My Georgetown: Madeleine Albright

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Madeleine Albright speaks at the 18th annual Library of Congress National Book Festival at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C. on Saturday, September 1, 2018. Madeleine Albright served from 1997 until 2001 as the first woman secretary of state. She is the author of several books, including her newest: "Fascism: A Warning" (Photo by Jeff Malet)

Georgetown has long been home to many public figures. But for all their fame, or notoriety, they all have one thing in common: Georgetown is home, the place they brush their teeth and exist as regular people.

So, during these difficult days when we are locked in — or, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright describes it, “under arrest” — it seemed fitting for The Georgetowner to launch a new segment we are calling “My Georgetown.”

It is something a bit lighter amid our great national trial, with neighbors sharing what makes our village more than just an address.

Up first: the Madam Secretary who knows how fickle fame can be.

As she recounted in a recent interview: “The Georgetown University admission tours used to come by the house, and I would hear the guides say, ‘This is the home of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and she has come back to teach at Georgetown and is very popular and very approachable.’ Then one semester a major class activity conflicted with Georgetown’s basketball team making it deep into a tournament. The next week, when the guide came around, she said, ‘This is the home of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who came back to teach and used to be well-liked until she made us work through the basketball tournament.’ The lesson: Don’t mess with basketball.”

That house on 34th Street has been home to Albright since 1968. It was actually her second tour as a Georgetown resident, having first come to Georgetown in 1962. At that time, she lived three blocks away at 3421 R St., before moving to New York and then back to her current 34th Street house.

She raised her three daughters there, lived through a divorce, and saw administrations come and go. She has witnessed much change from a time of smaller shops, a hardware store and the five-and-dime to today’s fancier stores and, much to her chagrin, more than a few vacant, boarded-up storefronts. But, it is still home.

“Georgetown will always be to me one of the most beautiful places in terms of variety of houses,” she told us. “Walking around, I always see new details on old houses and how they are loved and the plantings around them. It’s also such a part of the history of Washington. Who might have lived in that house, say, perhaps Daniel Webster? Georgetown has kept its character as a neighborhood in the capital of the United States. And today I like the idea that there is a whole other layer of enthusiasm and youth — students around all the time among the older people who live here. It is a community and it has great warmth and history.”

It is also a place rich in personal memories. “When my daughters were little, I remember they would stop in front of the house on O Street that had two statues of eagles and my daughter Katie would kiss them,” she recalled. And it was the neighborhood where she sold Girl Scout cookies, with her daughters dragging along a little red wagon.

But even then, she said, Georgetown would be overrun by shoppers and tourists on weekends, which led her family to buy a farm out in Purcellville, Virginia, to escape.

Life on 34th Street all changed, of course, when she became the first woman appointed secretary of state, in the Clinton administration. Her house was easily identified by the State Department protective detail that would be parked outside.

The house has been the setting for countless dinners and gatherings. Guests were often seated on scattered chairs and served fork-manageable fare because there was not enough room for all to sit at a table. It has hosted global dignitaries and been the site of efforts to spread democracy and law, as Albright has led organizations and working groups such as the National Democratic Institute.

Along the way, the Czech girl — whose parents brought her to the U.S. as a refugee from communist rule, and who only much later discovered that members of her family died in the Holocaust — became a role model and a pathbreaker for professional women and for women in top government positions.

Albright has written a number of books, including her latest, “Hell and Other Destinations,” which looks back at key episodes and events in her life. The home makes several cameo appearances, such as when she offered it as a secret meeting place where presidential candidate John Kerry settled on John Edwards as his vice presidential nominee, and when she hosted a posse of former world leaders — informally dubbed the 34th Street Group — dedicated to solving international issues.

Where Albright once was able to stroll the neighborhood, today she cannot walk or venture out without being recognized, which she doesn’t mind. “It’s just the selfies I can’t stand,” she said. But it is home, right down to having a named booth at Martin’s Tavern, the landmark Wisconsin Avenue restaurant a few blocks away. Martin’s is her favorite spot outside her house, which she has not left in eight weeks due to the pandemic.

She feels guilty that the house — which once fit her, her then-husband, three children, her housekeeper and her housekeeper’s family — now feels cramped with just her. “I am actually a bit embarrassed,” she told us. “It’s so filled with stuff. My daughter says it is like living in a closet.”

That “stuff” is testament to a career filled with international exploits (and shopping, which she justifies by noting that, when traveling on official business, she made a point of helping the local economy). The papers, clothes and mementoes are the accumulation of a life full of accomplishments and memories.

But for all the global issues she has tackled, there is one very local issue that annoys her and about which she can do little: the former florist (and future bagel shop) on 35th and O Streets that is painted pink. “I think it is ugly,” she said.

Today, Albright is more focused on what’s next than on the past. Whatever that is, Georgetown will be the home from which she does it.

If you would like to hear more about the former secretary of state, Albright will be interviewed via Zoom by legendary CBS journalist Bill Plante on Thursday, May 28, at 5:30 p.m. as part of Georgetown Village’s “Opening New Doors” series.

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