Vladimír Hanzel: Part 2

Václav Havel, Vladimír Hanzel, photo: Petr Mazanec

As his secretary for nearly a decade and a half, Vladimír Hanzel was extremely close to the late Václav Havel. In this the second part of a two-part interview, Mr. Hanzel describes how the former dissident adjusted to life as president and how he was changed by four terms at Prague Castle. He also discusses Havel’s relationship to music – and his audacious plan to get the remaining Beatles to reform in the Czech capital.

Václav Havel,  Vladimír Hanzel,  photo: Petr Mazanec
“He had been something like a freelance writer. He wrote theatre plays. He had no job, except for a short time at a brewery in Trutnov [laughs].

“He didn’t have a nine-to-five job – he wasn’t used to it. And now [as president] he had to wake up early in the morning, every day to do this nine-to-five job.

“But it wasn’t nine-to-five. It was nine-to-nine or nine-to-ten, or later, and it was even Saturdays and Sundays.

“But I think he was a very responsible person and he was a kind of perfectionist – he wanted to do it 100-percent.

“In the beginning, he wanted to be president only for half a year and then that after free elections there would be a new Parliament and new president – and he would continue to work in theatre.

“But it changed. He started to do everything that had to be changed – everything had to be changed. Even the gardens in Prague Castle; they were all closed but he started to recultivate them and opened them to the public.

“Also in the area of foreign policy – on the first working day after he was elected he went on his first foreign trip, to Germany, East and West Germany.

“Very quickly he was in the USA, in February…”

That was the famous trip with the very big entourage – everybody from Prague went to Washington.

“Not everybody, but there was a plane full of them. Soon after that he was in the USSR, and in Israel, in April 1990. Now it’s the 25th anniversary of it.

“He was the first head of state of a post-communist country who visited Israel. We were the first country, Czechoslovakia, of the former Soviet Bloc to resume diplomatic ties… They had been broken off after the Six-Day War.

Frank Zappa,  photo: Mark Estabrook
“This started new relations with Israel which continue to now.”

So what you’re saying basically is that Havel wanted to be president for six months, but then realized that he was only getting started and needed more time if he was to achieve anything?

“Yes. But he believed in the beginning… People sometimes say that he lied because he knew in the beginning that he would be president for 13 years. Nothing of the sort. He was really prepared to do it for a short time.

“He looked forward to doing his plays in theatres in Czechoslovakia. Because he was banned, his plays could not be performed here. And now he was very eager to do it and to collaborate.

“But that was in the beginning. Later he started so many things, in foreign policy, domestic policy, and so on. And I think he felt all of it was unfinished.”

I wanted to ask you about Václav Havel and music. He’s known for being a big music fan and liking the Rolling Stones and so on. But how much of a music fan was he? Was he knowledgeable about music?

“I don’t think so. I don’t think he was like me, who studied books about it. He liked to listen to music. He had a very wide tastes, because he didn’t only listen to rock’n’roll and jazz and modern music – he also liked classical music.

“For instance, his favourite piece was Carmina Burana by Karl Orf. He even liked opera.”

He also met many leading musicians: the Rolling Stones again, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed. Do you think any of those meetings were particularly important to him?

“Maybe in the beginning, when it started. The first musician here was Frank Zappa. He was here at the end of January, so very quickly.

“Frank Zappa was some kind of symbol here. At that time Shirley Temple-Black was US ambassador. They told her that Frank Zappa would be here and that she should do some reception for him at the American Embassy.

“She said, Who is Zappa? But we knew who Zappa was. For us, and for Havel too, it was a really great thing.

“Second was Lou Reed. And the third very important visit was the Rolling Stones, who had a big concert at Strahov stadium. It was the biggest audience on that Rolling Stones tour.”

I was reading some interviews with you and I was fascinated to read that Havel also had this idea of inviting the three surviving Beatles to Prague – what was the idea?

Beatles,  photo: Public Domain
“His idea was to invite them to Prague. He wanted to organise something like a concert with them.

“We explained to him that it was impossible, because they had been offered a billion dollars for one concert with Julian Lennon instead of Lennon. And they refused it, so it was impossible.

“But he had the idea to invite them, like tourists. That he would show them Prague and Prague Castle... and maybe they heard about the Velvet Revolution. He offered to be their guide here.

“He had the idea that when they were here some friends [of Havel’s] would be in some theatre or small concert hall and he would invite them [the three Beatles].

“And there would be some guitar in the corner and he would say, Try it, please… It was a very naive plan. But he wrote letters and we sent them to Paul, George and Ringo, and to Yoko Ono.

“The first answer came from, I think, Ringo: Thank you for your letter, it’s interesting, but I have a full schedule. Best wishes, Ringo Starr [laughs].

“The second was from Paul McCartney, who said he was very pleased to get the invitation. He said he didn’t know what the others thought, but that he would be very happy to be here, with the others.

“There was no answer from George Harrison but later we realized that he was terribly ill at that time. Shortly after he died of cancer.”

Over the 13 years as president, did Havel often get frustrated with the job?

“Yes. Very often. Very often. But I think it’s a part of this job.”

Did you and Havel ever have conflicts? Or often have conflicts?

“Not often, but sometimes we did.”

What would typically make him angry?

“Sometimes very small things, like if a shirt didn’t suit him. Or when there was a summit, maybe a NATO summit or something like that, that there was very bad furniture, like from the communist times. These kinds of things.

“As I said, he was a perfectionist. So he wanted to have everything very right, very, very perfect.”

How did the presidency change Havel? He had four terms in total and was at Prague Castle for 13 years. How did he change in that period?

Václav Havel,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
“It changed him, because it was a completely different kind of job to what he did before. He visited every continent in the world, many, many countries.

“Before, for 20 years, he had no passport and wasn’t able to travel anywhere, and now he was everywhere in the world.

“He pushed some changes in domestic policy. And it had to change him, because it was a completely different thing than being a theatre writer and leader of the dissident movement.

“Now he was the first man in the state. He was very famous in the world and everybody was waiting for to say something very clever, and it was very hard to fulfill these expectations [laughs].”

You were close to Havel for a very long time. Today do you often think about him? Do you miss him a lot?

“Yes, yes. Very often I think, What would he say about something?

“Sometimes when I hear some interesting music it happens to me that I say, It’s very interesting, I must play it to Vaclav Havel. And then I realise there is no possibility to play it to him.”