The Last Palace
By Norman Eisen, Headline, £25
History books have long explored the lives of great individuals, families or countries. Today, the choice of subjects is wider. In Behold, America, for example, Sarah Churchwell addressed two familiar expressions: “the American dream” and “America first”. And now, Norman Eisen has made a grand, neo-classicist building in Prague the protagonist of his book, The Last Palace.
It begins — as many a Jewish man’s book does! — with his mother. When President Obama appointed Eisen to the post of US ambassador to the Czech Republic in 2011, after an illustrious legal career, Eisen’s mother Frieda was less than thrilled. “You know what happened to us there,” she said, referring to the Nazis having deported her family to Auschwitz in 1944. Eisen countered that his appointment was a victory, and was soon spellbound by the ambassador’s palatial residence in Prague, where he served until 2014.
His book examines the life of the palace’s creator, Otto Petchek, who came from a cultured Jewish Rothschild-like family, not unlike the Efrussis in Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, or the Zuckerkandls, who ran the grand salons of Vienna.
Towards the end of the First World War, Otto anticipated Czechoslovak independence, and invested in half the mines of Europe. And then, once coal was needed to power the recovery, Otto became the “King of Coal”, and extremely wealthy. Growing up, he had dreamt of being a conductor, but was made to work in the family business. But now, at last, free to build, he channelled his artistic talents into the frozen music of architecture.
And he did so with exuberance. Everything in the curve-shaped palace was a fusion of classical and modern, and he spared no expense.
On one occasion, at a furniture auction, he was transfixed by the walls of the room and asked: “Never mind the furniture; how much do you want for the room?”
Eventually, and inevitably, he ran out of money. He finished his palace by commissioning fake marble, fake Versailles chairs and locally made “Meissen” look-alikes. But every subsequent resident — including a conflicted Nazi general and Hollywood star Shirley Temple — fell under the palace’s spell.
The appeal of Eisen’s book extends well beyond students of military history; it is a thrilling read and a captivating portrayal of Prague caught in the crossfire between East and West, liberal and authoritarian. In these times of Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro and co, it’s a powerful reminder of the violence that can ensue in the wake of hard nationalist sentiment.
Amid a wealth of research, and diplomatic insights, Eisen has certainly drawn productively on his period of ambassadorial service for this book.
Marina Gerner is a freelance writer