“This is the new Left Bank!”
During the early 1960s, I was the only Free American living in Prague. I was happy to be with Zdenka, and excited about the cartoon animation I was able to do, struggling to learn the Czech language, but also lonesome for other Americans to talk with. It’s amazing how we humans have had to adjust our norms in the time period of my residence in Prague. What was impossible then is everyday normal today. If I wanted to make a phone call to New York in 1962, I had to order the call at least a day in advance – perhaps to give the secret police time to connect to my phone line. Now, if I feel like chatting with a friend in America, I just open my Mac and enjoy a live Skype video-chat. It only requires compensating for time difference. Also today, many other Americans live right here in Prague!
There were said to be some Americans here in the 1960s, a few spies hiding from the CIA, or simply left-wingers fascinated with the Czech experiment of “socialism.” There were some American diplomats attached to our Embassy, and some U.S. businessmen, interested in import and export. I was none of the above.
Zdenka was warning me not to get involved with other Americans living here. “They’re all communists!” she said, seeing danger in any contact with them. But there was another Prague resident American I met by chance, who seemed like a good guy. He showed up at the studio one day to record some English narration for a film intended for an international film festival. His name was Herbert Lass. Zdenka was nervous about my meeting with him, but I was curious, just to hear what he had to say. I learned that he had lived in Prague with his wife, Hilda, and two young sons, Joe and Andy, since the end of World War 2, in 1945. He had come here to distribute CARE packages, and had somehow gotten caught up in the euphoria of transforming Czechoslovakia into a “Socialist Democracy.” By 1966, 20 years later, the Lasses were thoroughly disillusioned with Communist Party rule, but were trapped economically. Herb worked for Czechoslovak Radio, broadcasting short-wave propaganda to the U.S. Hilda, wrote for an English language Communist magazine, for mailing to America. They were basically good people, misled, trying fruitlessly to tone down the rhetoric – only partly successfully. In spite of Zdenka’s concern, we befriended the Lasses and sympathized with their dilemma. The American Embassy had revoked their passports. They were being paid in non-convertible Czechoslovak currency. They were stuck. Then came 1968, the “Prague Spring,” and a temporary political thaw. Herb quit his radio propaganda job, and became a correspondent for the London Economist newspaper, to be able to write the truth. So when the Soviets crushed the democratic movement, and hardline communism was restored, the Lasses were expelled. They are now old folks, living in Boston and thinking it all over. We visited them, and still correspond.
Overlapping the Lasses, in the late Fall of 1967, another American arrived in Prague same as I, not carrying any of the left-wing baggage that burdened the Lasses. He too didn’t realize that he was embarking on the greatest adventure of his life!
He was Alan Levy, a moderately successful magazine writer with greater ambitions. In New York he’d met two young Czech song&dance showmen, Jiří Suchý & Jiří Šlitr, young stars, who were hilariously pushing the envelope of communist restrictions in a new musical theater they were allowed to establish during the gradual easing of dogma. They were even allowed to perform in New York, as they presented an attractive face to the regime.
The name of their theater, SE-MA-FOR formed a neat double-meaning. It not only meant a “signal,” but coinidentally were Czech words “It’s a joke.” Levy saw Suchý & Šlitr perform in New York. The communists used every opportunity trying to convince the world they were nice guys, creative and modern, so they risked allowing carefully vetted artists and orchestras to perform abroad, suitably shepherded.
Alan Levy was taken with what he saw, and managed to convince them and their handlers that he could develop a Broadway musical from their basic show. He was able to secure a two-year Czech residence visa, with the understanding that he would be working up a show with the Czech Se-ma-for performers. Getting a show on Broadway was a very long-shot, but Levy was convinced he could pull it off. In the meantime, he needed someone who knew the local ropes to help him settling-in to Prague. When he arrived, he soon heard there was another free American already living here, me, producing animated films. So he was determined to meet me.
The Levys, Alan, his wife Valerie and two tiny daughters, Monica and Erika, were temporarily stashed in the Hotel Palace, ($10 a night!), one of the few places travelers from the West were allowed to stay, presumably, because the rooms were bugged. He urgently needed to get a private apartment, not realizing that such an acquisition in Prague in those days was virtually impossible. They needed a housekeeper, an English-speaking baby sitter, a TV, grocery shopping with American stuff; all things nearly non-existant behind the iron curtain! In other words, they needed us!
I had already lived in Prague for seven years, and Zdenka had been living here all her life. She took it on as a personal challenge. I had welcomed the Levys’ arrival; creative Americans whom I could befriend, who carried no communst fetters. So I urged Zdenka to help them. A tip surfaced when the Lasses introduced us to another leftist American couple, George and Phoebe Standart, he a professor of chemical engineering who had been teaching at Prague’s Charles University. They also had a daughter, and had been allowed an apartment by the authorities. They were about to leave for two years, realizing that if a Czech family would get their apartment, they’d never get it back. Zdenka, for whom nothing was impossible, rose to the challenge, and volunteered to use her connection to the Ministry of Culture to convince them that it would be in the interest of the State to allow the Levys to occupy the Standart’s apartment while they were away. Two years was exactly the time Alan expected it would take to write his musical. So the Levys were able to move into the Standart’s apartment!
Even after magically providing them with the number one luxury in this country at the time, a private !!! apartment, we still had to try to fulfill their other impossible wishes. Another “impossible” at that time was shopping for Western groceries. Alan & Valery Levy had two small daughters, Monica and Erika, addicted to tuna fish salad and Nabisco soda crackers. The only local source for such stuff, plus Crisco, Kellogg’s cereals, Aunt Jemima’s waffle syrup, or Oreo cookies, etc etc, was the American Embassy commisary. But that was hidden deep inside the embassy building, out of bounds for everyone except embassy staff. Even I was not allowed to shop at the embassy commisary. I had to drive to West Germany to buy Western goodies. But Valerie got a teaching job at the American sponsored English language school for children of foreign diplomats and businessmen. She thus qualified for access to the magical U.S. embassy commisarry. So the Levy’s two small girls, who presumably could not live without tuna fish salad and Nabisco crackers, and I, who yearned for peanut butter, were able to join the Levy’s shopping list, and enjoy this rare privilege! I was able to reciprocate by including the Levy’s on my West German shopping list for items beyond the embassy’s small shop
By the end of 1967 they were settled in. Family members and friends were visiting, and they planned a New Year’s Eve party. I made a gag poster for the party, with wild lettering in the “psychedelic” style of the Beatles, 60’s era. On the poster I wrote, “1968 WILL BE A COMPLETELY NEW YEAR!” None of us realized just how true that would be!
Zdenka and I were drawn into the Levy’s lives; doing everything for them. Other things the Levy’s needed were a baby sitter and a translator. Zdenka was able to donate her studio assistant, Lulka Kopečná, to perform the needed double-duty. Lulka was also fluent in French, which was Valerie Levy’s second language. We recruited another of our colleagues, the animation studio technician, Antonin “Toník“ Růžička, to be their handyman. Levy was a talented writer, but he wasn’t able to do more household duties than to change a light bulb! So we had the Levy’s well set up for an insulated life in the deprived Prague of those times.
It took a lot of doing to keep the Levys functioning, but I thought it worthwhile to have literate American friends, and so a social relationship developed. It was also interesting to follow the writing of his musical comedy script. But then things got out of kilter, as Allen became interested in us as story material! In his new exotic situation, actually writing a proposed Broadway musical behind the Iron Curtain, he began attracting old friends, family, professional and literary colleagues to visit. Tourist visas were not difficult to obtain. Prague had become attractive to some Westerners just because of the bragging rights that came visiting a place that carried a whiff of danger. And of course, whatever was here was increditbly cheap! With each new visitor the the Levys, Zdenka and I were invited to dinner. That in itself wasn’t bad, as the Levys always had the good familiar American stuff available from the embassy shop.
The downside was Alan’s constantly repeated cute “Gene & Zdenka” dinner-table stories, growing more fanciful with each replay. It really began to annoy me, but we could only sit there, grin, and bear it. It all built up to that New Year’s Eve party…. And then SOMETHING BIG HAPPENED!
The next morning, New Year’s Day, 1968, I turned on the tiny TV on our breakfast table to check the news, expecting the usual agitprop, but at least the weather report might be accurate. We were still sleepy after the midnight party, and didn’t expect to hear anything to wake us up, probably just a summary of the “great accomplishments of Party & People during the previous year.” It came on in the standard dry, emotionless tones of the seemingly brain-dead TV announcers. But this time the news was interesting!
“The Central Committee of the Communist Party of The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic has announced the appointmment of Comrade Alexander Dubček as First Secretary of the Central Committee of The Communist Party of The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.”
Digesting all of those convoluted words on New Year’s morning was hard enough, especially with my still fragmentary Czech, and even with Zdenka’s translation in her fragmentary English. The fact was clear enough, but not the meaning. Communist leaders came and went, but they were all cookie-cutter copies of each other. We were happy to see the satrap Antonín Novotný go, but why would this unknown Alexander Dubček be any different?
In the following days and weeks we gradually began hearing real news with real words on TV, radio, and in the previously identically oriented “newspapers,” at first slowly, then a flood! Even a small photo of the actual father of country, Tomás Garrigue Masaryk, appeared in one of them, his name and image unseen in the official media for twenty years! A new promise appeared, “Socialism With A Human Face!” What was that?
When Lulka Kopečná translated this news to Alan Levy, he was electrified! He dropped his Broadway dream and jammed on his Foreign Correspondent hat. Here he was, the only accredited Western newsman in Czechoslovakia, suddenly sitting right on top of the biggest story in the World! And it soon was. Big Dreams were spinning! Real change was in the air! Open discussion bloomed! Independent newspapers appeared! Passports were allowed! Wiretapping was publically exposed. Even The Boy Scouts were revived! It was a dizzy spiralling of heady stuff blooming in the streets, culminating in the first giant May Day parade in which all the citizens actually took part voluntarilly!
Alan Levy was covering it all, sending out bulletin after bulletin. He was soon not alone. The major news organizations of the world began pouring in with all their equipment. Prague was transformed from a communist backwater to the center of the universe, and Alan Levy, with his experience of actually living here, was the top correspondent! He was flying high during the most exhilarating days lived in our lifetimes. We all thought that Valhalla was at hand!
But as you well know, it was all shot down on the 21st of August. Zdenka and I were awakened in the middle of that night by the roar of monster Soviet transport planes zooming past our window, landing troops and tanks at the Prague Ruzyně airport. It was over. The Prague Spring became the Winter Of Discontent. All of us that lived through it faced major decisions. The reimposition of hardline communism and the ousting of Dubček dashed all our illusory hopes for this country.
During the first weeks of the occupation all telephone and telegraph communication was cut off. (Telegrams!… they were the ancestor of Twitter, and still in common use in those distant days!)
I knew that my mother and family were getting Prague invasion horror stories in the U.S. press and TV, so I felt we had to get out at least for a day or two to assure them we were OK. I couldn’t leave Zdenka, so we drove together to Vienna, where it was possible to make the urgent phone calls. Zdenka was devastated when the Czech border guards told us they were ordered not to let us back into the country! So during the difficult negotiations for our readmission, Alan Levy was our communication lifeline. He was able to wangle time on the American Embassy teletype. They had a secure communication line which could not be blocked. And I was given permission to use the Vienna TIME-LIFE bureau teletype. So we communicated that way for a week or so. Alan gave us updates on the situation in Prague while we awaited the recognition of my Czech visa. In this blog of credits, I credit Alan Levy for his help in the most critical period of our lives!
Alan held on to his front row seat at this stage of world history, and transformed his typewriter from musical to Breaking News mode. He had his story of a lifetime, and he was hot to hang onto it; an inside view of how history would play out! He now had something more compelling to write about than a light-hearted musical: his own journey into history! He began writing his seminal book, to be titled, “Rowboat To Prague.” Zdenka and I had been able to get back to Prague, after we’d filled our two week exile, as animation consultants on the film, “Song of Norway.”
Alan commandeered each of his visitors to smuggle out a chapter or two as he progressed, always with multible couriers In those days and that place, such a thing as a copying machine did not exist, not to mention email! He‘d brought with him to Prague several cases of carbon copy forms that could produce six legible copies, banging on his office Remington. Under Soviet occupation, smuggling out anti-Soviet documents was wildly risky, but Alan was obsessed.
I’d had a dustup with Alan over his use of Zdenka and me as characters in his story. He had regularly invited us – insisted –to dinner, so he could regale his guests with his progressively fanciful stories about us. Finally, when I gave an excuse, and begged off from a dinner invitation, he sent me a scathing letter; that he’d had important guests whom he’d promised to meet us, and that by my excusing myself from his dinner invitation, I had “betrayed” him! That finished me with him. It was a bad time for a breakup, but I was tired of being part of his act. So we weren’t speaking, and what happened next I heard only recently from Valerie.
When Alan gave his own mother a copy to smuggle out, he outsmarted himself. He must have known she was being watched. But playing James Bond, he sewed a copy of his manuscript into the lining of her suitcase. When she arrived at the airport, the hidden manuscript was easily found. His mother was terrified. They let her catch her plane out, but within days Levy was summoned to the police headquarters and informed that his residence visa was revoked, that he and his family must be out of the country within 48 hours.
I refer you to Chapter 37 of my book, “For The Love of Prague,” for the full story of what we went through during those terrifying but unforgettable days of the 1968 Soviet occupation of Prague.
Zdenka and I concentrated on how to get her son David out of the country. We bought a small house in San Francisco, planning to clear out as soon as we finished our current production commitment. The animation studio leaders begged us to stay. We were officially assured us that we could continue to have free travel in and out of the coutry, but under Soviet occupation, that seemed doubtful. The actual turning point came just at the gloomiest moment. Morton Schindel, founder of the Connecticut studio, Weston Woods, appeared in Prague, and offered to reward me for helping him when I was at Terrytoons 12 years earlier.
I’ll tell that story in the next chapter. Mort proposed a continuing series of high-quality stories to adapt as films; steady production for the Prague studio, by this time full of our friends and animation colleagues, dependent on us. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Mort was smart enough to realize that with the failure of the democratic movement, the price of film production here would remain cheap. He offered me perpetual royalties! I had to stay.
None of us at the time believed that the communist grip on the country would end in the foreeable future. It took 20 more years. I heard little of the Levys during that those years when they were in Vienna. I was sorry they vanished before Alan and I had a chance to reconcile. Zdenka and I especially missed Valerie.
When the Prague “Velvet Revolution” finally came in 1989, with the rebirth of freedom, it wasn’t long before Alan Levy reappeared, now as a returning hero. He met a young American woman, Lisa Frankenberg, who wanted to establish a weekly English-language newspaper to be called, The Prague Post. Alan walked right up to her and said, “I’ll be your editor-in-chief!”
With the paper, including his full page weekly column, he was now King-of-The-Hill in Prague, invited everywhere, in on everything. He made up with me, and even featured me in one of his colums, and Zdenka in another. A funny tidbit is that Alan asked me to draw his caricature to use as a heading for his column, I told him that caricatures had to be funny. He said that would be great. So I did it, and he ran it for weeks until his co-editors came to him and said, „Alan, that drawing makes you look like an asshole!“ It was yanked. (You can see it below.)
Alan and I appeared together in seminars about the evil communist times, visited occasionally, but it was never the same. He no longer needed us to help him arrange house repairs. Their two daughters grown, married, were living else-where. Alan and Valerie now had a great double apartment; Alan acknowleged that he was having the time of his life. It had all come around for him.
Then tragedy struck. He developed a fatal cancer. He died at only 72, in the year 2004. Ironically, it was his wish. “All the long years I was in Vienna,” he once wrote. “I dreamed of dying in Prague”. He got his wish, his ashes fluttering magestically into the Vltava river, but far too soon.
Valerie is still living in Prague, and we see her often. I thank her for reminding me of details in this article, and for allowing me to photograph my old 1967 New Years Eve poster, now framed and hanging on her apartment wall. She is a great person.