A relationship starting up between a married woman in her mid-forties and a widower approaching 80 might still raise eyebrows even in these modern Viagra times. But in 1920’s Czechoslovakia when the man was the iconic president of the country, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (TGM) it would clearly have done much more than that.
The five year relationship between TGM and the poet, sometimes journalist, and feminist activist, Oldra Sedlmayerová is the subject of a new book published by journalist and historian Petr Zídek. He has clearly combed the available archives for the facts.
The revelation of affair is not new in itself, but the detective work has helped to cast some new light on it. While it lasted, the affair was not public but those close to president clearly knew of it and key members of his close family, especially daughter Alice Masaryková, clearly disapproved.
As references to a certain divan at the president’s Lány residence make clear, it was a relationship that was consummated during Oldra’s visit there in the summer of 1928. And historians have largely downplayed the relationship. Peter Zídek gives his take on the reasons for that:
"The main reason is that at the time of the relationship occurred it was a private affair, it did not appear in the newspapers or media at the time and we can safely say that the general public did not know about it. Afterwards, after WWII and during the Communist era there was not so much interest in Masaryk. In addition it was only a small handful of people that knew about these letters. After 1989, it could be talked about. There was some reluctance to talk still about this relationship because it was an intimate one and some of the letters are intimate. Before that time most historians did not talk about it though there was the exception of quite broad and enlightening coverage from the historian, Jiří Kovtun."
The biggest source of archive material appears to be their two way correspondence, which on Oldra’s side at least was kept by her long after the relationship cooled and after TGM’s death in 1937.
Probably the best barometer of the relationship are the diaries of president Masaryk’s personal secretary, Antonín Schenk, who was a go between the two lovers. He noted meetings between them on 65 occasions between January 1929 and April 34. That’s at least once a month.
It was a relationship that was consummated during Oldra’s visit there in the summer of 1928.
A luxury Prague hotel, the Esplanade, was often the venue. They were most often timed for the end of the week because the present was at Prague Castle attending to business and spent most of the early week on the outskirts of Prague at the Lány residence.
The volume of correspondence is not totally clear. Schenk though suggests the president sent around 40 letters a year. Oldra’s correspondence was much more intense, she wrote several times a day with around 400-500 of her letter scattered around various archives. While, shorter, some of TGM’s letters did have a passionate and erotic character.
Author Petr Zídek argues that the relationship between the president and wife of a Moravian railway station official has often been brushed aside or played down in the past. It is, of course slightly disconcerting and jars with the idolisation of the president at the time and his mythical status as founder of Czechoslovakia that has lived on till today.
So who was, Oldra Sedlmayerová, and how did she come to the president’s notice? She came from a poor background and was actually born out of wedlock. Despite her promise, her hopes of further education were dashed early and she was forced to become a telegraph assistant. She married Jan Sedlmayer, a rail official in 1905. She was 20 and he 10 years older. Their only child was born a year later. But it was clearly not a happy marriage. She often had her head in her beloved books and he began to resent them.
TGM was already a figure of national status and renown following famous trials, such as that of the jew Hilsner whom Masaryk defended against trumped up murder charges. TGM was also at the head of his own movement, the Progressivists or Realists, and was espousing Czech national identity in the dieing days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Petr Zídek says it’s clear that Oldra idolized the Czechoslovak president from an early age and in today’s terms might be regarded as a political groupie.
"From a young age she clearly idolized the president and had what might be regarded as almost a fanatical manner. She joined his party and took part in the policies he was backing before WWI. The fact that she shared his views about almost everything in the world clearly played a major role and helped the relationship along."
Oldra, who had experienced some of the tension between Czech and German communities in Moravia during some of her postings as a telegraphist, shared TGM’s nationalism and joined the party – mostly backed by intellectuals. Before WWI she also started contributing patriotic poems to the newspapers and magazines that espoused these ideas. And she also voiced the demand for greater women’s involvement in politics and even suggested they might form their own party when the time came. It never did.
Charlotte’s death increased the isolation he faced in spite of his very public role and the relationship with Oldra was in part an antidote to that.
Her political and literary advancement had moved forward so far by the end of WWI that she was mooted for a place in the new Czechoslovak parliament, the National Assembly, to replace one member destined for a diplomatic career. The job eventually went to a man with women only filling eight of the 256, later 270, assembly seats in 1919.
At the height of the relationship, in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Oldra was correcting TGM’s anonymous articles placed in selected newspapers, carrying out covert journalism missions for him, and had embarked on a very problematic attempt to try and pen a children’s book version of the tragic life of the Slovak astronomer, airman and co-founder of Czechoslovakia, Milan Štefánik.
Petr Zídek, says TGM was always a bit of a loner who found it difficult to express and share his emotions. He had married the American Charlotte Garrigue in 1878. But she died in 1923. Charlotte’s death increased the isolation he faced in spite of his very public role and the relationship with Oldra was in part an antidote to that. Petr Zídek:
"Considering his career, he was quite a closed character. For the times it was not usual that a man showed his emotions or displayed his inner sentiments. He was obviously surrounded all the time by people, albeit being officials from his office and with various politicians, but this was at a rational level and about things such as the functioning of the presidency. Of his three children, two were already living a long time abroad – Jan Masaryk was in the diplomatic service with postings in the United States and England and Olga was in Switzerland. That meant that the only family member who was close to him was his daughter, Alice, who was, let’s say puritanical and a bit special. She was not the sort of person with whom he could share his most inner feelings."
But the relationship clearly cooled from 1932 with TGM taking up at the end of that year with the internationally known Rome-based sculptress, Helena Železná Scholzová. She was invited in September that year to the president’s Slovak retreat and there were frequent meetings in the following year and into 1934, some at the same Prague hotel that Masaryk had chosen for his get togethers with Oldra.
Masaryk’s health began to take a nose dive. Officials in the president’s office brushed away her appeals to contact him. And TGM stepped down from the presidency at the end of 1935 and died at the age of 87 in September 1937.
"She was not the sort of person with whom he could share his most inner feelings."
Meanwhile, Oldra’s problems, especially financial were getting worse. The family bought a large farm near the Austrian border largely with their son, who was studying agriculture in mind. But the interest payments were astronomic and the first harvest failed. They had to sell up but were still burdened by heavy debts after returning to the Moravian town of Tetčice, on the outskirts of Brno.
Her increasingly desperate attempts to deal with her debts encouraged her to contact the new president Edvard Beneš with the seemingly implied threat that the relationship and some of the compromising letters might come out. Beneš did indeed settle most of the debts eventually, but Oldra spent her last years in stark poverty before her death in 1954. Her biggest treasure was probably those letters and the memories of better times they evoked.
The letters gradually came out after her death. Some being sold to second hand book shops and a large portion eventually bought by the Czechoslovak state in the late 1960s from her descendants.