MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: To this day, people talk about Dr. Brzezinski and Dr. Kissinger. But very rarely does anybody call me Dr. Albright. But I do have a better title, Secretary of State or just plain Madeleine, which is what I like. I like being called Madeleine.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
When I talked to Dr. Madeline Albright a few weeks ago, she was at home, alone, Facetiming me from her book-lined library. It’d been five weeks since she left the house.
ANNA SALE: Has this been the longest period of time in your adult life when you've been physically mostly on your own?
MA: Uh, yes, absolutely. Because, um, I am an extrovert and I seek out people, uh, and I'm trying to learn to be an introvert and I'm not doing very well. So this is not my normal way of operating.
AS: Like what does it mean to not be doing very well? How does it, how has it felt to be, to feel confined at home for you as an extrovert?
MA: I do love people and extroverts get their energy from people. And, uh, the truth is, even though I've done an awful lot of Zooming, it's different because you don't get the vibes.
Madeleine Albright has had a long career of getting the vibes. That’s what diplomats do. She was, of course, the first woman secretary of state in the U.S., back in the Clinton administration.
That was more than 20 years ago now, when she was in her early 60s. Since then, she's started a consulting firm, then an investment firm, taught at Georgetown, and written books.
Her latest is called Hell and Other Destinations. It's a surprisingly personal reflection on what was happening in her private life as she built her public career...and on all she's done since her stint as Secretary of State ended.
MA: People ask me how I want to be remembered and I say, I don't want to be remembered. I'm still here.
ANNA SALE: Mmhm. For you, in your eighties, what is great about being in your eighties?
MA: Um, nothing.
AS: Really? (Laughs)
MA: No. I, I find it very hard. Um, I think that the only thing is that it does give you a certain perspective about, um, what, uh, life is like and I think that you can kind of, um. Uh, maybe get respect from people for your age. I, I would prefer, it's not my favorite activity being 80.
MA: Uh, because I always have been kind of 10 years older than everybody, 'cause it took me long to get started.
Secretary Albright did not expect to get a late start to her career. She was planning to work in journalism when she graduated from Wellesley, the private women’s college, in 1959.
MA: Our commencement speaker was Neil McElroy, who was then secretary of defense because his daughter was in our class. And even though we remember the speech slightly differently, we all heard the following, which is your main responsibility is to get married and raise interesting children. Um, and kind of the fact that we didn't walk out is a little, you know, uh, telling about the time.
Secretary Albright did get married, just three days after that graduation ceremony. And despite her intentions, she quickly found that her husband’s career—which was also in newspapers—took precedence over her own.
MA: He had a job with the Chicago Sun-Times, and we were having dinner with his managing editor. And he looked at me and he said, "So what are you going to do honey?" And I said, I'm going to work on a newspaper. And he said, I don't think so. You can't work on a paper, uh, the same paper as your husband because of labor regulations. And even though there were three other papers in Chicago at the time, and he said, and you wouldn't want to compete with your husband, so go find something else. So everything all of a sudden was different than I had thought. Um, I did get a job, which I liked, at Encyclopedia Britannica. Uh, and then later I got pregnant and we moved to New York. And so all of a sudden there was a very different picture. Um, and I did find among my papers, something that I wrote is that I felt obsolete. That all of a sudden these things that I thought I was going to be able to do, I couldn't do.
AS: I was struck by that in your book, you, you include an excerpt from that essay from 1961. It's the year your twins were born. And the sentence is, "Two years after finishing with college, I am obsolete." Um. And I was struck that you wrote that you remembered it as a, as a, as a happy time, and then you found this essay. Um, do you remember the circumstances when you sat down and wrote that essay?
MA: Well, I do actually because it was interesting. Uh, my former husband's aunt was a woman called Alicia Patterson who, um, had started Newsday, and she was also asked to kind of do a series to, to determine where women saw themselves at a particular time, and she's the one that asked me to kind of think about what I was doing. I'd see her fairly frequently. And I think I was trying to explain myself to her. I mean, I did have, you can't imagine what it was like. I was not prepared for twins. Wow, was it a lot of work. Um, and then, uh, they had to wear bracelets so I could figure out who was who. And, um, you know, and constant, it took them each an hour to eat and they had to eat every three hours. And so there were various kind of frustrations and yet happiness and then trying to figure out what I was going to do next. So, a combination. And I'll tell you one of the things that did happen, is I had to leave them in the hospital 'cause they were premature. Um, and I had always wanted to learn Russian. Uh, and they were offering Russian at Hofstra University, uh, for eight hours a day for eight weeks. And I had to leave my twins in the hospital. So I took Russian and it made me think that I wanted to go back to school. So I was going through a number of different thoughts at the time.
AS: I've never had twins. I've had two babies. Uh, but I, I am - I just want to underscore and underline that that while your children, while you're, while your new little babies were in the hospital after being six weeks premature, you're postpartum, you decide to take a Russian language class. [Laughs] I watched a lot of Netflix. I was not -
MA: Well, I did watch, I watched TV a lot while I was trying to make these children eat. So [laughs]. But it was a combination of things. But, um, I have to tell you how different things were at that time. There were no such things as sonograms. So, uh, and I was fat. And I walked to the, uh, obstetrician and they would say, "You are fat. You can't eat." So I went on a diet with this drink called Metrecal, and drank a lot of coffee. When you think about that. And then I'd go to the doctor and they'd say, I hear at least two heartbeats. So it was all very confusing.
AS: So taking the Russian language course was a way for you to just be in control of something.
MA: Right. And it was, I was trying to figure out what I would do next, having been - obviously journalism wasn't gonna work. So very early I kind of ran into some of the issues that come up for women as we want to be more involved in various issues around the world.
AS: I also want to ask you, you, you have written about the stillbirth that you experienced between the births of your twins and your youngest daughter. Um, at the time when you lost that child in childbirth, was that something that you could grieve openly?
MA: Um. I think that people knew, and I did, you know. And I was trying to figure out - it was a very peculiar time in terms of, again, and let me just say, and it's very hard, I think for people, especially women, to put yourself back to something, um, that was in a different era. I had, um, what I was told at that time, again, that I was fat, that, uh, they, uh, they could, by then there were some kind of sonograms and they could see that there was some problem. Uh, and, uh, I went to see a doctor and I was, I was told that there was probably something mentally wrong with the child. And so I went to see a doctor and I did think about, um, having an abortion. But I was told it was too late to have an abortion. So I was, you know, spent quite a lot of time kind of thinking what would happen if I did have this child, and so I did the grieving earlier.
AS: How, uh, how far along were you when you, when you lost the pregnancy?
MA: Well, at about, uh, you know, eight and a half months, quite a long time.
AS: Oh, wow. Um, how do you think about that now? How much do you think about that?
MA: Well, I think about it in terms of. Uh, first of all, I do have three fantastic daughters. Um, I got pregnant with my youngest daughter after that. Um, and um, I think about the, uh, sadness in so many different ways. I think about it in terms of the, the difficulty of choices that had to be made or couldn't be made, or, um, what one knew about how you can have any control over your life.
Before Secretary Albright’s youngest daughter was born, she went back to graduate school. She didn’t finish her PhD until 1975, when her twins were teenagers and her youngest was in elementary school.
MA: I was trying to figure out how to manage everything. And by the way, I've always had help, you know, I had somebody that, that worked for me that was kind of a general housekeeper. And so I've always had help. I don't pretend not to have had help. And so, my hardship was organizing my time. And so that's when I got into the habit of getting up at five in the morning. To do the work on my PhD, the research, um, or the writing of it, the research I had to do, uh, in the library, um, early in the morning before the children got up. But I've always had help and I've never pretended to be able to do stuff by myself.
AS: I want to move ahead to, to when you were, you were in your mid forties, um, and you got divorced and it wasn't your choice to get divorced. What do you remember in those first weeks and months feeling when you were realizing that you were going to be an unmarried woman again?
MA: I, there's no way to describe how stunned I was about all this. I had met my husband when I was in college. Um, he was going through a lot of changes to do with his career. But I was completely and totally stunned when he decided. He just flat out said, uh, "I'm going to leave you. I'm in love with somebody else." And, and so it was the biggest shock that I think I've ever had. Totally unexpected. Uh, and I felt um, dumped. I mean, I was dumped. And so, um, I think the question then was, and, and by the way, I never was alone after I, uh, on the college, on getting married, um, I actually was at Wellesley in my dorm room, uh, with friends until I got married and then I got married. And so I'd never been alone. And I had gotten used to always "we" doing this or making decisions based on what my husband or children wanted. And all of a sudden I was supposed to have an independent life. Uh, the children were pretty grown up. Um, and just my youngest daughter was at home. And so, uh, it was very strange. Uh, and it really taught me to become independent, traveling by myself and trying to sort out how, in my mid-forties to become a very different kind of person.
AS: Do you remember anything from that time of like doing something that you'd previously done with someone else that you were doing for the first time? And. And the nerves around that?
MA: Well traveling abroad, traveling abroad, you know, or actually, and these are silly things, like going to a restaurant and sitting there by yourself, um, or, um. Uh, the, having to make a decision, um, that only had to do with you. I mean, it was easier in some ways to make a decision where you have to consider others and then you make excuses about why you didn't do something.
AS: Mmhmm. [Laughs]
MA: Um, but I really do think the main thing was, uh, travel by myself.
AS: Mmhm. And did you feel, um, you said, you said, "I was dumped," like you said that, so frankly, um, did you, how did you deal with the embarrassment of having the marriage end that way?
MA: Um, I, um, I didn't think, well, I didn't go around saying I was dumped. I think people knew I was dumped. Um, and, uh, I didn't think I had to explain it, you know. Um, I did - the part that is very hard for me to deal with at the moment is that I never would have become who I became if I had still been married. And it isn't that a married woman can't be secretary of state, because we've had that. Uh, it is mostly that I developed a set of skills, uh, and a, uh, determination, um, during that, the '80s, that made it possible for me to participate in a lot of different things. Um, that then put me - by the way, it never occurred to me that I'd be secretary of state. Uh, that was not part of anything that I thought was possible. Um, and, but I did in fact develop a way of operating, of being able to say, if I was asked to do something, "Yes, I can do it and I can get it done on time." Um, and a number of different things. So the '80s turned out in so many ways to be, um, determinative of who I became.
AS: Was there a time where, um, you sort of looked up and realized like, whoa, this is really liberating. There's a relief here to not having to also be a wife along with doing all of these other things that I want to do.
MA: No actually, I don't think I ever did that. Because I liked being a wife, there's no question. Uh, I definitely liked being married and, but I, I did find it invigorating in ways of being able to, to spend time on some of the other issues that I really cared about. So, um, I, it's interesting because, um, I can talk about it looking back, I can't truly um, give you exactly the kind of sentiments that I had. Probably a little up and down.
Coming up, Secretary Albright talks about all that happened in her life and career after that divorce, and the coping skills she's using today that she learned from her parents when her family lived in London during World War II.
MA: They couldn't control the bombs. They could only control their mood. And I can't control the virus. I can only control my mood. And so I keep thinking, okay, it's not going to help if you think that you don't want to be here by yourself. Just do something.
Last week, we shared a message with you from our listener Lindsay. She’s a nurse practitioner working in an ICU in New Jersey, who’s caring for COVID-19 patients. And she's struggling to give her patients what she considers to be a “good death” during this time.
Many of you responded to Lindsay’s message. One listener, Amy, whose father is 92 and is hospitalized with COVID, wrote, “I wish for my father to have a 'good death' during this pandemic by being gifted small moments of being seen by others who don’t know him, but are tasked with caring for him.” She added, “Little gestures may help him feel that his life matters up to the end.”
One listener, Niamh from Ireland, whose grandfather died from COVID without any family around him, wrote, “I can tell you now, that weeks on from his death, having any record, however small, of the last few days or weeks of his life would be so comforting.”
And Lily sent this message in for Lindsay from Australia:
LILY: The fact that you value giving these patients a good death is something that you should be very proud of yourself for. You are valuing life, and more importantly you are valuing a good life. And I want to thank you for it.
We’re thinking a lot about the rituals we have around death, and how we can honor and remember the people we’ve lost during this pandemic, particularly as we can’t gather together. So we’re collecting your memories and stories about your family, friends and acquaintances who have died during this time. What's something about that person that you'll never forget? What did you learn from them? What's a funny story about them you'd like to remember? Record a voice memo and send it to this special inbox: email@example.com.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Secretary Madeleine Albright was nine years old when her family arrived in the United States in 1948, on a ship that docked at Ellis Island.
Her father was a high-ranking diplomat from Czechoslovakia. They moved around during and after World War II. She arrived in the U.S. as a refugee.
MA: All I ever, uh, through my parents and my life have thought about is foreign policy. There is no question about that. And that came with, uh, who I, who I was growing up. My parents, coming to America and all of that. And so I felt very strongly about, um, America's role in the world. It never occurred to me that I would get to sit behind a sign that said the United States.
She got that opportunity when Bill Clinton became president. He named her U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1993, after she’d worked in Washington for more than a decade, on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Then, her name started being floated for Secretary of State in Clinton’s second term.
MA: I talk about this as the period of great mentioning. So my name came up and, uh, the first, uh, comment was somebody said, well, a woman can't be secretary of state because Arab leaders won't deal with a woman. And so what happened was the Arab ambassadors at the UN said, well, we've had no problems dealing with Ambassador Albright. We wouldn't have any problems dealing with Secretary Albright.
AS: And was that a campaign like, did you have supporters of yours reach out and say, can you say this to the press? Just so it's clear.
MA: No. I mean, I tried not to have a campaign, frankly. It's possible that other people did on my behalf, but I did not want to have a campaign.
AS: Why not?
MA: Well, because I, um, it wasn't my style. There's no way I can describe to you how I thought it wouldn't happen. So, because then somebody at the White House, and I never want to know who said, yeah, Madeleine's on the list, but she's second tier.
AS: Said that to the press.
MA: Yeah. And so I don't know who it is. I don't want to know who it is, but, um. Secretary - at that time, First Lady Clinton - and President Clinton and I would sometimes travel to foreign countries. And he said, uh, during this period, um, of when people - who was going to be secretary of state, that Hillary would come to him and say, why wouldn't you name Madeleine? She, um, is closest to your views, expresses them better than anybody else, and besides, it would make your mother happy. So that's the official story.
AS: I want to ask you about the, the, the way in which you thought about how you did the job of being Secretary of State of the United States of America, um, being the first woman in that role. Um, in particular, I want to ask you about, um, how did you think about where to stand your ground and not change your mind, whether publicly or in a meeting, because it would be undermining your authority. Authority you needed to make sure, you know, you needed to make sure you weren't going to be pushed around. Um, but also sometimes you have to change your mind because you change your mind? So how did you think about sort of threading that needle?
MA: Well, let me just say that, I made a big point when I was teaching in the '80s having been the only woman in the room before that of, um, and being, and I, I, whenever I talk to any woman, this rings true, is you're in a meeting and you think to yourself, um, I'm going to say something. And then you think, no, I won't say it, it'll sound stupid. And then some man says it and everybody thinks it's brilliant and you're mad at yourself for not saying anything. And so I invented a term of active listening and made it my mantra that women had to learn to interrupt. And if you're going to interrupt, you have to know what you're talking about and have a strong voice. So when I went to Georgetown to teach, I decided to tell my students what this was - and I had coed classes - that nobody could raise their hands and they had to interrupt. My classes were a bit of a zoo. But -
MA: I get to the UN and, um, the Security Council has 15 members on it, and I'm the only woman. And I'm sitting there in one of an informal meeting, not that big fancy room. And I think to myself on my first day, there are 14 men sitting there looking at me. And I think, hm, maybe I'll see if they like me and I won't say anything. And then I saw the sign "United States" in front of me, and I thought, if I don't speak today, the voice of the United States will not be heard.
AS: Do you have a particular interrupting style? Like do you say, "Hang on, let me just, let me just stop you there." Or like what's your, what is the style that you developed as an interrupter?
MA: Well it depends, I mean, at the UN, at the UN, um, you have to raise your hand and you know, you put up your placard. But the thing that I developed as a style, once I was secretary of state, I would travel abroad. Uh, and, um, there's a certain way you do diplomacy. It's all kind of, you know, um warm and friendly when you come in, no matter where you are. Um, a lot of chatty about the weather and all kinds of things. And then you have what you're supposed to say. Uh, and, uh, I, if I weren't getting anywhere, I would say this: "I have come a long way, and so I must be frank."
MA: And, and I did always say, uh, what I thought. I did. Having done a lot of kind of diplomatic schmoozing ahead of time and knowing who I was talking to, but I did. That was my method of interrupting.
AS: I like that you can like visualize the colon after that sentence: "I must be frank:..." And you're like, this is when you need to listen to me, 'cause I'm telling you something important.
MA: Exactly. Yeah.
AS: Yeah. Um, I like that. Um, I was struck in your book, you write about a conversation with the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, um, that you thought back on when you were writing your memoirs. And he said, don't be angry. And it's advice you say you, you, you tried to take to not sort of have your memoirs be sour grapes. Um, uh, but I, I wanted to sort of ask you if, how - do you think there's a time, whether in your personal life or in your career where anger was really useful to you?
MA: Um. The truth is yes. But, um, and I, I, uh, but let me go back on something. Can you imagine being friends with Gabriel Garcia Marquez?
AS: No. When you just dropped that in, I was like, impressive! [Laughs]
MA: [Laughs] I mean, it was so great and you have to visualize this. I had met him at a state dinner and we started talking, and then I had gone down to Cartagena. And I, um, was a real, a groupie, uh, because I have all his books and, uh, and he was describing, uh, "Love in the Time of Cholera," which takes place in Cartagena. And he was leading me around telling me where everything was. And I, I just, it was just incredible. And that's when we had this conversation. But I have, um, there are times that anger is important. And, and I think one of the times very specifically was to do with Serbia. Um, my father was the Czechoslovak ambassador to Yugoslavia. And I go to meet Milosevic and he is doing the schmoozy part and then saying, starting giving me the history of the Serbs. And I finally said, um, I know the history of the Serbs. You do not have to tell me the history of the Serbs. And I did get pretty angry there. Uh, but I think that, um, one has to, to the extent that one can be measured. Um, overly being angry doesn't get you anywhere. Um, you need to be firm, but just flat out anger is not useful.
AS: Did you have a period of anger after your divorce?
MA: Um, yes, I did. Definitely. But angry is not my, my main way of operating, frankly.
AS: How do you get out of it?
MA: Well, you decide that it isn't getting you anywhere, um, that it just twists you around and this goes back to something that I said earlier. The only thing that one is in control of basically is one's mood. I'm convinced of that. So anger is not, might motivate you, but it is not a good permanent condition.
AS: I’m curious in your life now, does ambition feel different in your eighties? Is it, does it feel like a different sort of fuel than it did when you were in your thirties and needing to prove yourself?
MA: Um, I, um, it's interesting. You're asking difficult questions in terms of, um, I wasn't sure I needed to, uh, I think I've always wanted to prove myself. I mean, partially, and you're gonna think I'm crazy when I say this. I always wanted to please my father. I'm the perfect daughter. Um, you know, and I was the oldest and, um, tried to always, uh, do whatever he w - I mean, I, he wrote a book on India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and I did help to do the research for it. Uh, he was interested in, um, how - things to do with Czechoslovakia. Um, and he really was somebody that made a huge difference in my life. I did want to satisfy. And one of the things that does bother me at the moment, um, is that my book is trying to show how I have used my years after coming out of office, um, and doing a whole bunch of different things. And it did take me a long time to find my voice and I'm not going to be quiet now. The part that I'm finding hard all of a sudden is that because I'm in my eighties, and because of what's going on with the virus, all of a sudden I'm beginning to feel obsolete again. Uh, and, all of a sudden, it's kind of strange that one's age, uh, in my case, which I have been trying to fight against, has become, um, a determinative factor. So, Oh, there's - and I and I thought about, you know, do I feel the way I did when I wrote that thing in '61, whether I feel obsolete again.
AS: Mmhmm. It's interesting to me that it's been in the last, you know, five weeks that you have felt that, that, that it was the virus that said, um, life is different now. In terms of age.
MA: Well, because I've made it a point of, uh, kind of, um, uh, um, you know, proving that, um, there are advantages in terms of one's knowledge, um, capabilities and, um, that one can use, uh, various periods of life in different ways. And so, uh, I have, uh, been, uh, I think you would agree, fairly active, and -
AS: I would agree. [Laughs]
MA: And that it's kind of come together. So, um, you know, uh, I have been fighting gravity. That’s what I’ve been doing. [Laughs]
That’s former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Her new book is called Hell and Other Destinations.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Our team includes Katie Bishop, Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
Thank you to Ayo Osobamiro for her help on this episode.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And there on Instagram, you can see the special decorations my in-laws and daughters put up in this walk-in closet I’m recording in, when they heard I was interviewing Madeleine Albright in here. Thank you to Frank and Catherine Middleton for this wonderful closet.
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Secretary Albright told me she’s spending some of her quarantine time cleaning out her papers. Some of them will go to the Library of Congress, but a lot of them are just things she’s printed off of the internet for research.
MA: Just junk frankly. I'm trying to get things organized. Because my daughters have said to me, if you leave all these papers when you're dead, we'll kill you. So I'm trying to sort through those things.
I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.