15 Things You Didn't Know About Madeleine Albright

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Perhaps Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as the U.S. Secretary of State, best described her historic appointment in her 2003 memoir, Madam Secretary: “It was almost…inconceivable that someone who had not held a government job until she was thirty-nine years old and the mother of three would become the highest-ranking woman in American history. Well into adulthood, I was never supposed to be what I became."

Her impressive credentials include professor, ambassador, New York Times best-selling author and current chairperson of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs as well as the chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy business. Famously known for saying, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” the perseverance she has demonstrated throughout her career is inspiring for anyone, man or woman. In honor of her 79th birthday, here are a few things you should know about Albright and her unconventional path to U.S. politics.

1. “MADELEINE” ISN’T HER ORIGINAL NAME.

Marie Jana was born in Prague on May 15, 1937, to Anna Spieglová and Josef Korbel. But the name “Marie” didn’t stick for long; various family members called her Madla, Madlen, or Madlenka throughout her youth. When Albright began to study French, she decided she liked that language’s version of her nickname: Madeleine. Still, Albright never legally changed her name and is officially Marie Jana.

2. HER FAMILY FLED TO ESCAPE THE NAZIS.

Her father’s role at Czechoslovakia’s Belgrade embassy and deep respect for democracy put his family’s safety in question when the Nazis invaded. As her parents arranged for the family to go to London, Albright lived with her grandmother in the country. Her mother wrote of that time, “With all the possible and impossible planning and with the help of some good friends and lots of luck and little bribes the last plan worked...” Albright and her family left for England 10 days after the Nazis invaded the capital.

3. SHE APPEARED IN A FILM ABOUT REFUGEES.

While in England, Albright was selected to appear in a movie about the war’s refugee children, and was given a stuffed animal as payment for her starring role.

4. THE FAMILY’S RETURN TO CZECHOSLOVAKIA WAS BRIEF.

Albright (who speaks fluent Czech) would return to Czechoslovakia many times as an adult, including in October 2003, when she traveled there to launch her autobiography. Image credit: David Nekk/ AFP/ Getty Images

Though her family was grateful to return to their home country after the war, they weren’t there for long. A series of ominous political moves found the Communist party taking over Czechoslovakia, forcing Albright’s family to once again flee for their safety. Albright, along with her mother and two siblings, arrived in the U.S. aboard the SS America on November 11, 1948.

5. HER FAMILY BEGAN A NEW LIFE IN DENVER.

After her father arrived stateside, the family lived on Long Island while waiting to be granted political asylum. Once Josef secured a teaching position at the University of Denver and the family was settled in their new city, Albright began attending Kent Denver School and founded the school’s international relations club. (She wasn’t the only secretary of state who benefited from her father’s teachings on diplomacy and international affairs; years later, he taught Condoleezza Rice as a student.)

6. HER COLLEGE YEARS WERE MARKED WITH MAJOR MILESTONES.

Albright studied Political Science at Wellesley College, graduating with honors in 1959. In the years prior to graduation, she became a naturalized citizen (in 1957), and met her future husband, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, during a summer internship at the Denver Post. In her 2009 book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, Albright says it was tradition for Wellesley women to get married on graduation day. Despite this, she waited three days after receiving her diploma to marry Joseph.

7. SHE WAS ON THE MOVE THROUGH THE 1960S.

The Albrights moved several times for Joseph’s career. By 1961 the couple had already lived in Rolla, Missouri and Chicago before moving to Long Island, where their twins, Alice and Anne, were born. In 1962 the family moved to Georgetown, where Madeleine studied Russian and International Relations at a division of Johns Hopkins University. When they moved back to Long Island in 1963, Albright continued her studies at Columbia University and earned a certificate in Russian and an M.A. in 1968, and a Ph.D. in 1976. Her third daughter, Katharine, was born in 1967.

8. MOVING BACK TO D.C. SPARKED HER POLITICAL CAREER.

Albright became more involved with politics when her family moved back to D.C. in 1968. From 1976 to 1978, she served as Senator Edmund S. Muskie’s chief legislative assistant. And in 1978, Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of her professors from Columbia and then National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, chose Madeleine as Brzezinski’s liaison to Congress.

9. SHE FOLLOWED IN HER FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS TOWARD ACADEMIA.

After her 22-year marriage ended in divorce in 1982, Albright joined Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service as a research professor of International Affairs, where she taught undergraduate and graduate courses. She also served as director of the Women in Foreign Service program.

10. BEING A U.N. AMBASSADOR CHALLENGED HER TO SPEAK UP AND MAKE DIFFICULT CALLS.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Albright voted in favor of a UN resolution on August 10, 1995.
Image credit: JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images.

Albright’s work in international affairs led to her working as foreign policy adviser to both Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, but she was unable to work for Clinton’s 1992 bid. Despite this, after Clinton won, he nominated Albright to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Though she was often one of the few women in the room (and many times, the only one), she did not sit silently; she realized that if she only observed and listened, she wouldn’t get a chance to speak, which meant the voice of the United States wouldn’t be heard.

11. HER ROLE AS SECRETARY OF STATE MADE HISTORY.

As President Bill Clinton looked on, Albright was sworn in as the new US Secretary of State in January 1997.
Image Credit: Joyce Naltchayan/ AFP/ Getty Images)

On December 5, 1996, President Clinton nominated Albright to be the 64th Secretary of State. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and sworn in on January 23, 1997. Albright wrote of the experience that Clinton “… gave me the opportunity that no other individual, male or female, has had to serve full terms both as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as U.S. Secretary of State.” At the time of her appointment, Albright was the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.

12. HER TRIP TO NORTH KOREA WAS A FIRST FOR U.S. GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS.

US Secretary of State Albright met with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il (right) on October 23, 2000.
Image credit: David Guttenfelder/ AFP/ Getty Images.

In October 2000, Albright made a diplomatic visit to North Korea to meet with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il. Her trip marked the first time an American secretary of state—and the highest level official ever—had visited the country.

13. SHE LEARNED ABOUT HER JEWISH ANCESTRY IN AN UNEXPECTED WAY.

Albright was raised Catholic after her parents converted in 1941, though she was unaware of any previous religious affiliations. (She later converted to Episcopalianism.) During her vetting process for secretary of state, she mentioned that she might have Jewish ancestors. During his research on a profile about Albright, Michael Dobbs, a Washington Post reporter, discovered that three of her grandparents died in Auschwitz and Terezin. Her family conducted further research and learned that 25 members of her family died in concentration camps.

14. HER SENSE OF HUMOR HAS BROADENED OVER TIME.

Albright has said that she tended to be a little too serious as a child. Young Madeleine would be happy to learn that as an adult, she has developed quite a sense of humor. She once engaged in a humorous Twitter war with Conan O’Brien and has appeared in popular TV shows as herself, including Parks and Recreation and Gilmore Girls.

15. HER CREATIVE JEWELRY SELECTIONS GARNERED INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION.

On September 29, 2009, Albright visited the New York City exhibition, "Read My Pins: The Madeline Albright Collection,"
which featured over 200 of her pins and their stories. Image Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Albright is famously known for wearing pins that express her thoughts on the diplomatic proceedings she attends. After she was compared to a serpent by the Iraqi media, Albright chose to wear a large snake pin for her next meeting on the country. The jewelry quickly became one of Albright’s trademarks. Though she is fond of all the pieces in her collection (she says her favorite is a heart made by her youngest daughter), one of them nearly betrayed her. On the day of her swearing-in ceremony for Secretary of State, her newly acquired eagle pin nearly fell off while she took her oath.

11 Memorable Facts About Cats the Musical

Mike Clarke/Getty Images
Mike Clarke/Getty Images

“It was better than Cats!” Decades after Andrew Lloyd Webber's famed musical opened on Broadway on October 7, 1982, this tongue-in-cheek idiom remains a part of our lexicon (thanks to Saturday Night Live). Although the feline extravaganza divided the critics, it won over audiences of all ages and became an industry juggernaut—one that single-handedly generated more than $3 billion for New York City's economy—and that was before it made a return to the Great White Way in 2016. In honor of Andrew Lloyd Webber's birthday on March 22, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

1. The work that Cats the musical is based on was originally going to include dogs.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939, is a collection of feline-themed poems written by the great T. S. Eliot. A whimsical, lighthearted effort, the volume has been delighting cat fanciers for generations—and it could have become just as big of a hit with dog lovers, too. At first, Eliot envisioned the book as an assemblage of canine- and tabby-related poems. However, he came to believe that “dogs don’t seem to lend themselves to verse quite so well, collectively, as cats.” (Spoken like a true ailurophile.) According to his publisher, Eliot decided that “it would be improper to wrap [felines] up with dogs” and barely even mentioned them in the finished product.

For his part, Andrew Lloyd Webber has described his attitude towards cats as “quite neutral.” Still, the composer felt that Eliot’s rhymes could form the basis of a daring, West End-worthy soundtrack. It seemed like an irresistible challenge. “I wanted to set that exciting verse to music,” he explained. “When I [had] written with lyricists in the past … the lyrics have been written to the music. So I was intrigued to see whether I could write a complete piece the other way ‘round.”

2. "Memory" was inspired by a poem that T.S. Eliot never finished.

In 1980, Webber approached T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, to ask for her blessing on the project. She not only said “yes,” but provided the songwriter with some helpful notes and letters that her husband had written about Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—including a half-finished, eight-line poem called “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat.” Feeling that it was too melancholy for children, Eliot decided to omit the piece from Practical Cats. But the dramatic power of the poem made it irresistible for Webber and Trevor Nunn, the show’s original director. By combining lines from “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat” with those of another Eliot poem, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” they laid the foundation for what became the powerful ballad “Memory.” A smash hit within a smash hit, this showstopper has been covered by such icons as Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow.

3. Dame Judi Dench left the cast of Cats when her Achilles tendon snapped.

One of Britain’s most esteemed actresses, Dench was brought in to play Grizabella for Cats’s original run on the West End. Then, about three weeks into rehearsals, she was going through a scene with co-star Wayne Sleep (Mr. Mistoffelees) when disaster struck. “She went, ‘You kicked me!’” Sleep recalls in the above video. “And I said, ‘I didn’t, actually, are you alright?’” She wasn’t. Somehow, Dench had managed to tear her Achilles tendon. As a last-minute replacement, Elaine Paige of Evita fame was brought aboard. In an eerie coincidence, Paige had heard a recorded version of “Memory” on a local radio station less than 24 hours before she was asked to play Grizabella. Also, an actual black cat had crossed her path that day. Spooky.

4. To finance the show, Andrew Lloyd Webber ended up mortgaging his house.

Although Andrew Lloyd Webber had previously won great acclaim as one of the creative minds behind Jesus Christ Superstar and other hit shows, Cats had a hard time finding investors. According to choreographer Gillian Lynne, “[it] was very, very difficult to finance because everyone said ‘A show about cats? You must be raving mad.’” In fact, the musical fell so far short of its fundraising goals that Webber ended up taking out a second mortgage on his home to help get Cats the musical off the ground.

5. When Cats the musical came to Broadway, its venue got a huge makeover.

Cats made its West End debut on May 11, 1981. Seventeen months later, a Broadway production of the musical launched what was to become an 18-year run at the Winter Garden Theatre. But before the show could open, some major adjustments had to be made to the venue. Cats came with an enormous, sprawling set which was far too large for the theatre’s available performing space. To make some more room, the stage had to be expanded. Consequently, several rows of orchestra seats were removed, along with the Winter Garden’s proscenium arch. And that was just the beginning. For Grizabella’s climactic ascent into the Heaviside Layer on a giant, levitating tire, the crew installed a hydraulic lift in the orchestra pit and carved a massive hole through the auditorium ceiling. Finally, the theater’s walls were painted black to set the proper mood. After Cats closed in 2000, the original look of the Winter Garden was painstakingly restored—at a cost of $8 million.

6. Cats the musical set longevity records on both sides of the Atlantic.

The original London production took its final bow on May 11, 2002, exactly 21 years after the show had opened—which, at the time, made Cats the longest-running musical in the West End’s history. (It would lose that title to Les Miserables in 2006.) Across the pond, the show was performed at the Winter Garden for the 6138th time on June 19, 1997, putting Cats ahead of A Chorus Line as the longest-running show on Broadway. To celebrate, a massive outdoor celebration was held between 50th and 51st streets, complete with a laser light show and an exclusive after-party for Cats alums.

7. One theatergoer sued the show for $6 million.

Like Hair, Cats involves a lot of performer-audience interaction. See it live, and you might just spot a leotard-clad actor licking himself near your seat before the curtain goes up. In some productions, the character Rum Tum Tugger even rushes out into the crowd and finds an unsuspecting patron to dance with. At a Broadway performance on January 30, 1996, Tugger was played by stage veteran David Hibbard. That night, he singled out one Evelyn Amato as his would-be dance partner. Mildly put, she did not appreciate his antics. Alleging that Hibbard had gyrated his pelvis in her face, Amato sued the musical and its creative team for $6 million.

8. Thanks to Cats the musical, T.S. Eliot received a posthumous Tony.

Because most of the songs in Cats are almost verbatim recitations of Eliot’s poems, he’s regarded as its primary lyricist—even though he died in 1965, long before the show was conceived. Still, Eliot’s contributions earned him a 1983 Tony for Best Book of a Musical. A visibly moved Valerie Eliot took the stage to accept this prize on her late spouse’s behalf. “Tonight’s honor would have given my husband particular pleasure because he loved the theatre,” she told the crowd. Eliot also shared the Best Original Score Tony with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

9. The original Broadway production used more than 3000 pounds of yak hair.

Major productions of Cats use meticulously crafted yak hair wigs, which currently cost around $2300 apiece and can take 40 hours or more to produce. Adding to the expense is the fact that costumers can’t just recycle an old wig after some performer gets recast. “Each wig is made specifically for the actor,” explains wigmaker Hannah McGregor in the above video. Since people tend to have differently shaped heads, precise measurements are taken of every cast member’s skull before he or she is fitted with a new head of hair. “[Their wigs] have to fit them perfectly,” McGregor adds, “because of the amount of jumping and skipping they do as cats.” Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, over its 18-year run, the first Broadway production used 3247 pounds of yak hair. (In comparison, the heaviest actual yaks only weigh around 2200 pounds.)

10. A recent revival included hip hop.

In December 2014, Cats returned to the West End with an all-new cast and music. “The Rum Tum Tugger,” a popular Act I song, was reimagined as a hip hop number. “I’ve come to the conclusion, having read [Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats] again, that maybe Eliot was the inventor of rap,” Webber told the press.

11. Another revival featured an internet-famous feline for one night only.

On September 30, Grumpy Cat made her Broadway debut in Cats, briefly taking the stage with the cast. Despite being named Honorary Jellicle Cat, she hated every minute of it.

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

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