Too strong for fantasy
Marcia Davenport and Shirley Temple Black had one, and only one, common interest: Czechoslovakia. Their dynamic paths crossed once, and only once, there. But that was at the end of the story.
In the beginning…
Everyone knows Shirley, who recently passed away at 83. Hollywood’s most beloved child star later metamorphosed into a skilled diplomat and became the ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989, just as communism was collapsing all over Eastern Europe.
Fewer folks remember Marcia, an equally iconic 20th-century woman whose life spanned the entirety of it (1902–96) and whom I was privileged to chronicle at close range for The New Yorker.
Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who said Americans have no second act?
Scotty didn’t know Marcia Davenport. She, like the title of her autobiography, was “Too Strong for Fantasy”—a powerful presence who straddled the realms of music and literature, coming by her expertise honestly as the daughter of Metropolitan Opera soprano Alma Gluck and stepdaughter of violinist Efrem Zimbalist. She was the first American biographer of Mozart (a book, now in its 70th edition, that has never been out of print since it was published in 1932) and a piquant commentator on the Met’s popular radio broadcasts for many years.
She is best known, however, as author of the definitive Pittsburgh steel saga “Valley of Decision” during World War II, following it up with two more hits, “East Side, West Side” and “My Brother’s Keeper.” Indeed, Davenport was the last of the celebrated Scribners’ novelists (Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Rawlings) who were mentored and edited by Maxwell Perkins. But it was her third great passion—for Czechoslovakia—that would link the other two and provide her life with its heroic dimension.
Davenport’s writing career began in the late ’20s at The New Yorker, then a two-year-old toddler of a magazine, where one of her jobs was gathering material for “Talk of the Town” writers E.B. White and James Thurber. She quit to research the Mozart book and moved to Prague, where many of Amadeus’ greatest works (“Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni”) premiered.
“If it hadn’t been for Mozart, I would never have heard of the Czechs,” she told me. “They became my fate.” It became my fate to follow her there for the latter-day profile of a lady who retained the language of an earlier day—even unto proud anachronism. In the 1990s, she still spoke of “the gramophone” when playing a record and of “Idlewild” when flying out of JFK. She was strict to severe, with herself and the world—not unlike her heroine Mary Rafferty in “Valley of Decision,” the No. 2 bestseller of 1943 (after “The Robe”).
Perhaps you’ve seen the movie: Mary and Paul Scott—aka Greer Garson and Gregory Peck—standing on a bluff high above the Ohio River mills, declaring their love and moving in for the clinch as Pittsburgh’s lights twinkle below? It’s 1945 MGM Pittsburgh, not the real thing, and Garson’s emotions are as tightly controlled as her hairdos, but she earned an Oscar nomination for it, and Lionel Barrymore is riveting as her father, a bitter cripple with a violent hatred of the Scott family, for whom Mary works.
“Valley of Decision” was conceived two decades earlier during the 18 months that Davenport and her first husband lived in Pittsburgh. It was a thriving, teeming mill town then, and she was fascinated not just by the steel factories, but by the thousands of Czech and Slovak workers who toiled in them:
“I’m very susceptible to the dramatic, and I hadn’t been there long before I realized, just sitting on the top of a hill looking at what went on, that this was about the biggest drama you could imagine.”
Her second husband, Russell Davenport—a handsome, gregarious socialite and Henry Luce protégé—had co-founded Fortune magazine. (“He liked luxury and wanted what we all want: everything.”) Well-connected with labor as well as business leaders, Russell introduced her to Philip Murray of the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee, who helped her overcome a big research obstacle: the superstition that women inside a steel mill brought bad luck. Murray convinced a shop foreman at Allegheny Ludlum, the alloy specialty manufacturer, to admit her. (In “Valley’s” storyline, the Scott family’s leadership in metallurgy motivates giant U.S. Steel to try to swallow them up.)
By the end of her research, there was no phase of steel production that the keen-minded Davenport hadn’t observed and come to fully understand for herself. Eventually translated into 11 languages, “Valley of Decision” was hailed internationally for its gritty industrial realism and lyrical depictions of immigrant family life.
(It would have been even more lyrical—literally—if the great Pittsburgh Opera impresario Tito Capobianco had had his way: He was long fired up about turning “Valley of Decision” into an opera and, in 1996, asked me to do a libretto. I did it, and he thought it was terrific. So did I, of course. Mrs. Davenport wouldn’t even look at it. Her succinct response to the whole idea: “Forget it—not in a million years.”)
Once I asked what she might change if she were writing “Valley of Decision” today. “The fact that it’s got so many adverbs in it,” she replied. “A really civilized and cultivated writer of the English language will turn inside out to avoid adverbs,” she said sadly, bitterly, coldly.
Ah, yes, I said, you’re saying the nuance of the action should be contained in the verb itself? “Never mind what it should be,” she snapped. “I’m telling you what it shouldn’t be!”
A strong ego was always useful in conversation with Mrs. D. I was curious about a plot twist in which Paul’s wife gets pregnant when he “didn’t intend to let her have another child.” What, exactly, did she mean? “I can’t go into that,” she frowned. “Those things happen in life, and it’s not my or your business to inquire.”
* * *
There is a Roman adage—“The master of Bohemia is the master of Europe” —and it would be confirmed by the subsequent master list: Charlemagne, Napoleon, Bismarck, Hitler, Stalin. After the 1938 British-French sellout at Munich and the outbreak of war in 1939, Davenport’s interest in Czechoslovakia became an obsession. She turned herself into an indefatigable propagandist for the occupied republic and leader of its American relief effort. As Czechoslovakia’s radio champion in the United States, she was kept abreast by diplomatic dispatch from the Czech government-in-exile in London.
“Jan made sure I got it,” she said.
Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia’s founding father Tomáš Masaryk, was the exiled government’s foreign minister—one of the most brilliant diplomats in the Western world, and playboy of it. “I have never had any attributes interesting to playboys,” said Davenport, but when they met to discuss her relief work, they were drawn to each other. He was big, bulky and corpulent—“a brave, honest, turbulent man,” said John Gunther, and a skilled pianist to boot. Masaryk’s gift for colorful speech would provide a great moral and morale weapon in the Czech war cause in his weekly BBC radio broadcast from London, listened to clandestinely, on pain of death, in his homeland.
Davenport became his Anglo-American voice. She left her husband in 1944 and, at war’s end, moved to Prague to be with Masaryk and help in the reconstruction effort. She got the remnants of the Czech Philharmonic—mostly Nazi concentration camp survivors—new instruments from America. But Masaryk was caught between the Soviets and the indifferent Western allies. Summoned to Moscow in 1947, he came back stunned and humiliated by instructions to acquiesce to a Russian takeover. “One day they’ll kill me,” he told Davenport.
Just before the 1948 Communist coup, he ordered her to leave Prague for London, intending to join and marry her there. But a month later, on March 10, he was found dead in the courtyard beneath the bathroom window of his Černín Palace quarters. The Communist authorities called it suicide. Others called it murder.
“Jan Masaryk was a very tidy man,” said one skeptical Czech investigator, “—so tidy that, when he jumped, he shut the window after himself.”
* * *
Tomáš Masaryk said that “its artists are more important to a nation than its politicians,” and Vaclav Havel was living proof of it. His Velvet Revolution and the new Czech political reality finally made publication of Davenport’s 1967 autobiography “Too Strong for Fantasy” possible in Prague in 1990. Its definitive account of Masaryk’s death—indeed, the death of Czechoslovakia itself—had been unpublishable there before. Mrs. D. had proclaimed her travelling days over, but at the last minute decided to visit Prague for the Czech unveiling of her book. “It will inform two generations of Czechs of more than 40 years of their own history, which they have been forbidden to know,” she said. “I am the only survivor who is articulate and truthful enough to tell them.”
I joined her there, and she was my guide on a private tour of the city. The Foreign Ministry had provided her with a car and driver “who will do exactly as I say”—always important in her dealings with the world. She directed him through Prague’s maze of streets, with running commentary on the historical significance of Wenceslas Square, the Charles Bridge (Europe’s most beautiful), and her own Czech-literary history.
The Czech translation of “The Valley of Decision” was “selling like popcorn” until the Communist putsch. Since her royalties had to stay in Czechoslovakia, “a huge pile of Czech crowns” had accrued in a Prague bank account—unused and unusable, as they couldn’t be taken out of the country or given away inside. She fulminated about those worthless crowns in the mudlina (Czech for “freezer”) but managed to thaw out a few during this trip. The only thing she could spend them on was her travel expenses, for which reason dinner was to be her treat. “Do not try to interfere with me fiscally,” she said menacingly—and I was not about to.
The restaurant, recommended and booked for her by Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, was the Opera Grill, Prague’s finest. It was near the Charles Bridge but tucked away on a narrow side street and so exclusive it lacked a sign. The cabbie drove past it twice, and Mrs. D. was furious: “This fool!” We were late, and she was sure the reservation would be cancelled. The driver tried to apologize, but she shouted, “Ne řekejte!” (Don’t talk!). When we finally arrived, the unmarked door was locked. Stomping up, she whopped it three times with her cane, whereupon a terrified maitre d’ appeared, looking more to find the Gestapo than an 87-year-old grande dame. The name “Ambassador Black” instantly opened the door. How exclusive was this restaurant? It had seven tables. Mrs. D. was soon pacified by the elegant service and marvelous food. She forgot her pique, and we ended up lingering for three hours… with no fumbling for the check.
Any doubt about the ongoing fascination with Jan Masaryk among Czechs was erased by Davenport’s reception in Prague. Media coverage never stopped. Stories and photos of her appeared in every newspaper, with the announcement of a new memorial exhibit in the Foreign Ministry quarters where Masaryk spent his last, troubled days. Its opening had been timed to coincide with her visit. Czech Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier was there, as was Ambassador Black, whom Davenport much admired: “She’s very skillful. She kept her head all during the upheaval. She’s the only foreign ambassador everyone talks about.” The exhibit included wartime photographs, letters and Masaryk’s pair of Louis XVI armchairs, “needlepoint upholstery by Marcia Davenport.”
A few steps away was the long, narrow room that served as Masaryk’s bedroom and office and, behind it, a green-tiled bathroom. From its fatal window, one looks down at the courtyard, three stories below. “Nothing in the world would ever induce me to go near those rooms again,” she had told me at home in Pebble Beach. But in Prague she changed her mind, insisting she be left alone to see them before the ceremony.
Her return was not as much a personal triumph as a vindication of the Czech democratic dream and of Masaryk, whose long-suppressed story would finally be revealed through her to his countrymen. Two years earlier when we met, she struck me as old and bitter. But in Prague I saw a much younger woman, visibly energized by something heroic against the odds. “This is my last trip here and I know it,” she said. “But in this book I’ve got something to give these people, and it’s worth my pain and theirs.”
Masaryk’s death was an almost Christlike sacrifice; the murder-or-suicide question is ultimately moot. Either way, it undermined the legitimacy of the Communist coup and sowed the seeds of its failure. It would take an agonizing 41 years for the Czech people to be rid of that regime, but by God, they would be rid of it.
After that somber visit to the Masaryk exhibit, I barged my way into the U.S. Embassy to politely insist on seeing Ambassador Black, who was kind enough to admit me. She took her post very seriously, and I—like everyone else—had come to admire her. I said I was proud to be the third person to sign the Masaryk exhibit guestbook at the Ministry. Davenport was the first. Mrs. Black was second.
“I was struck by how she did it,” said the Ambassador. “She just wrote her name, ‘Marcia Davenport,’ and, beside it—‘Returned.’ I like one-word statements. That, to me, seemed to say it all.”
It was a resurrection in Czech history, and Marcia Davenport—with Shirley Temple’s help—lived to see it.