Slovenian-born writer Andrej Mrevlje tries once again to get a read on the fiercely reserved first lady, this time with the help of new book called The Art of Her Deal.
NEW YORK — As I finished reading The Art of Her Deal, a biography on Melania Trump by Mary Jordan, it struck me that I could not remember anything relevant that the first lady has ever said that would be worth publishing. Nothing I have heard from Melania has ever been uplifting or even depressing. And in Jordan's book, there was nothing new in what Melania was saying, nothing inspiring, nothing we haven't heard before. It was as if Melania had kept repeating the same mantra again and again, like this phrase, largely used in Slovenian: "The sun always shines after the rain!"
In the book, Melania's expressions are packaged in small blurbs and read like haikus on survivalism that contain common-sense wisdom, rooted deeply in a rural mindset. Her words have an overtone of fatalism, restraining even the tiniest glimmer of hope. Most of the time, when she says something, it's just a dull expression of an obsolete weltanschauung.
Choosing words can be either an art or just the plain repetition of common sense expressions that we Slovenians inherited from our rural ancestors and the Habsburgs. Is it possible that Melania uses them to cover-up her misanthropic nature? She may also sound dull and reluctant for many reasons we do not know about: perhaps because of her looks, which to her mind might not be good enough for public appearance; or maybe she is simply not interested or is unsure about what to say. Maybe it's because a nondisclosure contract with her husband bans it. Or could she be putting the president of the United States on ice, ignoring him because he offended her? Perhaps she carries herself the way she does because her mother taught her how to survive in a world governed by men; how to defend herself and be desirable at the same time, a technique Melania applied to Donald Trump from their first encounter on.
Most of the time, when she says something, it's just a dull expression of an obsolete weltanschauung.
Melania lives in a cocoon, protected with layers of common sense wisdom she learned during her childhood. On rare occasions, when she steps out of her golden cage and opens her mouth, she reminds us of Chance the gardener (Peter Sellers) in Hal Ashby's 1979 cult movie Being There.
Chance lives in the townhouse of a wealthy old man in Washington D.C., tending to the garden. He never leaves the property. Other than gardening, he watches TV, his only contact with the outside world. When his benefactor dies, Chance finally leaves the house, wandering aimlessly. He passes a TV shop and sees himself captured by a camera in the store window. Entranced, he steps backward off the sidewalk and is struck by a chauffeured car, owned by mogul Ben Rand.
Rand's wife, Eve, who is in the car, brings Chance to their home to recover. Rand is a confidant and advisor to the president of the United States, whom he introduces to Chance. In a discussion about the economy, Chance takes his cue from the words "stimulate growth" and talks about the changing seasons of the garden. The president misinterprets this as optimistic political advice and quotes Chance in a speech. Chance now rises to national prominence, attends some important dinners, develops a close connection with the Soviet ambassador, and appears on a television talk show during which his detailed advice about what a serious gardener should do is misunderstood as his opinion on what his presidential policy would be.
The Trumps in November 2019 — Photo: Andrea Hanks/White House
Being There is a comedy. It's a story about a misunderstanding between parallel worlds. As Chance, Melania is misread for what she really is. Or better, her parsimonious words are generic and open to loose interpretations, just like Chance's. "People do not know me," Melania says repeatedly, meaning, nobody understands her. She is right. One of the best insider moments that open a little crack into Melania's personal life is a quote about the spa Melania built in a section of the top floor of the Trump Tower penthouse in Manhattan. Melania described it in an interview for Allure magazine in 2008:
"I wanted some privacy and comfort when I needed to get a massage, manicure or pedicure, or have my hair or makeup done. It's 300 square feet, all white marble and silver fixtures with white towels and robes. Everything is from Italy and it's all very modern — a very different look from the rest of the apartment which is more… baroque."
Taking care of her body is essential central, the core business of Melania Trump. Her body is her most important asset, her looks are her passport. She spends most of her time in a spa or any place where she can recreate her image before she appears in public. She depicts her beauty parlor in aseptic, surgical terms, as space where she painstakingly works herself to perfection. When Melania was asked if Donald Trump ever joined her in the spa, Melania laughed. The spa is her sanctuary. Nobody could cross that threshold.
Of course, the interview with Allure is 12 years old, but according to a Vanity Fair report, Melania Trump's makeup artist of over a decade, Nicole Bryl, was responsible for setting up a designated room for hair, makeup and wardrobe in the White House. "Melania wants a room with the most perfect lighting scenario, which will make our jobs as a creative team that much more efficient since great lighting can make or break any look," she said. Bryl added that it takes "about one hour and 15 minutes of uninterrupted focus' to do the first lady's makeup.
Her looks are her passport.
But there is more. The fresh news comes from Jordan's book after she interviewed the housekeepers at the Bedminster Trump National Golf Club, one of the presidential couple's favorite places. "One of the worst jobs was cleaning up the residue from Melania's regular applications of tanning spray to make sure any traces were removed from all the white surfaces in the bathroom. The bronzer washed off in the shower, and Melania used it nearly every time she left the house," the housekeeper Victorina Morales said. Is this what Melania is all about? Devotion to her body? Solitude in her beauty?
As Mary Jordan observes, Melania's inner circle is small, her former staff sign non-disclosure agreements and old acquaintances in Europe are discouraged from speaking: "In three decades as a correspondent working all over the world, I have often written about the reluctant and the reclusive, including the head of a Mexican drug cartel and a Japanese princess, but nothing compared to trying to understand Melania," Jordan writes in the book.
In my own journalism career, I have always tried not to interview people like Trump and Berlusconi, as any dialog with them would be completely predictable and useless. Melania, I thought, was a different story. I wrote my first piece about her at the insistence of my friends and readers, who thought that I was in a unique position to do so. However, I soon understood the difficulty of the endeavor:
"A couple of years ago, as a Slovenian reporter, I started to follow Mrs. Trump's Twitter account, @MELANIATRUMP. I dropped the effort soon after because my former countrywoman did not show any signs of political life or any otherwise interesting activity. It was all about tacky mundanity interrupted by occasional close-up photos of a single rose. An attempt to demonstrate her artistic talent or just touting the fact that her Donald brought her a bouquet of roses? I did not pay attention to these details back then."
Writing about Melania can only be done by adding speculation and fiction.
I very quickly abandoned the effort to reach Melania for an interview. None of the contacts I had worked, all channels were blocked. There were people who — in return for a payment — were offering pieces of third-hand information on Melania. Disgusted, I refused all of them. Whichever way I turned, I bumped into a thick wall. I assume Jordan must have felt the same since she considered Melania to be a more reluctant and reclusive subject than the head of a Mexican drug cartel and a Japanese princess. My conclusion, more than four years ago, was that writing about Melania can only be done by adding speculation and fiction. I concluded my first piece on Melania Trump by writing:
To me, Melania is similar to a sleeper cell. She's not a terrorist of course, but she could be radicalized in the same way former Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi's wife, Veronica Lario, did. She was a B-list actress when Berlusconi approached her at a bus station in Milan. He went to see her in a theater. Veronica was nowhere to be seen for many years. She gave Berlusconi three children and lived in a "castle" as Melania does. Then Veronica met an intellectual – a philosopher and former mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari – and became radicalized. She'd had enough of her husband's nonsense. Illuminated by Cacciari, she didn't want her kids to be like their father. She filed for divorce and started the end of the Berlusconi era. All this after the whole country failed to get rid of him.
Unlike Veronica, Melania Trump has only one 10-year-old son with Donald Trump. She spends a lot of time with him and apparently talks to him in Slovenian. Is there the hope that Melania will do something similar to what Veronica did? And as a consequence deprive Trump of her support or stop him from being that violent, reckless person that he is? Or perhaps come out on the open and say something that will stop Mr. Donald Trump from running for president?
Lauren Collins of the New Yorker read correctly what I was trying to do:
"On the site Yonder News, the Slovenian-born journalist Andrej Mrevlje considered—in what amounted to an inspired piece of non-fan fiction — whether Melania could ever undergo a transformation similar to that of Veronica Lario, Silvio Berlusconi's ex-wife." In her great piece, Collins — she too, was never able to interview Melania — found a magnificent definition for the presidential couple: "For Trump, as it turns out, Melania is the perfect body on which to hang a brand."
Once I started to write about Melania, I received calls and emails from journalists who were trying to know more about her, checking in with me to see if Melania was a story worth writing. I told them about what I thought was the main difficulty, the challenge.
I thought that Melania could be a great character for a spy novel. An inspirational, beautiful woman planted as a spy in the White House by a group of former international diplomats with financial links to Silicon Valley. They are using the first lady to promote a new device that would enable corporations, with the help of the Chinese, to surveil the communications among "Five Eyes," intelligence agencies from the dilapidating Western world. The group organizes a cover-up operation, a horse parade on Pennsylvania Avenue. But the transport of 400 Lipizzaner horses gets hacked by Russians and becomes a cover-up for another big operation, in which the initial group of plotters plays the role of double agent for a Pan Slavic organization that smuggled trillions of dollars from Russia into Swiss banks.
In the novel, a famous young pop philosopher organizes lectures and workshops on film, Lacan, and Hegel in the Rose Garden of the White House. The presidential palace becomes an intellectual gathering spot, a booming cultural center like College de France in the age of Michel Foucault. But things get complicated when the beautiful female agent, the first lady, falls in love with the famous philosopher. The well-balanced spy business gets disrupted as the first lady starts to take over the White House, causing the president to have a massive heart attack when he realizes that his wife and philosopher speak the same language.
I thought that Melania could be a great character for a spy novel.
The Art of Her Deal, is, obviously, a completely different book. It has 280 pages of starkly different material, based on Jordan's 44 minutes of phone interviews with Melania in 2016. Nevertheless, the book has a fascinating opening. In the first chapters of the book, Melania Trump appears smart, balanced, and determined, with a strong agenda in mind. Melania is portrayed as the strategist who the 45th president of the United States depends on. She is the Melania who picked Pence as vice president, the wife who scolded her husband for being a wimp during the campaign, commanding him to go back to fight and win the election. Melania who stubbornly remained in New York for the first six months of Trump's presidency.
Refusing to go to the White House from day one, Melania must have remembered her mother's advice on how to use her charms (the words are mine). While she was away from the White House, she became aware, Jordan wrote, of the leverage she had when it came to her influence over her husband. Trump's team was pressing her to come to Washington and help stabilize the president. According to Jordan, Melania wanted to secure her son Barron's position with a new nuptial agreement, leveling his status to that of the other four Trump children. Melania won, earning a new nuptial agreement, writes Jordan. Her actions echo what Veronica Lario did to her husband, tycoon, and prime minister Silvio Berlusconi before she filed for divorce.
When I read the first part of the book, I thought it was promising. I loved the way Jordan demonstrates the rudeness of young Melania ascending the social ladder. She built good working relationships with the people who helped her modeling career. But as soon she managed to take it a step further, when she left Ljubljana for Milan, then went to Paris and eventually ended up in New York, she never looked back. She cut off all contacts and past relationships. There are plenty of interesting details in Jordan's book if you are interested in Melania's world. I for one did not know that Donald Trump suffers in small spaces and how obsessed he is about sleeping in his own bed. There is more.
But in my opinion, the interesting part of the book, unfortunately, dissolves into detailed reporting of Melania's modeling career. Jordan confirms many times that Melania is a so-called "commercial" model, good for catalogs and advertising, but nothing like a top, career model. But we kind of knew that. As I was reading the book I slowly lost interest and started to wonder who on earth would like to know the minutes of Melania's life with roommates, managers, rivals, in short, explaining all the petty networks that helped her to climb to Trump Tower.
It seems that Jordan got carried away by her journalistic ethics to report out facts. As the facts were scarce, she plunged into the microcosms of a person leading a totally uninteresting life. As a consequence, there are at least two Melanias in Jordan's book. Let's hope nobody tries will to write about a third one.