Gail Papp on Václav Havel among New York’s hippies – and under house arrest in communist Czechoslovakia

Taking advantage of relative liberalisation at home, the young Václav Havel visited New York in the spring of 1968 for the US premiere of his second major play, The Memorandum. It was staged by the Public Theater, which had just had a huge hit with Hair and was headed by director Joseph Papp. He and his wife Gail Papp got to know Havel at that time – and later visited the then dissident at his country home in communist Czechoslovakia.

Gail Papp at her NYC apartment, photo: Ian WilloughbyGail Papp at her NYC apartment, photo: Ian Willoughby Gail Papp shared her memories of the relationship she and her late husband had with Václav Havel when I visited her at her Manhattan apartment.

“As far as I know, Joe was the first person to produce his plays [in the US].

“The first one here was The Memorandum, which Joe also directed.

“This followed in the same season as Hair, which was our opening at the Public Theater in New York [in 1967].”

When Havel came in spring of 1968, how long did he stay here in New York?

“I’m not quite sure, but he had some friends who wanted to show him around the place.

“It was a very lively scene in 1968. It was the height of the hippy movement and we were at the centre of it at our building in the East Village.”

“They were just all over the place – stoned guitar players and chanters and so forth.

“So it was very lively and interesting. There were psychedelic poster shops and other kinds of things every other store in the Village at that time.

“He liked that scene. There was musical variety then. It was just absolutely incredible, it was wonderful, and he liked that.

“He palled around with the famous Czech director Miloš Forman and Miloš showed him around the city.

“I know that Václav Havel loved that visit. It was relatively free for him, although he was under some duress from his government.

“[Havel’s] warmth and the courtesy were an interesting mixture – and we’re not used to it in this country [laughs].”

“But nevertheless he was allowed to come – and he had a great time.”

He must have stood out visually himself, if it was the hippy days and everything was psychedelic. I’ve seen photos of him and he looked pretty formal still in those times.

“Yeah, I think you’re right. I remember him dressed in a kind of a pale blue pullover and with slightly tousled hair. He was only around 30 years old.

“He had a manner that was fascinating to me, because he obviously enjoyed everything that was around him.

“And he had a very warm manner, but it was also extremely courteous.

“The warmth and the courtesy were an interesting mixture – and we’re not used to it in this country [laughs].”

Havel didn’t really like to speak English in public but I think he could speak a bit in private. How good was his English then?

“It was serviceable. You could have a conversation with him.

“So we got along fine and Joe and immediately struck up a marvelous connection with him.”

Could you describe that connection? Why was it that they hit it off so well?

“Joe later said, It was because we were of the same kind.

Plaque to Joseph Papp in New York, photo: Ian WilloughbyPlaque to Joseph Papp in New York, photo: Ian Willoughby “They were the same kind of person. You’d have to know them both a little bit to understand what that meant.

“But their lives were commanded by an idea that they were dedicated to.

“And anything personal came second. It was the idea of their life that they had created themselves that was the bond.

“Of course they connected on politics. But I think the philosophical and psychological aspect of their connection was the most profound element there.”

Do you think your husband grasped that Havel was, or would become, a great man of the theatre?

“No, he had no idea [laughs]. He just had no idea whatsoever of that.”

Tell us about the actual premiere of The Memorandum here.

“It got very fine reviews. It had a wonderful cast.

“It was a crazy kind of play – just the kind of play that the Public Theater likes to do. And Joe had a great time directing it.

“It got the Obie Award, which is the off-Broadway award for the best foreign play, that year.

“Unfortunately Havel had to go back to Prague before he could receive the honour at the ceremony.

“So he had to leave that award behind. I think maybe Joe accepted it for him.

“It was gathering dust in Joe’s office for many years, always with the idea that he wanted to give it to him, so that he would at last have it in his hands [laughs].

“So Havel was always on our minds, because his Obie Award was stacked in our office.”

And you later delivered it to him. But before getting onto that I’d like to ask you more about the reception of the play here. How open was the public to that kind of theatre? It was kind of Theatre of the Absurd, but a few years later.

“He loved the music of that era, as he did the poster art – because he bought a lot of those crazy psychedelic posters and brought them home.”

“Oh, I think the people that came to the Public Theater were totally to it, it’s craziness.

“It’s set in an East European context but it’s something that was readily accepted in those days by the people who came to the Public.

“They were the same people that had just barnstormed us to see Hair [laughs], so they were a special kind of audience.

“It wasn’t a Broadway audience, it was a different kind. A lot of young people.”

Do you know if Havel also went to other plays when he was here? Was he soaking up the theatre scene?

“I think he did somewhat, but I really don’t know what that list of plays would be. But he was trying to take in as much as he could, certainly.”

You wouldn’t know if he ever went to rock concerts or anything? Famously he brought back a Velvet Underground album from here in 1968 that people say helped spark the Czech underground scene. Would you know anything about that?

“No, I don’t hear about that. But I know that he was very musical and he loved the music of that era, as he did the poster art – because he bought a lot of those crazy psychedelic posters and brought them home [laughs].”

You later visited him at home in the mid 1980s. Could you tell us how that came about?

“He had recently been freed from serving his time in jail.

“Joe got wind of the fact that he had been released under house arrest, due to his poor health.

“So Joe figured he could then receive visitors, he hoped.

“He got this idea in his office and day and said to me, Listen, why don’t we take that Obie Award to Václav?

“I said, Yeah, sure, how will you do that [laughs]? He said, I’ll call and I’ll see if we can arrange a trip there.

“Somewhat to our amazement we were allowed to have an official visit with him, at his home in the Krkonoše Mountains.

“So we packed this big, poster-sized, glass-framed award. I put in our luggage and packed our clothes all around it, so it wouldn’t break.

Václav Havel, photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech RadioVáclav Havel, photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio “We went over there and his brother Ivan said he’d meet us at Prague Airport.

“So we jumped in his car and he drove us about 200 miles, it was about a two-hour trip, to this beautiful country place that Václav and his then wife Olga had.”

Havel was famously constantly monitored by the secret police at Hrádeček, his country residence. Were you aware of that?

“Oh God, yes. When we arrived Václav said, Wait, before you come in I want you to just a pause on the doorstep here.

“He said, You see that hill across from the house? We said, Yes.

“He said, Well, you see at the top of the hill there’s a little kind of Swiss chalet? We said, Yes.

“And he said, Believe it or not, the police have installed a 24-hour person there to spy on who comes in and who goes out my front door.

“He said, Also this hill used to be covered in beautiful and trees – and they pulled all of that down so the view of my front door would be unobstructed.

“He started laughing and said, Can you believe that? He said, Look, he’s right up there with binoculars right now.

“And sure enough he was.”

At that stage Havel had been in prison and had been under a lot of pressure for a long time. What state was he in when you met him?

“Joe picked up on it. He was incredibly angry, but under control.

“The absurdities and petty and major cruelties of what he had to go through were even worst under the home arrest – they were just invasive beyond belief.

“He had to deal with that, he had to live with it.

“And it had taken its toll. Not his sense of humour – he still had that.

“But he was angry and he kept that under wraps in some way.”

But also it must have been like manna from heaven for him to have visitors like you and your husband?

“Of course it was. Yes. That was absolutely an improvement.

“Somewhat to our amazement we were allowed to have an official visit with him, at his home in the Krkonoše Mountains.”

“But he had to go through the embarrassment of the circumstances, of his beloved country home being under this kind of surveillance.

“It had also taken a toll on his wife Olga. She was very statuesque and beautiful, but very sad.

“But he was a resilient person. And obviously a deeply philosophical person – you can tell from his writings.

“I don’t know what he had in mind for his future at that point. We didn’t really discuss it.

“He was very sad that it had been so many years since he had been able to see a play of his with an audience.”

Did I read somewhere an interview with you in which you said that some of the psychedelic posters he had picked up here in New York were there in Hrádeček?

“Oh yes, yes. We were shown into the guest room and there were those psychedelic posters on the walls.

“He must have bought those in Greenwich Village in 1968, because they looked very familiar to us.”

How long was your stay at Hrádeček?

“We were just there for a weekend – overnight.

“But it was a very nice visit and we got to know him a little bit better.

“He also took us on a tour of his grounds. There were some medieval relics there, old stone works, and he knew the stories behind them all.

“So that was great.”

Was it the case that all through those years the Public Theater was still putting on his plays here?

“Yes, we did numbers of plays. The play he’d just finished at the time we were there in ’84 was Largo Desalato.

Hrádeček, photo: Jan Slovik, CC-BY-SA-3.0Hrádeček, photo: Jan Slovik, CC-BY-SA-3.0 “Obviously he couldn’t give a copy to Joe – he’d never get it past customs.

“He said he’d already got it out of the country by whatever means he had.

“So Joe got a copy and had it translated and we did it at the Public Theater, the next year, I think.”

Was it the case also that your husband invited Havel to New York in the 1980s for some kind of artist’s residency?

“Yes. He thought that would be a strategy, because he’d heard that if Havel had an accredited offer for a residency from the States, say from a college or another kind of organisation, then he’d be allowed to travel out of the country.

“So Joe made the offer based on that information.

“Havel discussed it with him when we were there. He was very grateful for it.

“But he told Joe the reason he had turned it down, while he was still in jail, was that there were other people there who didn’t have that kind of advantage and he didn’t want to stand out in any way.”

Also maybe he wouldn’t have been allowed back, I guess.

“That’s exactly right, yes.”

How was it for you and your and husband at the end of the 1980s watching Havel’s extremely fast ascent to the presidency?

“Well, it was just wonderful. We were just delighted beyond belief.

“It was just absolutely thrilling. We had no idea that was going to happen.

“But we were just joyful – absolutely joyful.”

Did your paths ever cross again?

“Yes, in a somewhat sad way.

“In ’91 Joe was dying off prostate cancer and we got word that Havel, who was in town, was trying to see him and wanted to see him.

“Joe was in the hospital part of the time but most of the time he was here at home.

“He was incredibly angry. The absurdities and cruelties of what he had to go through were even worst under the home arrest – they were just invasive beyond belief.”

“So his Czech administrators were trying to find out whether he could go to the hospital or come here – whether it was secure enough.

“They were doing security checks at both places and they finally determined that it wasn’t secure enough.

“Havel, I know, was frustrated by that. He wanted to see Joe. He knew he was dying.

“So what happened was he finally managed to call him. He called him here at home and they spoke for a few minutes.

“Joe was totally surprised, and it meant a great deal to him.

“It was about two days before he died, so it was a very meaningful conversation and meant a great deal to him.

“I admire for Havel for such a friendly and compassionate effort that he made to reach Joe. It was wonderful.”