Madeleine Albright, who in 1996 became the first woman to be named U.S. Secretary of State, died Wednesday at the age of 84.
The cause of death was cancer, according to a statement posted by her family.
Born Marie Jana Korbelová in Prague, she came to America as a refugee in 1948. Much of her career was spent crusading for democracy and human rights. Her ascent in American diplomacy was accelerated under former President Bill Clinton’s administration. Albright first served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 through part of 1997 before becoming the 64th U.S. Secretary of State in his second term in office. Albright held that post from 1997 to 2001.
Albright, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, was a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, at the time of her death. Her accomplishments were vast and wide. She also chaired the Albright Stonebridge Group, Albright Capital Management, the National Democratic Institute, and the U.S. Defense Policy Board and also served as president of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation.
Along the way, Albright wrote such books as “Madam Secretary: A Memoir,” “The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections of America, God and World Affairs,” “Memo to the President: How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership,” “Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir” and “Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box,” which was underwritten by St. John Knits (a favorite label of Albright’s) and Bren Simon. There was also a traveling nationwide exhibition of Albright’s pins in relation to the “Read My Pins” book that got underway at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York in the fall of 2009.
Albright also started the Albright Institute for Global Affairs at Wellesley College and served as a lifetime trustee at the Aspen Institute. Albright was also a member of the Washington National Cathedral.
In her international dealings, Albright was known to use her pins to relay messages. While being honored at the Museum of Arts and Design’s annual gala in 2017, Albright explained her style tactics. “I hope that you will not think that I am boasting when I claim that I was the first American Secretary of State to use jewelry as a tool of diplomacy. When I took the office, I thought the time might be to display pins with attitude.”
So she did. After being called an “unparalleled sergeant” in a propagandistic Iraqi government poem in 1994, she donned a gold pin with a snake coiled around a branch with a small diamond hanging from its mouth. After Iraqi officials and the media picked up on her subversive message, she realized that she was onto something. At the 2017 MAD Ball, Albright gifted the pin that Leah Rabin, the widow of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had given her, to the museum. Albright also donated one of a broken glass ceiling, which she explained at that time was in its ideal condition — shattered. “I still wear it in the belief that we will see the ultimate glass ceiling coming down.”
In an interview with WWD, Albright explained that she always loved jewelry and thought, “‘Well, this is fun. I was in New York where there are lots of places to buy wonderful things. I bought jewelry that I thought described what we were doing. On good days, it was flowers and on bad days, it was spiders and bugs.”
Riffing on former President George H.W. Bush’s pledge at the 1988 Republican National Convention “Read my lips, no new taxes…” — a vow he later regretted — Albright trained the White House press corps to read her pins. Not one to overaccessorize with “an awful lot of rings,” Albright once noted how necklaces can get hidden by collars. Adept at using brooches for maximum message-making, Albright had hundreds to choose from including a 1960 John F. Kennedy presidential campaign button, a gold and pink Verdura brooch and a celestial Cartier piece with moonstones, chalcedony, aquamarines and diamonds.
In 1996, after Fidel Castro’s air force shot down four Cuban-American pilots in international air space off the Florida coast, Albright wore an enameled blue bird pin with diamonds with the wings downward. In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s human rights violations in Chechnya, she wore her “Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil” pin. Albright told WWD, “My niche is to explain foreign policy that average people find interesting. Not all foreign policy has to be foreign.”
Hours before Chelsea Clinton’s 2010 wedding in upstate New York, Albright caused a frenzy with smartphone-wielding onlookers by lunching in a not-so-private, all-glass trattoria. Even under such a social setting, Albright wouldn’t give up her pin of choice for the nuptial festivities. “You will have to wait until tonight to see,” Albright told WWD. That wasn’t happening since the politician-adorned event was off-limits to the media.
But one of Albright’s personal favorite pins was the clay heart-shaped one that her daughter Katie made at the age of five. Albright said she wore it every Valentine’s Day.