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 from the time of his imprisonment that we have what may prove to be her most lasting monument: his prison letters to her, published in many languages as Letters to Olga. Of course, since these letters were his only chance of creative work in prison, he was writing through Olga to other friends, to a wider audience, and, in a deeper sense, to himself. But they are nonetheless a marvelous memorial to her name, as well as containing many moving personal touches. On the last day of 1979, for example, the prisoner expresses his delight at the way she has taken over for him and lives in his spirit, adding: “All that it needs now is for you to write a play instead of me.”
In the same spirit, it was Olga, not her husband, who marched with the students in the demonstration on November 17, 1989, which began the “velvet revolution.” (Václav was at their country house at Hrádecek, but returned the next day.) Like everyone else, she watched with delighted incredulity as the fairy-tale revolution unfolded, but excitement mingled with alarm as he was catapulted into the role of president.
Little though she wanted the job, she was soon playing the part of president’s wife with dignity and aplomb—a tall, elegant figure at his side—but also continuing to give him that forth-right, common-sense advice based on a deep understanding of the feelings of so-called “ordinary” people. She passed with flying colors one of the hardest tests of human character: Do you change out of recognition when your circumstances do?
At the same time, she developed her own sphere of valuable activity as founder and president of the so-called Committee of Good Will, which in 1992 merged with a newly formed Olga Havel Foundation (although she was loath to put her own name forward). This foundation has concentrated on helping the mentally and physically handicapped and sufferers from various chronic illnesses, on a campaign to prevent the spread of AIDS, and on several projects devoted specifically to disadvantaged children. To carry out such work it has organized exchanges of doctors and other kinds of international medical cooperation with the US and several European countries.
Olga Havlová bore her own painful illness with great fortitude, characteristically refusing to talk about it and carrying on with her duties and charitable work. In 1995, she was nominated from the Czech Republic as European woman of the year, but she said that what gave her most personal satisfaction was the naming of an orchid in a botanical garden in Singapore. Since it had, apparently, to have a masculine name in its title as well, it was called Václav Havel Olga.
The great line of people paying their respects to her at Prague Castle showed how the daughter of Zizkov had won a place in her compatriots’ hearts. Her own name lives on throughout the world in Letters to Olga, and her work will be continued by the foundation that bears her name.
Contributions can be made to the Olga Havel Foundation, Senovázné Námestí 2, Prague 1, Czech Republic; directly to its account at Zivnostenská Banka 397655-004/0400. In the US taxdeductible contributions can be made by check to the Olga Havel Foundation c/o Coblence and Warner, 415 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10017, or by bank transfer to the Chemical Bank of New York, account 003-053210.