Beware a close friend who can’t be bothered to remember your children’s names.
In Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff recalls the time when Melania Trump, by then her lunch buddy of a decade, sent an email: “‘I saw Taylor today,’ she wrote. ‘I called his name, but I don’t think he recognized me.’
“Maybe because his name is Tyler, not Taylor. She spelled and pronounced his name incorrectly for ten years, and I never corrected her and neither did Tyler. She saw it spelled the right way in my texts, emails, and party invites but stuck with her variation.”
Maybe not a friendship deal-breaker, but still, wow.
Wolkoff’s book is a history of that friendship, from the years of lunches up through the election and a couple of years beyond. Melania—and Ivanka, in one of the few times those two would ever agree on anything—got Wolkoff to use her considerable experience as an event planner to advise on the inauguration festivities and thereafter installed her as an unofficial adviser to the first lady, charged with setting up and staffing the East Wing offices and creating the first lady’s Be Best initiative. For two years she put up with the chaos that is the Trump White House (“like junior high, but with much higher stakes”). And then in 2018, it all went south when Trump forces hostile to Wolkoff made her the public face of spending irregularities related to the inauguration. Wolkoff was disgraced—unfairly, she argues persuasively—and heartbroken when her friend left her dangling in the wind.
Melania and Me is Wolkoff’s sweet revenge. It’s not an outright ax job, but it is thorough.
“I was there at the beginning,” Wolkoff writes. “I witnessed the transformation of Melania from gold plate into twenty-four-carat gold. I believed she had the heart to match, that she was genuinely caring and loving and worth all of our attention. Throughout our early friendship, she lived up to what I saw in her. Watching her now, and seeing that only the gold shell remains, I have to wonder if that’s all she ever was, and I was the sucker who bought the fake watch on the street corner.”
Wolkoff became friends with Melania in the early Aughts while working for Anna Wintour at Vogue as director of special events, most notably running the annual Met Gala, the benefit that has been called “the Oscars of the East Coast.” Melania was then Donald Trump’s hot model girlfriend and soon-to-be wife. The friendship grew, and as the ladies lunched, Wolkoff found in Melania “the sister I never had before.” She didn’t pay much attention to Donald: “Although it’s hard to imagine now, in 2005 [when the Trumps got married], Donald seemed like a harmless egomaniac.”
Wolkoff got involved in helping with the inauguration balls and concerts because she believed no one had her friend’s back. She stayed on to help with the first lady’s transition to the White House for the same reason and because she believed they both wanted to help children. She lived to regret it all. “Our first month in the White House was like living inside an emotional washing machine that only made you feel dirtier with every rinse.” It went downhill from there.
This book is not a particularly dishy reveal, or at least what it reveals has mostly been well-covered previously. Trump is a narcissistic windbag. Ivanka and Jared are conniving snakes. All the Trumps are consumed by their own self-interest.
There are a few nice backstairs nuggets.
- When the Trumps’ son, Barron, is at the White House, he spends his time hanging out with the Secret Service agents.
- Melania is a taker, not a giver. On the rare occasion when Wolkoff asked for a favor, as when she asked Melania to talk to a Hollywood Reporter journalist about the Met Gala, Melania said no. “Melania does so hate to be asked for anything.”
- Melania is oblivious to the symbolism or messaging her clothes convey. She cares only about what she looks like. When Wolkoff tried at length to persuade her to wear only American designers’ attire for the inauguration, Melania listened and then said, “But I want to wear Lagerfeld.” She did relent on that one and wore Ralph Lauren to the swearing-in ceremony.
- Planning the seating on the dais at the swearing-in, Melania and Wolkoff conspired to keep Ivanka out of camera range during the ceremony.
- Trump and Obama are the only presidents to use the Bible used by Lincoln at their inaugurations.
- After getting a tour of the Oval Office, Wolkoff’s son Tyler said to his mom, “Did you know the president has a red button on his desk to order Diet Cokes?”
The value and, to be honest, the real entertainment in Melania and Me lie in its description of process, of how things work, or more precisely don’t work, in Trumpworld. The inauguration planning was a disaster and, ultimately, shot through with alleged illegality and misappropriation of funds. The administration is a snakepit of competing players engaged in backbiting and turf wars. People come and go with such rapidity that it’s impossible to know who’s in charge of what.
There are a few passages in the book where Wolkoff relates incidents or events that at first glance seem to lack relevance or context. You wonder what she’s talking about. But you come to realize that these passages are not directed at you but at the people in the book, chiefly Melania. This actually begins on the dedication page, a fact you only appreciate when you’ve read the whole story. The dedication reads not “For Melania” but “To Melania.” Talk about a book that will never find its true audience!
I cannot claim to have read all of the dozens of books written about the Trumps by people once close to them, but of those I have read, or read parts of, there is one weird consistency: The authors resemble recovered addicts, or people who have awakened from a delusional state. They begin by believing, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they can succeed and effect change where others failed. They end by confessing that no matter who you are, or how capable or smart you are or however well-intentioned, you, like everyone who came before you, will live to regret your hubris.
The main question with books like this one is how much should we believe the author’s version. Given the well-documented mendacity of the Trumps, Wolkoff automatically has some of our sympathy before we’ve read a page. But the issue is complicated by the fact that Wolkoff presents herself as a bad judge of character. Again and again, by her own admission, she completely failed to see Melania Trump as a shallow, selfish woman interested only in appearances. So what else did she miss? Who else did she misjudge?
While these questions never go away entirely, Wolkoff dispels a lot of the reader’s skepticism with a trove of solid evidence supporting her version of events, and, yes, ironically with her honesty about her own gullibility. It doesn’t hurt that she knows how to tell a story and how to build a case.
For starters, she doesn’t come out of the gate playing the victim card. Instead, she begins by describing her nearly two-decade-long friendship with the first lady in glowing terms. Only gradually does Melania’s underlying coldness and indifference emerge. Only belatedly does Wolkoff understand that Melania, like her husband, casts off people loyal to her when they are of no further use. Over and over, Melania tells Wolkoff, “I don’t care what people think,” and only belatedly does Wolkoff realize, yeah, honey, that means you too. Or, as Wolkoff says, “I gave her the benefit of the doubt, and she took it.”
In my review of Kate Bennett’s Free Melania: The Unauthorized Biography, a largely sympathetic look at the first lady, I concluded by saying that Melania deserved better than Donald Trump (yes, I have now read two books about Melania Trump and, yes, they had to pay me to do it). After reading Melania and Me, I confess that I may have spoken too soon. Early in Wolkoff’s book, she observes, “The press and people all over the world always projected their own emotions onto Melania, assuming she felt the same way they would under similar circumstances.” Well, I thought, reading that passage, that would be me.
Based on the overwhelming evidence put forth by Wolkoff, I’m forced to reconsider my judgment. Having plowed to the bitter end of Melania and Me, and bitter it is, I am forced to admit that there’s a very good chance that Melania Trump got exactly what she wanted and exactly what she deserved.