Culture


Louise Linton has accomplished the near-impossible task of locating an ordinary meeting place in the most moneyed stretch of the Upper East Side, where she and her husband, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, own an apartment. In this part of town, there is hardly a store in sight that doesn’t sell sweaters that cost more than most Americans’ mortgage payments. Prada, Tom Ford, Céline, Roland Mouret, Valentino—many of which Linton made the regrettable decision to tag in that fateful, now-deleted Instagram post—they’re all here. But for our meeting, she has selected the humble Three Guys restaurant, a bustling family diner and an oasis of normalcy in a land of excess. I will meet Louise Linton, the 37-year-old woman most frequently described as the Marie Antoinette of our current era, at a place that serves mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers.

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There are many other things Linton insists make her a regular person. She loves SoulCycle, for one. “That’s temple for me,” she says, dressed in a SoulCycle beanie and leggings. “This is my uniform. I wear SoulCycle stuff every single day of my life.” She’s fond of the expression super-duper. She is “super-duper” sorry for all of the missteps in her self-presentation. She finds the idea of doing a reality TV show, which many people have floated to her in recent months, to be “super-duper” scary.

Other ordinary-girl things: Linton loves calligraphy and big-band jazz. She enjoys taking cute selfies with Mnuchin using the Snapchat filters that make people look like puppies and piglets. Against her husband’s wishes, she shows them to me. (“I didn’t even know she had Snapchat,” her press rep says, faintly concerned.) She is obsessed with dogs, especially sick ones. So much so that she once made friends with a homeless man named Richard in a park in Los Angeles because she was concerned about the health of his dog. She wound up paying the vet bill. (Richard, over the phone, tells me that he knows Linton is a good person because his dog loves her. “You can’t fool an animal. Dogs read people,” he says.) She believes that everyone should go to therapy. “It’s like going to the dentist,” she says. Like any average person, Linton uses Amazon religiously and orders delivery meals on Postmates, on evenings when she’s not making her husband a big ratatouille with leftover groceries. And when she’s feeling worn down from all the negativity in the world, she’ll turn off her television and her phone, light some candles, and blast Duke Ellington so loud that it reaches every nook and cranny of her $12.6 million Massachusetts Avenue Heights home.

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Of course, nobody really needs convincing that Linton, in at least some regard, is a real person. It was a real person who, holed up in that DC mansion one day in August, spent a little too much time scrolling through Instagram. She’d just returned from a government trip to Kentucky with Mnuchin, and, as had become her habit, had posted a photograph of herself descending the steps of a government jet in her #hermesscarf, #tomford sunnies, and #valentino. One commenter, seizing upon the strange and unsavory juxtaposition of the government signage and the luxury brands, wrote, “Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable.”

“I was feeling like a regular person. And regular people, when someone says something mean to you on social media, regular people are allowed to respond.”

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For Linton, this was the last straw. She’d experienced what she felt to be an unjust torrent of scrutiny since she’d arrived in Washington. She’d mostly been able to ignore the noise. But this time she snapped. “Aw!!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable!” she wrote back to the commenter. “Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol,” she added. “Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country?” She continued for a total of 165 words and four emojis, the equivalent of one full meltdown. The comment went viral, and all eyes turned toward Linton, a character seemingly drawn straight from a Lauren Greenfield coffee-table book or a season of The Real Housewives.

That Instagram comment has been playing on repeat in Linton’s mind for the last six months. “I think after being kicked and slapped on social media a billion times, I had this one time. This lady said I was a deplorable human being, and that hurt,” Linton says, her voice trembling in sincere horror and self-pity. Her hands are shaking. “So I had this knee-jerk reaction and I was like…blarghhhh. I was feeling like a regular person. And regular people, when someone says something mean to you on social media, regular people are allowed to respond.” It’s clear that she identifies much more strongly with a battered dalmatian puppy than Cruella de Vil. “I felt like the kid on the playground that has been so bullied, and finally you punch back.”

But even Shona Hampel, a model, the daughter of a British diplomat, and Linton’s best friend of two decades, was aghast at the behavior. “I can’t believe she didn’t know that you don’t react to internet trolls. Don’t engage!” she tells me. “I had my face in my hands, and I was like, No no no.”

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All of Linton’s self-pity does not come without a sizable dose of self-hatred and self-doubt, I would learn over the tearful two hours that followed. “I was so stupid,” Linton says so forcefully in her Scottish accent that I half expect she will lean over and begin banging her head on the table next to the last remaining chicken finger. She gathers herself and sums up that day, the day when an absent-minded Instagram post set off a seismic shift in her life: “I wish I could take it back.”

“I wasn’t thinking about who I am,” Linton continues. “I wasn’t thinking, I am the wife of this person and thus I should act like the wife of this person.”

And yet…it’s important to understand that it was Linton’s fantastical idea of what a political wife should act like that got her into this mess to begin with. Like so many dozens of people circling the president of the United States, Linton is a show-person who’s constructed her understanding of political behavior from a Hollywood fantasy. “When I look at the photograph of her stepping off the government plane, that image definitely looks like something out of a movie. It looks like a set piece,” says Robin Givhan, longtime fashion critic and writer at the Washington Post. “For a lot of people coming into Washington, their understanding of this world is based on Hollywood and television, and that’s the only touchstone they have.”

Linton’s performative streak developed early. Lest you suspect she married Mnuchin for his money, she grew up almost comically well-off in the suburbs of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, where her father was a property developer. She was raised in a small castle. The youngest in a family of three children, she sought the limelight from an early age, performing impressions of British politicians she saw on television. Every year, students from the drama department at Pepperdine University traveled to Scotland to partake in the Edinburgh Festival, and some were housed in her father’s buildings. Young Linton observed these Pepperdine students with awe. Their energy, their pure American confidence, was electrifying. She wanted to be like them when she grew up.

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One day Linton, then eight years old, looked at her father and said: “Daddy, I am going to go to Pepperdine and be an actress.” She held onto this dream for the next decade, and in 2000, she flew to Los Angeles to make good on her promise. But not before taking a gap year doing volunteer work in Zambia, trying to follow in the altruistic footsteps of her mother, who died of breast cancer when she was 14. When she got to Pepperdine, she studied acting and journalism. (“Lot of good it did me,” she says sarcastically about her journalism classes.) After graduation, she earned a law degree at the University of West Los Angeles and married the criminal defense lawyer Ronald Richards, a union that lasted for three years. During this period, she also launched an acting career that could generously be classified as D-list, scoring a string of small roles in minor films and TV series. She had her first harrowing brush with notoriety for a memoir she published about her time in Zambia (titled In Congo’s Shadow: One Girl’s Perilous Journey to the Heart of Africa), in which she painted herself as a Mother Teresa figure bravely navigating the all-encompassing threats of Mother Africa. She wrote of being frightened of rebels targeting her, the “skinny white muzungu with long angel hair,” and of her “special comfort in my bond” with an orphan, a “smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola.” The book—the type of thing that would have gone wholly unnoticed if it weren’t such a stark example of white upper-class privilege—was received so poorly that Linton took it out of print and issued a public apology. It also sparked a Twitter hashtag, #LintonLies, detailing its myriad inaccuracies (the Daily Telegraph, which had run an excerpt, eventually withdrew the article from its site and issued an apology). “My greatest sorrow is that the effect of my book was the exact opposite of what my intention was,” Linton says now.

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Hampel kindly explains away the book’s tone-deafness by saying: “Louise was blessed and fortunate enough to be raised in a Scottish castle, and to not understand the reality of some human beings with a different background.”

It wasn’t until 2013 that Linton met Mnuchin at the wedding reception of a mutual friend. The son of a successful Goldman Sachs partner and an art gallerist, Mnuchin worked at Goldman for 17 years—long enough to rack up a reported $46 million in company stock. He eventually settled in Los Angeles, taking a chunk of his hard-earned Wall Street money and pouring it into the film business, backing the X-Men franchise and Avatar, among other big-budget hits.

Getty ImagesKevin Mazur

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Linton didn’t think much of Mnuchin—who’s 18 years her senior—at first, but she did mention to him in their initial conversation that she was hosting a fundraiser for a dog welfare organization called Mutt Match LA. To her surprise, he showed up at the fundraiser, and the two struck up a casual friendship. Seven months later, they went on two consecutive dates. Since they’d both been married before (Mnuchin twice—he has three children with his second wife), they eased into an engagement, after two years of dating, in 2015. “We’re so, so different,” Linton says. “He’s ice and I’m fire. I like to try everything, taste everything. I love to explore, and he is much more habitual. He likes what he likes. We balance each other out nicely.”

“Louise was blessed and fortunate enough to be raised in a Scottish castle, and to not understand the reality of some human beings with a different background.”

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Linton’s sometimes treacherous lack of filter is only matched by Mnuchin’s extreme caution—he keeps one of the lowest profiles of any top-ranking Trump official, and generally finds himself in the spotlight only because of his wife. If he is impacted by the vitriol aimed at his family and his colleagues—he and Linton received a package of horse feces two days before Christmas, sent by “The American People”—he doesn’t show it. Nor does he seem to express any concern that his wife’s snafus will damage his own reputation. When asked about his wife’s turn in the spotlight over email, just a few days after the horse poop incident, he wrote: “I think social media has made her misunderstood and she is not at all the person that has been portrayed. She has a huge heart, is sensitive, deeply compassionate, and kind. She has humility and gentleness. She’s also funny and makes people laugh.… She loves gadgets and has a bird feeder in the backyard. She reads John Stuart Mill and writes notes in the margins of her books. She’s an incredibly warm and loving person.”

And Linton says she’s able to draw some silliness out of her husband. He likes to do impressions of her and will call her “Laaaady Linton” in the privacy of their home. The two classify themselves as movie buffs. (When I ask what their favorite film of the year is, Linton mentions that they recently watched and adored Crazy, Stupid, Love.) Mnuchin is an avid cyclist, and in a classic marital compromise, he and Linton trade off weekend trips to SoulCycle with journeys into the wilderness on real bikes.

Unlike Linton’s first husband, Mnuchin makes an effort to bring her friends into their lives. He’s invited Hampel and her family to stay with them multiple times. “She can fall asleep anywhere. She’ll fall asleep on the sofa in front of a film and he’ll carry her up to sleep. And then she’ll fall asleep in the bathroom,” Hampel says. “Their dog, Beersie, needs quite a lot of extra care, and Steven is right on it.”

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Besides some contributions to a few Democratic political campaigns, Mnuchin and Linton didn’t consider themselves political people in the early stages of their relationship. But when the Trump campaign came knocking—first, to offer Mnuchin a role leading campaign financing—they felt powerless not to heed the call of American citizens.

It’s easy to imagine that a couple, financially secure and happily working in the film industry in Los Angeles, would want to stay far away from the chaos of such a turbulent political operation. But Linton remembers it as a no-brainer. “It wasn’t a long deliberation because I think he felt incredibly honored to have the opportunity to serve the country. And I felt good because I know him so well, and I feel safe, knowing that the economy is in his hands.” And so the two left Los Angeles behind, moving into a hotel in Washington until they could find a home that would be suitable for, fingers crossed, the next eight years of their lives.

If Linton is maddening to the general public, she can do no wrong in the eyes of her husband. He reacted empathetically to her when she snapped at the Instagram commenter, she remembers. “He’ll say, ‘Okay, honey, maybe we don’t do this,’” she says. “But he’s never harsh or critical, and he sees the humanity in me.

“He is the most decent, moral, sweet person I have ever met. He’s brilliant, and he understands the economy,” Linton says of her husband. She has a tendency to classify all the people she’s met in the administration using long, breathless lists of adjectives. As bumbling as she can be when talking about herself, she is deft at fielding political questions in the most uncontroversial way possible. The people of Washington are “decent, wonderful, nice people.” The vice president is “the most gentle, lovely, wonderful, smart, kind” person she has met. Maguy Maccario Doyle, an ambassador of Monaco to the U.S. and Canada and a real inspiration to Linton, is “graceful, wise, elegant, smart, thoughtful, and caring.” The president himself is “nice, and so charming.” His daughter Ivanka is “incredibly bright, brilliant, gifted, thoughtful, kind, generous, and very, very elegant.” She’s recently started wearing Ivanka Trump’s brand of shoes, which you can buy for $69 on Amazon. “They’re incredible,” she says. And alongside Lara Trump, she’s been collaborating with the Humane Society to push for animal welfare within the current administration, a cause not typically associated with the GOP.

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I ask Linton if she’s interested in politics. “Oh God, no. I am not in politics. I have nothing to do with politics.”

Linton remembers the first few months in Washington as lonely, friendless, and confusing. The absence of her dogs was particularly painful for her. “When you get off the plane in Washington, nobody says, ‘Here’s a handbook of dos and don’ts now that you’re in this position,’” she says. “I wish they did.” She remembers planning her wedding to Mnuchin—which was officiated by Vice President Mike Pence and attended by President Trump—and fumbling through the invitation process. “We had various people from government and some ambassadors at the wedding, and I didn’t know proper protocol and how to address the honorable this and that,” she remembers. “There’s a whole different set of rules.”

Instead of just receding into the background and living a quiet, peaceful life in her house with her dogs, Linton stepped into her position as though she had been cast in a new role in a film.

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“I look at amazing fashion icons like Jackie O and I’m like, Why can’t I wear gloves?”

“I was tagging things [on Instagram] because I thought I had seen other actresses doing that, and I was like, I should do that, too. I should be more fashionable. I need to play that role; I need to be more elegant; I need to be more stylish,” Linton says breathlessly. “I look at amazing fashion icons like Jackie O and I’m like, Why can’t I wear gloves?”

The Mnuchins at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. “My husband showed me one meme or tweet or whatever that said, ‘Who did it better? Louise Linton or Darth Vader?’”

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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And so she did—elbow-length black leather gloves, to be exact—in November, when she was photographed beside her husband holding up a fresh printing of dollar bills at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing with a wicked glint in her eyes. “I just didn’t bother taking the gloves off because it was kind of cold in the bureau. And I didn’t expect that I would be pulled into a picture!” Linton protests. By this point, she’d learned to avoid reading about herself at all costs, but that day she quickly got a fresh stream of concerned correspondence. “My husband showed me one meme or tweet or whatever that said, ‘Who did it better? Louise Linton or Darth Vader?’” With these kinds of snafus, the wife of the secretary of the Treasury—typically a person far removed from the political limelight—became the center of a blizzard of media fascination and scorn. Here was the perfect avatar for the warped lavishness and general disregard for Washington protocol that has characterized the Trump administration.

“Louise’s life has been a roller coaster,” Hampel admits. “I’m never going to fall off my chair because she is in a newspaper. There’s always something dramatic or entertaining or newsworthy going on in her life.”

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In between the drama, she’s embracing her role as a stepmother. Mnuchin’s three teenagers spent Thanksgiving with the couple in DC. “We saw A Bad Moms Christmas. Uh, whoops. I’ve already done it. Louise Linton, dreadful stepmother, takes children to see an R-rated movie!” And, she says, the turbulence of the last year has solidified her decision to start her own family. “I think motherhood is an incredible thing that I now feel that I would like…. There can be all this noise out there, but at the end of the day, you’ve got your family, and a roof over your head, and food.”

After the Instagram scandal, Linton tried to take her image into her own hands. She reached out to wives of cabinet members for advice, one of whom referred her to a Washington protocol expert. She is now learning a lot. “It’s actually really a fascinating world. The world of political etiquette. For example, gift giving. You’re not allowed to give gifts, and people aren’t allowed to give us gifts. Undue influence. Obviously we both are ethical and good people and we don’t want to mess up. When I went to the Middle East, they helped me: What is the appropriate thing to wear in Jerusalem? In Saudi Arabia? What’s the appropriate way to greet a gentleman in Saudi? What’s the appropriate way to greet sheiks or whomever?”

She returns to a common refrain: “I’m trying and I’m learning,” she says.

The elephant in the room is the great, if not overwhelming, likelihood that she will not have any long-term use for this etiquette training, given the volatility of the Trump administration. One would imagine this possibility is a relief for Linton. And yet she hates to think about it. “Especially because I just finished decorating my house, and I just started making friends in DC,” she sighs.

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“I’m just a regular girl, and I’m not perfect, but I’m trying my best,” she says. “Maybe I should wear that on a T-shirt and Instagram that. And then on the back it should say…‘I’m so sorry.’”

Linton thinks ruefully about the long leather gloves and the black skirt, which are currently hanging, unloved and radioactive, in her closet. “I really hope someday I can wear that outfit again,” she says. “Because I really liked it.”

Hair by Cecilia Romero at Exclusive Artists for Moroccanoil; makeup by Victor Henao for Estée Lauder

This article originally appears in the March 2018 issue of ELLE.

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