Vaclav Havel, Man of Whimsy

Vaclav Havel, Man of Whimsy

Four years ago I invited Vaclav Havel to join me and a few senior colleagues for a coffee to discuss the commissioning of a large sculpture that would stand in front of a new building to serve as headquarters for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). We chatted for some 90 minutes in a meeting room atop the rather bland Dorint Hotel in Prague, right near the construction site.

Havel was linked to Radio Free Europe, heart and soul. When communism came crashing down in 1989, he said he had learned about the United States during the Cold War from the Voice of America and about his own country through the "surrogate broadcasts" of RFE. When RFE/RL moved its headquarters from Munich to Prague in the mid-1990s, Havel thought of the most delicious of ironies: He saw to it that the U.S. broadcaster would inhabit the old communist-era parliament building next to the National Museum at Wenceslas Square — for the price of just one Czech crown a year. Independent journalists working in the name of freedom took over the offices of party hacks and apparatchiks.

Havel loved freedom. I’m not sure it would be fair to say that he hated the tyrants, though. He was thought by some to have been too soft on former members of the communist regime when he came to power. Havel didn’t seem to have hateful bones in his body. He rejected the folly of collectivism. He passionately resisted communism. He endured more than one stint in prison for his stubborn dissent, the longest term being nearly five years. But the Havel I experienced was not a man of bitterness and anger — far from it. He could be gentleness, grace, and light. No wonder he was friends with the Dalai Lama. There was something serene about Havel. I heard Havel’s friend Karel Schwarzenberg, now the Czech foreign minister, once say admiringly at a small dinner that "Vaclav has his flaws like all of us, but he always gets the big things right." Havel had perspective.

Havel accepted gladly to join us for coffee that day. He was filled with ideas for the sculpture. He doodled throughout our conversation, offered sketches, and pleaded with us not to commission work that was in any way plodding, suffering, or struggling. No chains being torn asunder, he insisted. And God forbid anything reminiscent of socialist realism. He wanted bright colorful neon, sweetness and whimsy. Havel wanted us to have something, he explained, that reflected the genuine lightness and loveliness of freedom. It was in a moment like this, I’d like to say, that one saw the true Havel. He was a natural dissident, but accidental president. By all accounts he was never really interested in politics per se. In his soul the real man was an artist, the author of more than 20 plays and other works of fiction. I was the guest of our mutual friend Michael Zantovsky earlier this month in London at a screening of Havel’s film The Leaving. To produce and direct this, Havel said, was "the last great adventure of my life." Havel reveled in the creative. His personality was the antithesis of the bureaucrat, the power seeker, the posturer. You knew him from his friends. Zantovsky is today the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Havel had made him his ambassador to Washington in the early 1990s. But Zantovsky was no diplomat: He came from music and psychology and was Havel’s confidant and literary translator.

In May 2008 the new RFE/RL building was finally open, and we invited Havel to chair our first editorial meeting. Havel once again accepted graciously, but also asked, sheepishly, if we could convene a real editorial meeting, not just a ceremony. He craved content. And indeed, he ran the editorial meeting that day, listening to story ideas from our colleagues and responding with comments and ideas of his own. Havel inspired our Afghans and Iranians, our Russians and other colleagues. You had the feeling the great man was inspired that day, too. As he exited the room, he leaned in and asked me whether he could take the nameplate that had been made for him for the occasion. He never failed to charm or surprise.

Havel was a faithful friend of freedom. If an RFE source needed escape from a difficult country, if we needed to remove hard drives from an office abroad to protect dissidents, we always received indispensable help thanks to Havel. I once asked that he sit with me and Foreign Policy editor Susan Glasser to discuss issues of the day. We joined Havel in his private office. It was winter. He looked frail, tired. But still Havel engaged; he was talking about his passions, democracy and human rights.  

I had proposed before he died, and Havel had accepted, that we stage a theater evening with excerpts from his plays in a Prague apartment, replete with dinner and discussion. Havel’s work had been banned after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. It was subsequently circulated as samizdat and performed in quiet, discreet settings among friends. I had enlisted Zantovsky and another friend in common, Pavel Pechacek, as collaborators for the project. We never settled on a date. We’ll have to do our Havel theater evening without Havel now.

After that day at the Dorint Hotel, I ran into Havel at a reception. As I entered the room I saw Havel across the hall, a broad smile, animated, waving to me, signaling that I come over. I felt two things one is apt to feel in such a circumstance: one, the vain pleasure that it was I who was being singled out in such a crowd by such a great man. Second, I was confronted by the possibility that Havel was not waving at me at all, but trying instead to connect to a dear friend who was standing just behind me. But in this instance, it was me. I walked over, shook Havel’s hand, and he took me aside, with pen and paper, to a table by the wall. It seems his mind had been spinning about that sculpture, and he had ideas and sketches he wanted to share.

In The Leaving there is a cameo appearance; Havel pops out of a fountain in a snorkel mask at the end. Just for fun, I suppose. And why not? This was the man who cruised through the corridors of Prague Castle on a scooter after being elected president in December 1989. 

Vaclav Havel, man of freedom, man of whimsy, RIP.