Born Marie Jana Korbelova in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on May 15, 1937, Dr. Albright fled with her family when the Nazis occupied the country, then again when the Communists moved in after the war. She first attended school in Switzerland; her family was granted political asylum in the United States, and they settled in Denver in 1948, when she was 11. Her father, Josef Korbel, who had been a member of the Czech diplomatic corps, was a longtime professor of international relations and dean at the University of Denver. (One of his students was one of her successors as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.)
In 1957, while a student at Wellesley College, she became an American citizen. After graduating with a degree in political science in 1959, she married Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, the heir of a wealthy media empire, and they had three daughters. The marriage ended when Mr. Albright left her abruptly in 1982 for another woman. By then, Madeleine Albright had a master’s degree and a doctorate from Columbia and had occupied positions at top foreign policy research institutions.
She had also worked from 1976 to 1978 as chief legislative assistant to Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine and from 1978 to 1981 as a staff member on the National Security Council. Outside of politics and government, she was a research professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
As the U.S. representative to the United Nations, she pushed for intervention in the horrific ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia. She was the main administration conduit to Senator Jesse Helms, who, as the conservative chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was often a thorn in the State Department’s side.
Her high profile prompted scrutiny of her eventful childhood. While she was raised a Catholic (and became an Episcopalian as an adult), she said her parents never told her that they were in fact Jews who had converted as a way to elude the Nazis. In 1997, when she was secretary of state, she said she had only recently confirmed these origins, and discovered that at least two of her grandparents had died in concentration camps.
Though she left government in 2001, Dr. Albright, who returned to Georgetown, has remained active in the public arena, advising Democratic candidates. In the 2008 race for the party’s nomination, she supported Hillary Clinton, then became a top adviser to Barack Obama.