Remembering a self-remade woman

by Martin Schram

The overwhelming vastness of the famed National Cathedral seemed to shrink to mere expansiveness, as Washington’s famous names, including three presidents, filled its pews Wednesday morning to honor yet another eminent insider with yet another quintessentially Washingtonian farewell.

As the famous names began sharing their informal and funny stories about Madeleine Albright, that great cathedral became almost intimate. Everybody was laughing along. They all felt they knew her well; even those who never actually met her.

That’s the way it was with Madeleine.

We were friends for decades. Her then-husband, Joe, was my Newsday colleague who, with his siblings, also owned 49% of the Long Island-based paper. They inherited it from their aunt, Newsday’s founder, Alicia Patterson. When Joe was about to become the chief of our Washington bureau, where I worked, he called and asked me to check out a house his Realtor found in Washington’s exclusive Georgetown. I did and told Joe he and Madeleine would want to fly down and buy it. They did.

But today, we will add some investigative context to Wednesday’s eulogies, to properly honor America’s first female secretary of state. Hopefully, all young women who are coming of age in the 21st century will be able to visualize Madeleine’s World as it existed for mid-20th century women of her generation and a couple of succeeding generations.

The real world those young women were born into really wasn’t a globe with smoothly rounded opportunities. Theirs was a cube of a world — its sharp edges often became barriers to their fulfillment.

That’s how it was, even for girls of privilege — as Madeleine Korbel discovered on the happy June 1959 day when she graduated with special honors from the elite Wellesley College for women. We heard about that graduation day, just briefly, on Wednesday. Wellesley Class of 69 graduate Hillary Clinton mentioned it during a stand-up eulogy that got the whole cathedral laughing. So I investigated and found all we needed in “Madeleine Albright: Against All Odds,” the excellent biography by my former Washington Post colleague Michael Dobbs.

Just before Madeleine’s 1959 graduation, Wellesley’s school newspaper had run an article headlined: “Marriage or Career?” It ended with a very 50s non-conclusion: “In her daydreams she desires everything: a brilliant marriage, a successful career, intelligent children. Time brings her to the point where she must choose.”

Wellesley’s 1959 commencement speaker, President Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy, decided he had just the perfect answer to inspire the graduating young women, who included his daughter:

“No responsible person in America would suggest that young women curtail that most important of careers — homemaking. Your education here at Wellesley in the liberal arts tradition has given you an ideal preparation to serve as the very heart of a home, for the betterment of your family and of your community. … You have a duty to foster and multiply the society of educated men and women. This you can do most effectively in your own home, where education really starts.”

That was the real world Madeleine was entering in 1959. Wednesday, as her eulogizers highlighted the fact that Madeleine was very much a self-made woman, I found myself thinking: She was even more than that.

Madeleine was a self-remade woman of the mid-20th century.

Few who have come of age in the 21st century can easily grasp just how arduous it was for Madeleine to remake herself in that cruel era. The barriers she had to break were virtually invisible to most of her world. But they were real. And breaking them required fortitude, fiber and determination to defeat their era’s conventional non-wisdom.

She succeeded, admirably and even heroically. So did a few others. But frankly, we weren’t all so enlightened back then.

My mind’s eye keeps seeing a snippet that is embarrassing to tell, but it was part of the path we have traveled. Joe’s uncle, Ike’s former Ambassador to Cuba Harry Guggenheim, was dying of cancer and decided to sell his controlling shares of Newsday to the Times Mirror newspaper chain. Newsday’s journalists wanted their paper to remain independently owned. Joe and I spent evenings at his dining room table, scheming to find a way Joe could buy (see also: save) Newsday.

Snippet: The menfolk are at the table. Madeleine, working on a doctorate in international affairs, puts down her books, goes into the kitchen, reappears with coffee and cookies she serves us — and returns to her books.

We never thought of seeking the leadership of the strong, smart woman who would eventually help save NATO, end war crimes in Kosovo — and warn the world of today’s new age of fascism.

The self-remaking of Madeleine Korbel Albright was still a work in progress. We desperately need another rescuer.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Email: martin.schram@gmail.com.