Norman Eisen On Prague's 'Last Palace'

Sep 1, 2018
Originally published on September 1, 2018 1:05 pm
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When Norman Eisen moved into the U.S. ambassador's residence in Prague in 2011, which is considered one of the most fabled and beautiful homes in Europe, he found a startling reminder of the home's history on the underside of an antique table. What was it, Mr. Eisen?

NORMAN EISEN: It was a small, sharply etched, black swastika.

SIMON: Norm Eisen, now a senior fellow at Brookings, who was President Obama's ethics czar and now chairs a watchdog ethics group, joins us in our studios. He's written the story of a great home and some of the stories that home has held in his new book, "The Last Palace: Europe's Turbulent Century In Five Lives And One Legendary House." Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for being with us.

EISEN: Scott, thank you for having me.

SIMON: What went through your mind when you discovered that?

EISEN: Well, shock, of course, is the first reaction. And then, as the shock faded away, I was surprised that I didn't feel horror or dismay but instead a sense of triumph because we, the Allies, the United States, who I was now representing on Czech soil - we had defeated the regime that had marked that beautiful antique table and all that it stood for.

SIMON: And your family has a history in Czechoslovakia.

EISEN: My mother was born in then-Czechoslovakia after World War I, right when ground was being broken on this beautiful home. And she survived the Holocaust. She fled communism. She sought refuge here in the United States. And so I was returning to Prague and returning to all that family history, as well as all the history in the house.

SIMON: Well, tell us about this house and the man who built it, Otto Petschek, because this is not a palace built by a royal family.

EISEN: It is not a family - a palace built by a traditional royal family of European lineage but rather the royalty of the 20th century - the entrepreneurs. Otto Petschek was in that first generation of European Jews who was born outside of the ghetto. He was successful. He found himself the largest brown-coal magnate in the world after World War I. More money than he knew how to spend - and he spent it all on building this 150-room-plus house in the middle of Prague.

SIMON: One of my favorite sequences you describe in the book is talking about one of the residents who actually comes to the narrative before she lives there. And that's Ambassador Shirley Temple Black...


SIMON: ...Who was there in 1968. It was the time of liberalization - Prague Spring - even an uprising of sorts led by Alexander Dubcek, a communist functionary but a Czech patriot. Shirley Temple - Mrs. Black was there the day that Soviet tanks rolled into Prague.

EISEN: So many surprises when you research a century - she was there as an emissary of the international multiple sclerosis societies. She had an appointment to see Dubcek, and she got a note back - Mr. Dubcek is all tied up. Later, she found out, he literally was. Soon she heard the planes screeching overhead, and she was in the midst of an invasion. But that was the moment that set her on her course to return as ambassador 21 years later in 1989.

SIMON: And when the Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel and the people who led the revolt against communism, triumphed, she sang. (Laughter) I kept thinking, she sang. Shirley Temple sang.

EISEN: Yes, she did. Well, one of the wonderful things about Ambassador Black is her sense of humor. And indeed, that's a theme that runs all through the book. All of these five people I write about - my Jewish magnate, my German general, my American cold warrior and my movie star ambassador and my mom - all five of them had a wonderful, often sardonic, black sense of humor that got them through tough times and good times.

And in Shirley Temple's case, after communism fell and she and her embassy and her embassy colleague - she had the A-team - when it was all over, they had a staff meeting to assess what had happened and debrief. And she sat at the head of the table in the office, which later became my office. She stood up, and she said, I'm only going to do this once in a very stern voice, and then she broke into (singing) on the good ship Lollipop.

And she sang, and she danced around the table as all of these hardened cold warriors who had been fighting Soviet communism - as they watched. And, of course, they broke into applause at the end because her fundamental optimism had been proven correct.

SIMON: Yeah. Is it - was it, for you and your family, sometimes hard to live in a house with all that history? I mean, would you have preferred a Ramada Inn?

EISEN: It was challenging in different ways. This was actually my starter house, Scott. So there are adjustments to go into a gigantic house. I was discovering new rooms until the last day, after almost four years on the job. The last week, I went looking for something, and I discovered new rooms. But as I say, on the whole, that house is like a - the house is like a ocean - magnificent ocean liner that's traveled through a hundred years of democratic ups-and-downs of the waves, peaking and falling. But the progress, despite the challenging moment we're in, has been steady. And for that reason, it was exciting for me to dwell in a house that represented all that.

SIMON: Ambassador Norman Eisen - his book, "The Last Palace Europe's Turbulent Century In Five Lives And One Legendary House." Thanks so much for being with us.

EISEN: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOGS' "I USED TO DO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.