British journalist Charles Laurence first came to Prague as a child in the 1950s. His father, a diplomat, served at the UK embassy here, and brought his family with him. In the spy-ridden communist country at the height of the Cold War, he was soon targeted by the secret police. Fifty years later, Charles Laurence revisited Prague in search of what really happened. In his book The Social Agent: A True Intrigue of Sex, Lies, and Heartbreak Behind the Iron Curtain, he exposes Czech writer, and family friend Jiří Mucha as a man who spied on his father, and whose actions had very tragic consequences for his whole family.
Charles Laurence was seven years old when he arrived in Prague in November 1957 with his parents and his little sister. His father, a promising diplomat at the British Foreign Office, was posted to communist Czechoslovakia after serving in Greece and Italy. Charles Laurence, now a US-based journalist, still remembers the atmosphere of the city.
“We thought of it as a mysterious, dangerous and spooky place from the get-go. Kids pick up the atmosphere right away. My first memories are that it was different, there was an element of danger, it was after all the late 1950s. The border guards, the whole procedure with passports… At the same time, there was this confluence of the kind of comic books you read as a schoolboy in England with the Nazis, the Stalinist troops, the sort of background things you pick up, and there it is in front of you, these guys with jack boots.”
In Prague, Charles’ parents became regulars at various functions held by members of the decimated high society which however still existed even after years of communist rule.
One of the stars of the elite circles of Prague was certainly Jiří Mucha – the son of the famed Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha. A man who had travelled the world and a former war reporter for the BBC who spent four years in communist jails. He was released two years before the Laurences’ arrival.
“My father liked him. I think I quote him in the book as saying he was an interesting and likable chap and in some ways very entertaining. He also made a big impression on me. Partly because it was an unhappy family, and in an odd way, I grew up at a time when I didn’t want to be the kind of English person I was born to be, and he was almost a role model for me. I became a journalist.
“That persona of the world traveller with his cigarette and his anecdotes and his cool ways made a profound impression on a kid who met him maybe half a dozen times. But then his shadow fell over the family.”
After the fall of communism and after Jiří Mucha’s death, it became clear the worldly man had a dark side to him. He was recruited by Czechoslovakia’s secret police, the StB, shortly after he was released from prison. Taking advantage of his connections and excellent social skills, the secret police used Jiří Mucha as a “social agent”. His role was to seduce the wives of western diplomats which made it possible for the StB to blackmail them.
“What you remember from childhood is faded things, shadowy things, impressions, then some specific moments which can also be distorted in memories, as everybody knows, but normally contain a kernel of truth. The simple information that Jiří Mucha had an affair with my mother, that was not an issue, that was known. The consequences of that, and what his role was, that was an issue I grew up with.”
Charles’s father informed his superiors at the Foreign Office of the affair which, his son says, effectively brought his diplomatic career to a stall.
“The consequences to my family were grievous because of the affair. My understanding of it is that the British security forces were extremely interested in and alarmed by what happened and essentially my father’s career was sidelined. My dad was basically a very successful man in the 1950’s when he was here and up until that point he was considered a kind of star of the diplomatic service... and then his career flattened out.
“My understanding now is that MI5 were investigating the whole affair, what had happened and whether security had been breached. They now know, and this I had no idea of at the time, is that at that time they were actually looking for the famous third man.”
When Charles Laurence returned to Prague to do research in the archives, he discovered that as a secret agent, Jiří Mucha could have played a much higher game than that, a game that might have reached the top of the political establishment in the UK.
“I had no idea this was the man who had seduced Pauline Grant, you know, the choreographer who was the mistress of the British foreign minister, I mean you couldn’t have a bigger coup as a spy. I mean this is a cartoon James Bond, you know. So that sort of stuff took me completely by surprise. The deviousness was kind of what I expected. Though there were questions I couldn’t answer, sadly, such as was he working for both sides at once?
“My assessment is that he worked for both sides alternatively, as it suited him, because he just worked for himself. He was always about himself and as I say in the book he did whatever it took. Whatever it took was by some people’s moral compass unacceptable, and by others maybe acceptable. And also he did this not just to survive but also to maintain a certain lifestyle.“
But the affair between Charles’ mother and Jiří Mucha had a more dire consequence. During the family’s stay in Prague, Charles’ sister Kate started to suffer from mental anorexia, a disease she never recovered from. Kate’s death in an assisted living facility in England many years later made Charles look into what really happened in Prague, and seek an answer to the question whether Jiří Mucha was also responsible for Kate’s suffering.
”It’s one of those stories where it was very deep and we all have this, or maybe not all but probably most people have these great scars they carry and they get on with life and they do what they can and I do not think it is uncommon for the scars to resurface later and I should imagine that was probably the trigger.”
When the Czech translation of his book came out last month, some people were shocked by the allegations. Others said Charles’ account was one-sided and unfair to the writer.
The Mucha family was angered when the book first came out in English, and in fact managed to stop its second edition from being published in the United States. Jiří Mucha’s son, John – a childhood friend of Charles Laurence – refused to comment on the book which called “a cesspool”. Charles Laurence says this did not come as a surprise.
“You know, I am not surprised at their reaction but to put it in context this is a family with a truly dark past. It was pretty naive of me to think that they wouldn’t screw me over as they screwed up everybody else. Geraldine herself is someone I even admire. She survived and had an extraordinary life but again, at what cost? And there are details –if anyone listening wants to go and spend a few months searching the files - about the family and their relations that I have not put in the book.”
The episode featured today was first broadcast on December 1, 2012.