Marie Jana Korbelova was born May 15, 1937, in Prague. She was variously called Madla, Madlan and Madlenka before her study of French led her to the version of her first name that she liked, Madeleine.
In 1938, Czechoslovakia was at the epicenter of a crisis in Europe, coveted by German dictator Adolf Hitler but, in theory, protected by France and Britain. That all came to the end with the Munich Agreement, a notorious act of naivete that tried to calm Hitler by accepting his territorial demands.
Nazi Germany swallowed most of Czechoslovakia in two bites and, on March 25, 1939, 10 days after the second bite, Albright’s family fled, settling in England. During the war that followed, the emigre community in England made a film about its plight and the young Madeleine was given a starring role. In payment, she said she received “a pink stuffed rabbit” that became her beloved companion.
Raised in the Roman Catholic faith, she would learn in 1997 of her family’s decision to convert from Judaism — and that three of her grandparents left behind in Europe had perished in the Holocaust. Dobbs unearthed her family history while doing research. The discovery brought unwanted criticism down on her parents and complications for her personal sense of identity.
“I am a firm admirer of the Jewish tradition but could not — beginning at the age of 59 — feel myself fully a part of it,” she would later write of her newly found Jewish roots in “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948.”
Once the Nazis were gone from Eastern Europe, the Soviets filled the void. Albright’s family briefly returned to Czechoslovakia, but then came to the United States in 1948, settling in Colorado, where her father would teach international relations at the University of Denver. “I did everything I could to fit in, but I could not escape knowing that, in our times, even decisions made far away could spell the difference between life and death,” she wrote in “Fascism: A Warning.”
She attended Wellesley College. After graduating, she married Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, from a wealthy and distinguished publishing family, and they moved to Chicago, where she got a job with Encyclopaedia Britannica. The couple had three girls (twins Anne and Alice, and then Katie), but their marriage ended in 1982 when he left her for another woman.
She became a U.S. citizen in 1957 and made her entry into the political world when she raised funds for Sen. Edmund Muskie’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1972. An event she planned at the Washington Hilton would later become something of a Watergate footnote, when it was revealed that the 200 pizzas that arrived unordered were part of Donald Segretti’s dirty tricks campaign.
Albright went on to be an aide for Muskie and in 1977 was brought into the Carter administration working for Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security adviser. Like her, Brzezinski was an European immigrant wary of the Soviet Union; he needed her to help smooth out his rough relations with Congress.
After the Carter years, she joined the faculty at Georgetown University and served as an adviser to Democratic candidates, including MIchael Dukakis. It was during Dukakis’ failed 1988 campaign that Albright met Bill Clinton. “She was the foreign policy adviser,” he wrote later in his autobiography. “I was very impressed with her intellectual clarity and toughness and resolved to keep in touch with her.
Four years later, Clinton was elected president, and he nominated Albright to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She was smack in the middle of an uncharted time in global politics: The end of the Cold War had left it unclear what practical steps the world’s last superpower was supposed to be taking.
“The difference frankly between being an academic and being a policymaker is you all of a sudden have to put your money where your mouth is,” she was quoted as saying in Russell Riley’s “Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History.”
Albright was not a favorite of U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali — ‘’She seemed to assume,’’ he would later write, ‘’that her mere assertion of a U.S. policy should be sufficient to achieve the support of other nations.” She, in turn, helped build a coalition that would block him from a second term.
On Dec. 5, 1996, Clinton chose her to replace Secretary of State Warren Christopher. “She watched her world fall apart,” the recently re-elected president said in announcing her selection, “and ever since, she has dedicated her life to spreading to the rest of the world the freedom and tolerance her family found here in America.”
Albright told Christopher: “I can only hope that my heels can fill your shoes.” She was confirmed unanimously.
“I called many people for advice,” she wrote in “Madam Secretary,” “including every living secretary of state. Henry Kissinger chided me for taking away the one thing that made him unique, his foreign birth. I chided him back by saying he would still be the only secretary who spoke with an accent.”
Having spent much of her time in the United Nations dealing with brutal fighting in Bosnia, Albright was confronted by more crises in the former Yugoslavia, a nation that had split apart when the ethnic and religious differences in the population had become insurmountable.
When the United States intervened in the region of Kosovo to protect the persecuted Albanian minority, it was dubbed “Madeleine’s War” in some quarters.
“The war in Kosovo, and Albright’s determined vision of it, has become more than just another regional conflict,” Isaacson wrote for Time. “It has become ground zero in the debate over whether America should play a new role in the world, that of the indispensable nation asserting its morality as well as its interests to assure stability, stop thugs and prevent human atrocities.”
Albright also worked on crises in the Middle East and Africa, as well as the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic, her native land. The nations of Eastern Europe had recently freed themselves from Soviet control. “We will continue erasing — without replacing — the line drawn in Europe by Stalin’s bloody boot,” Albright said in 1999.
She was also part of efforts to improve relations with Vietnam, China, and nations of the former Soviet Union. In October 2000, she became the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to visit North Korea in an effort to lure the country into the family of nations. It was a 40-way juggling act.
“Foreign policy is a management process as much as anything, and you can’t take your eye off the ball,” she is quoted as saying in “Inside the Clinton White House.”
Not all the initiatives panned out — efforts to create a lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians failed, as did U.S. outreach to North Korea — but as she traveled the globe from Angola to Italy to Papua New Guinea to Zimbabwe, she was a trail-blazer for women.
“I am often asked whether I was condescended to by men as I traveled around the world to Arab countries and other places with highly traditional cultures,” she wrote in “Madam Secretary.” “I replied, ‘No’ because when I arrived somewhere, it was in a large plane with ‘United States of America’ emblazoned on the side.”
After leaving office, she returned to Georgetown University and also became a chair of Albright Stonebridge Group and Albright Capital Management LLC. Through the years, she was frequently heard from on diplomatic issues of the day. Often paired on TV with fellow former Secretary of State Colin Powell, she was a sharp-tongued critic of American leaders she found to be inadequate.
Her books included 2006‘s “The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs“ and 2018’s studied and emphatic “Fascism: A Warning.”
In 2010, she was the subject of a unique exhibit at the Smithsonian, collecting pins and brooches that had been part of her diplomatic arsenal. The jewelry, she said, had served her as an “icebreaker.”
“I had an arrow pin that looked like a missile,” she told Smithsonian Magazine at the time, “and when we were negotiating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russians, the Russian foreign minister asked, ‘Is that one of your missile interceptors you’re wearing?’ And I responded, ‘Yes. We make them very small. Let’s negotiate.’”
When presenting her with the Medal of Freedom in 2012, Obama noted her propensity for thematic jewelry: “When Saddam Hussein called her a ‘snake,’ she wore a serpent on her lapel.”
In summing up her career, Obama also shared this story: “Once, at a naturalization ceremony, an Ethiopian man came up to her and said, ‘Only in America can a refugee meet the Secretary of State.’ And she replied, ‘Only in America can a refugee become the Secretary of State.’”
During Donald Trump’s presidency, she kept a wary eye on what she perceived as his mishandling of just about everything.
“The course I teach at Georgetown is about the tools of foreign policy and how to use them. From what I’ve seen, the president would have a hard time passing it,” she wrote in “Fascism: A Warning.”
Myah Ward contributed to this report.