Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Special Place in Hell (1937)

May 15, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



      The word secretary sometimes carries negative connotations; it conjures an image of a subordinate female whose job description entails typing, bringing coffee, taking shorthand. These Girl Fridays combined the requisite traits of self-efficiency and self-effacement, the unsung minions. In contrast, when secretary bears a capital letter, it denotes a pinnacle of power. 

      The woman who put the preface ‘extra’ before the word ‘ordinary’ was Marie Jana, the daughter of the diplomat Josef Korbelova and his wife, Mandula. In 1939 the family fled Prague after the Nazi invasion and took refuge in England. They survived the Blitz and returned to their homeland after Germany’s defeat. Three years later the family escaped once more in the wake of the Communist coup that snuffed out Czechoslovak democracy. This time they sought asylum in the United States which became their permanent residence. Josef obtained a position as the Dean of the University of Denver’s school of international studies; one of his students was Condoleeza Rice. Eager to assimilate, he shorted their name to Korbel; Marie Jana went by the name Madeleine. She attended Wellesley and majored in political science even though there were few opportunities in the Fifties available for girls aspiring to a career in this field. 

       What lessened the sting was meeting Prince Disarming-Joseph Medill Patterson Albright-the possessor of three surnames and a stratospheric family fortune- when both had summer jobs at The Denver Post. He was a scion of media royalty: his great-aunt Cissy Patterson had been the owner of the Washington-Times Herald. Although Madeleine had a hard time winning over his well-connected parents, he proposed six weeks later, and they married after her graduation. In the vein of Henry IV- Paris was worth a mass-Madeleine traded her Roman Catholic religion for the Albright’s Episcopalian church. The romance, she said, made her feel like Cinderella. Although she had been anxious for a career, she had also had her eye on the prize of wedlock and had wanted to get married “as soon as possible to a perfect partner.” The couple’s residences was a well-appointed Georgetown home and a quail-hunting estate in Georgia, the latter bequeathed to Joseph by his aunt Alicia Patterson. 

      The publishing prince whisked Madeleine away to a rarified zip code where she gave birth to premature twins, Alice and Anne, who struggled for life but survived. Six months into her second pregnancy, she contracted German measles, and her doctor warned her the baby was most likely brain-damaged. A late-term abortion was not an option, and the infant died at birth.  Her last pregnancy resulted in a healthy daughter, Katherine. Madeleine reminisced, “A portrait of the Albright family in the mid Seventies would have shown a happily married couple, with three smart and beautiful daughters.” Madeleine studied for a PhD in public law and government at Columbia University; the only way she was able to write her thesis as the mother of three (despite hired help) was rising every morning at 4:30 for three years. While Joseph forged his career as a journalist, she followed him from city to city, finally settling in Washington. As her girls grew older, Madeleine worked as a Democrat fund-raiser and eventually found a position in the White House under the tutelage of her former professor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser. When Ronald Regan won the next election, Madeleine lost her position and found herself in the political periphery.  

      At this juncture, Joseph, her husband of 23 years, dropped what she called a thunderbolt on their gilded life. The couple were sitting in their living room having coffee when he informed her that their marriage was dead; he had fallen for someone younger and more attractive. The P.S. to the conversation- he was moving out to live in Atlanta where the woman he loved was a reporter. Madeleine wrote in her biography that she did not know what had upset her most: that Joe had presented her with a done deal, or that he had said she had become too old looking, or that he could not see why she was so upset. Joseph left that afternoon but developed misgivings about his decision and kept calling his wife to inform her of his daily feelings; “I love you 60 percent and her 40 percent.” Then the next day, “I love her 70 percent and you 30 percent.” The Albrights attempted a reconciliation with a ski trip to Aspen where Joseph complemented Madeleine on her weight loss, a result of the Diet Center plus the looming specter of divorce. She recalled she skied better than at any other time, “perhaps because I didn’t particularly care if I broke my neck.”  Any hope of a reunion soon vanished.   The Pulitzer Prize was looming-an award Joseph had long coveted-and he offered the proposition that if he won, he would stay as he would not want a marital scandal to tarnish his achievement. The woman who would one day tell Fidel Castro that he had no cajones rolled over and took it. As it turned out, the Albright marriage would have survived had the Pulitzer committee made a different decision. When Joseph went AWOL what was a middle-aged matron to do? 1. Take one of the priceless bric a brac to the family jewel thus ending the other woman’s appeal; 2. Book an appointment with Dr. Kevorkian; 3. Become a contemporary Miss Havisham.  Madeleine felt she was floundering in the middle of an ocean sans a life-preserver.  She stated of her abyss of loneliness, “I had tried the glass slipper, and it had fit. In the fairytale, that is where the story ends. In life, it is merely the beginning of a new chapter.” The wife scorned had to navigate unchartered territory as she figured out her new romantic life, a difficult feat as she had not looked at a man other than her husband since she had been 20. Moreover, she had no self-confidence-compliment to Joe’s parting comments about her looks. She said she had no idea of the dating arena and felt like a 45-year-old virgin. Pulling herself up by the proverbial boot-straps, she decided her best course of action was to fill her time and to move quickly because the ice under her was so thin. Succor came-not through the arms of another man-but rather by leaning on female friends, developing self-reliance, and an extremely generous settlement. Eventually she “no longer felt like an egg without a shell.”

      In a nod to there is life after loss, Madeleine found an outlet as a professor at Georgetown University and pursued a further foray into politics. From there she went into foreign policy and fund-raising, finding as she rose through the ranks, male colleagues regarded the female interloper with suspicion. She soon transformed herself into a leading authority on international diplomacy and rose to prominence as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Despite her lofty title, the predominantly male press corps deemed her not in the same league as her testosterone-charged predecessors. A reporter wrote that women are just too emotional to do the job and a running joke was they referred to Albright as Half-Bright. Despite the slights, Madeleine shouldered on.  During her ambassadorship, she famously celebrated Bill Clinton’s election victory by swinging her hips and clutching her buttocks in the Security Council chamber to the tune of “La Macarena.”

         A dozen years after her divorce, Madeleine became the most powerful female official in American history when President Clinton appointed her, at age 60, the Secretary of State, thereby making her the first woman to hold the august appointment. The move shattered a powerful glass ceiling. The aforementioned reporter, her personal Lex Luthor, dismissed her appointment as leftwing political correctness and stated she only received the post because of her sex, “Window dressing for the Clinton administration.” At least former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was polite when he learned a woman was walking in his old shoes. “Welcome to the fraternity,” to which she shot back, “Henry, I hate to tell you but it’s not a fraternity anymore.” In her autobiography, Madame Secretary, published at age 66, she wrote that despite meetings with kings and presidents, overseeing treaties, she could not separate gender from her job. Case in point, a to-do list: 1) Call Senator Helms. 2) Call King Hussein. 3) Call Foreign Minister Moussa. 4) Congressional calls. 5) Prepare for China meeting. 6) Buy nonfat yogurt. In its pages she provides a feminist perspective into foreign affairs, “If women leaders had acted the way Arafat and Barak did during Camp David they would have been dismissed as menopausal.”

     For all her success, politically and as a feminist, the most telling moment in her book is her questioning of whether a married woman with full domestic responsibilities could ever be the player she had been on the world stage had she remained a wife. “When I became the Secretary of State, I realized that I would never have climbed that high had I still been married. Yet I am deeply saddened to have been divorced. I know that, at the time, I would have given up any thought of a career if it would have made Joe change his mind.” She ruminated that after a private dinner with Hillary Clinton and the recently widowed Queen Noor of Jordan, Albright calculated the impact of their marriages on each woman. "In different ways we had each been left to explore the boundaries of our own inner strength by a husband who had deceived, deserted, or died.”

       Just as President Reagan was known for his jar of omnipresent jelly beans on his Oval Office desk, Madeleine Albright was known for her brooches. Her collection is three-dimensional emojis that carry messages. In 1990 she learned the Russians had bugged a conference room near her State Department office, and at her next meeting with Russian diplomats, she sported a huge insect pin. They got the message. When the Iraqi media compared her to an “unparalleled serpent,” she displayed a snake pin at her next meeting.  An exhibition and book entitled Read My Pins-an allusion to the first President Bush’s Read My lips-are dedicated to her vast array.

     Despite the event-filled life as the Secretary of State, something t that hit Madeleine on a visceral level was when the Washington Post revealed the Korbels had not been Catholic Czechs. Rather they had been Jews and three of her grandparents had perished in Nazi death camps.  Critics implied that her shocked response was voluntary amnesia, and it had been something she had knowingly concealed. When asked if she would revert to Judaism, she replied, “I was raised a Christian. Now that I’m 66, why would I suddenly change who I am?”

        Today life is anything but quiet for the octogenarian. The New York Stock Exchange elected her as a member, she launched an investment firm, and she is the chairperson of The Hague Institute for Global Justice. Albright is far too busy to nurse regrets, except the one that has no expiration date-the loss of her husband. Still single she told her daughters her only requirement in dating, “I can’t go out with a Republican.”

     Madeleine Albright, the refugee who rose to the highest ranks, has as many memorable quotations as she does broaches. Perhaps the greatest of these was her pronouncement, “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help each other.”