Sunday, November 19, 2017

Melania Trump: An elusive — and reclusive — first lady


NEW YORK — The paparazzi no longer stake her out at her son's private school or search for her on the streets surrounding the black tower that her husband, the president of the United States, named for himself.

Like legions of New Yorkers who hibernate in their apartments, Melania Trump is a virtual shut-in, her refuge 58 stories above Manhattan's hoi polloi and laden with enough gold to embarrass a Saudi prince.

"She's the great white whale," said Miles Diggs, a paparazzo, as he and his partner hunted celebrities in Soho on a recent afternoon in a Chevy Suburban equipped with cameras and a laptop. They were searching for the actress Emma Watson, who, unlike Melania Trump, they were confident they could find.

"When it comes to getting people, I don't miss," Diggs said. "But Melania has just been so elusive."

Two months after her husband's swearing in, the nation's new first lady approaches her role with a discernible reticence, her paucity of public appearances — each defined by tight smiles and spare verbiage — overshadowed by a vanishing act that stretches days on end.

Yet by retreating to her midtown triplex, where she is said to tend to Barron, the Trumps' 11-year-old son, the first lady guarantees herself even more attention. An ever-clamorous chorus of gossipmongers, pundits, historians and even body-language experts dissect her every move, fashion choice, and facial expression to unearth a true State of Melania.

Good luck with that.

Melania Trump is a Rorschach test in Louboutins, inspiring praise from those who see in her inscrutable gaze an elegant, dutiful mother charting a new role for the first lady; compassion from those imagining her as the president's unhappy captive, her penthouse-turned-prison costing taxpayers ungodly sums to secure; and contempt from those rendering her as her husband's chief enabler, abiding his sexist and anti-immigrant bluster, and echoing at one time his baseless questioning of President Barack Obama's citizenship.

"Melania Trump is as ugly on the inside as she is pretty on the outside" was how Dan Savage, the sex columnist and gay activist, put it in a recent podcast. He flayed "folks on the left" who "view her as some sort of sympathetic figure — the pretty princess in the tower locked up by the orange ogre with the bad comb-over."

The hashtag #FreeMelania is now a pillar of Twitter-speak, while questions about the Trumps' marriage inspire headlines such as "Melania's Struggle," an Us Weekly yarn that claimed the first lady is "secretly miserable." The article included an interview with a "family friend" who later acknowledged that his insights may be compromised by not having spoken to her in several years.

Her handful of appearances have yielded few clues, her smile fixed whether attending her husband's address to Congress, greeting the Netanyahus at the White House, or popping up at a Republican fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago over the weekend while the president remained in Washington.

• • •

Among the rare moments the first lady has spoken publicly was while reading Dr. Seuss's Oh the Places You'll Go! this month to children at a Manhattan hospital, her Slovenian accent as obvious as her large diamond ring and sky-high stilettos.

"You'll be as famous as famous can be, with the whole world watching you win on TV," she recited from the book.

She smiled and seemed receptive when Tara McKelvey, a BBC reporter, approached with a question. "But the aides came in and swooped her away and had her pose for a picture," McKelvey said. "She wanted to answer. She was trying to answer."

A few days later, Melania hosted a White House luncheon to celebrate International Women's Day, at the start of which guests stood and applauded after someone with an appropriately hushed voice announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the first lady of the United States."

Melania Trump entered the room, strode to the rostrum, smiled and said, "Your excellencies, esteemed represent — "

Whatever she said next was unknown beyond the dining room because White House aides ordered the media pool to exit.

Karen LeFrak, a friend who attended the White House event, wrote in an email that Melania Trump "didn't do the lunch for publicity" and she "does not seek attention." Describing her friend's adjustment, LeFrak said she is "carving out an important role to support women and children" and "redecorating their residence in the White House," where she will move after Barron completes the school year.

"Mrs. Trump is enjoying her life and new role," wrote LeFrak, the wife of developer Richard LeFrak, a longtime friend of the president. As for the Trumps' marriage, LeFrak wrote that "they are very happy! Their relationship is great."

"All these rabid rumors about her and their relationship are laughable and fictional," she wrote.

The first lady has yet to hire her own spokesman. Deputy White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Saturday that the first lady anticipates "a very busy upcoming week in D.C.," and "will be joining the president soon." She remains "focused on Barron as he finishes the school year," Grisham noted.

Louise Sunshine, a former Trump Organization executive, has spoken with the first lady a half-dozen times since the election. She described her as "circumspect" and "very composed and very reserved" as she absorbs her new duties and learns to deal with the president and his advisers, a circle Sunshine compared to a "den of wolves."

"There are a lot of forces there competing for attention," Sunshine said. "She's trying to assess the best way and the best place for her as the first lady and as the wife of a very impulsive, compulsive, erratic president. Let's say erratic, accomplished president."

"She doesn't gossip, she doesn't tell anyone her innermost thoughts, she's not that trusting," Sunshine said. "She does things with a great deal of forethought. She's totally different than Donald, which is the good news. She thinks things over and says things in a thoughtful manner."

Her task is all the more complex, she said, because the president is the perpetual star of his own one-man show.

"He dances alone," Sunshine said. "He's not into the tango."

An exception to that rule occurred a month after the inauguration, when the president and the first lady shared a stage. She introduced her husband at a Florida rally, removing her sunglasses as she stepped to the microphone and, apropos of nothing, defended herself against unspecified attacks.

"I will always stay true to myself and be truthful to you," the first lady promised, "no matter what the opposition is saying about me."

It was eight days before she emerged again, hosting a black-tie dinner at the White House for the nation's governors, an event she said she hoped would be a respite from "political labels and partisan interests."

Her husband had others ideas, tweeting before salad was served: "Big dinner with Governors tonight at White House. Much to be discussed, including healthcare."

• • •

On a Monday, Barron Trump's Secret Service detail picked him up from school on the Upper West Side and delivered him to the Fifth Avenue tower his father made famous. Ivanka Trump's jewelry line is on display in the lobby. Visitors can find books, coffee mugs and after-shave lotion bearing the name and visage of the 45th president.

The first lady is invisible.

Neither her face nor her name appear on any T-shirt, shampoo bottle or refrigerator magnet. Nor can she be found at the Trump Bar or the Trump Grill, an absence that's fine by Georgianne Crager and Cherryl Nance, two pals in fur coats visiting from Mississippi.

"You don't see her skinning and grinning for photo ops because she's a mother first," said Crager, 61, a nurse. "An amazing woman! I don't understand why the liberals pick on her."

Her friend nodded.

"Have you heard the saying, 'The dog that caught the car?' Looks to me like she got run over," Crager said. "I feel sorry that she lost her freedom. But I admire that she said, 'I'm staying right here.'"

Hillary Clinton did not remain in Arkansas with Chelsea, then 12, when her husband decamped for Washington. Instead, she settled into a West Wing office, immersed herself in health-care restructuring, and inspired the American Bar Association to host a debate about whether she held too much power.

After her husband became president, Michelle Obama, while caring for their two young daughters, spent her first weeks awash in plaudits as she toured federal agencies, read to schoolchildren and landed on the cover of Vogue.

Melania Trump has made a far different impression. Soon after the election, she announced that she would remain in New York until June, a decision that prompted questions about her fondness for her thrice-married husband, whose profane, sexist banter had roiled his campaign.

Although Melania has popped up here and there, her absences have unsettled purists who cite Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan as beacons of stand-by-your-president rectitude.

"This is an important tradition and part of the pomp and parade that is this country," said Robert Watson, a Lynn University professor who has studied first families. "This is bigger than Melania and Barron and bigger than The Donald."

Yet Melania Trump's approach may be an opportunity to "retire an anachronistic role," said Katherine Jellison, an Ohio University history professor. "It's about being the wife of a high-profile man, and inadvertently she may be disassembling the role.

"The signal I'm getting is she doesn't want to be first lady," Jellison said. "This is not just low-profile, but no profile."

• • •

Before she became Mrs. Trump, Melania Knauss was a model whose high cheekbones and piercing blue eyes hijacked stylist Phillip Bloch's attention when she walked into a Manhattan fashion show.

"I remember thinking, wow, she's beautiful, she'll be a star," he recalled. She also exuded aloofness, and her visibility on New York's fashion circuit — never great — grew more infrequent after Barron's birth.

Over the years, Melania Trump's Facebook posts have suggested solitude. Her photos are often devoid of people and shot through glass, either a car window or from her apartment, as if her perspective is from inside a luxurious fishbowl.

"Summer rain in NYC," she captioned a photo of a water-pocked window overlooking Central Park.

"Driving between skyscrapers" was her title for a photo from beneath soaring glass towers and billowing clouds.

"Bye! I'm off to my summer residence," she announced in a rare selfie from a bathroom. Unsmiling, her eyes are concealed behind oversized black sunglasses. A gold-tinted mirror behind her reflects a toilet.

Anthony Senecal, the Trumps' former butler at Mar-a-Lago, occasionally drove Melania on West Palm Beach shopping trips to boutiques and the Whole Foods supermarket. He said she could be personable in ways the public rarely sees. Once, when she was alone at Mar-a-Lago, he said, she urged him to take time off to visit his dying sister.

"She said, 'Tony, there isn't anything I can't get here — people will bring anything I ask for, you go be with your sister,'" he recalled. "She said, 'From now on, when I'm here, consider me taken care of.'"

But she added: "When Donald's here, you'll have to stay."

Melania's warmth, he said, is often masked by a restrained veneer. "She just adapts, period," he said. "You don't know if she likes it or doesn't like it. 'This is his job and this is my job to support my husband.'"

Twelve days after President Trump's inauguration, after Melania Trump had returned to New York, Jae Donnelly, a freelance photographer, snapped a picture of the first lady and Barron entering a dentist's office near Trump Tower.

Donnelly wouldn't reveal how he knew her destination, but within hours the photo was on the Daily Mail's website and circulating on the internet, with a headline about her running "errands."

Donnelly no longer pursues her. "The opportunities are so few," he said, "and you could be waiting for days upon days."

Downtown, as they hunted for celebrities in Soho in mid-March, Miles Diggs and his partner, Cesar Pena, tallied up a day's work: They shot Malia Obama as she walked into a Tribeca office building, Robert DeNiro as he left a restaurant, and the actor Michael Colteras as he bought odor-eaters at a Duane Reed drugstore.

They stopped trying to get the first lady last fall after striking out at Barron's school. But, in their self-interested view, they think that she could help endear herself to the public with an unscripted foray every now and then.

"A photo of her coming out of Barneys with a bunch of shopping bags," Diggs said, envisioning the headline: "First Lady Shops Till She Drops."

"Can you imagine how that would sell?" he asked.

Yet it's uncertain whether Melania Trump wants anyone to see beyond her practiced smile.

On the night before the swearing in, she joined her husband at the Lincoln Memorial for a concert. In a backstage tent beforehand, the president-elect bantered for 20 minutes with his advisers, a campaign volunteer who had traveled to Washington for the festivities, and a reporter.

All the while, the first lady sat in a folding chair alongside her husband, as still and silent as a mannequin, as if oblivious to the chatter around her.

Washington Post staff writer Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.

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