“Rah, rah Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen!” The catchy 1978 song by Boney M hints at the sordid love affair of Tsarina Alexandra, back in the 1800s. True or not, it’s a timeless tune indicative of our fascination with the ruling class. But what came first, our interest in the shocking behaviour of our political elite, or the shocking behaviour itself? The question is a ponderous one, but as long as we have people in power we’ll be witness to the abuses of it.
The facts and figures make it clear that men are usually the ones who hold positions of power, despite the constant fight for equality. The old saying ‘behind every great man is a great woman’ may be true, and it’s certainly true that the world’s First Ladies tend to hold a fascination for us. When they deviate from proper, appropriate behaviour it’s often much more shocking than if their husbands were to do the same. We’re leafing through the pages of history to look at some such incidents, to bring you tales of the sometimes surprising and sometimes horrifying actions of First Ladies around the world.
Living life in the public spotlight can’t be easy, and for some on this list it was coupled with debilitating mental illness that really isn’t fair to use against them. Others on the list are downright malevolent, absurd and shamelessly extravagant. While we may be familiar with their husbands, and in some cases their husband’s own eyebrow-raising behaviours, these ladies have done their part to ensure that their own shocking behaviours made the history books.
10. Alexandra the Tzarina – 1890s
Alexandra, as in the Boney M song, was the last Tsarina of Russia and married to Tsar Nicholas, Emperor of Russia. Alexandra was by all accounts a supportive wife, although it is said she was also pretty good at dishing out bad advice to her husband. She fervently believed in autocratic control of the country, and didn’t think it all that important to gain support of the people as a ruler. She eventually bore a son, Alexei, and passed on to him the haemophilia disease.
This disease led to a very friendly friendship with mystic and holy man Grigori Rasputin, whom Alexandra believed could heal her little boy. While Nicholas was not a fan of Rasputin, who was mainly a drunk, womanizing braggart, Alexandra considered him a saint. In desperation to cure her son, she spent hours devoting herself to her mystical relationship with Rasputin and her Orthodox religion, praying in her own private chapel for deliverance. There were many rumours about the two of them, and exactly how close they were. His bedroom, apparently, was an open door and he often preached a singular theology that in order to save yourself you first must get familiar with sin. Touché, Rasputin!
9. Mary Todd Lincoln – 1860s
Mary Todd Lincoln is a sympathetic figure for those who know the history of the Lincolns. She is known as the “crazy” first lady but she didn’t start out that way. Back when her and Abe were newly in love, Mary was a smart, politically savvy, sweet young woman and over the years she proved herself to be Abe’s true love and his greatest, unwavering supporter.
But, there were many challenges, pressures and sorrows during their time in the White House which eventually led to her unravelling, not the least of which was the sudden death of one young son. While it does seem that she perhaps had a history of depression, she became more eccentric over the years and eventually claimed herself to be a psychic, and able to see ghosts. She fell into fits of jealousy where her husband was concerned, often moody and volatile with a bad temper that became so frequent and public that many, including her husband, began to suspect insanity. At that time she didn’t stand much of a chance for help, since any behaviour that was hard to explain was considered “insanity.” She was also one of the biggest spenders the White House has ever seen, racking up endless, enormous bills for redecorating, while the Union could hardly afford supplies for soldiers during the Civil War.
8. Simone Duvalier – 1950s
Known as “Mama Doc” to her husband Francois’ “Papa Doc,” Simone Duvalier presided over what is basically considered a reign of terror in Haiti, alongside her husband. Together, they brutally ruled one of the poorest nations in existence. Mama Doc was regularly considered to be the one wearing the pants in the family with a reputation for intimidation, vanity and snobbishness. It’s said that she relished the power that came with her title of First Lady. As part of her role she decided to build a neighbourhood named after herself, called “Cite Simone,” but as it turns out, it’s hard to build a magnificent area within a city that exists in abject poverty; the area developed into one of the largest slums of the Northern Hemisphere.
7. Imelda Marcos – 1960s
Shoes. Shoes. Shoes. And more shoes. The First Lady of former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos will forever be synonymous with shoes. In the early 1950s, less than two weeks after meeting, Imelda and Ferdinand tied the knot. While her husband climbed the ladder to presidency, Marcos bore three children, and when Ferdinand became president in 1965 Imelda was being compared to Jacqueline Kennedy because of her good looks and proper demeanor. But while Filipinos lived in poverty, Imelda collected shoes, and became known for her excess: in spending, traveling, shopping and other luxurious habits. Adding insult to injury for the regular folk, it is believed that the money came at the country’s expense. Besides theft and general corruption, the Marcos regime was also known for its aggressively oppressive rule. In the end, Imelda fled the country with her husband when he was forced from office by the 1986 “people power” movement. In their haste to get out of dodge, Imelda left much behind, including her shoes: an estimated 3,000 pairs.
6. Margaret Trudeau – 1970s
Margaret Trudeau is the only lady on the list to bounce back from adversary and regain a positive reputation, although in the 70s she made a name for herself as the rather scandalous 22-year-old wife of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Though they married happily, the marriage fell apart quickly, with Margaret having difficulty accepting the 24 hour work schedule of her husband.
She made headlines a few times with some questionable actions, including an instance of drug smuggling in her husband’s luggage and half-naked appearances at Studio 54. It is reported that she once ripped apart some kind of tapestry in the prime minister’s office for unclear reasons. Trudeau also admitted in a memoir to having an affair with U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy and was associated with Rolling Stone band mates Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood. The truth was that during these years she suffered from stress and bipolar depression, and after separating from Trudeau in 1977, she lost custody of her children. She’s a trooper though; since her announcement about her struggles with bipolar in 2006, she has been an advocate for reducing the stigma of mental illness and is an honorary patron of the Canadian Mental Health Association. She is also an honorary president of an Ottawa organization dedicated to assistance for poor communities in third world countries.
5. Elena Ceauşescu – 1970s
Elena Ceausescu is widely accused of being responsible for two disastrous Romanian policies of the 1970s and 1980s. As the wife of Romania’s Communist leader Nicolai Ceaușescu and Deputy Prime Minister of Romania herself, Ceausescu was certainly no proponent of women’s rights. At her insistence, the country made abortion and birth control illegal, while women under the age of 40 were required to have a minimum of four children, a number that was later changed to five.
It only gets worse from there. Elena’s husband’s policies caused bitter poverty and hardship for almost all Romanian citizens. Families could not support all the children they were forced to have under law and many women sought illegal abortions or gave children over to state-run orphanages. Parents were eventually paid by the government to give their children up, because Nikolai had the great idea to create a child army. But due to over-crowding and nurse shortages the poor kids suffered from all kinds of ailments which Nikolai determined could all be dealt with in blood transfusions. To make a horror story even more horrific, the transfusions led to widespread AIDS among the orphans. All the while, Elena – as head of the state health commission – insisted that AIDS just simply did not exist in Romania. The couple were eventually executed in the Romanian Revolution by firing squad.
4. Mirjana Marković – 1990s
Another frightening name on the list, Mirjana Marković was the wife of former Yugoslavia president Slobodan Milosević, and by no means a lady of outstanding integrity. Together, she and her husband oversaw a transformation of the Serbian government into a criminal business. Murders, gang-related activity and impoverishing a country are only a few of the legacies they left behind. Milosević was later indicted on war crime charges put forth by the International Criminal Tribunal, while his wife was charged with fraud. She has since fled to Moscow and been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Serbia continues to petition the Russian government for her extradition.
3. Ana Mae Endara – 1990s
A mere 30-years younger than her husband, the former President of Panama Guillermo Endara, Ana Mae was a regular in the media spotlight but not for reasons that ever made her a popular figure. Outspoken about the country’s judicial system, which she once said was “rubbish”, she essentially told thousands of teachers where to go when they threatened to vote against her husband’s party in upcoming elections. At one point, she won $125,000 in a national lottery and told everyone she was keeping, not donating, the money – one of many examples of her complete disregard for the nation’s poverty issues. In the mid-90s, she was accused of reselling food that had initially been donated by Italy and was just one of a number of financial scandals that plagued the administration during their term in office.
2. Grace Amai Mugabe – 2000s
Zimbabwean First Lady, Grace Amai Mugabe, is another First Lady who is regularly in the press for less than savoury reasons. She started off on the wrong foot by becoming her current husband’s mistress, while still married herself and acting as his secretary. The couple ditched their partners and got hitched in a wedding so extravagant it was labeled by media as “the wedding of the century.” She is known best, perhaps, for overseeing the construction of meaningless grand palaces, shopping sprees around the world (she is sarcastically referred to as “Gucci Grace” by Zimbabweans), and for assaulting a British journalist in 2013 while in Hong Kong. Many Zimbabweans blame President Mugabe’s many blunders on her influence in her husband’s political decisions.
1. Sara Netanyahu – 2000s
The third wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sara is also notorious for shoes – at least, for throwing them. Long known for a boisterous and brash personality, one of her more infamous scandals occurred when she tossed a pair of shoes at an assistant who hadn’t properly shined them. Apparently she screeched that “If the prime minister were to have seen what you did to his shoes, he would have butchered you, butchered you!”
Her image is generally of a controlling, obsessive wife who enjoys luxury perhaps a little too much. It was reported that in 2006 during the Lebanon War, Sara travelled with her husband to London, England, where she spent a huge wad of cash on superfluous items. While she has won a couple of libel suits, she was most recently the subject of scrutiny again when, in 2010, an Israeli newspaper reported that the Netanyahu’s housekeeper was suing her for withholding wages, unfair working conditions and verbal abuse. Like the wicked step-sister the country never asked for, Sara will likely continue to shine as a beacon of dubious First Lady behaviour.