Friday, November 28, 2014

Hungarian Apache in a Budapest Wurtsel: Dorothy Thompson Talks to Ferenc Molnár about Liliom and Life

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.[1] 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.

A Wurtsel?

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 the city….

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 data base. So either the use of this slang word was rare or was limited to Europe.  Perhaps she made it up.

Budapest Apache

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.[2]

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.

Molnár’s Liliom

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.[3]  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 Yorker:

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.[4] 
Movie Poster for Fritz Lang
version of Liliom, 1934
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 fondly.[5]

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.
Scene from a Budapest Production of Liliom

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 ) 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 .
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 classics.

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.[6]  A 1931 study by the New York Public Library showed that he “is the most popular of present-day European dramatists."[7]  To get a taste of Molnár’s wit and style, read his one-act play, A Matter of Husbands, here:

Thompson Talks to Molnár

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.[8]
Dorothy Thompson in 1920
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.[9]

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 was eloquent:

Because 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.

Molnar the Apache

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.[10]. According to the New Yorker, Molnár’s friends said that Liliom is Molnár.[11]
Margit Vesci

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.”[12] A 1925 newspaper article wrote about her gifts as journalist and poet, noting “She was the center of Budapest intelligentsia.”[13]  

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.”[14] 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.
Sari Fedak

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.”[15]  In another article, she was called “an angel-faced actress, considered by many the most beautiful woman in Hungary.”[16] 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."[17]   

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 States.
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 Angry Wives.[18]
Portsmouth Daily Times, Oct. 3, 1925

The Rest of the Story

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 he did.   
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.[19] 

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 Vienna.[20]

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.


[1] The manuscript is in the Dorothy Thompson Papers. Special Collections Research Center. Syracuse University.

[2] John Baxter. 2014. The Golden Moments in Paris: A Guide to the Paris of the 1920s, Museyon Inc. (pp. 21-22)

[3] S.N. Behrman. 1946. Profiles. Ferenc Molnar. I - Ah, Budapesti. The New Yorker. May 25, p 28

[4] S.N. Behrman. 1946. Profiles. Ferenc Molnar. II -  The Red Wig. The New Yorker. June 1, 1946 p 32

[6] The New Yorker, May 25, 1946, p. 28. See note 3.   

[7] Looking into the reasons for Molnar’s American popularity. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov. 22, 1931, p. 57. (accessed on

[8] The New Yorker, May 25, 1946, p. 30-31. See note 3. Also seen The New Yorker, June 8, 1946, p. 34..

[9] S.N. Behrman. 1946. Profiles. Ferenc Molnar. III - Scene: A Room at the Plaza. The New Yorker, June 8, p. 36 

[10] Joseph Szebenyei. 1923. Franz Molnar: A Personal Study. Vanity Fair. January, Vol. 19, p.38

[11] The New Yorker, June 1, 1946, p. 32. See note 4.  

[12] Vanity Fair, 1923. See note 10.

[13] Victim of his own Love Plot. Zanesville Times Signal Sun, Nov 8, 1925. (Accessed on

[14] 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, 1930.

[15] Zanesville Times Signal Sun. See note 13.

[16] Mix-up of the Married Molnars and Lovely “Angel Face”. Zanesville Times Signal Sun, August 23, 1925, p. 28. (Accessed on

[17] Playwrights Plots Outdone by their Real Romances. The Ogden Standard-Examiner, September 28, 1924. (Accessed on

[18] The Ogden Standard-Examiner (see Note 17), Zanesville Times Signal Sun (see note 13) and Hamilton [Ohio] Evening Journal (see note 14).

[19] The New Yorker, June 8, 1946, p. 32. See note 9.

[20] The New Yorker, June 8, 1946, p. 46. See note 9.

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