Eliska Haskova-Coolidge: the refugee from Prague who came to know six US presidents
There aren't many people who can claim to have known six United States Presidents. Eliska Haskova-Coolidge is one of them. She spent no less than eighteen years working in the White House, and as a diplomat has had an impressive career by any standards. But, amazingly, only a few years before joining the White House team, she had arrived in the United States as a ten-year-old refugee without a word of English. Her family had fled Czechoslovakia after the communist coup of 1948, despised by the regime for their middle-class background and their links with the west. Since the fall of communism, Eliska Haskova-Coolidge has been back in her native Prague, and when she came to the studio for One on One, our conversation started - logically - at the beginning.
Which is right in the heart of Prague.
"Right in the heart of Prague, and I left in April 1949. I escaped with my mother; my father was in the United States at the time. He had been invited by the American Department of Commerce, by the Secretary of Commerce, as a private banker to make a study of trade relations between the United States and Czechoslovakia. He was supposed to return on March 5 but the coup was on February 25, so he was no longer welcome."
You and your mother decided to get out as soon as possible.
"A year later, yes, we were able to get out."
And you were a little girl of, what, seven?
What do you remember of that? It must have been quite traumatic even at that age?
"It was traumatic. I do remember walking across the border, I remember switching from one car to another...five cars, I think. At night we walked for about an hour across the border..."
So it was very complicated indeed.
"So it was."
After that your family was separated again, weren't you?
"We went to France, and my mother went to England with my brother and the man who later became my stepfather. I was left in a boarding school for a while in France and then joined my father in the United States."
And that's where you stayed.
"That's where I stayed. I came to the United States on Columbus Day, I will never forget that, Columbus Day, 1950, during the Columbus Day parade, so my first welcome in New York was this amazing parade. And I went to the top of the Empire State Building the first day that I landed..."
So everything augured well from the start.
Did you feel at home in the United States straight away, or did it take a while?
"It took a little while because my father had nobody to take care of me there so I was put in a boarding school with nuns, and I didn't speak a word of English (laughs)...it took about a year to get used to that, and then my grandmother came, and you know children adapt very quickly."
Obviously as a teenager you did manage to learn English pretty well because you ended up at Georgetown University, didn't you?
"Yes, I did. I was in the Foreign Service school and at that time one of about 25 women out of a class of 400 or something (laughs)."
You were training to be diplomats.
What happened then?
"Well, I was told in my first interview at the State Department that I was ineligible for the Foreign Service exam because I hadn't been a citizen long enough. At that time there was a law on the books that said you had to be a citizen for ten years, and I'd only been one for seven at that point."
You ended up in the White House, you worked under five presidents...
"That was quite ironic because I ended up having probably a higher clearance in my days working at the White House than I would have ever had at the State Department. And I got there with no political affiliation, which was even more extraordinary. It was because the person whom I had the interview with at the State Department said I have a friend at the White House is just losing his assistant and would you like to go and interview with him, and he sent me straight away over there and I was hired."
You spent 18 years at the White House. Everybody must always ask you what was it like being in daily contact with presidents, you were in contact with five presidents, from JF Kennedy to Reagan, so you knew an amazing selection of presidents. What was it like?
"I think the novelty of it wore off with the hard work (laughs). I think it was very exciting and special at the beginning but it was not a place where you were so impressed with being at the White House; I've never had that feeling."
Of the presidents that you knew, do you have any particular fond memories, or have any particular president who you remember with affection?
"I had a great deal of respect and admiration for President Johnson, who I think was able to achieve an amazing amount on the domestic front; the civil rights legislation, that was really Lyndon Johnson who pushed that through, and I think that unfortunately his tenure was very much marred by the war in Vietnam. When I was asked to stay on by Richard Nixon and eventually joined the Republican ranks I was very flattered, and I learned to respect enormously what President Nixon did in his dealings abroad. He was truly a statesman and had wonderful people, very exciting people around him..."
Do you remember the atmosphere around the time of Watergate? There must have been a lot of tension?
"There was and even I went before the Irwin Committee (laughs) and I was asked whether I kept an enemies list in deciding who should get recognition by the president and who should not, and things like that...they were really on a fishing expedition (laughs). But no it was a very tense time and I'll never forget when Al Haig called us into the conference room the day that Richard Nixon resigned and said if you cannot find it within your hearts to support the president I hope you will find it within your hearts to support the presidency. I still get chills when I think about that."
One thing that fascinates me is that you had this glittering career in the United States but in 1990, after the fall of communism, you decided to come back to your native Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. What brought you back?
"I of course was yearning to come back and see places that I remembered as a child, and where I visited with the grandmother whom I just adored and whom I owe so much to. I also came back because at that point my father had restituted some family property here, so I came back to help him initially and then take over that. And then I realized that there were so many things that maybe I could help do here, and that maybe I could assist in bringing people together. And that's what I've been trying to do, I don't know with how much success (laughs) but I've certainly been doing my best to try to bring good people and good causes together, and bring the United States a little closer to Czech people."
One last question: the Czech national anthem is "Kde domov muj?", "Where is My Home?"...
"Yes, I've often thought that would be a great title to my book, if I ever did one, but I'm sure that it's become the case of everybody, not only myself. But it is difficult to know and I cannot tell you which is my home."