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Charlotte Masaryk

Charlotte MasarykCharlotte Garrigue Masaryk (November 20, 1850-May 13, 1923), first First Lady of Czechoslovakia, was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was Rudolph Garrigue, a businessman of Huguenot background whose parents and sister were Unitarian. Her mother was Charlotte Lydia Whiting, whose interest in transcendentalism led her to write to Ralph Waldo Emerson and be in contact with Brook Farm. In trying times Masaryk's Unitarian faith and character had a singular influence on her adopted country in central Europe.

Charlotte and two of her ten siblings were christened at their home by Frederick A. Farley, minister of Brooklyn's First Unitarian Church. Later Charlotte and her family moved to the Bronx. Hoping to be a concert pianist, Masaryk at seventeen went to Leipzig, Germany, where prolonged practice permanently damaged her hand. Her promising career ended after three years' study.

Back in the Bronx she took up mathematics and taught piano and corresponded with the daughter of the family she had stayed with in Leipzig, whose letters were filled with descriptions of Thomas Masaryk, then boarding with them. In 1876 Charlotte returned to Leipzig to meet the man she would marry and who would become the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia. That same year he received his doctorate from the University of Vienna and soon they were studying and discussing books together. He admired her desire for precise knowledge and her deep religious feeling and declared her magnificent intellect better than his own. When she left to visit other European friends before returning to the United States, he proposed to her in a letter. On March 15, 1878 they were married, first in a civil ceremony at New York's City Hall and then in a Unitarian ceremony in the double parlor of her parents' large Bronx home.

Returning to Europe, the couple lived in Vienna where Thomas Masaryk taught at the university until 1881, when he was engaged to teach philosophy in that half of Prague's Charles University in which the Czech language would be used. Charlotte Masaryk and their children, who eventually numbered five (four survived infancy), joined him in Prague, where he was prominent in the movement to restore the Czech language. Considering her husband's work for Czech nationalism the most important part of their lives, Masaryk refused to entertain his desire to move to the United States both in 1886 and again in 1899 when he was the most hated man in Bohemia. His refusal to accept forgeries of ancient manuscripts to bolster Czech identity triggered the first period of hostility. The second followed his stand against anti-Semitism and crude superstition when Leopold Hilsner, a poor Jew was accused of committing a ritual murder. Knowing that her presence would shield her unpopular husband from possibly lethal assault, Masaryk accompanied him to his lectures. She fearlessly addressed angry anti-Semitic students who threatened her family and who demonstrated outside her home.

Charlotte Masaryk learned the Czech language, literature, history, and music, always her first love, and became a striking presence in Prague. A post-World War I edition of the works of the Czech nationalist composer Bedrich Smetana was dedicated to her as the "true friend of Smetana's genius." She had popularized his music through research and writing. Believing that the highest purpose of Christianity was to help those in need, Masaryk concerned herself with social problems. She worked in the Czech women's movement, bolstering it with her translation into Czech of John Stuart Mill's Subjection of Women. She made her husband "the most influential male intellectual involved with the woman's movement." He later admitted that he was "only a peddler" of her opinions on women's rights and that she had authored Polygamy and Monogamy, one of his major statements favoring equality for women. In 1906 she demonstrated with workers demanding free and equal suffrage and the secret ballot. The next year she and her husband attended the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston where he spoke, arguing for a religious life transcending ecclesiastical forms of religion.

After he proved that Austro-Hungarian officials had forged documents to justify annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Thomas Masaryk was reviled in the empire, appreciated in the incubating "Czech nation," and internationally renowned. By 1913 he was the most beloved man in Prague. Charlotte Masaryk had worked with him to educate the Czech people for democracy, helping them overcome their prejudice and intolerance. "Without her," he later maintained, "I wouldn't have had a clear sense of . . my political task."

When World War I broke out, Thomas Masaryk, who was out of the country with his younger daughter Olga, was sentenced by Austro-Hungarian authorities to a traitor's death. He joined the Allied powers and worked to gain recognition for the Czechoslovak National Council. Austro-Hungarian forces persecuted his wife in Prague, sent their daughter Alice to prison in Vienna, and forced their younger son Jan into the army. Their older son Herbert died from typhus while working in a Galician refugee camp. Alone, harassed and ill from heart disease and depression, Charlotte Masaryk maintained her courage and gave her daughter Alice "the strength to go on" during her eight months in prison by writing her nearly a hundred wonderfully supportive letters.

In 1918 Czechoslovakia, the nation Thomas Masaryk had fathered, was recognized by France, England, and the United States. Under its new constitution he was elected its first president in 1920 and re-elected in1927 and 1934. Prevented by illness from participating fully in the victory she had helped win, Masaryk died at their summer home near Prague. Ever grateful for her help, her husband proclaimed that her uncompromising political positions and truthfulness had greatly influenced his development. She made it possible for him to accomplish concrete reforms by moderating the scope of his original designs. Czech writer Oldra Sedlmayer declared, "Neither golden letters nor marble monuments can express the moral contribution, the price in human suffering which that daughter of free America paid in the life and work of our president."

Charlotte Masaryk's family treasured the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn as the place where the seeds of her future strength had been planted. Both her husband and her son Jan spoke from its pulpit and her daughter Alice planned a stained glass window there in her memory. After World War II interrupted that plan, the women of the First Church in 1957 gave a clerestory window picturing Bohemian Reformer Jan Hus in memory of Charlotte Masaryk and in honor of John Howland Lathrop. Lathrop, the ninth minister of the First Church, headed a relief program in Czechoslovakia following World War II, which gave rise to the Unitarian Service Committee.

Alice Garrigue Masaryk, Alice Garrigue Masaryk, 1879-1966: Her Life as Recorded in Her Own Words and by Her Friends (1980), contains many of her mother's letters. See also Barbara K. Reinfeld, "Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, 1850-1923," Czechoslovak and Central European Journal (Summer/Winter 1989): 90-103, Stanislav Polak, Charlotta Garrigue Masarykova (1992); and American National Biography, s.v. "Masaryk, Charlotte Garrigue." H. Gordon Skilling, T. G. Masaryk: Against the Current, 1882-1914 (1994), has considerable information. See also "Brooklyn's First Lady of Czechoslovakia," in Donald W. McKinney, When the Pulpit Starts to Creak (1992); Olive Hoogenboom, The First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn: One Hundred Fifty Years (1987); Roman Szporluk, The Political Thought of Thomas G. Masaryk (1981); George J. Kovtun, Masaryk and America: Testimony of a Relationship (1988); and George J. Kovtun, ed., The Spirit of Thomas G. Masaryk (1850-1937): An Anthology (1990). A short obituary is in the New York Times, May 14, 1923.

Article by Olive Hoogenboom - posted September 8, 2001


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