Remembering Olga Havlová, a woman of humour and good will

Today would have been the eightieth birthday of Olga Havlová, first wife of the late former president Václav Havel. Olga died in 1996 at the age of 62, after devoting much of life to helping others and sacrificing large parts of it for her husband’s unpredictable career, first as an anti-communist dissident and later as a political leader. Still fondly remembered by many, Olga’s life is being commemorated with a new book and documentary.

Olga Havlová, photo: Robert TamchynaOlga Havlová, photo: Robert Tamchyna Olga Havlová was born Olga Šplíchalová into a large family in Prague’s working-class Žižkov district. Down-to-earth, forthright, fun and fiercely loyal, she was seen as a counterweight to the sometimes dreamy and idealistic Havel; the first person he would bounce ideas off and the first he would turn to in times of trouble.

Jan Macháček, a journalist and underground musician who was closely involved in the 1980s dissident scene, got to know Olga Havlová well in the second half of the 1980s. He attended themed parties organised by Olga that brought together different strands of those who refused to live their lives under the Party’s diktat.

“I think she was a very strong character, a very strong personality. She was simultaneously of a working class background but of a very noble behaviour. She thought dissidents shouldn’t only be dedicated revolutionaries; she always emphasised the need not to take oneself too seriously. So she was definitely trying to add to dissident circles, to underground circles more humour or self-deprecating humour, which was connected with a certain kind of creativity.”

Jan Macháček says Olga, who married Havel in 1964, much to the disapproval of his mother, came to relish the role of his closest confidante. Olga, he says, acted as a sort of First Advisor to Havel long before she became First Lady.

Václav Havel, photo: Filip JandourekVáclav Havel, photo: Filip Jandourek “Whenever Václav wanted to discuss something important, she was the first person he approached. Not only in political or dissident judgements, but also in creative matters; she was the first person who read Havel’s plays. I think she absolutely enjoyed this role, she respected that Václav was this creative person, both in art and in organisation of dissident activities, and she absolutely enjoyed her role of being a ‘First Advisor’, that’s my opinion.”

If that meant a lifetime of living in his shadow she never seemed bothered and certainly never complained, and largely tolerated his frequent dalliances with other women. After 1989 she came into her own, becoming an energetic and passionate fundraiser for her charity the Olga Havlová Foundation – Committee of Good Will, which aimed to bring some humanity to the prison-like institutions housing Czechoslovakia’s orphans and disabled. The organisation still exists 17 years after her death; still helping Czech society’s least privileged members.