Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright

Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright

by Ann Blackman

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When Madeleine Korbel Albright was sworn in as secretary of state in January 1997, she made headlines around the world. She was the first woman to rise to the top tier of American government and had a reputation for defining foreign policy in blunt one-liners that voters could understand. When her Jewish heritage was disclosed, people were intrigued by her personal…  See more details below


When Madeleine Korbel Albright was sworn in as secretary of state in January 1997, she made headlines around the world. She was the first woman to rise to the top tier of American government and had a reputation for defining foreign policy in blunt one-liners that voters could understand. When her Jewish heritage was disclosed, people were intrigued by her personal story and wondered how it was possible -- if it were possible -- that she truly could have been ignorant of her past.
Veteran Time magazine correspondent Ann Blackman has written the first comprehensive biography of Madeleine Albright. The book reveals a life of enormous texture -- a lonely, peripatetic childhood in war-ravaged Europe; two harrowing escapes from her homeland, once from the Nazis, then from the Communists; her arrival in America; Madeleine's unhappiness as a teenager in Denver, always the outsider, the little refugee; her marriage into an old American newspaper family with great wealth.
When, after twenty-three years, the marriage failed, Albright was devastated. But in many ways, divorce liberated her to pursue a lifelong interest in government and international affairs. From Senator Edmund S. Muskie's office to President Carter's White House to a professorship at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, Albright gained experience and contacts. As a foreign affairs advisor to Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and, later, presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, Albright positioned herself to return to government as President Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations and eventually to claim her ultimate prize -- the office of secretary of state.
With both insight and compassion, Blackman shows how the changing cultural mores of the last four decades affected Albright and other women of her generation: the self-doubt she experienced when, as a young mother in an era when real mothers didn't work, she decided to take a job on Capitol Hill; the problems she faced as a female professor who was not always taken seriously in the white man's world of foreign policy; the psychological transformation from spending most of her professional life as a staffer who wrote talking points for others to becoming a woman of consequence in her own right; the ups and downs of an ambitious, driven woman who still carries her share of insecurities, now concealed by a veneer of power and celebrity.
In writing this landmark book, Blackman drew on archival material in the United States, Britain, and the Czech Republic, as well as interviews with almost two hundred friends and colleagues of Albright and her family, including President Clinton, Czech Republic President Václav Havel, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, She also spent many hours with Albright herself who, feet up in her Georgetown living room, offered startlingly frank and poignant comments on her life, past and present. The book is enhanced with twenty-five photos, many from the Secretary's personal collection.

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Editorial Reviews

Publisher's Weekly
Blackman is a skillful reporter who has written a solid, balanced biography.
Wayne Biddle
To Blackman's credit, there is a great deal of leg work here, yet the effort amounts to a celebratory portrait of its subject, not a critical look. —The Washington Monthly
Library Journal
From a Time Magazine reporter who has covered six administrations.
Dorothy Rompalske
Readers looking to Blackman's book for insight into Albright's political policies will be disappointed....they are simply not there....though Seasons of Her Life is gracefully wrought and enjoyable to read, the definitive biography of Madeleine Albright has yet to be written.
Biography Magazine
Jacob Heilbrunn
Revealing....Blackman has done a fine job of explaining Albright's astonishing ascent.
The New York Times Book Review
Boston Globe
A gem of thorough and thoughtful reporting.
Kirkus Reviews
A reasonably serious biography, by a reporter in Time Magazine's Washington bureau. Blackman, a seasoned journalist, focuses on the personal life of a public figure. Readers seeking analysis of Albright's foreign policy, insights into how her mind works, or an agenda she might pursue through higher elective office will need to look elsewhere. Even political relations are characterized in terms of style rather than substance. Her interactions with the president, for example, are described as "almost flirtatious," while any shared foreign policy goals beyond vague platitudes remain undiscussed.

That said, this is a balanced, penetrating look at Albright as a person. Blackman acknowledges Albright's considerable accomplishments without making her into a saint, exposing qualities that have helped her succeed but are not always positive. In Blackman's hands, Albright appears driven and shrewd, talented and caring about others, and above all an expert networker at home in the image-conscious late 20th century. She has "great confidence" but also "abiding insecurities" requiring "constant reassurance" from friends, and is "more obsessed with her image than almost anyone on the public stage today." Deeply shaken by her divorce, she turned to friends for comfort so excessively that they eventually told her "to shut up about Joe, to get on with her life." This experience also suggests an Albright pattern of behavior: how could she have been married for 23 years and have no inkling that her spouse was about to leave, just as she apparently was ignorant of her Jewish heritage until a reporter uncovered it? The latter incident is thoroughly beaten to death by Blackman, who also devotes a full third of the book to the life of Albright's father. This discussion of her family background is interesting on its own terms, but disproportionate if the goal is to understand the secretary of state.

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Bohemian Spring

"There were so many possibilities in the newly developed Czechoslovakia for talented young people who wanted to be a part of building the real democracy under [the country's founder, Tomás G.] Masaryk and [its foreign minister, Eduard] Benes. Joe wanted very much to be one of them."

-- Mandula Korbel, personal essay

Bohemia, the ancient seat of kings, is splendid in springtime. Creamy white blossoms of towering chestnut trees stand proud and tall, straight as toy soldiers. Yellow flames of forsythia and lacy bushes of fragrant, violet lilacs line well-worn roadways that wind from village to village through sugar beet and rapeseed fields. Storks making their trip north from central Africa dot the skyline, and ravens begin repairing their twisted nests in church belfries.

By early June, bright red poppies and delicate strands of Queen Anne's lace fleck the rolling countryside as far as the eye can see. Along the paths that lead through the low mountain range dividing Bohemia from Moravia, purple and yellow irises flutter in the wind like miniature flags raised to celebrate another winter gone by. The network of roads, in place since the thirteenth century, is lined with flowering trees: cherry, pear, walnut, and apricot -- all originally planted in the eighteenth century by Austrian empress Maria Theresa. She also ordered a fish pond built in every village square, along with a bell, in case of fire.

On June 7, 1878, Arnost Körbel, Madeleine Albright's paternal grandfather, was born in the small country village of Kuncice, outside the town of Kysperk, now called Letohrad. It is a centuries-old farming community, set in a pass between the Eagle Mountains and the Bohemian-Moravian Uplands, some ninety miles east of Prague.

Arnost married Olga Ptácková from the nearby town of Kostelec nad Orlicí. The couple had three children: a daughter named Markéta, the oldest; a son, Jan, who followed his father into the building materials business; and Josef, the youngest and most intellectual of the three. Born September 20, 1909, Josef was described on his birth certificate as "Jewish and legitimate." He was also left-handed.

Josef was nine years old when World War I ended. On October 28, 1918, the Republic of Czechoslovakia grew out of the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and with it came the dreams of a nation for democratic rule. Witnessing the birth of democracy had a momentous effect on young Josef, who would identify himself with the national spirit of Czechoslovakia throughout his life.

The Körbels were prominent and hard-working, one of only about a dozen Jewish families in the town that, at the time, was home to about three thousand inhabitants. The umlaut over the o in their name, which was pronounced "KUR-bel," suggests a German origin. Arnost Körbel owned a neat, three-story row house that stood across the street from the Kysperk railway station at No. 305 Tyrsová. Built in 1909, the year Josef was born, it was one of only two houses on the street, which was lined with sturdy maples. A sign painted on the front advertised wares sold by the family business: tile, mortar, caulk, and sand. It was written entirely in Czech, which was unusual and showed that the family was fully assimilated into Czechoslovak society. A quarter of the population was German, and most Jewish merchants advertised in both languages.

Arnost Körbel was a tall, outgoing chap with wide-set eyes, a straight nose, and a dimpled chin. He was a prosperous businessman who provided timber to Jan Reinelt's match factory, the principal industry in the area. In back of his house, Körbel had a stable where he kept two teams of horses that he used to haul cartloads of wood from the railway station to the factory. Körbel was astute at marketing, and by working together, he and Reinelt sold matches as far away as Prague. Körbel and Reinelt were close friends as well as business partners. They sat frequently in the early evenings in Reinelt's dining room, going over their books, which they kept in a long wooden chest. Carefully crafted from local oak, the chest still stands in the same place today.

Vera Ruprechtová, Reinelt's granddaughter, a chirpy, excitable woman with soft, curly hair and tiny, cornflower-blue eyes, still lives in the family homestead, where Körbel spent many hours discussing business. It is a large, ochre-colored house with high ceilings and long windows covered with bobbin lace curtains that hang from intricately carved wooden valances. The kitchen, heated with a small woodstove, also serves as Vera's bedroom. In the dining room she keeps a table filled with family pictures, a shrine to days gone by. There is an aging photo of Arnost, wearing a double-breasted suit and fedora, sitting in a wooden cart parked next to the house. Outside, an overfed brown bulldog named Dingo, friendly and outgoing like Vera, patrols the fence line, keeping watch over the family property. The house and chest are important to Vera, a touchstone with her family's history.

Clearly enjoying the momentary fame that comes with having known the K%#246;rbels, Vera Ruprechtov%#225; holds court in her kitchen, her thoughts tumbling out in no particular order as she lays out plates full of powdery Czech cookies called koláce. As she talks, she peels hot boiled potatoes to serve with stewed chicken legs and big bowls of creamy, sliced cucumbers. As was common in the war years, she insists on sending visitors back to the city with fresh country eggs.

Arnost Körbel, she says, was like a member of her family. He was a thoughtful employer whose workers were grateful for the more than a hundred jobs he provided in the area. Religion did not appear to figure strongly in the Körbel family life, she says. Körbel celebrated the Christian holidays with the rest of the community, singing Christmas carols with his workers and accepting the loaves of Christmas bread they gave him as gifts. Vera did not know Körbel was born Jewish and did not think his workers did either. "If he were Jewish, they wouldn't have liked him as much," she says with a crisp conviction that suggests she feels the same way. "There was nothing Jewish about him."

Arnost Körbel was insistent that his children get a good education. Josef's fifth-grade report card for the school year 1919-20 shows that he was a fine student, getting all 1s and 2s in his subjects, on a scale of 5. His best subjects that year were the Czech language, civics, math, religion, and music. He was also a conscientious student. The report card shows that he missed only two days of school. It lists his religion as Jewish.

There was no secondary school in Letohrad, so at the age of twelve Josef Körbel began attending classes in the nearby town of Kostelec nad Orlicí, a prosperous community where he boarded. A serious student, Körbel was active in the cultural and political life of the school. He belonged to its theater group and, even at his young age, aspired to be a diplomat, newspaperman, or politician.

It was here that he fell in love with Anna Spiegelová, a student in the same school. She came from a comfortable family. Her father, Alfred Spiegel, owned a general store. Her mother, Ruzena Spiegelovö, had given birth to Anna in 1910, at the age of twenty-three. They called their daughter by the Czech diminutive, Andula. The daughter of assimilated Jews, Andula was a pretty young woman, about five feet tall with brown hair and green eyes. She was energetic, a bit offbeat, quick to laugh at jokes made by those around her but not one to tell them herself. She was the kind of person who said exactly what she thought. When Josef once called Andula "the most talkative woman in eastern Czechoslovakia" she slapped him. Andula was bright. When she was a teenager, her family sent her to study business secretarial skills at a school called Les Hirondelles (The Swallows) in Geneva, Switzerland, where Andula learned to speak French. Les Hirondelles was a family-run finishing school for girls from "good families" that wanted their daughters to become cultured brides for husbands of great promise. Situated in a residential part of Geneva overlooking the old town, the school encouraged the girls to have an active, but protected social life. Courses included languages, art history, music, world history, and letter writing. Good table manners and proper dress were encouraged. Students came from all of Europe, North and South America, England, and the "Colonies." They were expected to get to know the world through friendship.

In 1928, when Arnost Körbel became the director of a building materials company, the family moved to Litice, which was five train stops from Letohrad. Josef, who by that time had completed secondary school, went to Paris for a year, where he studied French and liberal arts at the Sorbonne. On his return to Prague in 1929, Körbel began his training for life as a diplomat, studying international law and economics at the prestigious Charles University, one of the oldest schools in Central Europe. Because he knew that foreign languages would be an important tool for a diplomat, he studied German and French with private tutors during his vacations. He also made a point of spending time in the Sudetenland section of Czechoslovakia, where he could practice speaking German. He completed his doctorate in May 1933, then spent two months working for a law firm in Prague. After obligatory military service as a lieutenant in the Czechoslovak army, Körbel worked briefly in another law firm. He also used this time to study English and Russian. On November 22, 1934, Körbel joined the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was twenty-five years old.

Josef Körbel was a handsome man. He stood five feet nine inches and had thick chestnut hair. His jaw was square, like his father's, with the same distinctive, dimpled chin. Körbel dressed like a gentleman, usually wearing a suit and dark tie, and he carried himself with his shoulders high. Women found him attractive.

On April 20, 1935, seven years after they met, Körbel married Andula, his high school sweetheart. The ceremony took place in Prague. On their marriage certificate, there was a blank to be filled in for each partner's religion. Both gave the same answer: bez vyznání, or, roughly translated, "without denomination" or "without confession." Josef called his bride Mandula -- Ma Andula, "My Andula" -- a diminutive she kept throughout her life. She called him Jozka. The late Jan Stránsky, a lifelong friend of the Körbels, who lived in Connecticut, called theirs "an ideal marriage." Mandula must have agreed. "He was certainly a man worth waiting for," she penned more than four decades later, after her husband died. "Very often I was wondering what I admired most in his personality. Was it his perseverance, which he probably inherited from his father...or did I love him because of his big heart, gentleness, unselfishness and loyalty to his family which he inherited from his lovely mother?"

After they were married, the Körbels lived in an art nouveau apartment in Prague, where they had lots of friends. Josef was a junior diplomat with the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which kept him working long days at the office. Mandula spent her time keeping house and enjoying the city's buoyant café society. Josef was the more intellectual of the two, but he appreciated his wife's intuitive sense of people. She was not just compassionate, she was also street smart, and he depended on her.

In January 1937, Josef Körbel was assigned to the Czechoslovak embassy in Belgrade as a junior press attaché. It was a relatively minor position, but the exposure to the inner workings of a key embassy was good training for a young, ambitious diplomat. Mandula, who was six months pregnant, went with him. She and Josef began learning Serbian, the predominant language of the Balkans.

Shortly before she was due to give birth, Mandula returned to Prague, where her family could help care for the new baby. On Saturday, May 15, 1937, Marie Jana Körbelová was born in Prague's Smíchov Hospital, not far from the Bertrámka homestead where, a century and a half before in a valley of vineyards, Mozart completed his famous opera Don Giovanni. It was a warm day, interrupted by an occasional rain shower. In the distance, still audible over the din of a lively quarter of the city, the silver melody of church bells rang on the hour from the towers of St. Václav Church. On their daughter's birth certificate the Körbels again marked bez vyznání in the space reserved for religion. The first child of Mandula and Josef Körbel was named after Mandula's sister, Marie. Her grandmother called the baby "Madla," which soon became "Madlenka." Although the world would later know her as Madeleine Korbel Albright, she would be called "Madlenka" throughout her childhood.

Despite growing restiveness in the neighboring countries of Eastern Europe, daily life in Prague was relatively cosmopolitan. The local cinemas featured Laurel and Hardy and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as Gary Cooper in Desire and Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo and Fredric March. Newspaper headlines trumpeted the civil war in Spain and political trials in the Soviet Union. On a lighter bent, there was a national contest to choose the first Czech airline stewardess.

When Madlenka arrived home from the hospital, her presence created the kind of excitement and attentiveness that usually surrounds the birth of a first child, "the biggest addition to our happiness, not only to us, but to both our parents," her mother wrote years later. Madlenka was a good baby, a healthy embodiment of all their hopes and dreams for a happy and successful future. Visitors were chosen carefully and asked to keep their stays short so as not to tire the proud new mother.

One of the first to arrive was Madlenka's nine-year-old cousin Dagmar, known to the family as "Dÿca." She was the daughter of Josef Körbel's sister, Markéta. Dagmar's grandmother Olga Körbel brought Dagmar to the apartment. Peering into a bassinet, they saw a tiny baby tightly wrapped in soft white blankets with only her face and hands peeking through. "She was like a little doll," the elder cousin said. Not surprisingly, Dagmar was disappointed that she was not permitted to hold the new baby in her arms. "We were allowed to have a look and then we had to go next door," she said.

Dagmar attended primary school in Strakonice, a town about 80 miles (120 km) south of Prague, where her family lived before the war. For one hour a week she studied religion. "I went to the Jewish class, and the local rabbi, whom I loved, had a row with my father," Dagmar said. "I had invited him to come see our lovely Christmas tree, and he [became] furious with my father." Dagmar said that on several occasions, her grandfather and grandmother joined her family for the holidays in Strakonice. "I knew we were Jewish, but we always celebrated Christmas," Dagmar said.

For centuries, Jews played an important role in Prague and the kingdom of Bohemia. The earliest records of Jewish history show a well-informed Jewish adviser to the caliph of Cordoba, Ibrahim ibn Jacob, who traveled throughout western and central Europe and visited the Czech principality. In the ninth century, one of the most important trading routes crossed through central Europe, leading from the west and the Frankish river Rhone to Kiev. For the merchants, among them Frankish Jews, the journey lasted eighteen months. By the tenth century, they shortened the trip by establishing a central meeting place. Frequently, they chose Prague.

In this era, Jews enjoyed the same rights and privileges as the Roman and German merchants. They were free to settle along trading routes or near marketplaces where they dealt in furs, grain, wool, fabrics, tin, and wax, as well as horses, cattle, and slaves. They imported exotic commodities: expensive textiles, jewels, weapons, salt, wine, and oriental spices. The most educated worked as office clerks and physicians.

Yet in 1096; when the Christian soldiers of the first crusade traveled through Prague, a pogrom was staged, an act unheard of until that time. By 1215, community life had become increasingly difficult. Jews were proclaimed prisoners and slaves of the Holy Roman Empire, the property of rulers whom they paid to protect them. The Hussite revolution in the fifteenth century made it possible for Jews to acquire some professional skills. But when they cooperated with the Hussites, they were expelled from Austria and Bavaria. In 1454, they were banned from all royal towns in Moravia, a banishment that lasted four hundred years.

By the sixteenth century conditions had improved. One of the great scholars of the time, Rabbi Löw, was a friend of Rudolf II. Another Jew, Mordechai Maisel, was the king's banker. But by 1745 five years after Maria Theresa ascended the throne, Jews were banished from Prague for their support of the Russian army. It was only with the reign of her son, Joseph II, that they gained more rights. In 1786, Jews were permitted to settle outside the ghetto walls. And in 1848, they were permitted to buy land and employ Christians. The constitution of 1867 proclaimed full civil and political emancipation for Jews in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

By 1890, there were 95,000 Jews living in Bohemia, 45,000 in Moravia. The majority considered the Czech language their official tongue. Yet German was the preferred language of the multilingual monarchy, and some of the most celebrated authors of German literature were Jewish: Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel, Max Brod, Oskar Baum, and Ludwig Winder, among many others. The Jewish intellectuals were a catalyst that linked the German and Czech communities, and they often acted as interpreters. The assimilation process continued and intensified after the declaration of the Czechoslovak Republic under the democratic leadership of President Tomás G. Masaryk.

By the 1920s and 1930s, the Czechoslovak countryside was generally a comfortable place for Jews to live. There was little anti-Semitism. "You couldn't tell a Christian family from a Jewish one," says Hana Hanslová, who was born in 1912 in Náchod, some thirty miles from Kysperk, to a family that was half-Jewish. Oldrich Safár, the town historian for thirty-five years, says that while 8 percent of the Náchod population at this time was Jewish, there was only one Orthodox family. In fact, there were so few practicing Jews that local rabbis had trouble getting ten men together for a minyan, the quorum required by Jewish law to say certain prayers. If families in the Körbels' village of Kysperk wanted to attend religious services, they had to go to the Jewish community of Zamberk, four miles away, which was the site of the closest synagogue. A small Jewish cemetery, set on a hillside overlooking the main street, served the chain of country villages.

Even in the major cities, many Jews had no attachment to the culture and ritual of the Jewish religion. Like the Körbels, many shared in Christmas celebrations with friends, not so much for the religious symbolism but for the joyous tradition. "I was the only Jew in my elementary school," says Michael Kraus, an architect in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was born in Eastern Bohemia in 1930. "We had servants who were not Jews, and we had a Christmas tree for them." Kraus, whose father was a local physician, says his family also ate the traditional Christmas carp at holiday time: I remember it swimming around in the laundry pail before it was slaughtered." Although his father was not an observant Jew and did not attend synagogue, young Michael never had any question that he was born Jewish. "Your religion was marked on all your documents," he says, "even the school report cards you got every six months with your grades." Another reason was that all Czechoslovak students were required to have an hour a week of religious education, and the program of study depended on the family's religion. Occasionally, a student would mark bez vyznání, but it was unusual because it stigmatized them. The others called them the "bez vyzánís."

When Madlenka was old enough to travel, Mandula returned to Belgrade to be with Josef. With a promising career ahead and a healthy new baby at home, Körbel's future looked bright. "Because we were young and happy, we...sometimes ignored the dark clouds which were forming on the political sky around us," Mandula wrote later. "We all were aware of it, but were hoping that somehow it [would] pass without catastrophe." Her husband was well-educated, and his parents had done everything possible to prepare him for the tumultuous years that lay ahead. Yet who could know the choices the young diplomat would face in the ten dramatic years between 1938 and 1948, fears that sealed Czechoslovakia's fate for half a century? The pathways were muddled, the stars unaligned. His would not be a world of black and white, but a panoply of grays, a constant tug between head and heart, where democracy and the balance of power pitched and yawed precariously like a sailboat running before the wind.

Copyright © 1998 by Ann Blackman

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Leslie Stahl
Packed with drama, controversial, fair, and impeccably told intimate story of a great woman's life.

Meet the Author

Ann Blackman has spent thirty years as a news reporter chronicling cultural changes in American life. Before joining Time magazine in 1985 as deputy bureau chief in Washington, D.C., she worked for the Boston Globe and the Associated Press. She served as a foreign correspondent for Time in Moscow from 1987 to 1990. Since then, she has covered American social policy, as well as First Lady Hillary Clinton, from Time's Washington, D.C., bureau. Blackman lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children. This is her first book.

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