On Olga Havel (1933–1996)

Olga Havlová, the wife of Václav Havel, died of cancer on January 27 this year. A few days later, tens of thousands of people queued up to pay their last respects at the Castle in Prague. They were paying their respects not just to the wife of an extraordinary president but to a woman who was herself remarkable.

Born in 1933 into a working-class family in the tough Prague district of Zizkov, the then Olga Splíchalová had a hard childhood. Her parents divorced when she was six, and as a teenager she had to look after not only herself but also the five children of her elder sister. She worked in the Bata shoe factory, and as a clerk, stock-keeper, and cashier. The contrast in background and experience with the privileged, even cosseted millionaire’s son Václav Havel could not have been greater.

They met in the mid-1950s, and he celebrated their romance in a long poem published in the Revue K:

It took half a day before we made a date
You, a daughter of Zizkov, I, a still inexperienced
Visitor to literary cafés. The two of us,
Somewhere on the edge of spring.

A photograph from that time shows a handsome, vivacious girl, smoking a small cigar, in the legendary Café Slavia.

They married in 1964, and she accompanied him throughout the three main phases of his subsequent life. First, as partner to the young writer and resident playwright at the Theatre on the Balustrade, where she also worked; then, after the Soviet invasion in 1968, through the twenty long years of suppression and his growth into the leading figure of the dissident movement symbolized by Charter 77; and finally, of course, as the First Lady when he became president at the beginning of 1990.

She was in many ways the perfect complement to her husband. He, short, stocky, ever polite, the bourgeois-bohemian intellectual agonizing over every phrase and decision; she, tall, slim, not intellectual but full of forthright, even earthy common sense. A shrewd, intuitive judge of people, calm but tough, and with a natural dignity which served her magnificently in the wholly unexpected—and unwanted—role of president’s wife. I see her sitting at a table in the pub round the corner from their Prague apartment, slightly to the side of some hectic conspiratorial meeting, with a glass of Becherovka on the table, a cigarette in hand, and a ready but unillusioned smile.

This was by no means a conventional, bourgeois marriage—the setting was, after all, bohemian Bohemia—but there is no doubting the depth of true feeling and underlying loyalty. Indeed, for once, the clichéd phrase “a pillar of strength” applies precisely to Olga. She was herself active in the samizdat publisher Expedice, and on the underground video magazine Video-journal, and shared in all her husband’s political work and in the resulting police harassment as well.

She carried a special burden in the years when he was imprisoned. But it is also …

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