Suzanna Halsey: I organised New York celebration of Velvet Revolution from offices of Penthouse

Suzanna Halsey, photo: Ian Willoughby

Suzanna Halsey is one of the most active members of the Czech community in New York and describes herself as an inveterate organiser. Alongside teaching Czech and other work, she is on the board of the New York chapter of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences and is involved with Friends of Czech Greenways. When I caught up with Halsey at the city’s Bohemian National Hall, I first asked her about her own background in Czechoslovakia.

Suzanna Halsey,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I was born in Karlovy Vary in… shall I say the year? A long time ago [laughs].

“It was a pretty happy childhood I must say. I’m an only child.

“I grew up in the very centre of the town.

“I’m very glad I grew up there, because it was a relatively international city, with greenery – just go around the corner and there was forest and go the other way and there are film stars running around.”

In what sense was it international? Apart from the film festival, was there really anything international about Karlovy Vary in those days?

“There was the film festival every two years [it alternated with Moscow].

“And it was close to the border, so there were a lot of, at least East, Germans coming, and some Russians.

“So it wasn’t totally Czech. It wasn’t České Budějovice, or something like that.”

How do you see it today, if you ever go there, the way it’s become a kind of Russian colony almost?

“The thing is I don’t really go there. I go to Prague, I go to Moravia, because of the job that I’m doing. But I was there maybe three years ago.

“I must say I don’t feel any nostalgia, because it’s so different, it’s so painted. It’s the same with Prague.

“And the Russian signs I’m sort of used to because I live in Brooklyn and I have it around me as well.

“I say, They conquered us not with tanks but with commerce and real estate.”

What did your parents do?

“My father was a lawyer and my mother worked in an office that was something to do with the roads.”

I was reading that you then moved to Prague where you studied philosophy and Latin, but later, towards the end of the 1970s, you left Czechoslovakia. What sparked your departure?

“It was building up to that, but I think the last straw was an event when I was working at the Státní pedagogické nakladatelství [State Pedagogical Publishers] as a redaktorka [editor].”

“I went back to Czechoslovakia and went to some store with my mother and looked at the people lining up in the queue with their little bags and I cried.”

This was the organisation publishing academic books?

“Textbooks, basically.

“And at that time Jan Patočka died and there was a funeral.

“One of the girls who was working with me went to the funeral and then there was this big trial with her by the Socialist Youth Organisation.

“Some guy from the central committee of this organisation came and was saying horrible things about her, that she was an imperialist swine – horrible things.

“She was such a delicate person, an intellectual, just a wonderful person.

“And I was sitting there totally paralysed and hating myself for not standing up and telling the guy off.

“I said, I cannot live like this anymore. This is my future, this is my life.

“So that was sort of the last straw.”

How did you get out?

“Well, thanks to a lack of the internet and a lack of phones.

“I discovered that the communication between the departments, the ones who give out the [výjezdní] doložka [exit permit], the money, and the Communist Party and all of whoever had to decide… they didn’t communicate, or they didn’t communicate quickly.

“So I basically got a three-day visa to accompany my mother to Germany see her brother.

“But she went and came back and I got the permission to go – so I went.”

During those years when you were living here in the later 1970s and 1980s did you have much contact with home?

New York,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Yes. Because I married someone so I could go back.

“I remember this story of when I went back and went to some store with my mother and looked at the people lining up in the queue with their little bags and I cried.

“I started to cry. It was so sad. I felt so sad.

“Yes, I had contact because I was teaching Czech here.

“Or I was involved in the Czech community here, organising; all my life I’m organising.

“That’s my weakness – I organise things.”

And in 1990 you organised an event celebrating the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia and the revolution?

“That’s true.

“Back to what I did in America – I worked in Americana.

“When I came I worked in a library for NASA.

“Then my second job was at Walt Disney. I was in the art department as a secretary.

“And my third Americana job was for Penthouse magazine.”

Dare I ask?

“[Laughs] That was really interesting, because at that time I thought I would be a film director, so I was there as a video editor.

“The guy who owned Penthouse, [Bob] Guccione, was a science buff and he had a magazine called Omni and a television show called Omni: The New Frontier

“When I came I worked for NASA. Then my second job was at Walt Disney. And my third Americana job was for Penthouse magazine.”

“I was basically cutting the science show, so no sex.

“Anyway, back to 1990. I was working for Penthouse and Havel came to St. John the Divine but it was invitation-only and I said, There is no celebration for the people, for us.

“So I started from the office of Penthouse to organise an event.

“It happened that there was the Symphony Space on Broadway and one of the art directors was the husband of the writer Marie Winn, who translated Mendelssohn is On the Roof [a novel by Jiří Weil], and her father was the doctor of [actor Jan] Werich – so great company.

“They said, OK, we’ll organise it there and I started to bring people – performers.

“And at that time Hanka [Hanna] Gaifman was at NYU and she brought a whole airplane full of Czech writers.

“Jáchym Topol came to my show and we had plays and music and it was wonderful.

“So we raised some money and I started something called Ex Libris Czechoslovakia.

“We thought that would be supporting and promoting the translation of Czech literature.”

Is that what happened?

“It happened. But it didn’t go far enough. I had to survive somehow so I dropped it.

“We only helped [writer] Iva Pekárková, with a sample translation.”

Who was a New York taxi driver I guess in those days?

“She was a New York taxi driver.

“She was a wild woman – she was interesting.”

By that time you’d been less than 15 years in the States. I know you married an American, but did you consider moving back to Czechoslovakia, or later the Czech Republic?

“I was playing with the idea, but since I’m married to an American, it’s hard.

Bohemian National Hall in New York,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“He doesn’t speak Czech and he has these amazing objections to it.

“I don’t know if it’s true, but he says that in Czechoslovakia, or the Czech Republic, you are guilty until proven otherwise [laughs].

“That’s his big issue. But I think there are other issues.

“Our son lives in Prague now and he keeps saying, Come here to retire.

“I’m playing with the idea, but as they say, you don’t step in the same river twice. So it’s a different river, now.

“I’m on a different rhythm now and I have different expectations regarding interpersonal relationships, work ethic, etcetera, etcetera.

“But I love to go back and spend time there.

“And actually I’m there every year because of the Greenways project.”

I wanted to ask you, what is Friends of Czech Greenways?

“Friends of Czech Greenways was created by a couple Lubomír Chmelař and his wife.

“After they started the Prague-Vienna greenways in the 1990s they wanted to have a unit outside Czechoslovakia to promote it.”

What is greenways – some kind of a path or something?

“It’s a great story. He was a Czech whose father was a Baťa employee in Kenya, so he grew up in Kenya. He then married an Englishwoman and ended up in New York.

“And in 1989 he thought, I would like to do something for my homeland. Because he was born in Zlín actually.

“There’s a Hudson River Valley Greenway and greenways are an American concept.

“He said, Why not bring that concept over there? And why not connect Prague and Vienna, as the old imperial cities, through the countryside and without cars: bikes, hiking.

“The Czechs who don’t speak English probably hang out in Astoria in a pub somewhere. But the young professionals don’t need to hang out with Czechs.”

“He and Americans, all the foundations, were giving money to better the life in Czechoslovakia.

“So, he got five people together in the then Czechoslovakia got together, printed brochures, designed the route and connected UNESCO sites.

“The Prague-Vienna Greenway was the first greenway and inspired others in Central Europe and Czechoslovakia.

“So the Labe Greenway and the Moravian Wine Trails are the result.”

You’re also involved with the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences. Today what’s the main activity of the SVU, as it’s known in Czech?

“It really varies from chapter to chapter.

“It was founded in the 1950s and now I think the mission has changed.

“We have a separate chapter here in New York and we focus more on promoting to our fellow citizens Czech culture and history and intellectual history.

“We organise lectures, film screenings, concerts, etcetera – in English.”

You also teach Czech. Typically, who are your students?

“Well, it’s very sad now I must say, because enrolment is dwindling and I basically have none this semester.

“The typical students are either of Czech or Slovak origin or students who want to go to study in Prague. Those are the ones at NYU.

“I also have private students and reason, often, is really music. I had two perfect students who love Czech music, and that’s why they studied the language.”

Many people say that when Czechs are abroad they don’t really stick together. Has that been your experience? You seem like a very active member of the Czech community here in New York.

“I must say it’s true. I don’t think Czechs stick together as much as Poles or Slovaks.

“I always see on Facebook that Slovaks go skiing together and they have these festivals – they do things in groups.

“The Czechs really don’t. I organise things because I’m a sick organiser but I think otherwise not much [happens].”

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
Why do you think that is? Is it because they’re into assimilating, or they just don’t have that kind of fellow feeling?

“I believe they don’t need it.

“First of all, they can go back anytime.

“They have their Czech friends all the time on Facebook.

“Then they’re busy. People are very busy.

“I think also it’s the blending. Most of the Czechs who come here… The ones who don’t speak English probably hang out in Astoria in a pub somewhere.

“But the young professionals don’t need to hang out with Czechs.

“They want to blend in. They want to make it here.

“They want to speak English and they want to meet Americans. So really, why [laughs]?”