Bernaola. And in 2001, he promenaded in a video centered on a fashion show with Betsey Johnson.
In 2013, Trump opened his first strip club; one can only imagine how many he’s been to as a lifelong real-estate hustler on the make. While he owned the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, NJ, he reportedly paid $25 million for 36,000 square feet of “adult” entertainment within the casino. As one report notes, “It featured ‘modified lap dancing’ and women stripping down to G-strings and pasties, among other live porn activities.” He is reported to have often rated women on a scale of 1 to 10 based on their sex appeal. The radio personality, Howard Stern, quotes Trump saying, “A person who is very flat-chested is very hard to be a 10.“
Four years later, Trump became – almost magically — President of the United States. His election relaunched the culture wars; the religious right regained nominal control over both Houses of Congress, all Cabinet positions and key federal agencies, the Supreme Court as well as many state and local governments across the country. With this power, the religious right is seeking to reset the nation’s moral order.
Recent First Ladies have taken up important social issues, some that have made a real difference – and some that have only made things worse. Lady Bird Johnson promoted a national beautification program; Barbara Bush championed AIDS awareness; Rosalynn Carter seeks to protect children from vaccine-preventable diseases, promote mental-health programs and advocate for refugees; Laura Bush promoted literacy; and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” sought to fight child obesity. However, Nancy’s Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign was a failure when first introduced in 1986 and remains so today. Cities and states across the country are introducing new policies to treat drug addiction less as a crime than an illness.
One can only hope that the latest First Lady will take up the cause of women who’ve been sexual abused, include those who accuse the President of sexual abuse.