An Interview with Ann Blackman, author of Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright
Q. What made you decide to do the book?
A. I thought she was a great role model, and because so few women have made it to the top rung of government-or the top of any place else for that matter-I wanted to take a close look at how she did it.
Q. How did she do it?
A. She has always been ambitious and strong-willed. We see that from her childhood, through her marriage and divorce. Ironically, the divorce liberated her. It was devastating at the time, and I'm sure that given the choice, she would have preferred to keep her marriage together. But people don't usually have those choices. Albright took a bad situation, channeled her energies in a different direction and put her life back together in a way that worked very well for her and put her in an enviable professional position. But it did not come without a lot of bruises along the way. And that's where the detail of her life is interesting.
Q. What are the basic themes of the book?
A. Albright has been an outsider for much of her life: the Czech child living in London during World War II; the little refugee in America; the scholarship foreign student at rich, Yankee Wellesley College; a young woman who married into a wealthy family that didn't much like her; a woman who went back to graduate school and work in an era when real mothers stayed home; a woman in the man's world of foreign policy. She is still working in a man's world, and not everyone accepts her even today, which is one reason she is having a rather difficult time as Secretary of State.
Q. Is the book authorized? Did Albright work with you on writing it or read it before it went to press?
A. No, no and no. It is an unauthorized biography which means that she did not approve it. Or for that matter, approve of it. From the beginning, she not only refused to participate but, at different points, asked her family and friends not to talk to me. Luckily, almost all of her colleagues and dozens of her friends agreed to interviews. And in the end, the very week the book was due, she sat down for three long interviews in which she was enormously forthcoming. The result is that her voice is reflected throughout the manuscript. And she gave me many family pictures as well. Basically, in the end she realized how much research I had done and knew it was to her advantage to get her views represented. Which she did.
Q. What will I learn from the book?
A. How she got to where she is today, how living through the Blitz in London tempered her; how the escapes from Nazism and Communism shaped her view of the world; how growing up poor, the little refugee girl, affected her personality; how being dumped by her husband devastated her, but at the same time, toughened her; how working her way up in the world of national politics taught her invaluable networking skills that women have only recently begun to learn. Madeleine Albright is a survivor, and I think I have described why and how.
Q. Did she know her family was born Jewish?
A. It's not as simple as yes or no. Virtually everyone I interviewed in Europe- -all people who knew or worked with her parents--believe she had to know. I believe that it was the box in her closet that she knew not to open, the family secrets a child knows are there but doesn't want to hear and knows not to ask about. That a Czech-born woman who has spent a lifetime studying Eastern Europe never thought to ask how her grandparents died in Czechoslovakia during World War II stretches credulity. But in my research, I learned a tremendous amount about the assimilation of Jews in Eastern Europe and the blurring of identities.
Q. Why would her family keep secret something so fundamental?
A. Good question, but they did. Her father spent half his career as a Czech diplomat during World War II and the other half writing about it. He wrote five books-and the longest reference in any of them to Jews or the Holocaust, the most horrific period in his experience, was three sentences. At Wellesley, Madeleine wrote her senior thesis about the turmoil in Eastern Europe during the war, obviously drawing on a lot of knowledge from her father. In 100 pages, she never uses the word Jew. It's stunning.
Q. Do you like her?
A. As a news reporter, I try to put distance between myself and those I write about. I have known her for nearly 15 years, since we rode the campaign plane together with Gerry Ferraro. I have been fascinated by Madeleine Albright's life, the good times and the sad ones, and there are plenty of both. By asking people not to cooperate with me during my research, she made my life and my work much more difficult. But at the same time, I understand anyone's reluctance to have someone boring into every detail of one's life. One thing we share is a love of Golden Retrievers. The bottom line is that over a two-year period, I never tired of thinking about Madeleine Albright's life, putting the pieces of a puzzle together piece by piece. I could not say that about many people.
Q. Why should I buy this book?
A. There is both intrigue and inspiration in Albright's life. The dramatic escapes and life-and-death issues that her family faced make us better understand the sacrifices people made and the high stakes of their decisions. Madeleine's father, Josef Korbel, made some brutal choices when he decided to flee his homeland and seek asylum in America. And Albright has faced difficult personal choices throughout her life. At Wellesley, she earned pin money by working at the Pilgrim Laundry Company sorting her classmates' dirty sheets. She gave up the only religion she had known and converted to Episcopalianism to please her husband's family, and still, they didn't like her much. After she was married and her husband was in Army boot camp, the only job she could find was taking reservations at the Greyhound Bus Depot in Denver. At one point during her marriage, she learned she was carrying a child that almost certainly was defective, and she tried to get an abortion. It was a terrifying time for her. I have tried to describe these events in her life in a fair and balanced manner. You can judge that yourself. In the end, Madeleine Albright has had a fascinating life. I hope the book reflects that.