New York City And The Hungarians
( Originally Published 1924 )
From almost any street of the German quarter you can enter the Hungarian one. For it runs parallel with it from Tenth Street north. The Hungarian district takes a bit of Second Avenue as its main street, from Ninth Street to Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets, and then, extending eastward, it sinks below the lower avenues, A and B, and with few interruptions runs along in the same way to Sixtieth Street. There the Magyar district takes a short jump of about ten or twelve blocks where the Czecho-Slovaks live. Skirting their territory, the Hungarian quarter continues from it to Eighty-sixth street, always running parallel with the German district.
New York is the second largest Hungarian community in the world, Budapest, the capital of Hungary, being the first. There are between a hundred and forty and a hundred and fifty thousand Hungarians in New York, and most of them live in the district alluded to. You can easily follow their traces by the signs in the windows. Do not expect the word "Hungarian" to appear very frequently. The Hungarian seldom refers to himself as such; he prefers the word "Magyar." And though the world has occasionally spoken with horror of Attila and Arpad as Huns, no Hungarian has ever looked upon Attila or Arpad with other eyes than those of admiration. And even the epithet thrown at the man who brought them to Europe a thousand years ago from Asia, "the Scourge of God," is not displeasing to Magyar ears. A Magyar respects force, respects violence, respects anything that results from force and violence. Indeed, one is no sooner in the presence of a group of Magyars, at home in one of the cafes in their own district, than one feels the air thick with passion, violent and active. The Magyars are great lovers and good haters. They are a race of hard workers and hard livers.
Long before the women of other nationalities had thought of independence, the Hungarian woman had it.
No one who has visited Budapest could have failed to notice the freedom of carriage and of action of the Magyar woman. A thousand years is only as yesterday in the psychology of a people. The Magyars invaded Europe with their women, who rode side by side with the men and fought side by side with them, hacking their way through most of the countries they passed. The horde of Magyars was not composed of men only. And their women knew no tents. The heat of the ridden horse between saddle and back served to cook the strips of meat underneath. Women fighting side by side with men under such conditions are the sort who have equal rights with their men, even if more recent political conditions have not given them votes. A Hungarian household is ruled by the woman. The Hungarian woman is an excellent business woman. There are very few Hungarian women artists, painters, writers, or musicians, but a good many of the cares elsewhere incumbent upon men are lifted from Hungarian husbands' shoulders and taken over by their wives. In New York, in the restaurants and cafes and pastry-shops and in the embroidery business, in which a good many Hungarians are engaged, or in any other business that they happen to be in, the Hungarian woman is the actively engaged member of the firm. The husband is frequently the ornament, the official owner. The Hungarian woman recognizes rights of her man aside from family life. The wife attends to business while the husband, with waxed mustache and sleek oiled hair, is taking a stroll or going visiting with several of his friends at a cafe. There is no servility. The women are capable masters because they are good servants.
Many of the European countries adjacent to Hungary consider Hungary a breeding-place for servant-girls. Indeed, in my own country, Rumania, although there has been a long-standing enmity between the two peoples, I venture to say that eighty per cent of the servant-girls are Hungarian women. They are being brought down in batches, hundreds, by employment agencies. The children in most households- learn to speak a little Hungarian; for the servant-girls never stay long enough anywhere to learn the language of the country. As soon as they have accumulated a little money from their wages they return home to spend it in their own way, mostly as dowry for a husband.
A good many of these customs still prevail in the Hungarian district here among the more recently arrived immigrants, and will prevail subconsciously among them for generations yet to come. The institution of dowry giving is not one likely to die very soon among them. And yet no-where is there as intense passion as among the Hungarians. I have often wondered whether the music alone is Gipsy; I have often wondered how much of Gipsy blood has been infused in the Magyar by the children of the Ganges ! There is a certain nearness of race, also, the Magyars being Asiatics as the Gipsies are. Indeed, there is even great kinship of language. The "deep Calo," the secret language of the Gipsy, contains a good many words like the Magyar idiom.
The houses of the Hungarian district in New York are more or less of the modern tenement type. Outwardly, in structure, those houses do not differ from any other houses anywhere. It is within that the homes are different from the homes of the people of other nationalities, al-though the rooms are littered with most of the good-for-nothing furniture manufactured somewhere and sold on the lower East Side on the instalment plan. Ah, those poor chairs and tables, rickety and weak, slapped together in any way, varnished and polished to look as if they were of some use, and which are semblances of what they pretend to be as long only as they stay in the parlor as ornamental pieces ! Superposed upon this ready-made comfort is the Hungarian woman's own love for color and arrangement of such kind as she has seen in her own home, across the Carpathian Mountains, or on the borders of the Tisza River.
But it is in the kitchens of these houses, spick and span, with walls hung full of copper kettles and copper pots and colored dishes, flowered and deep, with here and there a piece of earthenware brought from home or sent by some loving relative to the exiled ones, that one can notice the differences of national character. Love of good food, spicy and tasty, is one of the characteristics of the Hungarians. At home the kitchen, which is generally also the largest part, is the most important room. It is because of love of food and drink that the kitchen is such an important institution in a Hungarian home.
There is scarcely a single industry or a single art in which the Hungarians of the city are not engaged, yet very few of their women work in factories or shops. There are hardly more than one tenth of the Hungarian population of second generation in this city. I doubt if there are that many. And yet they have already acclimatized themselves to a certain degree and have taken root in all the professions and industries. There are any number of carpenters and bricklayers and iron-workers, music teachers (a profession in which they excel), with a considerable number of waiters and a preponderant proportion of business people of all sorts. The embroidery business is almost exclusively in their hands. There are more than four hundred Hungarian restaurants spread over the city, for the savor of their food is now beginning to be appreciated everywhere.
But given conditions as they are, it is not in their places of business or in their homes that one can see the Hungarians at their national best. There is a restaurant and wine-house at Eighty-first Street and Avenue A. A Gipsy music band plays there during the dinner-hour and late into the night. The walls are decorated by a man who was until not long ago known as a sign-painter or something of the sort. But after he had decorated the walls with scenes from his native land, artistic New York flocked evening after evening to look at them. Some of the panels on the wall have the simplicity and beauty of El Greco's. It is interesting to observe that the proprietor did not appreciate the beauty of the paintings. They seemed to him too crude. They were not the conventional things he had been accustomed to see in the lithographs that had formerly been hung in the place. It was only after Alexander Popini, the artist, had offered to buy the panels at three times the price the proprietor had agreed to pay that the artist got his money. Hung with vines over a latticework ceiling, the white pine tables covered with red peasantish spreads, with a band of Gipsy musicians at the end of the hall and a few dancers always in national Hungarian costume, the place was a great attraction for those who were homesick for their own land. Rigo, the celebrated Gipsy violinist, used to play there- nightly. But the sensational Gipsy's performances have greatly contributed toward the deterioration of the place. Broadway, having discovered it, insisted on being there nightly after theater hours. Seizing upon the popularity that had been gained, the proprietor increased his prices until the native element completely abandoned it.
It was Alice's third visit to New York in one year. And every time she had come from Jamestown she had been disappointed that I did not take her to hear Costica, the Hungarian Gipsy violinist.
She had heard of Costica's great adventure, how a princess, a real princess owning castles and palaces, had abandoned titled husband and children and eloped with a plain Gipsy fiddler from one of the cafes on a Parisian boulevard.
The affair had been an international scandal. Several sensational novels with the affair as a motif had colored it and had given to the two principals a sort of heroic glamour which they enjoyed, for they were both theatrical.
New York being the center of the world's vortex, all, ultimately, are swerved here. And thus it happened that, at the death of the princess, Costica, who had drunk and gambled away the palaces and chateaux at Monte Carlo and Cairo, Costica, the Gipsy, raked enough money together to come to New York to trade on his fame.
He bluffed through several concerts in New York. In truth, one is forced to say that he was a very poor fiddler, and people did not display satisfaction. The dear besilked and beribboned children of fortune sat in their boxes and wondered and admired . . . the princess who had had the courage. And in the galleries the less beribboned children of toil felt in the same way.
Having bluffed through a few concerts, Costica drank and gambled away his money again, and soon the best he could get was a job as the fiddler at a restaurant famous for its food and its Tokay.
News, sensational news, travels through unknown channels. In a month all the young girls from shops and schools, and the less young ones living within a radius of a thousand miles, knew that Costica played at such and such a place. And those who had a chance to come to New York to see him did so and are still doing so. The Hungarian restaurant has never had so many out-of-town guests. They come in droves; excursions are arranged for the purpose.
But to return to Alice. It was the third time she had asked me to take her to hear Costica. So, unable to refuse a third and last time, I promised. Needless to say, Alice was busy that day from early in the morning to the dinner-hour. She fussed enough with her toilette to make one think she was preparing for the ambassador's ball. The restaurant not being far from my home, we walked the four blocks.
"You know," said Alice, "I am so excited, so upset. Fancy, I shall hear Costica! I shall see him! Dear me, I shall never forget it! You know, mother read the novel about him. I was only ten years old then, but I stole the book from the shelf and read it. . . . Oh! I am so excited!"
I did not want to disillusion her. I hoped the illusion could be kept up, for her sake.
We had reserved our table. Costica was at a table next to ours. I greeted him as we entered but did not tell Alice who the man was. You see, Costica was eating his dinner, and in an inartistic way, using his fingers where a fork could have done perfect duty.
I gave Alice the seat overlooking the whole place. She thought the restaurant had atmosphere, European atmosphere. I did not tell her that all the guests were out-oftowners, like herself, Anglo-Saxons, who had come to see Costica as they go to see the pyramids—one of the sights of the world, a Baedeker curiosity.
"It 's so exciting!"
The soup was taken away cold.
"When does he begin to play?"
The meat was taken away untouched.
"Why don't you eat, Alice?"
"I 'm not a bit hungry."
"Red, white ?"
"Dear me, dear me, what 's all the noise?"
"It 's Costica getting ready to play."
Every one listened to him for a few minutes in silence. Afterward three hundred men and women began to whisper remarks. And those whispers completely drowned the sound of Costica's violin.
I watched Alice. Her eyes had grown to twice their ordinary size. Yet in a few moments the muscles of her face relaxed, a little too much, I thought, and a cynical line dragged down the corners of her lips.
"I don't see why a princess should have left her husband, children, palaces, and castles for that man," she finally said. I did not answer.
"You hear? Did you hear what I said?"
"I did, Alice."
"I was wondering why a Gipsy should abandon a perfectly beautiful free nomad life for a princess, and that."
There is another place on Eighty-second Street which was opened for the native element after the first one had become a Broadway resort. While visitors at the newer place are not frowned upon, they are not catered to as eagerly as in the other place. The new one is plainly one for Hungarian workers and their families. And there, when the mood seizes them, the assembled audience sings along with the musicians the Hungarian folk-songs. And if a czardas is played, couples rise from the tables, and. putting arms upon shoulders, facing one another, they per-form their national dance until they fall exhausted to the floor. I have seen the czardas performed at this restaurant by thirty or more couples until absolute exhaustion came. And while they were resting, a woman of about forty-fiver formerly a very celebrated singer in Budapest, with a warm voice which was already cracked, sang such songs that the Magyars wept and screamed and writhed in pain, It is the Hungarian's idea of a good time, to let down the bars and free his starved passions. How ridiculous the European clothing they wear, when they are so stirred. How eager they seize upon anything in the place that has color, even to the table-spread, to drape it around them-selves.
There is Cato, beautiful Cato, who was brought here by her parents when a child. Her soul wandered aimlessly because of her parents' desire to make her an American girl. But she found herself after she had seen the czardas danced and heard the Hungarian songs from which her parents had kept her in their desire to have her an American. And so passionately and beautifully does she now dance the czardas that at Gipsy Land every one sits breathless when she dances. It was difficult for Cato to speak English while in such a mood, although she generally spoke English much more fluently than Hungarian. For though she had never seen it, the music and the dance of her native land made her long for it.
It is the great tragedy of the first generations of all immigrants in this country, whether born here or brought here as young children, that there is always something between them and life. Their parents never cease to speak of their homeland. And there is this new land of the youngsters in which they are strangers, in which they feel it is only the language of the country they are using and that the spirit of it is far from there. It is this longing which when expressed becomes great art. Most of the modern art in America has been produced by first-generation immigrants.
Another great center of the Hungarians is the Hungarian Workers' Home, the pride and the strength of the organized industrials of the Magyars living in the city. The Hungarian Workers' Home on Eighty-first Street is not only the official center of union locals. It has, also, a valuable cultural and educational background. It has a dramatic organization which gives plays by Ibsen, Bjornson, Shaw, and Shakspere, wonderfully directed and beautifully acted. It is from the Hungarian Workers' Home that word about the Hungarian playwright Molnar was first breathed. Since then the American stage has had occasion to see many of the plays of the Oscar Wilde of the Magyars. Works like "Liliom," "The Swan," "Lunzi," are gems in the world's dramatic literature. And Molnar is not alone among the great dramatists of Hungary. There is Lajos Biro, and Vajda, whose play, "Fata Morgana," created such a sensation only last winter. At the Hungarian Workers' Home there are weekly concerts of considerable importance, and exhibitions of paintings, and lectures on arts and literature, as well as courses in English. There is no similar institution in the whole city, and it is one of the most frequented places of the district.
Among Hungarian artists living here are men like Hugo Gellert, whose strong pencil has caught with great charm the life of the laborer of the city; Willy Pogany, one of the most famous of portraitists and illustrators, is one of the most sought-after painters. His work for the stage has made him famous the world over. But best of all are his illustrations to "Gulliver's Travels," which surpass any-thing done before. Essentially, as a painter and a colorist, Willy Pogany harks back to Hungarian traditions. One could unmistakably recognize his nationality by looking at any one of his paintings. They have the flavor of Tokay wine and Gipsy song.
There has been something of a constellation of young Hungarian violinists who have made their appearance in New York and over the country within the last few years, chief of whom are Munkacsy, the son of the great Hungarian painter, Dulci Kerekiarto, and a number of others. Hungarian music needs no introduction here. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies and the Brahms Hungarian Dances, really Hungarian Gipsy music, have already given a taste of what Hungarian music is like.
Since the war there has been a great exodus of Hungarians back to their homeland; for a good many, having saved considerable amounts during the war, were anxious to go home and see their people. Many of them have remained there, caught between the different strifes that have rent their homeland. A good many of them were desirous to wait out until things should become quiet, impossible as it is for them, because of the immigration quota, to bring their relatives and friends here with them. Intellectuals who were living here before have also returned home. Many of them have played a considerable role in the readjustment process of Hungary, a readjustment of which a good many things are better left unsaid. The bloody pogroms against Jews in the principal cities of Magyarland rivaled quite successfully the pogroms of old Russia. It has always been a mystery to me why we have heard in American papers so little of what happened there ! I have never understood the reason for that silence.
There are a great number of Jews of Hungarian origin living in this city, and most of them live in the Hungarian district among their Christian brethren. The Hungarian Jews, though there are among them some who are strictly orthodox, are much more liberal than the Jews of other nations. There have been mixed marriages in Hungary for the last hundred years. Even the type of the Hungarian Jews is totally different from the type of any other Jews.
Neither do they speak Yiddish, the language spoken by almost all the Jews except the Spanish ones. The Hungarian Jews here have their separate synagogues, not be-cause their rites of worship are very different from the others, but because of their clannishness, and because of their feeling of superiority, by reason of the fact that they had political equality in Hungary long before the Jews of other countries were so privileged.
Among the principal Hungarian churches are the Roman Catholic Church of St. Stephen of Hungary, on Fourteenth Street, and the Fourteenth Street Presbyterian Church. The First Magyar Presbyterian Church on Sixteenth Street is led by the Rev. Michael Kozma. Many Hungarians attend these Presbyterian churches because of their similarity in doctrine to the Protestant churches of Hungary, and the Presbyterian Magyar Mission operates a settlement-house on East 116th Street. There is also the Hungarian Reformed Church on Sixty-ninth Street and the First Hungarian Baptist Church, led by the Rev. W. Dulitz, who also has charge of a mission in Brooklyn.
There are three Hungarian daily newspapers in the city. The "Amerikai Magyar Nepszava" is edited by Geza D. Berko, who also edits the "Berko Kepes Ujsazga" ("Illustrated News"). There is also the "Szabadsag" ("Liberty"), and the socialist "Elore," edited by Charles Varga, which for the last two years has been gotten out cooperatively by its employees, who also manage the shop where the paper is printed. There is also the "Amerikai Magyarsag," a semi-weekly edited by Lorand Simay ; and the "Sportvilag" is devoted to sports. Martin Himler is editor of the weekly "Hungarian Miners' Journal" and Ernest I. Mandel of the weekly "Munkaslap," another labor paper. All of these are very ably edited and anxious to convey in the Hungarian language the spirit and the soul of what is happening in this country. Plays and books are reviewed and commented upon, and a 'good many things are translated from the American into the Hungarian, especially now when they are so much pleased with the fact that some of their great writers and painters have won recognition here.
I went the other day to hear "L'Amore de Tre Re." Not liking the music of the first act, I looked around me. When my eyes had accustomed themselves to the semi-darkness I discovered an old Hungarian friend in the next box. With him was a beautiful woman. During the first intermission we were introduced. "Mme. Solmers," my friend said, "an old friend of mine." Then they went out to stroll in the foyer.
I sat waiting for the second act to begin—the second and best of the three of that opera—but my mind was away. Solmers; where and when had I heard that name? I was sure I had heard it in connection with some great tragedy, but could not recall when and what.
The music began, the curtain was parted, and lofty love-scenes followed the aimless coming and going, singing and posing of the principals. During the great scene of passion I heard the short, crisp laugh of Mme. Solmers. Our eyes met. It was as though we said, "That fifteen-minute kiss is a boring business." But while the thing went on, Didur, immense in kingly robes, but blind, appeared on the stage. Muzio, after having seen her lover escape, sang beautifully and acted splendidly but did get into the hands of the ferocious old man, who then proceeded to choke her in full view of the audience. It was a most realistic piece of work. Suddenly I heard a cry, and my friend was half carrying, half leading Mme. Solmers out into the hall.
I did not see them during the third act. After the performance I found my friend, wild-eyed and despondent, sitting down to a cup of wine at Gipsy Land.
"Yanosh," I asked, "what happened to your friend?"
"Oh! I am the most stupid, the most tactless ass under the sky," he answered after offering me the chair opposite him. "You know who she is, don't you?"
"I do remember the name, but not the connection."
"Awful," Yanosh cried. "Don't you know she is the wife of the Hungarian actor, Solmers, who died insane some years ago ?"
"I remember now."
"But what you don't know is how he became insane. They were playing—she and her husband—a most realistic tragedy in the theater of Budapest. In that tragedy a woman married a painter, an artist of high rank, and proceeded by her extravagance to ruin him, driving him to commercialize his art. At the end he is nothing but an unknown quantity, a memory, an example of what artists should not do. An article in a magazine written by an eminent critic tells it all pitilessly. The artist reads it. Tears stream down his face. He looks up to his wife, expecting a consoling word from her, but her face is hard and cold. The article dishonors her; she can no longer face her friends. And, what is more, every word is true. He had deteriorated. `But,' argues the man, `you know why I have done it, don't you?' and he points at the luxurious things about him and to his wife ; `why and for whom?'
"Oh,' answers the woman angrily, 'nonsense! If you had been something real you would have gone on the real way regardless of me and done your work.' The painter leaps from his chair like a tiger. His hand clutches the woman's throat, and he murders her.
"Well, the Solmerses were playing that. Solmers was a capable actor. He had married his wife at the beginning of her career and taught her everything he knew. She had genius; she had talent. The morning after the premiere the Budapest papers were wild about her and dismissed him with a few kind words, `A very capable actor,' and all that, you know. They quarreled—professional jealousy. He accused her of monopolizing the stage ; she answered back, and it wound up with her saying that if he had been a great actor he would have shown it before all his hair had fallen out. He was just beginning to get bald.
"That night they played. There was liquor on his breath, but he played better than usual. The last act he did marvelously. Tears actually streamed down his face, and he found such new accents in his voice that she was thrilled, and regretted all she had said to him. But when the moment came for that tigerish leap, she gave a horrible yell. She knew herself in the power of a maniac, who was going to strangle her in view of the whole audience.
"The stage-manager became suspicious of the too-realistic acting. He lowered the curtain. He had a hard job to loosen Solmers's hands from the throat of his wife. She still bears the marks on her throat.
" `A most realistic performance,' said the critics the following day.
"Solmers never came to himself after that. He died in a strait-jacket. Now, tell me whether I am not the most tactless man under God's blue sky to take her to hear and see that second act ? How stupid ! How stupid !"
And my friend was thinking of his own tragedy while telling the other.