Before Melania Trump: A Look Back At the Scandals of Former First Ladies

Though she is perhaps one of the most controversial first ladies we’ve had in some decades, Melania Trump isn’t the only wife of a president to be embroiled in scandal. In the past, the first lady of the United States wasn’t very visible. She usually had a small agenda that pertained to children or health, and aside from planning state dinners, decorating the White House for the holidays, or being known for her fashion choices, the first lady was able to skirt around the spotlight.

However, times have changed. Here is a look back at all the scandals of former first ladies that didn’t just blow over. It turns out Melania Trump’s nude photo shoot may not even be so scandalous after all.

The original first lady

Harriet Lane in a photograph.

Harriet Lane served as first lady for John Buchanan. | Emma C via YouTube

If the term “first lady” seems strange to you, that’s because it is. Back in 1857, John Buchanan became the United States’ first and only bachelor president. The rumor was that he was the gay lover of Vice President William Rufus King. Since Buchanan didn’t have a spouse, his niece, Harriet Lane, fulfilled all of the first lady duties for him.

According to National First Ladies Library Historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, “because she was his niece and people didn’t really know how to address her,” she became known as the first lady.

Next: Did this scandal really kill a first lady?

Polygamy in the White House

Rachel Donelson in a painting.

She wasn’t alive during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, but still caused controversy. | Emma C via YouTube

Andrew Jackson’s wife, Rachel Donelson, never made it to the White House. She died two months before he took office in 1828, but that didn’t stop a scandal from following her into the grave. Some 30 years before, in 1791, Jackson met Donelson whom he thought was divorced, and they got married. However, someone clearly forgot to sign on the dotted line because Donelson’s first husband charged her with adultery.

The couple wasn’t able to legally marry until 1794, and when Jackson ran for president years later, the scandal made headlines. The seventh President of the United States claimed that the rumors and scandals drove his wife to her death.

Next: Mrs. Lincoln gets in trouble for her shopping.

Embezzlement in the name of fashion

Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln in a portrait.

Mary Todd Lincoln spent a lot of the White House’s funds. | CBS Evening News via YouTube

We all hear stories about how Mary Todd Lincoln wasn’t exactly mentally stable, but what you might not know is that she also dabbled in a bit of embezzlement. Mrs. Todd Lincoln lived to keep up with the Joneses. In fact, she grew up in a very affluent household and was accustomed to a particular way of living.

When Abraham Lincoln became president in 1861, Mrs. Lincoln redecorated the entire White House, and she used federal funds to support her expensive shopping habit. Mrs. Lincoln didn’t have bad intentions though; her biggest scandal was when she diverted funds that were supposed to go for the welfare of soldiers to the welfare of freed slaves.

Next: When the first lady became president

The first female president

Edith Wilson in a black and white photo.

Edith Wilson helped President Wilson work through his stroke. | Emma C via YouTube

We all know that women get things done, and that’s exactly what Edith Wilson did in 1919. President Wilson suffered a stroke during the fall of that year, and Mrs. Wilson fought tooth and nail to keep the administration intact and Vice President Thomas Marshall at bay. Basically, she acted as the Commander-in-Chief while her husband recovered.

Secret Lives of the First Ladies author Cormac O’Brien said,

What happened in the White House in the wake of Wilson’s stroke was unprecedented and difficult to characterize precisely. No one, not even the vice president, was allowed access to the president while he convalesced in the Lincoln Bedroom, per Edith’s orders. The country — the world — had to take Edith Wilson’s word for it that the champion of the League of Nations was even alive.

Next: This first lady really liked to party.

A party girl

Florence Harding in a painting.

Florence Harding wasn’t a typical wife. | Emma C via YouTube

Apparently, Melania Trump wasn’t the only first lady to shake things up. President Warren Harding’s tenure in the White House was popular but rather short-lived. Riddled with scandals, Harding was a serial adulterer and the president’s wife, Florence Harding, also added to the rumors.

The first lady was known to throw wild parties,serving whiskey in the midst of the Prohibition era.

Next: This presidential couple wasn’t exactly known for their loving marriage.

Love outside the White House

Eleanor stands with her arm around the chair that Franklin D. Roosevelt is sitting on.

Was Eleanor Roosevelt in an affair? | HISTORY via YouTube

Though they were a legendary couple, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt weren’t exactly in a romantic marriage. The first lady was rumored to have had an affair with NY state trooper Earl Miller when FDR was governor of New York.

Still, the first lady’s affair with a state trooper wasn’t her most sordid scandal. Apparently, she was also lovers with journalist Lorena Hickock. She had become close friends with female journalists covering the 1932 campaign, but correspondence between herself and Hickock suggested a love affair.

Next: Who knew bedroom choices were so controversial?

Bed-sharing in the White House

Betty and Gerald Ford standing and smiling together.

This move by the Fords was very controversial at the time. | PBS Newshour via YouTube

We might all know Betty Ford because of her struggles with painkillers and alcohol dependency, but she also scandalized the public because of her bedroom choices.

O’Brien said, “The Fords were the first executive couple since the Coolidges to openly share a single bedroom, a fact that drew scandalous responses from around the country.”

The first lady famously clapped back, saying, “I guess when you’re president, you’re supposed to be a eunuch.”

Next: This first lady began to obsessively consult with these people to protect her husband.

Stuck on astrology

Nancy Reagan smiling with Ronald Regan.

Nancy Reagan was really into astrology. | ABC News via YouTube

The assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981 obviously terrified Nancy Reagan. She became so paranoid about her husband’s safety that she began to obsessively consulting astrologists to determine the best dates and times for the president’s appearances. If the astrologist said it wasn’t a good idea, then President Reagan didn’t go.

O’Brien revealed, “Nancy Reagan pretty much dictated her husband’s schedule, even meetings with foreign heads of state, with the direct input of an astrologer.”

Follow Aramide on Twitter @midnightrami.

Check out The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!