Most Americans are entirely unaware of the scandalous fact that a President lived in the White House at the same time with both of his wives.
And there was that sensitive First Lady who was so jealous over the first wife of her husband that she ordered the woman’s personal items never to be displayed at his presidential museum.
Despite the romantic devotion he lavished on his second wife, Ronald Reagan was the first President to have been previously divorced.
The one who has been divorced twice and remarried twice, however, trumps all that.
The instances of Presidents and First Ladies having had multiple spouses is a rare one in history, but not entirely absent from the record, though none have ever been as overtly crude as Ivana Trump’s demeaning remarks suggesting that the current First Lady’s status is somehow diminished because the former was the first wife.
Five First Ladies had first husbands.
Martha Washington and Dolley Madison were both widows when they wed the men who would go on to become Commanders-in-Chief.
Martha Dandridge’s first husband Daniel Custis played a significant, if posthumous role in the life of the nation. Had he not been as billionaire rich as he was, Martha Custis would never have inherited the enormous wealth in the form of property and, sadly, human slave labor, that she brought to George Washington’s life and which enabled him to afford a career in public service.
The three other previously-married First Ladies were all divorcees.
The first candidate married to a woman divorced from her first husband who ran for president was Andrew Jackson. In his 1828 campaign the divorce initiated by Lewis Robards against the former Rachel Donelson, on grounds of her adultery with Jackson, became an important issue that was used against him.
It wasn’t just used as a moral “character” issue against Jackson but to also question his judgment and capabilities for, despite being an attorney, he never verified Robards’ threat of divorce as having been completed before marrying Rachel and thus technically making her a bigamist.
Nearly one hundred years later, when reporters converging in the small Ohio town where Warren Harding was conducting his 1920 campaign from the front-porch of his home heard stories that his wife had grandchildren, it raised questions about her life before marrying him.
The lack of any marriage certificate within the county and those surrounding it suggested something more scandalous than a divorce between the former Florence King and her first “husband,” Henry DeWolfe.
At best it was the only common-law union of a White House resident. During the campaign, Mrs. Harding prevaricated when she even permitted acknowledgement of this union, claiming she had been widowed. Reporters didn’t question the matter.
By comparison to Rachel Jackson and Florence Harding, Betty Ford’s first marriage was tame. She had married Bill Warren, a fellow Grand Rapids, Michigan citizen, stayed wed to him through World War II and a series of jobs including working in a canning factory, and then they divorced.
Ivana Trump’s suggestion that she is somehow a First Lady because she had been the first of three wives married to the man currently occupying the presidency is as illogical as suggesting that Daniel Custis, John Todd, Lewis Robards, Henry DeWolfe and Bill Warren should be considered Presidents.
It gets stickier when it comes to the wives married to Presidents before and after their incumbency.
Theodore Roosevelt had been traumatized by the sudden death of his beautiful young first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, the day after she gave birth to their child, who went on to become the most legendary of presidential children “Princess Alice.”
Having hoped she would have been his first wife, his second wife Edith Kermit Carow forever resented her stepdaughter, seemingly a displaced jealousy of her husband’s dead first wife.
On the day Alice married Congressman Nicholas Longworth in a gala 1906 White House wedding, she turned to the bride and sniped, “I’m glad to see you go. You have been nothing but trouble to me.”
Two Presidents married second wives after leaving office.
Both proved to be odd women.
Millard Fillmore’s wife and White House hostess Abigail Fillmore died just days after leaving the White House. He remarried a wealthy widow by the name of Carline Carmichael McIntosh, an alcoholic who made sure that if she died first he wouldn’t inherit all her money.
Surviving her husband, she went on to battle his sole heir, his unmarried son Powers Fillmore, for the bulk of the late president’s estate.
Caroline Fillmore never even visited the White House, yet she managed to posthumously trump his first wife. A mix-up of photographs many decades ago has had an image of Caroline Fillmore widely circulated and incorrectly identified as being Abigail Fillmore, the genuine First Lady.
Then there is the seemingly incestuous case of President Benjamin Harrison. He moved into the White House with his wife Caroline, along with their two adult children and three grandchildren – and his wife’s widowed niece Mary Lord Dimmock.
Serving as her aunt’s social secretary, nobody questioned the widow’s devotion to the First Lady.
The problem seemed to be her devotion to the President.
One incident recalling the disturbingly inappropriate scene of the President having his shoulders rubbed in the family quarters by his niece.
The two took long closed-carriage rides and one claimant stated that the intimacy between them upset the First Lady, who died just weeks before the President lost his bid for re-election in 1892.
Three years later, he married his niece and had a child by her. He was twenty-five years her senior.
Thus, Benjamin Harrison holds the dubious distinction of living in the White House with both of his wives, though not married to each at the same time.
John Tyler and Woodrow Wilson had first wives who died while they were First Lady; these Presidents then remarried during their presidencies.
Apart from their domineering and vivid personalities, both Julia Tyler and Edith Wilson were widows for decades, enough time to impress upon the public record that they were somehow the only legitimate Mrs. John Tyler and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson.
Julia Tyler was never forgiven by her stepdaughter Letitia Tyler Semple, namesake of the president’s first wife, her mother. As if she were singularly responsible for defending the honor of her late mother, she perpetually provoked battles with her father’s second wife, ignoring the existence of her step-siblings as if they weren’t legitimate presidential children.
Following her husband’s 1919 stroke and 1924 death, Edith Wilson alienated his three daughters, eventually refusing to financially aid a struggling Margaret Wilson and ordering that the paint set of his first wife, Ellen, not be put on public display at the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Museum.
The most recent multiple-wife President before the man currently occupying the presidency was Ronald Reagan.
First married in 1940 as a Hollywood actor to actress Jane Wyman, their union dissolved as her star rose and he took an increasing interest in politics, which bored her.
Reagan re-married to his second wife, another actress, Nancy Davis in 1952.
In every respect, Nancy Reagan was the fullest possible marital partner to her husband. She took the fullest interest in every aspect of being First Lady; none questioned her right to the title.
During her former husband’s presidency, Jane Wyman walked a fine line. She never once commented on him personally or politically, offering only tepid remarks of support.
She was still tied directly to him, through their adopted son Michael and birth daughter Maureen, the latter assuming an increasingly visible partisan yet feminist role during his presidency and making herself a frequent overnight guest at the White House.
Yet she managed to never alienate or irritate Nancy Reagan.
It had been anticipated that Ronald and Nancy Reagan would publicly join Jane Wyman at Maureen’s 1981 wedding to her third husband Dennis Revell, but the President’s necessary recovery from an assassination attempt weeks earlier prevented that.
It’s unclear if Wyman ever saw her former husband again, but she and Nancy Reagan displayed a movingly mutual attachment when they clasped hands while exiting the funeral of Maureen Reagan in 2001.
Yet Jane Wyman managed to be her own First Lady of sorts, making hay while the sun did shine.
Eleven months after Nancy Reagan became First Lady of the United States, Jane Wyman became First Lady of Television, starring in the primetime soap opera Falcon Crest.
In the role of Angela Channing, a harshly formidable matriarch of a norther California vineyard, her “moon glow gold” hair color and styling and bright red suits unmistakably signaled the look of the real First Lady on the other coast.
The show lasted two years longer than the Reagan Administration, and she survived her former husband by four years, dying in 2007.
In contrast to Wyman’s deft handling of her former marital status, Ivana Trump has talked about not just her ex-husband, but his two subsequent wives and even policy.
Along with her successor, second wife Marla Maples, she even appeared at the January 2017 inauguration,
In an April 3, 2016 interview, Ivana Trump focused the presidential candidacy of her former husband on herself. She recalled that “Reagan or somebody brought him a letter and said, ‘You should run for president.’ ”
In truth, it was a letter sent in the late 1980s by former President Nixon who passed on the fact that his wife Pat had seen the man currently occupying the presidency on television and thought he would someday run for it.
Ivana Trump then claimed that she prevented his run for the presidency in 1992 because of his adulterous romance with “showgirl” Marla Maples, as she characterized her, and subsequent divorce. “American women loved me and hated him.”
During the campaign. she admitted that she continued to serve as an advisor to him and was responsible for giving him the tagline of “You think it, I say it,” and believed that the fact he “cannot be calm” would help elect him. She added that his decisiveness would also help because, “Obama cannot make a decision if his life depends on it. It’s ridiculous.”
There’s another similarity between wife number one and wife number three beyond their Eastern European accents. “I was born in a Communist country [Czechoslovakia],” Ivana piped up last spring, claiming it as the reason “I don’t like politics.”
In a March 15, 2016 New York Post interview, however, she opined on the other presidential candidates. She declared U.S. Senator Marco Rubio to be a “just a silly boy,” said Hillary Clinton “lies a lot,” and called Bernie Sanders “a communist,” because “I was born in a communist country, so I know when I see them or hear them.”
This immigrant also spouted off about the need to deport undocumented immigrants from Mexico:
“I have nothing against Mexicans, but if they [come] here — like this 19-year-old, she’s pregnant, she crossed over a wall that’s this high…She gives the birth in American hospital, which is for free. The child becomes American automatically. She brings the whole family, she doesn’t pay the taxes, she doesn’t have a job, she gets the housing, she gets the food stamps. Who’s paying? You and me. As long as you come here legally and get a proper job . . . we need immigrants. Who’s going to vacuum our living rooms and clean up after us? Americans don’t like to do that.”
In another interview she further expounded:
“I actually had an Arabic woman wearing the scarf working for me for five years, and then she moved to Texas. She was wearing the headscarf and I said, ‘I really don’t care. As long as she’s doing a good job and in the country legally and is paying the taxes and speaks a little bit of the English.’”
The couple had married in 1977, and together had three children, Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka, who was given a White House office and title. Ivana Trump worked as interior design vice president of his hotel properties, and was later given the title of president of his Atlantic City casino Castle and the New York City Plaza Hotel. She went on to hawk a jewelry line to the public on QVC. By 1991, however, he was conducting an open love affair with Maples who, according to Ivana’s 1991 Barbara Walters’ interview on “20/20,” approached her saying, “I’m Marla and I love your husband. Do you?”
The 1993 book Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump claims that during their divorce trial she charged that he had raped her. In reaction to this, she issued a statement: “As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited toward me, was absent. I referred to this as a ‘rape,’ but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.” During the campaign, she affirmed to the New York Post, “It was all the lawyers. The negotiations and stuff like that. I was never abused.”
Before Election Day last year, in a September 13, 2016 interview conducted while she attended a Dennis Basso fashion show, Ivana Trump revealed her concept of First Lady, focused solely on appearance, rather than activism, and it soon enough came to speaking about herself:
“In order for the next first lady to be iconic, she has to have great suits and pencil skirts…I do not want to see bell-bottom pants because it is out — it is so ’70s. And absolutely no grunge. I feel like that was a really bad fashion era. It was the worst!…The dark eye makeup was not so bad . . . to an extent. I do like my eyes to be dark. I am a blonde, so the contrast of the eyes looks good on me…I am naturally brown, but I have been blond since the age of 14. But if I want to go dark I do have a black wig at home.”
While she never forgave her immediate successor, days after the election she said Melania Trump as First Lady would “be OK…She’s going to adapt just fine.” She expressed a degree of sympathy for the youngest child and wife of the man occupying the presidency, on the reasoning that the former would have to change schools and friends and the latter because she would have to ” start to pack the clothes and everything.”
She later denied making remarks as reported in an October 31 2015 New York Daily News story, “She can’t talk, she can’t give a speech, she doesn’t go to events, she doesn’t (seem to) want to be involved.” In a later interview during the spring campaign, she had stated of the current First Lady,“She can speak and she understands.”
In a New York Post interview published on November 13 2016, she announced, “I will suggest that I be ambassador for the Czech Republic. [That] is where I’m from and my language and everybody knows me. I’m quite known all around the world. Not only in America. I have written three books, and they were translated in 40 countries in 25 languages. I’m known by the name Ivana. I really did not need the name Trump.”
She also declared the revered old house that has been home to every President except for George Washington was below standard: “To be perfectly honest, I think probably the Trump Tower and my town house in New York is much better than the White House.”
Instead, she has a new book and in her promotion of it, made insensitive remarks today about Melania Trump, suggesting that somehow, without living in the White House, she was the real First Lady.
All of this may unfortunately seem a bit undignified and petty, but at least Congress has already weighed in.
In 1912, when it was feeling generous, Congress awarded the presidential widow’s pension to Frances Cleveland, along with the free franking privilege, which permitted her to send all her mail free of charges by simply signing her name in the place where postage is usually adhered.
Ironically, that same Mrs. Grover Cleveland would become only the first of two presidential widows who would remarry, wedding Princeton professor Thomas J. Preston.
Unlike the widowed Jackie Kennedy, who remarried in 1968 to Aristotle Onassis, Frances Cleveland Preston’s free frank and pension was not revoked by Congress once her remarriage meant she no longer carried the status of widow.
When former President Harrison had died, Congress had also granted the franking privilege to his widow-niece Mary Harrison. After seeing Mrs. Cleveland get a pension, she pushed her luck and officially requested that Congress pay up to her as well.
Congress said no.
She may have been a presidential wife…
But she was no First Lady.