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Václav Havel: Recollections

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Since I am the only Kluge Center blogger, who was at the Center when President Havel was here, my colleagues have asked me to write a little about my recollections of his time at the Center in 2005 and 2007. I can not possibly do him justice, but here goes…

I was very conscious of how lucky I was to be sharing time and space with President Havel. He was easy to be around. He was quiet but always gave a smile or “hello” or “hi” when we met or passed each other or I answered procedural queries or showed him something at the Center. He was about my height–I am 5″4″–and I remember him being fine boned and mustachioed with blondish hair. Almost every day at the Center he wore blue jeans and t-shirts: he had an assortment of interesting shirts I recall. His two body guards rotated duty while he was at the Center–nice guys, though I would not have wanted to run into either of them if I had anything on my mind but the welfare of President Havel or the betterment of the Czech Republic (and humanity in general).

The Kluge Center staff went out of the way to guard his privacy and to make sure that he would not be bombarded by the press and public so he might have the peace to write. Still, there were a few of occasions on which I had the opportunity to chat with him. Once I was in his office explaining something about the Center and we started to talk about American music. I mentioned the Velvet Underground and he said with enthusiasm, “I know them.  We’re friends. Lou Reed is a friend of mine.” He said that as if he expected no one to realize this special American connection.  I sensed a humble man . . . We all knew he was a brave man.

There is a small couch located normally in the Kluge Center’s reception area, which we had put into President Havel’s office because, even then, his health was not great and in the afternoons he often would rest there for a short time. Yet even with that he accomplished so much during his time at the Kluge Center.  During his first visit he did research on human rights and worked on his last play, “Leaving,” and during his second visit he worked on his memoir “To the Castle and Back.”

I once came across a speech President Havel gave when he received the Open Society Prize from the Central European University. For years it has been posted above my office telephone, next to a photo of my daughter and near a poem by e. e. cummings. When I look for guidance in how to proceed with something–bureaucracy, childrearing, life-in-general–it often serves:

“There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world. In other words, I can only recommend perspective and distance. Awareness of all the most dangerous kinds of vanity, both in others and in ourselves. A good mind. A modest certainty about the meaning of things. Gratitude for the gift of life and the courage to take responsibility for it. . . .”*

So, I think to myself, here’s to all the world’s “Velvet” or “Gentle Revolutions”–may they go on as needed always and everywhere.

* Translation by Paul Wilson


  1. Thanks for this warm remembrance, Mary Lou. I always enjoy reading about the encounters colleagues have with scholars, authors, and ordinary patrons. It is what makes the Library such an interesting, dynamic, and wonderful place to work.

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