Vaclav Havel's Walk on the Wild Side

A bust of Vaclav Havel, the late president of the Czech Republic, after being unveiled in the U.S. Capitol in Washington November 19, 2014. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

When the poet and political dissident Vaclav Havel took over as president of Czechoslovakia he discovered the communists had left a gloomy, sinister government headquarters wholly ill equipped for the task.

There was no car pool and no computers, not even electric typewriters, just a few antiquated manual machines. No staff, no secretaries, no protocol officers, no communications, no analysis and no planning. Yet the whole thing had to be set up and running in a matter of days.

Friends were called and then friends of friends and friends of their friends. Mário Soares, the President of Portugal, donated the first presidential limousine. A few weeks later the US Ambassador Shirley Temple Black brought the news that the US government had donated the first armoured Chevrolet limousine; unfortunately, when its suspension encountered the cobblestoned streets of Prague it made Havel carsick and so was rarely used. Given the deplorable state of Prague Castle security, at least from Havel's point of view, the US government also supplied a shielded safe room, nicknamed "the fridge," for secure communications.

As for secretaries, Havel's people drew from a number of sources, including the pool of young Castle guides, who could at least be expected to communicate in other languages. Wire services were installed, and some time later one of the first office networks in the country, a relatively sophisticated system, whose ethernet spine was installed through the attics of baroque and Renaissance roofs (over the loud protests of Castle conservationists).

A media operation with a press centre and regular weekly briefings was set up. A small analytical team came in to read the polls and analyse trends. Protocol officers with backgrounds in engineering and nuclear physics were learning the rules of the etiquette.

Some jobs required a professional background. The head of the military office of the president and commander-in-chief had to be a general, but again there were no such officers, other than those who had risen through the stages of Communist training and indoctrination. How to choose a loyal and relatively open-minded professional from among such people?

Havel appointed a recruiting commission made up of me, perhaps because I had been a psychologist in my earlier life, his screenwriter adviser on domestic and security policy Jiří Křižan, his actor adviser on style and image Petr Oslzlý, and Eda Kriseová, who was known to be in communication with the higher spheres of the universe, to address the task.

There were four candidates waiting in the corridor with perspiring brows, looking as if they were as scared of winning as of losing the job. Questions about their military record and background elicited monosyllabic answers, which were identical in their lack of information.

Finally, it occurred to me to ask the candidates about their bedtime reading. One apparently only read the statutes and the order of battle manuals, the second read all the Marxist classics in Russian, and the third, slightly more enlightened, enjoyed reading histories of battles and campaigns from Hannibal to von Clausewitz. The fourth, an anti- aircraft missile brigade commander, hesitated for a long time, after which he stuttered: 'Catch 22'.

It was no contest. General Tomeček stayed for most of Havel's time in the Castle.

People light candles and hold the national flag in tribute to late former Czech President Vaclav Havel at Wenceslas Square in Prague December 18, 2011. David W Cerny/Reuters

The physical appearance of the president's office took as much of his time and attention as hiring the right personnel. Admittedly, the place gave any normal person the shivers. It was vast but almost empty. A good number of the gates and doors were locked, with keys nowhere to be found. Some of the early discoveries included a room full of people with headsets in front of consoles eavesdropping on telephone calls – yes, all calls, even the president's calls – in the interests of "security"; a tiny locked chamber with a telephone that offered a direct link with the Kremlin; and an underground maze of tunnels, which were apparently designed to provide shelter for the top Communist leadership in the event of nuclear war.

The offices themselves were obviously designed to scare off visitors rather than provide any semblance of hospitality. The heavy furniture looked as though it was made on a butcher's block, the pictures on the walls documented not so much the bad taste of the previous occupants as the complete lack thereof.

The presidential suite and the adjoining rooms were equipped with a plethora of bathrooms, which would lead any psychoanalyst to speculations about a Pontius Pilate complex.

True, except for the stunning views of the city from the windows, it was a disconcerting, irritating and not a little depressing environment to work in; but so are many other work places. Havel found it unbearable, and immediately addressed the problem, bringing in pieces of modern art from his own collection, sending to the Castle storage for whatever usable furniture could be found, commissioning his painter friend Aleš Lamr to enliven the walls with some colourful graffiti, and in the meantime, spending as much time as possible with his advisers in the Castle restaurant Vikárka and in the Gothic-style castle dungeon that the conservationists had somehow prevented the Communist rulers from refurbishing. His dream was to convert the dungeon into a presidential ops centre complete with maps, wall displays and consoles. The conservationists were against that, too.

Within several weeks the look of the place changed. The heavy curtains were taken down and light was let in. By the time black mahogany furniture arrived, courtesy of German President von Weizsäcker, Havel had an office with a view over the ancient city to kill for.

Nonetheless, he was still not happy. He ventured further and further afield within the Castle walls, all the time discovering new aesthetic atrocities, neglect and abuse. As he tried to apply his perfectionist criteria to a building four storeys high, a kilometre in length, and a hundred and fifty metres wide, with a multitude of satellite buildings, gardens, courtyards, cellars and dozens of miles of corridors, tunnels and hallways, it became evident that he was fighting a losing battle.

He would not give up, strongly supported by his advisers on culture, architecture and theatre, and equally strongly opposed by his advisers on domestic and foreign policy, media and economy. He ran around the rooms and corridors, personally straightening paintings, which were not hanging at the right angle, poring over blueprints, sketches and designs.

In contrast with his usual demeanour he mercilessly overruled the objections of the bureaucrats and conservationists. "For those who would rather not touch anything because everything is a monument: if our ancestors thought like this, we would have no Castle at all – just some sort of a pagan hearth and a hole in the ground."

Feeling that, in spite of all the changes he had made, the spirit of Gustáv Husák would not quit his office, he vacated it to me, and moved to the next room, starting a long migration westward that ended up with him finding shelter in the anteroom of the old Tomáš G. Masaryk apartment.

The theatrics continued with the Castle Guard and the military marching band. The drab olive garb and the Soviet-style goose-step offended Havel's image of a decent, democratic country. It appeared relatively easy to make the soldiers stop exerting themselves and to lower their step. When, before the election of the president, Jiří Křižan instructed General Vacek to effect this change in time for the new president's first review of the guard of honour, he earned himself lasting enmity of the foot soldiers, who, it turned out, had to practise the new marching step at night.

For the new uniforms, Havel recruited his friend from the Fatherland's Palette, Theodor "Doda" Pištěk, the Oscar-winning costume designer for Miloš Forman's Amadeus. The new sky-blue uniforms with white and red trimmings conformed to Havel's instructions to offer a friendly, non-threatening face of the Castle to the outside world, but they also looked a little like costumes from a Franz Lehár operetta.

The reviews ran from awkward to openly critical, but soon the public and the tourists got used to the new style, as any visitor to Prague can attest. For the new marching music to replace the heavy-beat assault marches, Havel consulted with the rock musician Michael Kocáb, who had the perfect idea to use the allegretto of Leoš Janáček's Sinfonietta, undoubtedly equally aware that it had been first dedicated to the Czechoslovak armed forces, and adapted by the avant-garde rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

The positive aesthetic effect of the change was undeniable. The only problem was the high b in the fanfare, always a touch-and-go issue for the military players, not all of them Philharmonic material. Unlike the uniforms, the fanfare did not survive Havel's presidency, falling victim to an act of petty cultural barbarism in the Klaus era.

Sometimes the concern for style was carried a little too far. Like all great costume designers, Pištěk was not content with designing a single uniform. Instead, he designed a whole line, including a presidential uniform in two colours, complete with golden epaulettes. Although it made Havel look like a character in Woody Allen's Bananas, it did not take much persuading to make him put it on. After all, he spent most of his childhood drawing soldiers and uniforms and dreaming about becoming a general.

Worse, other friends learned about it. When Vojtěch Jasný, the director of 1960s Czech film classics like When The Cat Comes (1963) and All My Compatriots (1969), accompanied by Miloš Forman, came to Lány Castle to shoot a presidential documentary Why Havel?, they immediately saw the film potential of shooting him in the uniform. The resulting footage was slightly risqué, but tolerably so until the president, exhilarated by the company of friends and a free morning, burst into the Castle kitchen with a drawn sword, which he had received as a present from the Castle Guard, and, to the horror of the local village lady cooks, started to use the ceremonial weapon to chop onions that were being readied for the goulash at lunch.

I had been prescient enough to reserve the right of the final cut on the documentary in my role as press secretary, and invoked it on this occasion. I was made to feel like a censor for weeks afterwards, and Jasný would not speak to me for the next two years.

It was no wonder then that the president's preoccupation with style and aesthetics drove some of his people insane. Not that they did not see a lot of sense in what he was trying to do, or that they were blind to the changes he gradually brought to the Castle, making the place once again a symbol rich in history, culture and humanity. But time was at a premium, and there were countless issues affecting not just the Castle compound but the country at large that needed the president's focus.

The situation might well be called The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. The momentous transformation that the country and the region were undergoing not only posed enormous demands on the president's time, but also made him a global celebrity and an obvious object of attention for sympathizing politicians, fellow celebrities, intellectual visionaries, opportunistic schemers and headline-seeking journalists.

The team did its best to screen him from all but the most worthy visitors, but they were no match for the drive and ingenuity of people who were set on seeing the man of the moment. Most of them meant well, and many had helpful things to say or do. In the first two months of his presidency Havel met in the Castle with scores, maybe hundreds, of foreigners, who sometimes resembled a constant procession of visitors lined up to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.

Some of the visits left an indelible memory, for various reasons. It was moving to see Havel reunited with old friends returning from exile, such as Ivan Medek, Karel Schwarzenberg, Pavel Tigrid, Vilém Prečan and Pavel Kohout. It was fascinating to listen to the conversation of Havel with Harold Pinter and his wife Antonia Fraser at a dinner, with Havel as interested in the latest developments in English theatre as Pinter was in the question of how a playwright becomes a president.

Not all the meetings were as enjoyable. Barbara Walters, who interviewed Havel for ABC's 20/20 news magazine, was positively underwhelmed and underwhelming. She complained about his not maintaining eye contact with her (from his perspective she was just another kind of interrogator) and for not showing any emotion, which she singularly failed to provoke in him. On the other hand, he hit it off immediately with Katharine Graham and Meg Greenfield, the two grand ladies of the Washington Post.

Frank Zappa, "one of the gods of the Czech underground" and a spiritual godfather of the Plastic People of the Universe, summed up the global significance of his host with the words: "You are sending a message to people in America: You smoke!" Havel reciprocated by remembering Zappa's album Bongo Fury with Captain Beefheart.

As a result of his reception by Havel, Zappa's status reached cosmic proportions in the country at that time. Ever a rock 'n' roller, he was able to solicit a letter from the deputy prime minister appointing him the roving Czechoslovak envoy plenipotentiary in matters cultural and commercial. The appointment had to be withdrawn shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, as far as anyone knows, Zappa did no harm, which is more than could be said about some of the other largely self-appointed advisers, consultants and envoys who made the popular pilgrimage to Prague at that time.

Lou Reed, now firmly part of Havel's musical Olympus, came to the Castle on behalf of Rolling Stone to conduct what must be one of the most interesting unpublished interviews of all times. It turned out that Lou, the epitome of cool, was so stressed out by the responsibility of interviewing a statesman that he failed to turn on the tape recorder.

He may have lost the interview, but in the first of many meetings with Havel he found a good friend. Eight years later, when Havel came to the United States to provide moral support for another friend, Bill Clinton, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground rebel, along with Mejla Hlavsa, the frontman of the Plastic People of the Universe, got to play in the White House at Havel's request, albeit on condition that "Walk on the Wild Side' would not be on the playlist.

This minor accomplishment pleased Havel immensely. Clinton, for his part, acknowledges that Havel's "raising his flag for me," along with King Hussein of Jordan, the president of South Korea Kim Dae-jung, king of Saudi Arabia Abdullah and Prime Minister Tony Blair, meant a lot to him at this most difficult time of his political career.

Typically for Havel, the event that had the most far-reaching implications during his first month in office was not any personnel or administrative decision, but another speech. On 23 January 1990, he revealed to the assembled deputies of both houses of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly that in his offices in the Prague Castle he "did not find a single clock. There is something symbolic in this: for many years there had been no need for a clock there because time stood still. History stopped, not just in the Prague Castle but in the whole country. Today when we finally freed ourselves from the straitjacket of the totalitarian system, history hurtles forward all the more quickly, as if trying to make up for the time lost. We all, you and I, are just doing our best to keep up."

Excerpted from HAVEL: A LIFE © 2014 by Michael Žantovský; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove.

Vaclav Havel's Walk on the Wild Side | Culture