Melania Trump, Meet Louisa Adams
Aside from the Slovene-born Mrs. Trump, only one other first lady was born outside the United States: Louisa Adams was born in London in 1775 to an American father and an English mother. Mrs. Adams, the wife of President John Quincy Adams, first had to deal with an overbearing mother-in-law in Abigail Adams, herself a former first lady.
The elder Mrs. Adams “thought that the new Mrs. Adams might be a little too fine a lady to be an American politician’s wife,” Ms. Graddy, the curator, said. “Louisa had to prove her mettle to her mother-in-law.”
The younger Mrs. Adams proved her mettle by making treks across Europe to attend to her husband’s career as a diplomat. But Mrs. Adams, known be a talented hostess who played an important role in getting her husband elected in 1824, grew depressed once they reached the White House. (One account has her distracting herself by “binge-eating chocolates, writing poetry and plays about a ‘repressed’ female character who was supposed to represent herself.”) The parties stopped.
On Second Thought, Maybe Bess Truman Should Join This Conversation
Mrs. Trump’s fashion choices tend to elicit references to Jacqueline Kennedy, but her decision to remain in New York City with her son has caused researchers to draw the strongest parallels to Bess Truman.
Mrs. Truman, the wife of President Harry S. Truman, never adjusted to her time in the White House, instead preferring frequent visits to her hometown (and her bridge club) in Independence, Mo. Mrs. Truman grudgingly performed the functions necessary but did not enjoy life in Washington despite helping to oversee a renovation of the White House in the early 1950s.
Mrs. Truman’s theory was that “she was not the one that had been elected,” Ms. Graddy said. “Therefore the public only had a certain amount of time that they could expect from her.”
Mrs. Truman’s dedication to her daughter is another strong parallel researchers see in Mrs. Trump, who has shielded her son from the press. Mrs. Truman, who died in 1982, was also focused on protecting the privacy of her daughter, Margaret, who spent much of her childhood and all of her teenage years as the daughter of an elected official. (Margaret Truman later married Clifton Daniel, who worked as a managing editor and correspondent for The Times. Mr. Daniel once wrote that he and his wife were “puritans among the fleshpots.”)
Several other first ladies, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle Obama were reported to have initially struggled with the role. But a notable modern example of a first lady who never adapted to the glare of public life is Pat Nixon, the wife of President Richard Nixon, according to Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University who studies first ladies. Though her husband’s career was plagued by scandal, she stood by him, but always quietly.
“Even people who can recall the Nixon presidency probably can’t remember the sound of her voice,” Ms. Jellison said. “She would have preferred a very different kind of life.”
Now, Let’s Address Those Comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy
When it comes to Mrs. Trump and Mrs. Kennedy, the comparisons don’t stop at fashion. Ms. Jellison said that Mrs. Kennedy embraced the role of first lady but tended to be fiercely protective of her and her children’s privacy.
“I think that she wanted some of the celebrity that went along with being first lady,” Ms. Jellison said. “But she wanted it on her own terms, and wanted to be able to control her public image to a greater extent than what was possible.”
Carl Sferrazza Anthony, who writes extensively about the role of first ladies, rejects the idea that the two women will have similar aims during their time in the White House. Mrs. Kennedy, he said, worked as a photojournalist and had an interest in Washington life before she met her husband, President John F. Kennedy. While her husband was in office, Mrs. Kennedy oversaw a renovation of the White House that invited Americans into the home through a TV special.
“There really is a driving, persistent narrative that is just going to shoehorn Melania Trump as the new Jackie Kennedy,” Mr. Sferrazza Anthony said. “Jackie Kennedy was a student of history.”
Mr. Sferrazza Anthony also summed up Mrs. Trump’s credentials: “She is a very beautiful and, I think, intelligent mother of a 10-year-old-son.”
Actually, White House Life Is Easier Than It Used to Be
First ladies have always struggled with the demands of the president’s office, though some early examples were women who dealt with illness and death rather than the media glare that accompanies a modern presidency.
Jane Pierce, the wife of President Franklin Pierce, is a “rather tragic” example, according to Ms. Jellison: Her first son, named Franklin, died within days of birth. Her second son, also Franklin, died when he was 4 from typhus. The third, Benjamin, was killed in a train accident during the period between Mr. Pierce’s election and the beginning of his presidency in 1853. Benjamin was 11.
“She remained in mourning throughout her husband’s presidency and really would have wanted to be anywhere other than the White House,” Ms. Jellison said.
Less than a decade later, Eliza Johnson, the wife of President Andrew Johnson, became first lady after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
“She suffered through tuberculosis,” Ms. Jellison said, “and made exactly two public appearances during her husband’s presidency.”
For Now, Mrs. Trump Is Likely to Remain a Mystery
Mrs. Trump has shown signs that she is interested in hiring East Wing staff members who can connect her with the Washington establishment, but her life, at the moment, remains firmly planted in New York.
Though that decision comes at a high cost to taxpayers, several observers described it as a bold move.
“Regardless of what her husband says or has done and regardless of how he perceives women’s roles, she’s making an unspoken statement of her own feminism,” Mr. Sferrazza Anthony said.
Kate Andersen Brower, the author of the book “First Women,” said that Mrs. Trump might not fully understand the power of her role, but that her move to stay behind was “gutsy.”
“It’s just an impossible position,” Ms. Andersen Brower said. “In some ways, maybe Melania is redefining it so that expectations are kind of less unfair.”
On Thursday, during a meandering and combative news conference, President Trump momentarily softened when he received a question about his wife. He reiterated the two main things Americans know about her: She has a desire for privacy and has a contentious relationship with the media.
“She was a very private person,” he said. “She was always the highest quality that you’ll ever find, and the things they say are so unfair.”