At a moment when Americans are finding it so difficult to connect with each other that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warns about “an epidemic of loneliness,” we all have a lot to learn from Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59, whose gift for friendship was immense.
I had the privilege of attending her funeral in April at Washington National Cathedral, alongside President Emerita Diana Chapman Walsh ’66 and more than 50 grieving members of the Wellesley class of 1959, to whom she was just their “Maddy.” She inspired these lifelong friendships because of what Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 called her “undeniable moral clarity,” but also because she was so life-loving and such a joy to be around.
Those eulogizing her told story after story of Madeleine’s infectious sense of fun: Teaching the foreign minister of Botswana the “Macarena” at a U.N. Security Council Meeting. Ducking out of an official event in Buenos Aires and being found in a dance hall doing what President Bill Clinton called “a mean tango.” Wearing a snail pin to signal impatience when progress was too slow in the Middle East.
Even after serving as the first woman secretary of state of the United States, she spent Wellesley reunion weekends in the dorms, sharing toothpaste with her classmates, because that was where the fun was.
Part of Madeleine’s charm was her great authenticity, a fearlessness about expressing herself honestly. President Clinton recalled her response in 1996 when Cuban fighter pilots shot down two unarmed civilian planes releasing pro-democracy leaflets—and then bragged about their cojones: “Frankly, this is not cojones; this is cowardice,” she said, scandalizing many of her fellow diplomats at the U.N. At the same time as she taught her students—especially the women—the power of speaking up and interrupting, if necessary, she never forgot that it is also crucial to listen. As she said, “If you don’t hear what others are saying, you are missing the ability to analyze what is going on in friendships or small towns or the larger world.”
Madeleine continued adding to her store of friends throughout her life. Hillary Clinton remembered meeting her at a Children’s Defense Fund benefit in the 1980s, when Madeleine introduced herself to her as a fellow Wellesley graduate, and they began calling each other ’59 and ’69. The younger people Madeleine mentored often became her friends, including the generations of students she taught at Georgetown University and later at the Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley. After she left office as secretary of state, she kept in touch with the former foreign ministers she’d worked with (and continued to work with when they left their posts), calling the group “Madeleine and Her Exes.”
She never stopped embracing new connections—and I was honored to count myself among them. The striking thing was that Madeleine always emphasized her own gratitude, telling me often, when I first arrived at Wellesley, how happy she was to have made a new friend.
At her funeral, her daughter Alice Albright suggested a source for this graciousness in Madeleine’s childhood as a refugee: “Mom never forgot where she came from, and how precarious circumstances were when she first arrived in the United States. This explained why Mom never took anything for granted and was always grateful for everything.” Although Madeleine worried about her parenting—as women with big careers tend to do—in moving tributes, Alice, Anne, and Katie Albright made it plain that she was the most loving and attentive of mothers.
People and relationships always loomed large in Madeleine’s life. Her passion for democracy was personal, and it arose from a profound respect for her fellow travelers: “I believe that we’re all the same,” she said, “and people want to be able to make decisions about their own lives.” She was still fighting for the freedom of others a month before her death, when she published an op-ed in the New York Times crisply reminding President Vladimir Putin that “Ukraine is entitled to its sovereignty, no matter who its neighbors happen to be. In the modern era, great countries accept that.”
At the funeral, President Clinton talked about his last conversation with Madeleine, two weeks before she died. He asked her how she was feeling, and she said, “Let’s don’t waste any time on that. The only thing that really matters is what kind of world we are going to leave to our grandchildren.”
Has anyone ever embodied the Wellesley motto more fully? Non Ministrari sed Ministrare. As a diplomat, Madeleine Korbel Albright took care of the nation and the world. As a friend, she took care of everyone who loved her, with a warmth that none of us will ever forget.