In late 1921, Dorothy Thompson, a fledgling reporter for the
Philadelphia Public Ledger, visited
Ferenc (Franz) Molnár, the famous Hungarian playwright, at his Budapest
apartment. She went there with her good friend Josef Bard (whom she married in
1923 and from whom she was divorced in 1927), a Hungarian intellectual who knew
Molnár. Because Molnár did not speak
English and Thompson did not speak Hungarian, Bard translated the conversation.
|Page 1 of Thompson's manuscript|
Her story about the interview was published in the Ledger, illustrated by Viennese artist
Alfred Gerstenbrand. Although I have not seen the published article,
I have read a carbon copy of the typed manuscript, dated December 6, 1921, that
she submitted to her newspaper. Its title is “A LITTLE FLAT – A STRONG
COGNAC – A GOOD BLACK COFFEE.” The subtitle is “Franz Molnar, Author of the New
York Success, “Liliom”, Explains Why He Prefers to Remain in Budapest, and
Talks About Life, Art, and His Desires.”
Reading the manuscript, I was both puzzled and intrigued by
this early paragraph that described the play that had brought Molnár renown the
previous year in New York City:
[Molnár] took a Budapest apache for
his hero, and the Budapest Coney-Island for his scene, and from such stuff as
these fashioned “Liliom,” a play which charmed and provoked New York last year
as no play presented in many seasons has done, and which was the most brilliant
success in the New York Theater Guild’s career of successes. “Liliom” is
Budapest in the old days before the war; “Liliom” is the wurtsel at the height
of its shrieking glory.
This paragraph made me curious not only about the play, Liliom, but also what a “wurtsel” and a
“Budapest apache” were. In addition,
after reading Thompson’s description of her talk with Molnár, I wanted to know
more about him and his life.
First, what the heck is a “wurtsel”? As far as I can tell, the word does not exist
in formal German or Hungarian or English. I thought that perhaps Thompson meant
to use the word “würstel,” which means frankfurter in Italian and sausage in
Austria (e.g. bratwurst, currywurst, blutwurst) or the German word “wurzel,”
which means root (the pronunciation of “z” and “ts” are similar). However, she clearly did not mean “sausage”
or “root” in the context of the word’s use.
Re-reading her article, I noted that she began it by
describing, lyrically, a walk through a rather desolate amusement park (the
setting for much of Liliom) on her
way to meet Molnár:
The Budapest amusement park has
fallen upon evil days. Scenic railways, roller coasters, and ferris wheels,
shrouded in canvass, look like the distorted ghosts of dead Hilarity. The
cheerful roar of the wheels and the wheedling cries of the Barkers are almost
stilled. Here and there a weary spieler drones out the merits of his
attractions to a thin sprinkling of sausage-eating servant girls and
loud-laughed factory hands. But the amusement park has followed the decline of
Then she wrote, “...the Budapest wurtsel is silent and the
voice of the spieler is no longer heard in the land….” In this context, it became
clear that she used “wurtsel” as slang for “amusement park.” I can find no
other uses of the word with this meaning through a google search or a search of the assorted English language newspapers in the newspapers.com data base. So
either the use of this slang word was rare or was limited to Europe. Perhaps she made it up.
The meaning of “Budapest apache” was easier to discover. Obviously
the word “apache” did not refer to a member of the Native American Apache tribe.
Instead the word was borrowed from the French who used it to refer to members
of criminal street gangs in Paris beginning in the 1890s. Thompson was likely
acquainted with the word because she lived in Paris for a few months in 1920
when some remnants of the gangs were still around.
More about the French apaches can be found in a 2014 book, The Golden Moments in Paris: A Guide to the
Paris of the 1920s, by John Baxter. This engaging book contains a chapter titled
“Wild in the Streets, Les Apaches.” According
to Baxter, “For the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning
of the 20th , gangs of young apaches (pronounced “arpash”)
terrorized working-class Paris, particularly the districts of Montmartre and
Belleville….Apaches combined in gangs with flamboyant names, each advertising
its mastery of a particular of turf: the Tattooed of Ivry or the Beauty Marks
of St. Ouen.”
He continued, “Their specialty was street robbery, for which
they split into small groups. While two kept watch, one would throttle the
victim from behind and another rifled his pockets.”
Describing the apaches, he wrote:
The uniform of the Parisian apaches
featured [a] …tight jacket, trousers, and loose cloth cap … [with] a
horizontally striped sailor’s jersey and a gold-fringed crimson sash, which
could be wrapped around the hand in a knife fight or tied on the face as a
mask. Tight shoes of yellow leather completed the outfit—not forgetting the
important accessory, a short wooden-handled knife. …
Apache women, known as lamfe’, wore
gaudy blouses brightly colored aprons over their dresses, and a black velvet
ribbon around their throats. They took great trouble with their hair, but wore
no hats. At a time when respectable women never went outdoors bareheaded, this
omission flagrantly announced their renegade status.
After these descriptions, Baxter wryly observed, “Apache
gangs would have been more dangerous had they not wasted so much time and
effort on their wardrobes and on fighting bloody turf wars.”
From Baxter’s chapter, a vivid picture of an “apache”
emerges and clearly Thompson is labeling Liliom, the lead male character in
Molnár’s play named after him as an Apache, a charming, womanizing, petty
criminal. When the play begins Liliom is a barker in a Budapest wurtsel and, in most productions of the play, is dressed in attire resembling a Paris Apache.
Liliom followed Molnár’s 1907 play, The
Devil, which was a big hit in Budapest and by 1908 it was popular in New York
city where four theater companies were simultaneously performing the play, two
in English, one in German, and one in Yiddish. He wrote Liliom in three weeks,
sitting in Budapest’s New York Café, where he was a regular. He was dismayed when in 1909 Liliom was a critical and commercial failure in Hungary.
As explained by the New
The playgoers came expecting to
laugh. In the same theatre Molnar had diverted them with farces like The Lawyer, his first play and with sex
comedies like The Devil, which had
been a resounding international success, Liliom
permitted them to laugh only occasionally and wryly. Moreover, the hero had the
effrontery to die in the fifth scene and saunter up to Heaven. To kill off an
actor might be all right in the Burgtheater in Vienna, where acute morality was
a staple; in a place like the Gaiety [Theater], it was bad form.
The play is a strange one and was a departure from his
previous witty, ironic, and often cynical stories that were so popular. Its plot is summarized in Wikipedia as follows:
The play takes place partly in Budapest, Hungary, and partly in a
waiting area just outside Heaven.
The story concerns Liliom, a tough, cocky carousel barker who falls in love with Julie, a young
woman who works as a maid. When both lose their jobs, Liliom begins mistreating
Julie out of bitterness — even slapping her once — although he loves her. When she
discovers she is pregnant, he is deliriously happy, but, unbeknownst to Julie,
he agrees to participate with his friend Ficsúr, a criminal, in a hold-up to
obtain money to provide for the child. Liliom is unwilling to leave Julie and
return to his jealous former employer, the carousel owner Mrs. Muskat, and
feels that the robbery is his only way left to obtain financial security. The
hold-up is a disaster, but Ficsúr escapes, and Liliom kills himself to avoid
capture. He is sent to a fiery place, presumably Purgatory. Sixteen years
later, he is allowed to return to Earth for one day to do a good deed for his
now teenage daughter, Louise, whom he has never met. If he succeeds, he will be
allowed to enter Heaven. He fails in the attempt, and is presumably sent to
Hell. The ending, though, focuses on Julie, who obviously remembers Liliom
Liliom, the “Budapest apache,” is a smooth talking, seducing tough guy with little refinement. He is largely an unsavory person, though
he has some good characteristics beneath his rough exterior. With his
personality and background, it is not too much of a surprise when he decides to
take part in a robbery.
Despite its failure in 1909, Liliom was, in English translation, a major success on Broadway in 1921. In the following
years, it became enormously popular and could frequently be seen in stage
productions in the major capitals and small regional theaters of the world. It still can be viewed today. In February
2014, Liliom was produced by the
Beautiful Soup Theater in Broadway in New York City (see http://www.beautifulsouptheatercollective.org/liliom-photos.html
) and when I was in Vienna in September, the city’s premier theater, the
Burgtheater, was performing the play. In January 2015, the Hamburg Ballet will
be staging a ballet version of Liliom that it premiered in 2013 (see http://www.hamburgballett.de/e/_liliom.htm) .
The stage play was the basis for several movie versions of
the story. Probably the most successful was produced by Fritz Lang in 1934 in
France, starring Charles Boyer.
Although both Puccini and Gershwin wanted to use the play as the
libretto for an operetta, Molnár refused both permission to do so. Later, however, he allowed Rogers and
Hammerstein to adapt his play as the basis for a new musical, Carousel. This 1945 hit play was later made into a movie.
Both the Liliom and Carousel are theater and movie
The Devils, The Guardsman, The Swan, and Liliom were four of Molnár’s most successful plays; his forty or so other plays had different degrees of success. The New Yorker noted in 1946 that 18 of his plays had been performed on Broadway, and it compared him to playwrights George Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham, and Eugene O’Neill. A 1931 study by the New York Public Library showed that he “is the most popular of present-day European dramatists." To get a taste of Molnár’s wit and style, read his one-act play, A Matter of Husbands, here:
When Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961] interviewed Molnár (1878 –
1952), she was 28 years old and he was 43. While she was still in the first
year of her first full-time job as a journalist, he had been famous in Central
Europe for a couple of decades as a reporter, newspaper essayist, war
correspondent, author, and playwright. He
was a highly visible celebrity in Budapest, famed for heading “Molnár’s Gang,” also
known as the “New York Crowd,” a group of a dozen or more prominent composers,
painters, and writers, who met nightly at the New York Café where Molnár exercised his coffee house wit. They usually departed for home only when the sun came up.
According to Thompson’s article, Molnár lived in a “dilapidated old apartment building" on a rough street in Budapest. As Thompson and Bard climbed the dark stairs
and walked the corridors, they passed “unkempt inhabitants” of the building who
had parcels of food under their arms. Also, they sniffed the scent of gulyas.
As they neared the top floor, Dorothy grumbled to Josef: “if Molnar must live in this God-forsaken
town, why in a tenement?”
(The answer was simple. Molnár had selected this
out-of-the-way apartment for the purpose of having a place where he could bring
a young actress he was pursuing without attracting attention:
In his overoptimistic youth, Molnár
had fallen wildly in love with a well-known actress. Without being unduly
encouraged, he confidently set about finding a rendezvous, so that, when the
moment came, he would be prepared. He went to Buda (Budapest’s “old town”) and
there, on a dark alley, he found that appeared to be the ideal place. It was a
noisy, dingy two-room flat, but since it was on the dark alley, one could get
in or out of it without being seen. Molnár engaged this flat at once. The
rendezvous never materialized, but he lived in the flat for twenty-two years.
Even if Thompson had known this, and perhaps she was told by
her Budapest friend, she likely would not have reported it.)
In her article, Thompson introduced Molnár to readers in
America as an apparently quaint and eccentric man. Dorothy described Molnár as short and compact,
“as if his body had been pushed together.” He had a “fattish smooth face” and
“evenly grayed hair and snub nose” that gave the face a “blond and babyish
look, in spite of the black eyes under heavy brows.” As was his habit, he wore
a monocle and was “impeccably dressed.”
In him was the hint of the dandy.
Having heard that Molnár very rarely left Budapest, Thompson
asked him why and whether the city gave him all he wanted from life. His reply
I love Budapest... and I ask very little of life. What I like is a small flat
... a little tavern ... a good pen ... a nice stove ... a good black coffee,
and a strong cognac... a good light lamp ... and the stillness of the night ...
and I like to direct the rehearsals of my plays. The last I like best of all.
The conversation concluded with Molnár telling Thompson that
he wanted always to stay in Budapest where he was born “to rehearse my plays in
the theater which I have come to feel as my own; constantly to create new roles
for the actor and actresses whom I understand and love – roles which will
discover for them new powers and clothe them in new brilliancies.” In the last sentence of her article, Thompson
predicted that Molnár would never visit the United States.
Someone reading Thompson’s article likely would find Molnár to
be an apparently lovable Central European, perhaps a little stuffy, an intellectual
with some strange habits. Such a picture was seriously incomplete. Another Molnár
was revealed to American readers in the next few years when he became an
infamous celebrity whose personal life was tainted with scandal.
Molnár, the eccentric genius, shared some of Liliom’s
characteristics. He was a charming, egocentric, larger-than-life man, a bit of
a hustler and faithless, but also apparently loveable. Just as he shared some of Lilion’s
characteristics, he had a sin in common with him: No long after he married Margit Veszi, his first wife, in 1907,
he hit her while she was pregnant.
According to different observers, and many of his friends, Liliom was for Molnár “at once his
confession, his defence and his justification” for what he did to his first
wife.. According to the New Yorker,
Molnár’s friends said that Liliom is Molnár.
Certainly his courting of three women who became his wives
and his three marriages were unusual. All three were distinguished women. He pursued the first, Veszi
(1885-1961), for seven years. When her father did not give permission for her
to marry Molnár in 1900, she moved to Paris and he soon followed. She was, by
all accounts, an extraordinary young woman. Vanity Fair described her as “miraculously gifted …[with] subtle
intelligence, erudition unique among women, great charm of manner, and a rare,
fragile beauty.” A 1925 newspaper article wrote about her gifts
as journalist and poet, noting “She was the center of Budapest intelligentsia.”
After finally marrying her, they stayed together only a few
weeks before he hit her and she sued for divorce. When their daughter was born,
they remarried for a while, but again divorced.
His second wife, Sari Fedak (1879-1955), was “the most
celebrated operetta diva in Budapest.” They had known each other as
children, then had been a couple for almost eight years when they married in
October 1922, within a year after his interview with Thompson.
The following year, he fell for a young actress, Lili Darvas (1902-1974), who was half his age. The author of a 1925 article published in an Ohio newspaper, wrote “she
is a thousand times more beautiful than Sari Fedak; she is one of the most
beautiful creatures imaginable.” In another article, she was called “an
angel-faced actress, considered by many the most beautiful woman in Hungary.”
She was an actress in one of Molnár’s plays when “after a half hours
tempestuous wooing [Molnár] convinced [her] to forget her promise to her sweetheart and
marry [him] as soon as he divorced his wife."
A messy divorce followed as Molnár tried to stop his wife
from getting a large divorce settlement; she wanted $30,000, he offered
$15,000. After sensational charges in his lawsuit against her (he accused her
of having had 42 lovers while they were together), she responded menacingly and loudly.
Molnár avoided a nasty trial (more than 300 witness had been scheduled) by agreeing
to pay $30,000.
The divorce was a sensation in Hungary and of great interest
in the rest of Europe. It also was covered by many newspapers in the United
The marriage to Darvas lasted, though most of the time was
spent living apart. After leaving Europe in the 1930s, she became a successful stage and scene actress in the United States. Perhaps he was lucky
to rid himself of Fedak who became a strong Nazi supporter.
During the 1920s, Molnár’s notoriety was spread in the
United States in articles with headlines worthy of an Apache: “Playwright’s Plots Outdone by Their Real
Romances:…Franz Molnár Wins in Just Thirty Minutes a Substitute for the Love
Mate He Was So Happy With – Until They Married,” "Victim of his Own Love Plot,” and
“Merry Mr. Molnar’s Newest Rows With the Ladies: Mystery of the Backstage
Slaps, the Insulted Beauty, and the Chubby Playwright’s Stormy Romances and
|Portsmouth Daily Times, Oct. 3, 1925|
Molnár had his celebrity, but got caught up like everyone
else in the sweep of history in the 30s. As a Jew, he had to leave Hungary in 1937 because of the fascist tide
there. After spending time in Venice and Zurich, he realized that he needed to
leave Europe and moved to New York City, arriving in January 1940, where he was
given refuge. His wife, with whom he did not live, had moved to the U.S. before
|Molnar with Ingrid Bergman who was starring in the 1940 Broadway rival of Liliom|
New York Times, January 23, 2009, p. C1
Fortunately for Molnár, fame and royalties from Liliom and his many other successful plays made him rich. He could
afford to live in the New York City Plaza Hotel the rest of his life, spending
his summers in a “modest lodge” in Montauk Point. He ate most of his meals at a
small delicatessen at Fifty-eighth Street and Sixth Avenue, and there he met
often with members of the Hungarian émigré community, many of whom had been
part of his “New York Crowd” in Budapest. A 1946 profile of Molnár noted that
he rarely went more than a few blocks from his hotel.
In 1946, when the three-part New
Yorker profile of him was published, Molnár’s first wife was in living in
Hollywood where she was “a successful film writer.” His third wife, to whom he
was still amiably married but with whom he did not live, was a theater actress
who that year was playing the Queen in “Maurice Evan’s production of Hamlet." His second wife, the former
Hungarian stage star with great legs, was a prisoner in Hungary for Nazi propaganda broadcasts she made from
Dorothy Thompson left Vienna in 1925 to head the Philadelphia Public Ledger’s bureau in Berlin; in 1927 she quit her job to
marry famed writer Sinclair Lewis and in the late 1930s she became a famous nationally syndicated columnist read three times a week by millions of
Americans. Although Molnár lived in New York City from 1940 to 1952 and Dorothy
Thompson spent several months there every year during this time, there is no
evidence in her archives that she again met Molnár or communicated with him.
 The manuscript is in the Dorothy Thompson Papers. Special
Collections Research Center. Syracuse University.
 John Baxter. 2014. The
Golden Moments in Paris: A Guide to the Paris of the 1920s, Museyon Inc. (pp.
 S.N. Behrman. 1946. Profiles. Ferenc
Molnar. I - Ah, Budapesti. The New
Yorker. May 25, p 28
 S.N. Behrman. 1946. Profiles. Ferenc
Molnar. II - The Red Wig. The New
Yorker. June 1, 1946 p 32
 The New Yorker, May 25, 1946, p. 28. See
 Looking into the reasons for Molnar’s American
popularity. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle,
Nov. 22, 1931, p. 57. (accessed on Newspapers.com)
 The New Yorker,
May 25, 1946, p. 30-31. See note 3. Also seen The New Yorker, June 8, 1946, p. 34..
 S.N. Behrman. 1946. Profiles. Ferenc
Molnar. III - Scene: A Room at the Plaza. The
New Yorker, June 8, p. 36
 Joseph Szebenyei. 1923. Franz Molnar: A Personal Study.
Vanity Fair. January, Vol. 19, p.38
 The New Yorker,
June 1, 1946, p. 32. See note 4.
 Vanity Fair,
1923. See note 10.
 Victim of his own Love Plot. Zanesville Times Signal Sun, Nov 8, 1925. (Accessed on Newspapers.com)
 Zanesville Times Signal Sun. See note
13. According to Vanity Fair (see note 10), she was “The most celebrated and popular
operetta singer of the land”. A 1930 newspaper article described her as still
Hungary’s “most popular music star” though “like the French Mistinguitt, she is
over fifty.” See Merry Mr. Molnar’s Newest Rows with the Ladies. Hamilton Evening Journal, November 29,
 Zanesville Times
Signal Sun. See note 13.
 Mix-up of the Married Molnars and Lovely “Angel Face”. Zanesville Times Signal Sun, August 23,
1925, p. 28. (Accessed on Newspapers.com)
 Playwrights Plots Outdone by their Real Romances. The Ogden Standard-Examiner, September
28, 1924. (Accessed on Newspapers.com)
 The Ogden
Standard-Examiner (see Note 17), Zanesville
Times Signal Sun (see note 13) and Hamilton [Ohio]
Evening Journal (see note 14).
 The New Yorker,
June 8, 1946, p. 32. See note 9.
 The New Yorker,
June 8, 1946, p. 46. See note 9.
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