Happy Birthday, Marie Jana Korbelova
The Czech Embassy celebrates one of its own.
WASHINGTON — Marie Jana Korbelova was born in Prague in 1937. Her father, Josef Korbel, was a supporter of a newly independent Czechoslovakia and its nascent democracy. During World War II, like many Jewish families and others who strongly supported the country’s leading democrats, the Korbel family fled to England, where Josef converted from Judaism to Catholicism and worked for Czechoslovakia’s government in exile. The family moved home after the war, but a 1948 Communist coup forced them out again, and Korbel and his family left their native Europe and immigrated to the United States.
Nearly 70 years later, Marie Jana Korbelova — now a tack-sharp octogenarian in a deep red dress — was back in Czech diplomatic territory. On a balmy spring evening, the Czech Embassy, tucked away from the grinding hustle of Washington just outside of the city’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, was packed with men in suits and women in cocktail dresses. Diplomats from the Czech Republic and the United States and their spouses sipped champagne and clinked glasses with a coterie of distinguished guests: a former dissident from what was then Czechoslovakia, a Cuban refugee, and a renowned Czech pianist. All were gathered to celebrate Korbelova’s 80th birthday — or, as she’s better known to the rest of the world, Madeleine Albright.
The guest of honor made her way to her seat alongside the Czech ambassador and his wife at the front of the room. Adorning her dress was one of her famous pins — this one in the shape of the Czech lion.
In addition to the wine and pâté, duck breast, and knedliky (Czech bread dumplings) presented at the tables (all named after the various places Albright has lived over the course of her life), there was a certain irony served throughout the evening. Albright became a famous Czech (or, as she called herself, a Czechoslovak) because of the life she made for herself after her family left for America. Albright officially became a U.S. citizen at the age of 20, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at 56, and, four years later in 1997, the first female U.S. secretary of state.
She is “one of the quintessential Czechs,” Hynek Kmonicek, the wisecracking, hot-sauce-collecting Czech ambassador to the United States, said in his opening speech that night, wryly adding that if Albright were to become secretary of state again, they wouldn’t need to worry about being forgotten by the United States, because “we are you, and you are us.”
Indeed, during her time as secretary of state, Albright did keep her fellow Czechs in mind. U.S. President Bill Clinton once joked that the Czech Republic was the only country to have two ambassadors at the U.N.
In January 1994, when Clinton announced in Prague that it was no longer a question of if NATO would expand, but when and how, Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accompanied him on the trip. At least as notable — for those in attendance, if not for Czech history — is that Clinton and Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright-turned-president of what was once again a newly independent country, went to a jazz club. (As Czech diplomat and author Michael Zantovsky recounts in his biography of Havel, Clinton’s mother had died just days before his visit, but he agreed to spend the evening listening to Jiri Stivin, the Czech saxophonist, flutist, and improviser, which Albright signaled to Havel, upon landing, with a thumbs-up.) Albright’s relationship with Havel would continue to flourish long beyond the days when either held office. She served as his Washington guide during his visit in 2005, and when he died in 2011, she spoke at his funeral.
The era of diplomacy during which Albright served as secretary of state was marked by excitement and uncertainty. The Czech Republic, still finding its footing after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, was led by a man hailed as among the great intellectual dissidents in European history. Today, the country’s president, Milos Zeman, is a populist and a Vladimir Putin sympathizer. During Albright’s tenure, the United States was the geopolitical champion of those countries in Central and Eastern Europe shaking off the Soviet shackles. It’s a part Washington seems hesitant to play now with current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson having suggested it will be pragmatism, not principle, that defines the role of U.S. foreign policy.
“We are the indispensable nation,” Albright told her guests at the spring embassy party, a cloaked reference to U.S. President Donald Trump’s untraditional view of U.S. world leadership (“and we’ll figure that out again pretty soon”).
That night, the Czechs presented Albright with — what else? — a brooch in the shape of a heart, the kind with which Havel used to sign off his letters. She smiled upon receiving it. To cap off the party, Czech pianist Tomas Kaco gave two performances — “My Funny Valentine” and his own composition, “Gypsy Soul.” Perhaps it was a nod to the visit to the jazz club. Perhaps it was just a chance to show off Czech talent to a Czech talent.
“I have always been very proud of where I came from,” Albright said in her closing remarks. And the American diplomat from Prague was grateful that night, lifetimes after her family was forced to leave Czechoslovakia behind, to be “back where I belong.”
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.
Photo credit: Czech Embassy/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration
Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin