Olga Havel is standing at her doorway, white hair all ascatter, pale face scowling. The elevator to her fourth-floor Prague apartment is broken, the phone won’t stop ringing, and the First Lady of Czechoslovakia is fed up. “I don’t have much time.” she snaps at the American interviewer, trying to quiet her frantic schnauzer, who is barking at the cats barricaded behind a door to the President’s study. “I’ve told the details of my life to the’ Czech press a hundred times, and they are just boring.”
Her secretary comes in with a huge brown parcel of laundry hauled up four flights of stairs and heaves it onto a chair. Mrs. Havel throws up her hands. “Czech men! There are security guards down there in front of the apartment, and they don’t even help her carry up that heavy load.” Four decades of Communist domination have ruined many things in Czechoslovakia, she explains, including the gallant manners with which Czech men once treated women. Her husband, Vaclav Havel, may be Czechoslovakia’s new democratic President, but “the other day he had to carry a case of beer up here himself. I wouldn’t do it.”
Olga. 57, quit her job as an office clerk in her 20s to spend more time with her beloved intellectual Havel, to usher in the theater where he was a stagehand. Now she stands in the middle of the spacious white-walled apartment where he was born 54 years ago. They share it with Havel’s brother, Ivan, and his wife, and it is here they intend to remain, having spurned the lavish quarters in Prague Castle favored by Havel’s Communist predecessor, Gustav Husak. The apartment, overlooking the Vltava River in Prague’s beautiful 14th-century Old Town, is filled with abstract Czech art, beige sofas covered with blankets for the animals, and piles of the illegal pamphlets the Havels and their colleagues in the dissident human-rights group Charter 77 distributed during the long dark years of Soviet domination.
The Bohemian clutter is far from the gilt-ceilinged elegance, complete with liveried servants, once enjoyed by Husak and the party elite. But then the Havels are unlike any First Family in Central European history. Catapulted almost overnight from being Czechoslovakia’s foremost dissident playwright to its President, from a seat in prison to a seat at the center of power, Havel was the political Utopian’s dream come true: a poet statesman, the harbinger of the new humane politics of Eastern Europe. Almost instantly, Havel became the hero of radical chic; the darling of the liberal arts-and-letters set in America. When the Havels visited the U.S. last February, the fashionable and famous vied to host them.
Olga Havel has also been romanticized, as the heroine of the widely read Letters to Olga, Havel’s collection of 144 letters sent to his wife during the three years he was imprisoned for underground political activities. Recently, however, Vaclav has wobbled slightly on his pedestal by doing such unfashionable things as meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who stands accused of condoning Nazi war crimes. Just as Havel has emerged as less predictable than first supposed, so the real Olga is more complicated, less romantic than the faithful prison widow conjured up in Letters.
Clad in jeans, baggy cardigan and old espadrilles with socks, she leads the interviewer into a spacious living room lined with bookcases. Although Czech hospitality dictates offering coffee, or at least water, to any visitor, Olga offers nothing—a lapse that surprises the Czech translator. But then she seems to barely tolerate reporters. ‘They are terrible,” says Olga, who often ducks personal questions or gives perfunctory replies.
In fact, Olga—whose husband of 26 years describes her as “a working-class girl, her own person…even somewhat mouthy and obnoxious”—did not see why Vaclav had to be President in the first place. Originally she wanted nothing to do with the office, friends say. “You cannot imagine what it was like for her to go from being a dissident’s wife to the wife of the President,” says Wendy Luers, wife of former U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia William Luers. The night before Havel’s inauguration last December, Wendy arrived at the Havel apartment with a suitcase full of fancy clothes for Olga and stayed up into the wee hours teaching her protocol. “She wore my blouse at the inauguration,” Luers says. “She hated the thought of ladies’ lunches and didn’t know how to deal with them. I told her to get a press secretary.”
Olga works on various projects to help the handicapped, but she is so allergic to the limelight that when Luers proposed naming a foundation after her to aid the disabled, Olga vigorously objected. “But now she has agreed to it, so she’s growing into her role,” Luers says. Still, when asked about the foundation’s work, Olga waves dismissively: “Oh, ask the Americans. It’s their thing.”
An intensely private person, she can also be harsh, impatient, sharp. Havel often travels without her on state visits since she prefers to stay home. The Havels have no children, reportedly not by choice, although both have said they thought their disruptive life-style would have been hard on a family. In many ways the two simply lead separate lives. Vaclav, who has two attractive female bodyguards, is known to have had extramarital liaisons; in fact in a letter sent to the Czech prosecutor general in 1985, he complained of police harassment during a two-week holiday that he took with another woman, Jitka Vodanska. “Olga and I have not professed our love for each other for at least 200 years,” Havel has said, “but we both feel that we are probably inseparable.” According to Havel, Olga is the steadying force that counteracts “my own mental instability…. All my life I’ve consulted her in everything I do. The wags claim I even require her agreement to the sins through which I hurt her.”
Friends of the Havels say that adultery is so common in Czechoslovakia that Olga accepts her husband’s even though she dislikes it. “The freedom to have emotional relationships—to have sex—with whomever they chose was one of the few freedoms Czech people have enjoyed under Communism.” says Caroline Stoessinger, an American friend. “In Czechoslovakian politics, unlike American politics, matters of the heart are not affairs of state.”
Friends praise Olga for being a constant and unshakable support for Havel during his prison years, in a society where the divorce rate is high and at a time when many prisoners’ wives abandoned their husbands. Does Olga ever resent living in her husband’s shadow? “Our thinking is the same,” she says, tucking her hands under her arms. “We had a common enemy: Communism. He served [his prison sentence] on behalf of me.”
She agrees that the plight of women under Communism has been terrible: The women’s liberation and economic equality trumpeted by the Soviet-backed regime has meant triple work shifts for Czech women, most of whom work one shift at jobs outside the home, a second hunting through empty shops for scarce food and a third cleaning house and caring for children—all with little help from their men, who were taught under Communism that considerate, gentlemanly ways represented bourgeois decadence.
Women’s status “must change,” says Olga. But there are currently no top female officials in the Czech government, and Olga’s face clouds when she is asked if change will come under the stewardship of her husband and his ruling coalition Civic Forum party. “I don’t like to talk about the ‘role of women,’ ” she says. “It reminds me of the theater. Woman’s place is where she wants to be. Not everyone feels the need to be a public figure.”
A few years ago, when a group of visiting Italian feminists sought signatures for their women’s rights petition, Olga and several other Czech women refused to sign. “I don’t have this need to differentiate women’s rights from those of old people or children,” she says. “Laws must be enacted to ease the burden of women, but there are more pressing things to be done in our society.” For instance? “Like animals!” she says, her eyes lighting up for the first time during the interview. “We don’t even have a law to protect them. Cows live in concentration camps, crowded into sheds where they get inflammation of the udder and tuberculosis.”
Vaclav Havel, the avant-garde playwright turned avant-garde statesman, may be the embodiment of the new Europe, but he is married to the old. He describes his lifemate as a proud, “unsentimental” woman with no aspirations to glory for herself, a woman whose lack of education and stolid temperament are very different from his; someone who has quietly stood by him to “offer sober criticism of my wilder ideas.”
In many ways, Olga Havel is a product of the colorful proletarian neighborhood in which she was born in July 1933. The inhabitants of the Zizkov district may have had no running water, but they had plenty of pride and ingenuity, and Olga, who reportedly wandered the streets like an orphan for a time after her parents’ divorce when she was 6, learned independence early. Poverty permanently scarred her when she was still young; while working as a stocking mender, she lost the tops of the fingers of her left hand in a machine, and to this day she often tries to hide that hand. She seems to typify what Havel, in his 1986 essay “An Anatomy of Reticence,” calls the Czech tradition of “self-irony” and the coexistent fear of appearing ridiculous. Although Havel does not name Olga, the essay tries to explain why Czech women spurned the Italian feminist delegation. It is part, Havel writes, of “that strange, almost mysterious horror of everything overstated, enthusiastic, lyrical, pathetic or overly serious that is inseparable from our spiritual climate.”
When Olga started dating Vaclav, his parents were less than excited. The Havels, a prominent family whose considerable wealth from real estate and restaurants was confiscated after the Communists came to power in 1948, considered Olga, who was three years older than Vaclav, unsuitable for their son. But he and Olga were drawn together by their abhorrence for the Communist regime. “Many people closed their eyes to the terrible things going on around them,” Olga says. “But I can remember the loudspeakers blasting the trial of political activists in the streets. I can remember the announcement of their executions.”
Branded a dissident, Havel was forced to work at menial jobs during the ’70s, harassed by the police and arrested repeatedly. When he went to prison for three years in 1979, Olga continued his work, typing Charter 77 documents that she secreted in their house, publishing books of philosophy and distributing her husband’s letters. Though they were addressed to her, the letters were meant for a wider audience and included everything from complaints about his health to carefully disguised political ideas. (He was allowed to send home only one weekly four-page letter on “family matters.”)
The earlier letters are full of clues to the nature of his relationship with Olga. He constantly harangues her about her “verbal parsimony,” her failure to write him meaty letters, and accuses her of bad grammar and disorganization when she does. “I don’t like to write, it’s true,” Olga says now, with a smile.
An assertive correspondent, Havel peppers his phlegmatic wife with instructions. He repeatedly tells her to change the furniture in the Prague apartment (“That middle-class furniture is a burden on my spirit”). He also instructs heron how to act in public, how to dress, whom to see. His exhortations are often humorous and self-mocking. And they are often poignant, for his concern with her movements appears to be his way of bridging the terror of his isolation in prison; he needed her to live in the world for him.
At times, the letters take on a controlling, chauvinistic tone. He tells her after one visit that she looked chic: “Even your hair looks good that way…(it has, as you know, a tendency to look like spikes or straw—but it didn’t during the visit—and I hope you wear your hair that elegantly all the time).”
Havel’s imprisonment was hard on Olga. “It was a terrible feeling,” she says. “I would visit him, bring him oranges and vitamins, and half the time the guards would say, ‘No, you can’t even give him those.’ ” Nevertheless, she managed well on her own, and a distance seems to have grown between the two—a distance that was ultimately reflected in Havel’s letters. His communications during the last year of his imprisonment deal almost exclusively with philosophy and his own moods and health—Olga’s name is barely mentioned, except in the salutations.
Sitting in the Havel living room, Olga is restless now, tired of talking about herself. Does she ever want her own apartment, one that belongs to just her and Vaclav? She shrugs. “Neither of us are obsessed with ‘mine’ and ‘yours,’ ” she says. “After all, we’ve always been used to feeling ready to give up everything at a moment’s notice. For all we knew, the police could come and set our house on fire.”
And she rolls her eyes when asked about how she met and fell in love with her husband. “It was just normal,” she waves dismissively. “We’ve been together 33 years. We went through everything, through all stages of marriage. Nothing unusual. Nothing more than that to say.”