Reluctant First Lady? Melania Trump Wouldn’t Be the First to Claim That Title

Reluctant First Lady? Melania Trump Wouldn’t Be the First to Claim That Title

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Melania Trump, Meet Louisa Adams

Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, was, like Mrs. Trump, born outside the country.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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

Bess Truman, seen here as her husband, Harry Truman, is sworn in, was very protective of their daughter, Margaret (right).

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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.

Pat Nixon “would have preferred a very different kind of life” from that of a first lady, one scholar said.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“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.

Mrs. Kennedy with John F. Kennedy Jr. on Easter Sunday in 1963. She, too, was very protective of her children and their privacy.

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Associated Press

“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.