The Who2 Blog

What is Madeleine Albright’s Real Birth Name?

Join us now for a fascinating little side-trip into the world of Czech names.

The object of our curiosity is former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. We have her birth name as Körbel, but many other sources have it as Körbelová or Korbelová. What gives?

First of all, Albright is her married name; there’s no mystery about that. She married the journalist Joseph Albright in 1959. They were divorced in 1982, and Dr. Albright kept the name by which she was already professionally known.

Dr. Albright’s 2003 memoir Madam Secretary states that her birth name was Marie Jana Körbel, with the umlaut later removed from the “o” when her family lived in England during World War II. (Her father was the Czech diplomat Josef Korbel, later a professor at the University of Denver.) She adds, “My naturalization certificate and marriage license both read ‘Marie Jana Korbel.'”

That seems clear enough. But as noted, many sources state her birth name as Körbelová or Korbelová, citing a Czech tradition in which women add the suffix “ová” to the family name. (That would explain why famous Czech women so often have names like Navratilova or Kurkova.)

This is where it gets interesting. After some research, it’s clear to us that the feminine suffix “ová” is firmly a Czech linguistic norm, but it’s unclear to us whether it’s legally binding or whether it is applied legally to newborns.

Radio Prague ran this piece in 2000, explaining how married women were generally required to take their new husband’s name plus “ova.” (In the example given, a Czech woman who marries an American named Crawford becomes Mrs. Crawfordova.) “Some say the practice is sexist,” notes Radio Prague. “-‘ova’, after all, denotes possession.”

Here’s a quite clear article from Translators Café, a website for professional translators and their clients, also on the topic of married names (and on the stubborn bureaucrats of the Czech marriage bureau). It’s a reprint of a Prague Post article from 2004, when a law was passed to loosen the rules (a little) for foreign marriages.

Wikipedia — always helpful, never 100% trustworthy — says that “gender-marked suffixes are essential to Czech grammar.” So much so, it says, that First Lady Laura Bush is called Laura Bushová in the Czech press.

But none of this gets precisely to what shows up on the legal birth certificate. We don’t entirely credit sources (including Wikipedia and genealogy sites) who give her birth name as Korbelová, because they omit the umlaut which Albright plainly states was part of the family name until they fled to England during the war.

Michael Dobbs, in his 1999 biography Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey, has this to say:

[Albright] was born in Prague on May 15, 1937, as Marie Jana Körbelova. Her birth name requires some explanation. In the Czech language, surnames are declined: Körbelova is the feminine form of Körbel.

Dobbs also notes on page 127 that “immigration authorities at Ellis Island reported the arrival of ‘Marie Korbelova, age 11′” — no umlaut — when she arrived at New York in 1948. He bases this on the passenger list of her ship, the SS America.

It’s possible, of course, that the suffix is meant for use in the Czech language only, so that Albright’s birth certificate (in Prague) could have correctly read “Körbelova” while her naturalization and marriage certificates (in the US) also correctly read “Korbel.” It’s also possible that Albright made a point of clarifying the “Körbel” in her autobiography because she was occasionally wrongly accused of dropping the “ova” to disguise her past.

We’ve written to the offices of The Albright Group, asking for clarification. In the meantime, we’re still taking Dr. Albright’s word for it, as stated in Madame Secretary, that she was born Marie Jana Körbel.

And what about “Marie Jana”? Dr. Albright also covers this in Madame Secretary. “I was christened Marie Jana… My grandmother nicknamed me Madla after a character in a popular show, Madla in the Brick Factory.” That nickname eventually developed into the name Madeleine.

[December 2008 Update! New correspondence with Ms. Albright’s office.]

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