The former ambassador to the Czech Republic tells the story of a historically significant palace in Prague.
The palace, which began construction in 1924, was the project of Otto Petschek (1882-1934), a wealthy financier who left it behind when he went to study law. His family was the leading banking family in Prague, and they helped it become the 10th largest postwar economy. Not just a biography of Petschek and his mansion, Eisen’s tale is also a history of Czechoslovakia, beginning with its birth in October 1918, and his family. President Woodrow Wilson, enjoying an academic friendship with Czech leader Tomas Masaryk, supported the Czech people and their closely related Slovak neighbors’ bid for self-determination. The palace that Otto imagined in 1924 was designed by German architect Max Spielmann, and the estate became Otto’s obsession as he ordered it to be built, redesigned, torn down, and rebuilt. His mania was such that he bought full-grown trees and an entire room—walls and all—to be shipped on flatbed train cars. But he died before World War II, and his family escaped the Nazis to London. The house suffered from Nazi and Soviet occupation as well as looting and damage before and after the war, but there were those who saw its greatness and fought to save it. Not least of these was Otto’s butler, who stayed with the house through all the owners until his death, guarding what treasures he could. Eisen, a senior fellow at Brookings, also introduces us to other occupants, including Col. Rudolf Toussaint, who worked tirelessly to avoid war, and American Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt, who brokered the simultaneous withdrawal of Russian and American troops and secured the sale of the house to the State Department in return for wartime loan forgiveness. Even more interesting is the story of Shirley Temple Black, who was there for the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
A well-told story for readers interested in Czechoslovakia, its creation, its fall to fascism and then communism, and rescue from both.