Remembering Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk

Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk

There is a magic about radio; it preserves moments in time, fragments of conversation from the past, and as long as these fragments are kept in an archive somewhere, they enable us to travel in time. As Radio Prague celebrates its 80th birthday, I shall be taking us through some of the episodes that make up our history. I’ll be helped by Czech Radio’s impressive and extensive archives and by students in my History of Journalism course at Prague’s Anglo-American University.

Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk
We start the series with memories of someone who was born well over 150 years ago, in 1850. Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk was married to Czechoslovakia’s first president. She was American, an intellectual, musician and feminist, and her influence on her Czech husband Tomáš was enormous. How many pre-World War II heads of state can we name anywhere in the world who overtly and actively embraced feminism? Charlotte’s husband was one of them.

Charlotte herself died in 1923, only five years after Tomáš had returned from exile to become the first president of independent Czechoslovakia. We do not have any recordings of her own voice in the archive, but we do have the voice of one of her American friends, Martha Root, a writer, feminist and propagator of the Bahá’í faith. She gave a talk in November 1932, and remembered Charlotte. In this programme we hear parts of that talk and also some of the impressions it left on journalism student Erin Doley over eighty years later.

The marriage of Tomáš and Charlotte became the subject of myth, even within Masaryk’s lifetime, portrayed during the period of the First Czechoslovak Republic as an ideal of love and mutual respect. The wartime Nazi occupation reinforced this myth. For the Czechoslovak government in exile in London, the Masaryks’ marriage was an important symbol of the link between Czechoslovakia and her allies, and in this programme we hear extracts from a drama documentary about Tomáš Masaryk made during the war for the BBC and written by the Czech playwright František Langer. The play repeatedly stresses the central role that Charlotte played in the president’s life and ideas.

Erin Doley,  David Vaughan,  photo: Markéta Jirovská
Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk died on 13th May 1923 at the presidential residence in Lány, not far from Prague. The idealized legend of her legacy, reflected vividly in Langer’s radio play, came to an abrupt end with the communist takeover in 1948. For four decades any mention of Charlotte Masaryk was virtually taboo. Despite her sympathies with Social Democracy, she had never been a Marxist, but that was not the reason why the communists did not like her. It was simpler than that: she was American.

Today Charlotte Masaryk is no longer idolized, but she is remembered with affection and her legacy in terms of women’s rights in this country is huge.