VÁCLAV M. HAVEL
An Entrepreneur with a Sense of Public Duty
Václav Maria Havel
(12. 9. 1897 -- 22. 7. 1979)
Builder, engineer, and businessman who completed the Lucerna palace
and the Barrandov terrace
As a ten-year-old boy, Václav Maria was enchanted by how his father drew plans while smoking a cigar. The plans his father was working on were the beginnings of a grandiose project, which from 1914 onwards Václav, who studied civil engineering, was personally involved in. When the Lucerna palace was opened at Christmas 1920, at the wish of his ailing father, Václav gave the welcoming speech to important personalities of the young Czechoslovak republic and family friends. "I have become aware of the significance of creative work, which brings satisfaction and happiness," he said on the occasion of taking over the baton of the family business. "Everything that is infused with love, everything to which we are connected by a real, internal, deep interest and understanding, brings us success."
Václav M. Havel was born in 1897 in Zběšičky near Tábor, in south Bohemia into the family of a country estate owner. However, his father soon exchanged his estate for some building plots in Prague and went into the building business. In the period of high Art Nouveau, he built a house for his family on what is today the Rašínov bank of the Vltava.
From his childhood Havel saw how much determination had been necessary to build up the family wealth. He learnt to be frugal and enterprising. His father paid him a monthly sum for buying and exchanging light bulbs in the family's Lucerna complex.
He was also conscious of the public interest. In 1918, he was an official of the Federation of Czechoslovak Students and was involved in a secret student organisation working for independence. When he heard that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor had accepted Wilson's ultimatum, he arranged an HQ for the National Committee in the Harrachův palace. He first met T. G. Masaryk, when Masaryk received him and other student leaders after the celebrations marking Masaryk's return to Prague on December 21, 1918. In April 1919, at the government's request, Havel went to Paris to take part in the meeting that established the International Students' Organisation. Under the influence of the "Fight Against Rome" movement, he left the Catholic Church, but he did not become an atheist.
The reason for Havel's six-month study trip to the USA was to get to know the building industry there. With his girlfriend Běla Friedländera, whom he was later married to for five years, he visited New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In 1928, with his brother Miloš he founded the firm Bratři Havlové -- Praha-Lucerna. The following year, Bio Lucerna became the first cinema to bring the era of the talkies to Prague. The terraces at Barrandov were opened. They were inspired by Cliff House on the Pacific Ocean, which had impressed Havel on his visit to San Francisco. The firm also built the garden city quarter of Barrandov.
During the economic crisis at the end of 1932, he and a group of friends who met regularly became known as the Barrandov group. In the magazine Democratic Centre he criticised the government for "leaving unused the working energy of thousands of people, especially the young, which is a cultural and economic loss undignified for a socially aware state." He proposed a "National Work Administration" to deal with unemployment.
In 1935, when Henlein's Sudeten Deutsch party was gaining strength and after the fascists had taken control in Germany and Italy, the Barrandov group published its program, Democracy in Order and in Deed, aimed at fighting fascism and communism. The same year, he married Božena Vavrečkova, the daughter of a former journalist and diplomat. In 1936 their first son Václav, the future president, was born. A second son, Ivan, was born at the time of the Munich crisis.
The era of building up the family business came to an end with the declaration of the Protectorate. Havel was deeply affected by the execution of his friends - architect Vladimír Grégr and the two Wahl brothers. In the autumn before the end of World War Two, he and his family left Prague to live in the Czech Moravian Highlands, which he later remembered as one of the most delightful periods of his life.
After the war, he was in the economic advisory council of the moderate socialist CSNS, a party which many of his friends from the Barrandov group joined. However, he later left the CSNS due to its lenient stance to the Communists. Peace brought life back to the Barrandov terraces, and many artistic and political figures frequented them, including journalist Ferdinand Peroutka, and Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk.
Stigmatised a Class Enemy
After the Communist takeover in February 1948, the Havel brothers' company was nationalised. The KSC committee kept on Havel, aged 51, for three years as an advisor in his former company. He was imprisoned for a short time for failing to disclose the escape of one of his acquaintances. Although the communist authorities dealt with Havel as a former exploiter, his former employees continued to treat him with respect. In 1952 his brother Miloš, the former owner of the A-B film studios at Barrandov, fled. They never saw one another again.
Havel devoted his energies to work with sporting organisations. During the 1960s he visited Barrandov rarely and was disappointed to see them turned from a day-trip venue for ordinary Prague inhabitants into an exclusive place for foreigners. After his wife's death in 1971, he wrote his memoirs, which were published in samizdat but remained unfinished at his death in 1979.
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