I used to feel sorry for Melania Trump. All she wanted, I imagined, was to be one of those rich private-school moms who spend their life getting spa treatments and lunching with their girlfriends at chic little Upper East Side restaurants. Instead, she ended up trapped with a sociopath in a tower full of gold toilets. People put too much stock in the concept of agency, I would say. Sometimes you make a mistake and you can’t get out of it. And because she’s a woman, she gets double the blame, like Marie Antoinette. These days, Marie gets more grief than her husband, Louis XVI, the actual king of France.
I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Every time a photo appeared of Melania frowning next to her husband or refusing to take his hand, the “free Melania” memes would go up on Twitter. It was hard to believe that a beautiful young woman would choose, with eyes wide open, a man as nasty, selfish, and crude as Donald Trump. There are other rich men in New York, after all. Maybe he wasn’t so awful when they married, I thought, and now she is paralyzed by shyness and depression.
Not a bit of it, says Stephanie Winston Wolkoff in her tell-not-quite-all, Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With the First Lady. As she describes it, the two were close for years, with cozy monthly lunches and an endless stream of texts filled with XOs and emojis. Wolkoff writes that Melania was “smart, genuine, trustworthy, and grounded,” possessed of an “inexplicable calm.” “When Donald gets flustered—you can tell because his face goes from tempered orange to bright red—all he has to do is look at her, and he settles down.” (News to me and anyone else with a television.) Melania was unperturbed by the leak of the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016. “He is who he is,” Wolkoff writes Melania told her over grilled salmon at the Mark Hotel.
What went wrong? As she tells it, devotion to her friend led Wolkoff, a former director of special events at Vogue and a key planner of the annual Met Gala, to take on the mammoth task of helping organize the four days of inaugural festivities after the election of Melania’s husband. The tsuris for which his administration has become notorious was already present: Besides Ivanka Trump, constantly angling to push Melania aside, there were incompetent underlings, officious men like Wolkoff’s nemesis and onetime Trump campaign aide Rick Gates, and general wheeling and dealing, including among the Trumps themselves. Top names from the worlds of fashion and party planning were mostly Hillary Clinton supporters and wouldn’t help; first-class performers refused their services.
You’d think Wolkoff would have run screaming back to New York. Instead she became the first lady’s senior adviser, organizing everything from the design of state-dinner invitations and the new paint for Melania’s bedroom to trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to get her to wear American designers instead of the European ones she preferred. The work was exhausting, frustrating, and demeaning, and eventually Wolkoff ended up in the hospital with serious nerve damage from the undignified schlepping she was forced to do. The reason she stayed—and I take this with a grain of salt—despite backstabbing by Ivanka and her allies, was “patriotism,” Wolkoff writes, plus her conviction that she and Melania could do wonderful things for children with the anti-cyberbullying Be Best initiative. (“I warned her that the phrase sounded illiterate,” Wolkoff mentions.) One problem with this plan, of course, was that Donald is the world’s biggest cyberbully. Another was that Melania wasn’t very interested in Be Best or, indeed, much of anything besides clothes and facials and expressing, in passive-aggressive ways, her contempt for anyone who criticized her. In any case, the dream came crashing down, Wolkoff says, when she was made the fall guy for the financial shenanigans of the inaugural and sent packing. Melania refused to help her and slowly froze her out. No more lunches. No more emojis. Instead, dear reader, this book—with tapes, Wolkoff claims, to back it up.
Wolkoff presents herself as the most trusting best friend since Banquo, but to do this, she has to leave out a lot. There is almost nothing in the book about politics; it’s all about her personal commitment to her friend. But Melania has been a political figure all along. Remember her public support for Donald’s promotion of the false and racist claim that Barack Obama was Kenyan? What did Wolkoff feel at the rally she attended where, after a brief introduction by Melania, Donald “riled up the crowd”? Wolkoff claims she had no interest in politics before casting her first vote in 2016, for Donald, and we’re left to assume she voted merely out of personal loyalty. But she moved in a world that was strongly Democratic; The New York Times reported that she donated $10,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 2014. It is hard to believe she was unaware of Donald’s opposition to legal abortion and LGBTQ rights, his vow to build the wall, his claim that global warming was a hoax, his attacks on the media, and his overt appeals to the religious fanaticism, racism, xenophobia, ignorance, and sexism of his base. Could it be that she was kind of a Trumper herself and her infatuation with Melania is little more than a cover story?
On the other hand, plenty of vaguely liberal wealthy people supported Donald out of financial self-interest. Note that her husband, David Wolkoff, is a real estate biggie whose family is famous for demolishing the 5Pointz artists’ building in New York’s Long Island City to build high-priced condo towers. Maybe she is more of a Melania than she wants the reader to think.
Still, we owe Stephanie Winston Wolkoff some gratitude. Her portrait of Melania as cold, hostile, self-centered and “not a normal woman” seems right. Without Wolkoff, we might not know that the first lady refused to move into the White House until the toilets and showers used by the Obamas had been replaced. And we wouldn’t know what Melania said after she visited the detention camps at the border in her infamous “I really don’t care. Do U?” Zara jacket.
According to Wolkoff: “The patrols told me the kids say, ‘Wow, I get a bed? I will have a cabinet for my clothes?’ It’s more than they have in their own country where they sleep on the floor.”