Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"intihar etti"

Guerrilla Girls: Kandil Mountain.

Some smiles can kill, some will break your heart; and it's easy to see that the picture above fits into the latter category. In October 2007, when I started posting online, I began by writing about a young PKK soldier code-named Devrim Siirt, who died on Cudi (Judi) Mountain, SE Turkey, in 2005. Her photograph aroused the same feelings--delight, sorrow, confusion, anger, more sorrow--that I feel when looking at these girls. Who are they? What path brought them to this snowy place, where life is hard and violent death a real possibility? I asked similar questions about Aynur, the beautiful girl who became "Devrim Siirt." Her ending was sad, I noted, but she probably had attained some glimpse of happiness and freedom. And it could have been so much worse. She could have died alone.

She could, in other words, have committed suicide. "On mourra seul," Pascal wrote: "We Die Alone" it is rendered in the title of David Howarth's classic book of wartime adventure. An alternate translation, "One dies alone," makes it sound aristocratic, part of a code that, like it or not, all of us must follow. But while the act of dying is of necessity something that we go through on our own, few people would deny that the presence of friends makes it seem a little more attractive, a little more human. In fact, the title of Howarth's book, which concerns a man who ultimately survives, tells only half the story. "We die alone," it should say, "but we live on with the help of others."

This is why suicide--and I am not speaking of suicide bombing, a low and repulsive act--is such a crushing event. When the remains have been carried away, and the last tears are fallen, we are left with the image of a human being, desolate and solitary, slouched in some dusty corner where her (or his) final thoughts are too terrible to contemplate.

And yet, it is an image that won't go away, especially to anyone who bothers reading the headlines from Kurdistan. One night recently I was scanning Firat News, the pro-PKK news service, for items of interest, and a story jumped out at me. The dateline was 19 April. A "young girl" had committed suicide (intihar etti, in Turkish) in a village in the southeast of Turkey.

The young lady in question was named Nazli, and she was seventeen. On the previous night, it was reported, she had taken the opportunity when the house was empty to go into a room and, using a rope, had hanged herself from the ceiling. The family found her when they returned.

This, of course, is as sad as death can get. And yet, something about it doesn't sound right. "The inquiry is continuing," said the story. Well, yes. But probably it won't continue very far. What can the police (or in this case, the military gendarmes who keep watch over Kurdish villages) do? They could start by asking the family why they all just happened to be gone at that moment. (This was in a dirt-poor village, in a high-altitude region called Baskale, where the temperature was probably near freezing and there surely wasn't a great tradition of going out on the town at night.) They could ask where Nazli got the rope, and whether or not she had been depressed. They could ask about family conflicts. They could ask if she had "dishonored" the family in some way.

The last question is the most important, for Nazli's death has all the hallmarks of the latest trend: compulsory self-administered honor killings. I refer, of course, to the Kurds' disgrace, a tradition that ranks right up there with genital mutilation, Indian bride-burning, and all the other ways in which women are brutalized, exploited, and murdered in the name of rules that were made up by men. Until a few years ago, "honor killings" in Turkey were not strictly classified as murder. If a girl did something to "disgrace" the family, such as wearing the wrong clothes, seeing the wrong boy, etc., then the family would get together and choose one of the girl's brothers, usually the youngest, to kill her and take the rap. If the boy was young enough, and below the age of majority, he would usually escape with a mild sentence.

Now the game has changed. The Turkish government, in response to demands from the European Union, has considerably stiffened the penalties. (Note that only demands from the EU got them to do it.) Life in prison is now the mandatory sentence. But this hasn't stopped the honor killings. Now the girls are required to kill themselves.

Think of it: "You have dishonored us. Only you can cleanse this stain from our family. Kill yourself." Now try getting it as a text message on your cell phone. That's the opening of a 17 July 2006 story from the New York Times. The girl in the story, Derya, got as many as 15 of these text messages a day from her uncles and brothers. In the end she got lucky and found a women's organization in Batman, her home town (pop. 250,000), that took in girls like her. But that only happened after she had tried without success to drown herself in the Tigris River and hang herself with a rope. (An uncle cut her down after the last attempt: presumably not the same uncle who initially texted her and told her to off herself.)

These stories are only the crocodile's eye peeking up from the river; the rest of the beast will show itself any time you choose. In this case, it's a matter of going to the "Ara" window ("Search" in Turkish) of Firat News and typing the words "intihar etti" in the blank space. A tap on the key and there it is: page after miserable page.

The stories don't all concern young girls, though they are a big part of it. Worldwide the majority of suicides are males. Though not the majority in Kurdistan, male suicides are plentiful enough. A disturbing number of them are young Kurds who have been drafted into the Turkish Army. These young men are especially vulnerable, subjected as they are to endless harangues about Ataturk, the Fatherland, and the superiority of the Turkish race, and this after having witnessed police brutality as a regular part of growing up. On April 3, for example, a young man in Istanbul set himself on fire rather than go into the Army, while only the day before a Kurdish soldier in Edirne (Adrianople), near the Greek-Bulgarian border, ended his life with a bullet. On April 1 Firat News summarized five suspicious Army deaths in the previous two months, and the headlines go on from there: a gendarme shoots himself near Baskale, a sergeant does it with a hand grenade, another soldier shoots himself in Diyarbakir, another in Silopi, on the Iraqi border. All this leads Firat News to dub the Turkish Armed Forces "the world's most suicidal army."

In Kurdistan, however, it is still the women and girls who commit the majority of suicides. In Diyarbakir, for example, from 1996 to 2001 fully 58% of suicides were women and girls, and similar rates hold true for other provinces in the region. Again, this goes directly against patterns documented throughout the world. In 2006 the U.N. sent a Turkish woman, Prof. Yakin Erturk, a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, to the southeast of Turkey to investigate the rash of female suicides. "The majority of women in the provinces visited live lives that are not their own," she reported: "Diverse forms of violence are deliberately used against women who are seen to transgress [the conservative patriarchal] order. Suicides of women in the region occur within such a context."

No surprise in any of this. Prof. Erturk goes on at length in the language of a sociologist, and she is unable to point to an exact link between the suicides and honor killings. But the message is clear: to be a woman in Turkey is bad enough; to be a woman in the Southeast is to court death. The bright spots are few. Women are organizing, often at great risk; NGO's are popping up, providing shelter and counseling to girls in danger. A nationwide organization, "The Purple Roof," based in Istanbul, works to provide resources. But still, the suicides go on.

All of which brings us back to the guerrilla girls and their smiling faces. Obviously they have put themselves in grave danger. If life is hard in places like Diyarbakir and Batman, it is twice as hard in the caves and rocks of the Zagros range. But these young women made a choice. They used their free will, such as it was, and went to the mountains.

And they are not the only ones who are striking out. Tuesday's (4/29/08) Kurdish papers carried a story about another woman, a traditional Kurdish woman who should have been passive but was not: a woman almost Sophoclean in her grandeur. The place: Cizre, a city on the Tigris near the Iraqi border. A totally Kurdish town, except for the Turkish troops that occupy it. The red banners with white lettering are stretched across the streets like a taunt: "How happy is he who calls himself Turk." This is as pro-PKK a place as you will find in the Southeast. In the '90s the two sides fought gun battles in the streets. On Monday an Army delegation arrived, carrying the body of Pvt. Mesut Sanir, killed in action among mountains near the town of Bingol. The private, the army messenger told his mother, had "fallen a martyr" in the battle.

But Kumru Sanir, the boy's mother, was having none of it. "My son has not fallen a martyr!" she told the spokesman. "You send brother to fight against brother and kill each other, and then you come to tell us he is a martyr. My son is not a martyr!" The soldiers, looking embarrassed, said nothing. The boy's older sister was equally bitter, noting that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, sends his children to school in America, "while he sends ours to fight in the mountains." The older sister says nothing about her plans for the future, but we can be sure that she is weighing her options.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My Life in Art (Attic Peninsula, 1970)

"Take that, Gringo!" [Fernando Sancho]

My death came in a blaze of gunfire, as bullets splintered the rocks, my Schmeisser machine pistol burped its last, and I fell twisting and screaming into the dirt. It was, in other words, a happy ending: we got it in one take, using only a few feet of 16mm Ektachrome, a minimum expenditure of 9mm blanks, and one string of powder caps lain across the ground to simulate the ricochets. Yes, I hammed it up shamelessly during my death scene, which resulted in a nasty gash on my right index finger when I pitched onto the karstic limestone of Greece. But the hero was saved from my Nazi villainy, and the good guys prevailed. As for my accomplice, a red-haired traitor named Maria, she was taken out and shot. All the while, behind the rocks some 300 yards away, the tourist buses enroute to the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, where Byron's famous graffito stands chiseled into the marble, rolled past undisturbed.
This was kinematographia, as perpetrated under the Colonels' junta. Political subservience garnered the money; speed, economy, and convenience ruled the show; hard-core nationalism sold the tickets; and I was making twelve dollars a day.

It had begun before dawn on a Monday, when we gathered outside the offices of Pallis Athena Art Films*. The building, a four-story lump of brown stucco and concrete, lay in a seedy district near the Bouboulina Street Police Headquarters, a place of notorious grimness in the heart of Athens.
My friend Michael, who got me the job, was waiting out front when I arrived. Michael came from Munich, but with his fine features and brown hair he might have looked at home anywhere from the Urals to Big Sur. I met him and his French girlfriend Sylvie at a Lenten festival in Thebes, only a week after my arrival from England. Michael was tall, and he looked good in uniform, especially a Wehrmacht uniform, so the Greeks made use of this talent. He had done two other movies for Pallis Athena, and in both he played Nazis. In the film immediately preceding "Crete Aflame," the movie we were now shooting, he had commanded a firing squad; before that he tortured prisoners.
Michael, clad in jeans, a leather jacket, and a filter-tipped cigarette, was pacing back and forth on the sidewalk as I approached. When he saw me, he stopped and smiled. "Good," he said. "You came." The cigarette glowed red as he sucked hard, then blew smoke into the dark.
"What's happening?" I asked.
I looked around. Lights were on in a second-story office above us. On a wall I could see what looked like a movie poster with Greek characters splashed across it in red. This was the nerve center of Johnny Pallis's film-making operations. Pallis, Michael told me, was in tight with the junta; this allowed him to find production money that eluded others.
"Stavros says, we wait."
Stavros, Michael explained, was the assistant director. He ran the show for Eliadis, the famous director whom Johnny Pallis had hired to make the film.
It was cold that morning: I had walked over from my room on Tsakalof Street, near Kolonaki Square. In the markets of Athens, trucks were arriving heaped with citrus from Crete and the Peloponnese, but this tropical abundance could not hide the fact that we were getting uncomfortably close to frost. As a babble of Greek filled the air about us, Michael and I paced and shivered. Men arrived, talked, went inside, then came out again. Some of them got into cars and drove off. None brought enlightenment.
"What scenes are we doing today?" I asked.
"Ve don't know."
I considered this.
"Well, do you know where we're going?"
"Somevhere." Michael pointed his cigarette in a vague southern direction. "Sometime, they just go anywhere and shoot."
"You're kidding."
"Ja, ja. They get in ze truck, they look around and find a place. Then they shoot."
"I hope they have a script."
"Don' vorry, Gordon." Michael waved his cigarette and took another drag. "They vill tell everything."
The pacing continued as cold seeped into our feet. More men came; more left. After fifteen minutes a Ford van pulled up. When new it had been white. A man got out, flung open the side door, and in a rough Hellenic voice issued what seemed to be a command.
"Let's go," Michael said.
With difficulty, we slid onto bench seats that were surrounded by piles of electrical cable and equipment. Two other men occupied the front seats, chain-smoking crew members who either spoke no English or, at five in the morning, had no desire to do so. Michael knew only a little more Greek than I, so with that and the cold any conversation was stillborn.
At that hour the streets were deserted, so we moved fast. Athens in 1970 had few electric signals; they relied upon roundabouts and policemen to control traffic at major intersections. At 5:15 A.M. the place was a Greek motorist's dream. I had no idea where we were going, and neither did Michael, but we were obviously headed away from the harbor of Piraeus toward the east side of the Attic peninsula. After passing through Philothei and the far suburbs of Athens we slowed at a junction in the road. The van's headlights flashed upon an arrow pointing right, and in that arrow appeared the word "SOUNION". We turned south and followed.
By the time our van hit the Sounion road we had left the lights and traffic of the city behind, and hints of daylight emerged from the jagged hills and scrubland to the east. A light drizzle had fallen, and broken clouds dominated a gray sky. I was cold, cramped, and hungry. From my seat on the floor I couldn't see much, but what I did see was Mediterranean landscape, the same thing I had known from years in Turkey: limestone rock, scrubby sage and thyme on the hills, vineyards and olive trees, and an occasional village with whitewashed houses. This part of Attica is called the Mesogeion--literally, the land in the middle (of the peninsula). Every taverna in Athens featured huge barrels of retsina, the wine that is to Greece what JP-4 is to the United States Air Force. The best retsina came from the Mesogeion, and no meal was complete without it.
Fifteen minutes later we turned off the asphalted Sounion highway and headed west up a dirt road. A mountain lay ahead, now visible in the dawn light, and the track began to climb.
This was not a road in the sense used by engineers. Men had not designed or built it; they had quarried it and left it to decay. Steadily but in pain, the van ground upward. An amazing dawn now erupted in the east, a dawn that grew bigger, colder, and more vehement at every turn of the path. The van switched back, spun its wheels in the scree, bounced and grabbed for traction as we ascended to the sky. The golden moat of the Aegean opened beneath, and beyond that the black serrations of Euboea glowered in the light. Inky clouds hung over the summit, while about us the dew-slicked rocks had begun to glow.
After several more miles of abuse, our van came to a dieseling halt on the mountainside. All we could see was wet rock. The clouds over the summit had pulled a curtain across the liberating sunrise. The result was a darkness so extreme it might have been created on a soundstage. As gloom and damp reclaimed the earth, we pushed open the side door and began our day's employment.
I stomped my feet and looked about. Half a dozen cars had parked on the mountainside; nearby a small generator was thrumming, and we could see its cables snaking through the rocks into a bank of fog. Stavros appeared, a cleanshaven, portly young man with shoulder-length hair. He carried a notebook and raised his right hand in greeting.
"You wait," he told us. "Eliadis will come later. I will bring the uniforms."
Besides "Crete Aflame," the current opus, Eliadis had also directed Michael in his previous two films. Stavros supplied further details. The film immediately preceding this had won the Greek equivalent of an Academy Award. Called "To Die in Patras", it dealt with the Resistance in the Peloponnese. Before that he made "The Martyrs of Navplion", which portrayed the Resistance in another part of the Peloponnese. After "Crete Aflame" Eliadis was set to make a film about a German atrocity in the Peloponnesian town of Kalavrita in 1943. Its title: "Weep for Adonis".
"He is very famous," Michael said.
For all of two seconds I was impressed, and then a shiver coursed through me. I looked about for a souvlaki stand, a coffee vendor--anything. All we had was the generator and a bunch of rocks. It was a little after dawn on what looked to be a long day.
"Who's the star?" I asked.
"Fernando Sancho," said Stavros. "He's a big star in spaghetti westerns in Spain." The name, like "Yvonne DeCarlo" or "Lola Montez," sounded too good to be true. Any rational person had to suspect a pedestrian origin lurking behind this romantic moniker: some truant youth, perhaps, from Basking Shark, New Jersey, who had grown a mustache, doused his hair with oil, and run off to the Mediterranean to begin a new life. Fernando Sancho indeed.** After some more small talk, during which Stavros revealed that he would soon be at UCLA Film School, the assistant and his notebook disappeared up the mountain.
We had been told to wait, but standing around on spiny rocks at six in the morning is nobody's idea of fun. Anything seemed better than freezing in place, so with that in mind Michael and I decided to follow the electrical cables up the mountain. The summit (and the formerly glorious dawn) were totally lost in the fog by this time, so it came as a surprise when we came upon the mouth of a cave and a group of crewmen standing in front. Before we could enter, Stavros appeared with a pile of black leather belts and gray German army uniforms draped over his arm. This was a happy sight.
The uniforms were standard-issue Nazi memorabilia, probably purchased at close-out somewhere in Hollywood and used endlessly to revisit the Second World War. The stuff I got was much too big for me, but that was fine because I didn't want to take off my other clothes anyway. I removed my windbreaker parka, pulled on a pair of pants that were big enough for Sergeant Schultz in "Hogan's Heroes," donned a tunic and a jacket over that, then put my parka back on for good measure. Then came the crowning touch: a black steel helmet with an iron cross. I felt a little bit warmer and probably would have been fine, except that my feet were blocks of ice.
"Boots?" asked Michael. "Do you have boots?" Michael wore tennis shoes; I had on a pair of tan work boots.
"No boots," said Stavros. "Not necessary. We shoot--" He groped for the word, couldn't find it, then pointed to his knees and jerked his hand upward. Torso shots only. We could have been in satin toe shoes for all they cared.
At this point a well-fed man of middle-age emerged from the cave. He stopped and talked briefly with one of the grips, who was down on the ground working with the electrical cables, then came over to us. The man wore jodhpurs with short riding boots, and a brown leather jacket over a safari shirt. His thinning hair was combed straight back, and a few curls of it survived above the collar of his coat. He walked over and held out his hand.
"I am Eliadis," he announced.
We were pleased to meet him. Michael he greeted first, and when I took the hand of Eliadis I got the squishy warmth that passes for a handshake in this part of the world. This experience is disconcerting to the average American, who has been taught to squeeze the bejeezus out of anything at the end of a man's wrist. I'd encountered it before with Turkish peasants, but I never got used to it.
Eliadis inspected the two Nazis. Michael repeated the "boots?" question, but Eliadis said he didn't care. He declared us adequately dressed, and began giving us the situation.
"This is story. Boy and girl are inside. They are running from the Germans. The boy loves girl, but girl is a spy. She tells you where they are comings. You come here to kill the boy. En doxi?"
"En doxi." We nodded our heads obediently.
"Do we have lines to speak?" asked Michael.
"Yes, yes, you tell him to put hands up--it's O.K."
"Is there a script we can study?" I asked.
"No script--don' worry 'bout that. You write the words. It's O.K. En doxi?"
"En doxi." We said this without assurance.
"Don' worry. I come back later and we will talk about it. It's O.K." And with that Eliadis strode back into the cave.
A gray-haired, rather handsome man was kneeling by the mouth of the cavern. He had a black cloth bag on the ground before him and was doing something in the bag with a reel of new Ektachrome. He looked up at us.
"This isn't Hollywood," he said in American English.
"What do we do?" I asked.
"Nothing. You do what he said: you wait."
And that's what we did. According to available testimony from the film industry worldwide, this is the chief activity of 90% of the people at any given time on a movie set. Other companies, however, have been known to provide folding chairs, heated trailers, and catered food: what might be called Waiting Lite. Pallis Athena Films had nothing in the budget for that. This was Serious Waiting; not, perhaps, the Heavy Industrial Waiting imposed upon political prisoners, those chained in dungeons, and Aztec human-sacrifice anointees, but waiting of a very high level indeed. In the absence of useful activity we brutalized our feet in an attempt to restore circulation: back and forth, stomp, stomp, to and fro, jump, jump, while Michael sucked on hot cigarette smoke and I did an occasional burst of sprinting in place. Despite the effort my toes stayed pretty much where they were, in that painful state between normality and frostbite.
Most of the activity was taking place inside the cave, where we couldn't see it. Electrical problems--lights, test, connections--were holding things up. The generator rumbled on; the sun remained behind its frigid shroud. An hour and a half after our arrival word drifted out that they were starting. With what? I wondered. We had seen no other actors around, nobody in costume. Michael and I followed the cables into the hole in the mountainside.
Great cave, I remember thinking: Really great cave. And it was: a fabulous place to wear animal skins and hang out with someone prehistoric while cooking up a mastodon; or, on a more contemporary level, an excellent rendezvous for a band of Partisans on the lam from the Germans. A narrow passage that sloped first up, then down, led through jagged rocks into the heart of the mountain. Twenty yards in we came to a great room in the rock, with stalactites hanging from a high ceiling. The walls glowed like a shopping mall in December. People were waiting. The battered camera, set up on a wooden tripod, looked like one that D.W. Griffith could have used.
As cinematic verisimilitude, the glowing walls of the cavern resembled the orchestra that swells whenever a Hollywood couple go out on a sailboat and start singing to each other. Blues, oranges, yellows: every gel in the rack had been pulled out. The boy and girl fleeing the Nazis had just happened to pick a grotto with the best lighting east of Lourdes. The sheer gaudy glory of it all made me forget the dankness and hearken back to my youth. In summer the Ames High School Band would give concerts at the shell in the park (amazing, I know, but true), and our family would always go to sit on the grass, eat popcorn, scratch mosquito bites, and listen to the music. Besides the popcorn and the mosquitoes I especially remember the banks of concealed lights in the band shell, and the way they would be altered to suit the musical mood. A Souza March? Flip on the white bulbs all the way. Something romantic by Rodgers and Hammerstein? Use the warmer tones. Something sombre? The blues. Thanks to the the grips of Pallis Athena Films, who had bathed the cave walls in enough wattage to accompany the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, the band shell of my youth was reborn.
Stavros was leaned over conferring with the cameraman when we walked in, while in the middle of the chamber Eliadis stood talking to two young people, a man and a woman. The young man was very pretty, in the standard Mediterranean mode: dark hair and eyes, medium height. He wore the uniform of the Greek Army, with a Sam Browne belt and a holstered pistol on his hip.
"Is that Fernando Sancho?" I whispered to Michael.
"Him? No, that is Christos. Christos Erosoglou."
"Where is Fernando Sancho?"
"He is in his bed, I think."
"Do you know this--Christos Whatzisname?"
"Ja ja, he is a big star. Ze last film ve shot him. Ze film before than one I broke his arm." Michael smiled slyly.
Stavros sidled over, still carrying his notebook. Once again he assessed our costumes and corrected a couple of my more egregious rumples. Michael leaned toward him.
"Who is the girl?"
"Italian. Gina Malaconti." Michael shrugged his shoulders, to which Stavros added, "She is new."
We assessed Gina with masculine curiosity: red hair, slender body--attractive enough, certainly, but not the Italian earth-mother one might have hoped for, and not really as pretty as her male co-star. She was, however, laboring under the handicap of bobbed 1940s hair and a not-very-attractive cotton print dress. Gina looked blank, uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the presence of all the masculine curiosity that we exemplified. Perhaps she was a blank in real life.
Eliadis barked orders and the shooting began, a series of short scenes with minimal dialogue. The Greek soldier and the girl had sought shelter in the cave, and would ostensibly rendezvous there with Cretan guerillas. Christos spoke Greek, and after considerable coaching Gina responded, haltingly, in the same language. They went through a tedious series of set-ups and scenes. After every one Eliadis would say "En doxi," and they would move on. They never did more than one take per scene. Especially interesting was the acting technique used by our Greek star. "Quaint" charitably described it. On his last night out at the theater, Abraham Lincoln probably saw acting of exactly this sort: raised eyebrows, heavy mugging, the gestures of a semaphorist.
They were shooting in 16mm for blow-up to 35. The camera didn't seem to have much in the way of various focal lengths, nor was there a boom to move it about. The cave floor was highly uneven, and there weren't a lot of places where the tripod would work. Neither actor spoke loudly, nor did anyone call for silence on the set, and it soon became apparent why. There was no sound equipment whatsoever in the cave. They were shooting a silent film.
"This is a Spanish-Italian-Greek production," Stavros explained, as they started a new set-up with the ancient camera. "Later we do dubbing."
I thought for a moment, then looked at him. "Why do we need to learn dialogue?"
Stavros looked at me as if I were brain-damaged. "Eliadis is one good director. He wants it perfect."
No answer was possible. At this point Eliadis turned to Stavros and rattled off a long paragraph of instructions in Greek. He looked at us as he did so.
"Come," said Stavros, starting for the outdoors. "We get ready."
Dawn had passed into mid-morning. At the mouth of the cave, dark gray had given way to a lighter shade of the same color. The sharpness and cold of the rocks, however, had not changed. There, standing in for the ever-scrupulous Eliadis, Stavros directed us for our big scene.
Together we hashed it out. Michael stood the taller of the two of us, and Eliadis had indicated that he should be in charge of our team of assassins. They also only had one submachine gun, so that had to go to Michael. Evidently I would assassinate Christos by eviscerating him with my bare hands.
"O.K.," said Stavros, turning to me. "You speak German?"
"You can learn German if he writes it?"
"Sure." The closest I had come to German was a recording of Tannhäuser highlights. "O du mein holder abendstern" I knew virtually by heart; otherwise, nothing.
Stavros was talking to me. "O.K. You come in this side of the camera, Michael comes in over there." He arranged us accordingly. "You say, 'Put your hands in the air. Stay, don't move around.' Then you say, 'Take his gun.' Michael will go to take the gun from Christos. He says, 'You don't look so good now,' something like that. Then he talks to Gina. He says, uh, 'Is anybody waiting?' Something like that. Gina says No, nobody comes. Then Christos says to her, 'You know these man?' She doesn't say nothing. Michael says, 'Go outside now', something like that. Scene is finish. En doxi?"
"En doxi."
No problem. I had played this scene at least two hundred times during childhood using cap-guns. Stavros gave Michael a couple of scraps of paper, and for the next five minutes they stood and finalized the dialogue, while Michael made a German translation.
There was one minor problem. I was reluctant, however, to point it out. After all, Pallis Athena Films was paying me 350 drachmas for this day's work, which came to just under $12 American. This wasn't as paltry as it seemed: the average restaurant meal was about sixty cents; a litre of retsina set you back 33 cents. I was not exactly in a position to start telling people their jobs; still, it seemed obvious that Stavros had switched roles for Michael and me. Michael stood three inches taller; Eliadis had clearly indicated that he would be superior to me. So why was Stavros giving me lines telling Michael what to do?
The clouds seemed tantalizingly close to parting as we set to work. When learning nonsense syllables it is hard not to let the mind wander, and I was already rehearsing the hilarious and witty report that I would deliver to my girlfriend over that night's retsina.
For twenty minutes we marched up and down, each on his patch of rock, packing in the lines. Like Bela Lugosi, who learned his lines phonetically when he played Dracula, I kept on talking. A couple of times Michael and I would stop and throw lines at each other; but then we would always go back to our pacing.
"This is stupid," Michael said at one point. We had just run through our dialogue again; we felt ready.
"How are your feet?" I asked.
"They are like--eiss! Same word in English, ja?"
"Same. What's stupid?"
"If you have a glass--a mirror--you will see yourself. We look like--idiots."
"In acting you always look stupid. It's part of the deal."
"The deal?"
"The bargain. The arrangement. The ménage. They give you something; you agree to look stupid."
"Like with women!"
I hesitated. I had never felt quite comfortable with the sort of bonhommie that involved standing around and trading generalizations, most of them cynical, about women. But Michael was different. Sylvie, I had learned, was his obsession. Small, dark-eyed, and voluptuous, she had taken over his life the previous summer. Michael, penniless, had been forced to return to Bavaria, but after a few months he found that he could not stay away. And so, with the determination of the hopelessly besotted, he had gathered together the few Deutschmarks he possessed and set out after Sylvie on a Velo-Solex, a one-cylinder moped so puny that it had to be pedaled over hills. On this pitiful vehicle Michael had crossed the Alps and ridden the length of the Balkan peninsula. All for Sylvie, the beautiful Francaise with the amazing body.
I had hesitated when Michael brought women into our discourse, but my discomfort did not last long. As a shaft of sunlight pierced the clouds, Stavros emerged from the cave's mouth and shouted to us to come up. With a last look at my scrawled list of gibberish, I followed Michael back into the cavern.
Inside, the golden-orange stalactites awaited, and we marched before the lights.
"Yanni!" Stavros summoned.
A handsome and attentive young man approached me carrying a tiny bottle of white liquid. He smiled coyly as he showed me the bottle.
"Latex," he murmured.
I gave myself over to him. With a small brush he painted a swab of the stuff two inches down my right cheek, then pinched the flesh together until it stuck.
"Now I make you ugly," Yanni said.
He almost sighed as he said it. He seemed to take my looks so very seriously. After the white gum had set, Yanni took another reddish-brown bottle and proceeded to daub on the darker color. In the end I owned a sabre-scar worthy of a Prussian aristocrat.
Soon Eliadis set to work pushing us around. I would enter on the left; Michael on the right. We had secured our German Army helmets with chin straps.
"Where is the gun?" Eliadis barked at me.
"I don't have a gun," I said.
Eliadis turned to Stavros. He was so annoyed that he forgot to speak Greek. "No gun! Give him gun!" he yelled.
Stavros yelled back, as did the head cameraman, the same gray-haired guy who told me that I was not in Hollywood. Eliadis returned the compliment. Three or four crew members replied at the same time. The message, even in Greek, was clear: there was no gun for me; one submachine gun was all they had. Recriminations ensued. Eliadis turned to Christos, who was standing beside us, with Gina, in the middle of the scene. No one had bothered to introduce us to our colleagues, but then, this was not a company that put a lot of effort into etiquette. Eliadis pointed to the holstered pistol at Christos's side and asked him to turn it over. Christos, quite understandably, objected. How were the German soldiers going to come in and disarm him if he was already disarmed? When they reached for the pistol in his holster it would be gone! No problem, said Eliadis, pointing to Michael: when he takes away the gun the other one (he pointed to me) won't be on camera and you can use the pistol then.
This seemed to clear things up for the moment. Christos unholstered his service revolver and turned it over to me, and one of the grips came up to assure me that it was empty.
"En doxi," said Eliadis. It was time for a brief run-through. At our director's command Michael and I came on barking our lines in the best Prussian manner. Eliadis gave the cue, and action:
"Hold it!" I think I said in German. "Put your hands up and don't move!" I looked at Michael. "Take his gun; be careful."
"No! No!" said Eliadis, "No!" We stopped; Eliadis continued. He pointed to Michael. "You talk first. You are the leader. You give orders to him."
"I wrote this with Stavros," Michael protested. "This is what he told me."
"Stavros is not director: Eliadis is director. It's O.K. You change parts."
"I don't know his words," I said.
"It's O.K., it's O.K.; you learn it. En doxi?"
"En doxi."
My suspicions were right: Stavros had assigned our roles incorrectly. Michael and I exchanged slips of paper, and Eliadis gave us a couple of minutes to look them over. This meant that after forty-five minutes of learning one load of phonetic units I now had a totally new cargo to cram aboard. Immediately I forgot about my cold feet and started to pace nervously about the chamber, mumbling in what was presumably German. A bizarre thought occurred to me. Was this really the language of Goethe, I wondered, or had Michael played some cruel joke upon us? I remembered my friend Bobby, a nuclear physicist and professed Marxist from Turin, whom I had met the previous summer in Turkey. He claimed that while staying with a family in Toronto he had, in the guise of language instruction, drilled their children in Italian vulgarities, including the notion that "Va fangulo" meant "Have a nice day" if they ever got an audience with the Pope. What if--? I looked at Michael: he did seem quite obscenely casual about the situation. It was very hard to concentrate on my lines.
Meanwhile Stavros walked over, pulled another piece of Michael's "script" from his notebook and gave it to Gina. This was to be her reply, in German, when one of us asked her if anyone else from the Partisans was waiting outside. Gina's dark eyes narrowed as she beheld Michael's Teutonic scrawl. She cast about her for guidance, but Eliadis had walked away to talk to the cameraman. The scene had dissolved into a collection of shadows: grips, directors, cameramen and actors, all conversing in the dark corners of the cave. For me at least, the morning's employment seemed to be lurching toward a climax. I continued pacing as I tried to stuff my head with German dialogue for a silent film to be dubbed in later by someone else speaking Greek, Italian or Spanish. Only Michael, sole Deutschophone in the cave, leaned back against an outcrop and relaxed: a soldier of the Reich shod in white sneakers, confident in his ability to reel off something harsh and Teutonic when the time came.
For her part, Gina seemed as flummoxed as I. She stood smoking a cigarette, a wool coat draped around her shoulders, and looked again at Michael's handwriting. Gina read the German words, sucked hard on her filter tip, and blew a jet of smoke into the light. She looked up, and across ten feet of gloomy cavern our eyes met. The moment of recognition passed in an instant, but it was no less real for that. She had seen enough.
The gaze of l'Italiana, though filled with anger, was not directed at me. If there was a moment, I think, when Gina foresaw the sundering of this Gordian knot of incompetence, that was it. Gina must have known what would happen. She could see the lot of us gathering two minutes later, our lines unlearned, slouching toward Fubaristan. She knew we would run through the lines to no avail, and that when asked to speak her own brief response she would hesitate, sputter and begin shouting at Eliadis, at Christos Erosoglou and anyone else who would listen.
"Why should I do this?" she would demand, her Italian dander rising to the stalactites, "There is no sound! Who cares?"
And with that the whole thing would stop. I think she knew that she could bring down all the jury-rigged direction of Eliadis with a stomp of her foot, that in the end, as the cameras rolled for their first and only take, Michael would enter shouting in German, that I would disarm Christos with an American-accented sneer, that I would accost Gina in English, receive a reply in Italian and provoke a wounded response from Christos in Demotic Greek. All this I am sure she could foresee, and that is exactly the way it happened.
With a look of disgust, Gina Malaconti took the note containing her German lines, mashed it into a ball, and sent it flying into a crevice behind a stalagmite.

Eight months after my death on the Sounion road, the movie appeared. A Friday night in October witnessed the gala premiere, complete with cast, crew, and visiting dignitaries. To this I was not invited. The following night, however, I was.
This second night was a kind of poor man's premiere, an event for the plebs but by invitation only. Christos Erosoglou, to his credit, showed up and was rewarded with a chorus of squeals from girls in the audience. He was, however, the only cast member I could see. The producer wasn't there, the director didn't show, and neither did Stavros, who, no doubt, had gone off to UCLA film school as planned. I had seen the producer, Johnny Pallis, only once, when he showed up for a shoot at the Army radio station wearing light blue slacks, tan loafers, and an aloha shirt whose breast pocket strained to hold a 2-inch brick of new 1000-drachma ($33) notes. Why he carried these no one could explain. (Eliadis and the crew simply laughed about it when Pallis had gone.) Maybe they were for bribes; perhaps the large Cadillac he drove didn't suffice for self-advertisement; perhaps, like a Bedouin woman, he had taken to wearing his wealth for adornment. Or maybe he thought that movie moguls dressed that way.
Michael, likewise, absented himself. He and Sylvie, rumor had it, had broken up for the final time during the summer, and he had disappeared soon after. The breakup's climax, we heard, came at midnight outside Sylvie's apartment, when he appeared, Kowalski-like, shouting her name into the void. We found it hard to believe that he had returned to Munich on the Velo-Solex, but anything was possible. His father, a wealthy Bavarian businessman, had previously (another rumor) disowned him. Like so many in the expat community, he had drifted out of our consciousness, never to be seen again.
The theater was on Patission, several blocks past the National Museum. My girlfriend Carol and I arrived to find a sparse crowd and little in the way of hoopla. The seats were threadbare, and they sagged in the middle; but unlike American theaters this one did not have a floor that was coated in congealed soda pop. All in all I found it shabby but genteel, a fitting place to show a cheap melodrama about the War.
After the arrival of Christos, and with no introduction, the film began. In brightest red, over black-and-white newsreel footage of diving airplanes, belching naval guns, and marching troops, the credits rolled. Since they were in Greek, they looked like a vast assemblage of collegiate fraternities and sororities splashed across the screen. But one line in particular caught my attention, and when we saw it Carol and I dissolved in laughter.
The moment, however, passed quickly, and within minutes we were hacking our way through this salt mine of a film. Bad movies can be fun, but "Crete Aflame" was work. First of all, it was in Greek, a language Carol spoke fairly well but of which I remained ignorant. This made it necessary to look at the actors' faces for artistic rewards, and that produced only embarrassment. Fernando Sancho spoke well and wore his Cretan guerrilla costume with great panache, but he was the only person I could see with even the slightest hint of screen presence.
At last came my scenes. My character awoke at night in a straw-filled stable, as a burst of Morse Code cut the silence. I was a German agent, and the traitor Maria was making contact. Carol elbowed me: "You look smashing!" she whispered. Onscreen I donned a set of headphones over my blonde locks, and within seconds I had returned a coded message using a field wireless set. Soon the four of us gathered in the cave, and I was in a shapeless uniform and steel helmet speaking Greek with a disembodied growl.
"Which one is you?" Carol asked.
Cut to the Sounion road, where in quick succession I marched Christos out into the rocks, cocked the slide on my Schmeisser, and was riddled by bullets from a posse of partisans.
"Are you sure that was you?" Carol asked, as we left the theater minutes later, explosions rattling the speakers.
Well might she ask, for my death scene, that climactic moment with which I began this account, had been shot with such an ancient, inadequate lens that I appeared to be some fifty yards away, a tiny figure rolling around in the bottom of a gravel pit.
"At least the credits were good," I replied.
She agreed. They were, in fact, sublime. For there is something magical about the Greek alphabet, with its angular forms and antique associations: a movie screen filled with its characters gives a classical dignity even to lowest forms of art. So it was when those names started appearing in the opening credits of "Crete Aflame." Page after page, screen after screen they rolled, as the newsreel guns roared, the airplanes went down in flames, and the Panzers rolled. And to see, resplendent in the midst of all that Greek, one's own name in plain Latin characters: well, no wonder we laughed. The next time, I might even work for noth--no, scratch that: next time, my fee goes through the roof.

* With the exception below, I have cleverly disguised the name of the production company and its personnel.

** Fernando Sancho was, in fact, a veteran Spanish actor who enjoyed a long career in Euroschlock. lists an astounding 237 movie credits for him, beginning in 1944 and ending in 1990. The titles alone make his entry worth a visit, as they include such classics as "Requiem for a Gringo"[1968], "Too Much Gold for One Gringo"[1972], "Watch Out, Gringo! Sabata Will Return!"[also 1972], "If One is Born a Swine"[1967], and, "And the Crows Will Dig Your Grave"[1972 again]. If you are so inclined, feel free to insert the word "gringo" in the final two entries. In "Django Shoots First"[1966], Sancho even played a character named "Gordon"--or perhaps "Gordo", as he was noticeably stocky. Sancho, born in 1916, died in Madrid in 1990.

[Cross-posted at]

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Pasha and the Gypsy -- Part VI (concl.)

Zsa Zsa with Porfirio Rubirosa: 1954 at Claridges, London

The death of Atatürk, says Zsa Zsa, marked the beginning of the end for her life in Ankara. Burhan was distraught. When she tried to express her sympathy, he turned his back and walked away. Soon she lost another friend when, early in 1939, Sir Percy Loraine left Turkey and became ambassador to Fascist Italy. For the Loraines, Rome was a far more important posting than Ankara. Nobody expected the peace to last much longer, and the Foreign Office considered it vital to send someone of Loraine’s experience to deal with Mussolini.

For Zsa Zsa then, as so many times after, nothing became her marriage like the leaving of it. The “union,” of course, had never existed. She had stumbled upon a kindly but boring diplomat, she had teased him, and he had succumbed. Now she was older. As war enveloped Europe, Zsa Zsa realized once again that her life had to change. And yet, it couldn’t happen overnight. In coming decades Zsa Zsa would master the Art of the Lightning Divorce. The first time, however, was harder.

Even in the aftermath of Atatürk’s death, the round of diplomatic and equestrian life went on. Six months later, in May 1939, Zsa Zsa and Burhan traveled to London with a group of Turkish journalists, whose visit had been sponsored by the British Council. Once again the world of glamour and celebrity opened to Zsa Zsa. She had brought along her best Parisian clothes, and adorned with these she began to catch the eye of photographers.

Among others, she met Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden. Burhan had been invited to lecture on modern Turkey, and at the end of the talk H.G. Wells emerged from the audience to congratulate him. Wells arranged a luncheon for the Belges at the apartment of George Bernard Shaw, at which one of the literary greats (Zsa Zsa thinks it was Shaw) attempted a grab for her under the table.

Soon Eva Gabor arrived in town, accompanied by a tall, blonde, and very handsome Swedish doctor named Eric Drimmer. Drimmer was a celebrity sawbones, numbering among his patients both Greta Garbo and Signe Hasso, a would-be Garbo of the time. Eva had met the handsome Swede in Budapest and, despite Vilmos Gabor’s vehement opposition, immediately determined to marry him. Now they were eloping to London. In the absence of their father, Eva asked Zsa Zsa to give her away. After the ceremony, a simple affair conducted in a Registry Office, Eva and her new husband took the boat train to Southampton, there to board a liner for New York. The two made a gorgeous couple, and Zsa Zsa, left behind with Burhan as Eva set sail for America, almost melted with envy.

Back in Ankara, with what Sir Percy Loraine called its “blank, bleak, deadly monotony,” Zsa Zsa and Burhan drew steadily apart. Zsa Zsa now escaped to her family as often as possible, and she passed almost the entire winter of 1939-40 with Jolie in Budapest and St. Moritz. Burhan began to speak of having children, an idea that Jolie, still ambitious for her girls, argued against. “I have no wife,” complained Burhan, with considerable justification. Through Burhan, who was assigned to accompany them, Zsa Zsa had met two Americans, Lawrence Copley Thaw and his wife Peggy, who had come to Turkey on assignment for the National Geographic. She found their freedom and freshness irresistibly attractive. With Eva now in America, Zsa Zsa too began to look west.

One can feel the vise closing in on Zsa Zsa during that year. In Ankara any exotic attraction had long since palled. Poland had fallen to the Nazis in 1939, and Greece was threatened as well. In France and Belgium, disaster followed disaster. And now Britain was under attack from the air and threatened by invasion. From America, meanwhile, the news from Eva was not good. She was miserably unhappy with her husband. She longed for her family. If only Zsa Zsa could come for a visit, she pleaded, all would be well.

Say this for the Gabors: conventional they were not, nor was any significant artistic talent ever discerned in their ranks; still, if any family was held together by love, it was this one. In all the history of these beautiful, fame-hungry women, I am unaware of any allegations of backbiting, jealousy, or petty feuds among them. They were great friends. They loved each other. In times of trial, they stuck together. Their entire existence seems to have been devoted to being beautiful and enjoying life. For an epitaph, one could do a lot worse.

As 1940 passed into 1941, Zsa Zsa repeatedly implored Burhan to allow her to visit Eva in New York City. He refused. Burhan resented the Gabors and wanted a real wife. And who can blame him? For six years he had been living with this gorgeous blonde, and still they had not slept together. Yes, she certainly made a charming ornament to be at his side during diplomatic functions, but he wanted something more. At last, at the beginning of 1941 Zsa Zsa persuaded Burhan to allow her a one-month visit in Budapest. She packed her bags and headed west.

By this time, Zsa Zsa was determined to leave her marriage and go to Eva in New York. The only question was, how? The Atlantic was infested with submarines. Western Europe was under Nazi occupation. Her Turkish diplomatic passport remained valid, but Burhan was now well-known as an anti-Axis journalist. It seemed doubtful that the Germans would give her a visa to travel across the occupied zone to neutral Lisbon, where she could catch the Clipper to New York via the Azores. Still, she decided to give it a try.

A transit visa was not politically impossible. Since 1920 Hungary had been ruled by the authoritarian regime of Admiral Miklosz Horthy de Nagybanya (1868-1957). Admiral Horthy, as he was known, ruled as regent in what was nominally a monarchy. However, there was no king. Since Hungary was landlocked, there was also no navy for the Admiral to command. (In World War I Horthy had commanded the fleet of Austria-Hungary when they still possessed the port of Trieste.) Still precariously independent, Hungary, along with Bulgaria and Romania, had allied itself with Nazi Germany in 1940. The Gabors, though anti-Nazi, remained well-acquainted with the diplomatic community in Budapest. Among them, says Zsa Zsa, was a secretary at the German Embassy whom she identifies as Baron Bloch. This Baron had always claimed that he was really a career diplomat, not a Nazi. Zsa Zsa decided that he offered the best chance.

At the Embassy, the Baron was extremely courteous. She describes him as though he were Erich von Stroheim: stocky, blonde, barrel-chested, with blue eyes and the requisite sabre-cut on one cheek. (So many duelling scars among these people. Were they done, one wonders, by cosmetic surgeons during office visits?) But this visa, the Baron said, was a delicate matter. He did not feel comfortable discussing it in his office. Perhaps she would consent to have tea with him?

The next afternoon at Baron Bloch’s apartment, the farce played itself out. When Zsa Zsa arrived she found the Baron “in a blue smoking jacket with a white handkerchief smelling strongly of eau de Cologne.” Instead of tea, she was offered champagne on ice. “Only a German,” she thought, “would be so obvious.” The predictable questions followed: why did she want the visa? Did her husband approve of the journey? Did she share her husband’s political views? (On the latter question Zsa Zsa played dumb.) The German said he would cable to Berlin requesting the visa, but if it was not approved she should not blame him. In other words, Zsa Zsa realized, there was no chance of getting the visa without paying a price that she did not want to pay. That price was fully implied in the billing and cooing, the protestations of undying lust which followed as young Mme. Belge was pursued about the room. Here and there, in and out of traps, she twisted and turned. At last, after an especially powerful lunge followed by a playful escape, Zsa Zsa grabbed her things and ran out the door.

It was now obvious: if she could not go west through continental Europe, she would have to go east over the same tracks she had just traveled. This meant taking the train back through the Balkans to Turkey, then along the Syrian border through Nusaybin to Baghdad. From Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf, she could fly to Bombay, where she would look for a ship bound across the Pacific. In other words, to get to America Zsa Zsa would have to travel by land and sea most of the way around the world. And this through an Eastern Europe that daily became more dangerous, with the Nazis already in control of Romania, moving into Bulgaria, and threatening Greece, Yugoslavia, and Turkey. But she didn’t hesitate. Eva was waiting, and so was America.

Thus at the end of February 1941, Zsa Zsa returned to Ankara. She may have arrived, but she did not alight. Riveted to the side of her railroad car was a sign that said “Baghdad Express.” Two British soldiers singing “Tipperary” sat in the compartment with her. Outside, the Ankara station was festooned with Union Jacks. A conductor told her the reason: Anthony Eden, Foreign Minister in the Churchill government, had arrived the night before. Here Zsa Zsa’s account matches the historical record exactly. At this, one of the most terrifying junctures of the war, Eden had arrived to consult with the Turkish government on the fate of Greece and Yugoslavia. The Turks, neutral but threatened by invasion, gave him a cordial reception.

To Zsa Zsa, no doubt, Ankara looked as bleak as ever on that day. Still, her emotions could not help but surge. Only a few miles away, half-way up Çankaya Hill, she had left a husband, a home, and closets filled with clothes. The Ankara Riding Club, home of Fatushka, her white Arabian mare, lay even nearer to the station. And where was Burhan at that moment? Was he thinking about her? No. Probably he was re-introducing himself to Anthony Eden, preparing press communiqués, doing his job. There would be parties, of course, and receptions. If she wanted, Zsa Zsa could find a gown at home, go out, and see her friends again. But to do that, she had to get off the train.

Three months later, the S.S. President Grant, stuffed with refugee missionaries and one Hungarian bombshell, arrived in New York harbor after an epic trans-Pacific, trans-Panama, and trans-Carribean voyage from Bombay. Zsa Zsa and Eva fell into each other’s arms, babbling in Hungarian. It had taken nearly four months from Budapest, by way of Turkey, Baghdad, Basra, and Bombay, and Gypsy luck stayed with her to the end.

Almost immediately after Zsa Zsa passed through the Balkans, Germany attacked Yugoslavia. Hungary, bound by alliance to the Nazis, was forced to join in, and the Hungarian Prime Minister, Paul Teleki, committed suicide in disgrace. In Baghdad Zsa Zsa had been detained for a month by officials unwilling, even faced with her diplomatic passport, to admit that she could be traveling without her husband. Then, mere days after her departure for Basra, a group of pro-German Iraqi officers staged a coup, and Baghdad was under siege by the British until May. This indeed was luck. The good fortune promised by the Hand of Fatima had stayed with her. But besides the charm, through all this travail one precious, tangible object sustained Zsa Zsa: the Turkish diplomatic passport identifying her as Madame Belge. Without this gift from Burhan, she would have been lost.

As they tend to do, memories of the Old World faded quickly in America. New York was quickly exchanged for Los Angeles. One night an introduction from a friend brought her to the home of Basil Rathbone and his wife, where (as chance would have it) a party was in progress. Within minutes, Sari Gabor was in her element, conversing with some of the most famous people in America. In December 1941, the week that Pearl Harbor was attacked, a letter from Turkey arrived at Zsa Zsa’s rented Hollywood bungalow. Burhan Belge, gentleman to the last, told her that she was free to go. She could have a divorce.

And so it began. A mere four months later, Zsa Zsa Gabor and her newest lover, hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, were joined in matrimony. At the reception Zsa Zsa looked about in bewilderment. The place was filled with strangers, all roaring with laughter. The blustering Hilton, who disregarded the name “Zsa Zsa” and instead called her “Georgia,” wore a ten-gallon cowboy hat. But the diamond on Zsa Zsa’s finger: now that was gigantic.

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The Pasha and the Gypsy -- Part V

Ankara Palas Hotel, 1930s

From the narrow, shaded street, Zsa Zsa stepped over a high sill onto cobblestones drenched in sunlight. A large olive tree rose from the center of a courtyard; blue-white Angora cats lounged in the sun. Zsa Zsa made her way past them to a covered staircase. At the top of the wooden steps a door was ajar, and inside a man, his back turned, was sitting in an armchair.

“I knew you would come,” said a deep voice.

Of course, it was Atatürk. This we knew; and, without daring to form the thought, this Zsa Zsa had also guessed, hoped, dreamed. The little girl, longing to be swept off her feet, had found the ultimate Older Man.

But what happened next? Did Zsa Zsa find Tea and Sympathy, as she tells us in her 1960 memoir? Or did she, as she reveals in 1990, discover a Tidal Bore of Passion, an end to her virginity at the hands of a lover and demi-god? Place your bets here. This writer’s money goes on Passion. The 1990 Zsa Zsa says:

Just as I was about to speak, Atatürk clapped his hands and, as he had orchestrated it, the dancing girls appeared, their multicolored veils floating suggestively in the coolness of the room. As they danced their slow, sensuous dance, wordlessly Atatürk motioned that I sit on the red velvet and copper-colored cushions next to him. Mesmerized, I complied. He offered me his pipe-and, unquestioningly, I took it. Then he passed me a gold-and-emerald-encrusted cup filled with raki?I sipped from the cup.

The delicious hilarity of this scene, complete with dancing girls (!) who made no appearance whatever in the 1960 account, does little for Zsa Zsa’s reputation as an truth-teller, but it also does nothing to demolish two undeniable facts: 1) Zsa Zsa was ripe and beautiful; and 2) when it came to women, Kemal Atatürk did not waste time.

“It was inevitable,” says Zsa Zsa.

In this I have to agree with her. Something happened, surely. Zsa Zsa’s first account, though quite credible in its account of their conversation, beggars belief when it suggests that she left after an hour of chit-chat and then continued meeting Atatürk for tea and conversation over the next six months. But what else could she have written in 1960? Zsa Zsa’s public image was wicked enough by then. The moral temper of the times probably convinced her to keep some things to herself. And there is another consideration: Burhan Belge, who was still alive at the time of publication (he died in 1967). Throughout the account of her first marriage, Zsa Zsa makes clear her respect for Burhan despite their utterly incompatible personalities. “Poor Burhan,” she says when recounting her childish behavior. She knew the trials she had already put him through-their sexless marriage, her less-than-mature demeanor at social functions, her tendency to say whatever popped into her mind-and it is to her credit that she did not further humiliate him by “telling all” while he was alive.

Zsa Zsa left Atatürk after an hour. She had to get home before 5:30, when Burhan returned from the office. Night was fast approaching, she says, and she hurried home in the “half dusk.” This memory seems genuine, and it is consistent with a scenario that begins their acquaintance late in 1935. Since Ankara lies at 40 degrees north latitude, parallel with Philadelphia, this makes it likely that their meeting took place well after the autumnal equinox-between November, perhaps, and February.

Burhan was already home when she arrived. When he asked where she had been, she told him (1960) she had been with Kemal Atatürk. But Burhan, she says, did not believe her. Zsa Zsa says (1990):

After that, we met regularly every Wednesday afternoon, once I had finished at the Riding Academy. We spent hours together in Atatürk’s secret hideaway, locked in each other’s arms, while he dazzled me with his sexual prowess and seduced me with his perversion. Atatürk was very wicked. He knew exactly how to please a young girl. On looking back, I think he probably knew how to please every woman, because he was a professional lover, a god, and a king.

He “seduced me with his perversion.” Well. Goodness gracious, as Donald Rumsfeld might say. The mind boggles-and after having boggled for a while, it turns and retreats in disarray. But while Zsa Zsa was being blown away by the wickedness, perversion, and sexual technique of a professional lover, god, and king, Atatürk, she says, was alert and inquisitive.

He would question me ceaselessly?about the true allegiance of the ambitious men who visited Burhan, their leader, to talk politics with him. As Atatürk must have known, these men talked quite freely in front of me, revealing their plans and their feelings about the man they called “The Savior of Turkey.” And many of them hated him.

Zsa Zsa says that because of this, she held the fate of many important men in the palm of her hand. Well, maybe. Still, the account of Atatürk’s inquiries rings true. It is consistent with the man’s character and restlessness of mind that he would use the liaison for as many purposes as possible. Zsa Zsa concludes:

My romance with Atatürk lasted for six months and during that time he used me and I?used him. I gave him information-harmless though it was. And he gave me lessons in love, in passion, and in intrigue. He also ruined for me every other man I would ever love, or try to love. In Turkey, Atatürk was a god. He was a god and he had loved me. For the rest of my life I would search for another god to eclipse him.

“Atatürk,” says Zsa Zsa (1990), “died in Istanbul on November 10, 1938, at the age of fifty-two.” Except for the age, this is a correct statement. Atatürk’s dates, available to any author or ghost-writer willing to crack a book, are 1881-1938. Unless the basic laws of arithmetic have been rescinded, he was fifty-seven when he died.

Zsa Zsa notes that Kemal Atatürk died of cirrhosis of the liver. She states this as though it happened suddenly, to the shock of all. Of course, there was shock aplenty when the Gazi died, especially among the Turkish public, from whom the seriousness of his illness had been kept secret. But like anyone afflicted with the disease, he had been sick for a very long time.

Cirrhosis is a horrible disease, a grotesque and painful way to die. It is also protracted. No one dies of it overnight, as they might from a heart attack or a stroke. Nor is it nearly as swift as epidemic illnesses like cholera or yellow fever.

Cirrhosis was first diagnosed by a Frenchman, René Theophile Hyacinthe Laënnec (1781-1826), a doctor at the Necker Hospital in Paris. Laënnec is most famous for his invention of the stethoscope. He named cirrhosis for the Greek word kirrhos, meaning yellowish or tawny, after seeing so many livers of this color while doing autopsies. Most people associate this disease with middle-aged male alcoholics, and rightly so, yet the connection is obscure. (A lack of protein in the diet also seems to be a factor.) Though the world teems with drunks, only a small percentage of them come down with cirrhosis. Some people who get it are not alcoholics at all, but only moderate drinkers. Not all ethnic groups contract it. (Jews, for example, scarcely ever get cirrhosis.) And let us remember that Atatürk was hardly the first statesman to consume alcohol in quantity. Winston Churchill, that icon of Anglo-Saxon leadership, was said to have gone through a bottle of Scotch a day during the Battle of Britain, and he ended up smoking and swilling his way past the age of 90. The liver, this Wonder Machine of the human innards, does not give in easily. It is a resilient organ, built to repair itself even after repeated assaults. Yet no matter how resilient the organ, no matter how many imbibers abuse it and survive, in some people the damage from alcohol goes too far, the cellular structure of the organ collapses, and things begin to go terribly wrong. In his Mortal Lessons (1976) the great writer-physician Richard Selzer describes it thus:

The obstructed bile, no longer able to flow down to the gut, backs up into the bloodstream to light up the skin and eyes with the sickly lamp of jaundice. The stool turns toothpaste white in commiseration, the urine dark as wine. The belly swells with gallons of fluid that weep from the surface of the liver, no less than the tears of a loyal servant so capriciously victimized. The carnage spreads. The entire body is discommoded. The blood fails to clot, the palms of the hands turn mysteriously red, and spidery blood vessels leap and crawl on the skin of the face and neck. Male breasts enlarge, and even the proud testicles turn soft and atrophy. In a short while impotence develops, an irreversible form of impotence which may well prod the invalid into more and more drinking.

“Scared?” asks Selzer. “Better have a drink. You look a little pale.” And no wonder. This catalog of horrors is what Kemal Atatürk suffered through, and it must be taken into account if Zsa Zsa’s claims of an affair are to be taken seriously. Certainly in the last twelve months of his life, and probably long before then, it’s hard to see how Atatürk could have carried on an affair with anyone. And yet, we’re not talking here about Joe Average. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, no stranger to illness, had never given in to it before.

Sir Percy Loraine has spoken of Atatürk’s extraordinary power of concentration. In the company of others-and he virtually always sought companionship-his mind never seems to have relaxed or relinquished control. He allowed no one to see him drunk, and no one saw him afraid. Illnesses, which attacked him frequently, were given the same treatment. Among these perhaps the most debilitating was malaria, which he contracted in Egypt in 1911 while enroute to war against the Italians in Libya. Malaria is not easy to shake. The parasite lingers for years, causing recurring bouts of fever, chills, and weakness. Mustafa Kemal’s malaria returned often in the course of his life, most notably during the summer of 1915 at the height of the Gallipoli campaign, and again during the Greco-Turkish War. From 19 May 1919, when he first arrived in the Anatolian heartland to rally the Turks against the Greek invaders, until his death in 1938, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk kept a personal physician constantly in his service. Besides malaria, his heart was bad; his kidneys were a recurring source of inflammation; angina was a problem. None of these held him back. Sir Percy Loraine remembered “an erect, manly figure,” always impeccably dressed, always polite and considerate, always perfectly turned out. Through it all, he kept on drinking. And he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day.

Consider the last two years of Atatürk’s life. Through the early 1930s he remained a robust figure, fond of swimming and outdoor life. In September 1936 he welcomed King Edward VIII (introduced by Sir Percy Loraine) to Turkey. In November he became ill. This was perhaps the doctors’ best chance to find cirrhosis, to order him off drink and save his life. Yet they looked past the symptoms and instead found `pulmonary congestion.’ Though they missed cirrhosis, the doctors did tell him to rest and avoid alcohol. (Nothing, evidently, was said about cigarettes.)

Soon a rash enveloped Atatürk’s body. Day and night, he felt as if ants were crawling over his flesh. But still the doctors said nothing about cirrhosis. Kemal Pasha became convinced that the presidential palace in Çankaya was infested with ants, and so, as he retreated to Istanbul and then the spa at Yalova, on the Sea of Marmara, the entire house was fumigated from top to bottom. For his rash, this of course did nothing.

As 1936 passed into the new year, the demands of office consumed him. The contest for French-mandated Alexandretta was coming to a head, and Atatürk was determined that the province should be Turkish. In the midst of this crisis, in January 1937, he lost Nuri Conker, his best and oldest friend, a fellow officer who had been at his side since their days in military school. The death devastated him.

Soon doctors’ orders were forgotten, and Atatürk was drinking again. Despite regular visits to the spas, his rash persisted. By the end of June 1937 the Sanjak of Alexandretta was ceded by France to Turkey. The last great task that had consumed Atatürk was over. The effort and distraction had probably extended his life.

By 1937 Atatürk’s physical deterioration could no longer be denied. His paunch had thickened considerably, and anything of the “slim” figure which Zsa Zsa saw at Karpiç’s was gone. His companions noted an increased touchiness, a reluctance to be left alone. Headaches and fever plagued him. Nosebleeds erupted and would not clot. Jaundice appeared. And yet, no one dared tell the great man that he was ill. The power of his personality had become a curse.

Still he went on. One of Sir Percy Loraine’s most famous memories described Atatürk’s performance at a Republic Day party on 29 October 1937. Loraine mentions nothing of jaundice, illness, or fatigue. All he saw was the quintessential Atatürk: alert, inquisitive, searching. And drinking. For an entire night, at Atatürk’s express invitation, Loraine sat at the President’s side as he welcomed visitors to his conversational circle, proposed philosophical and political questions for their exposition, debated and challenged them, and sent them on their way. Some four thousand guests were present, and the party went on until 7:00 the next morning. To his superiors in London, Loraine cabled:

The requirements of His Majesty’s service have once again rendered it necessary for me to sit up the whole night with the President of the Turkish Republic?Throughout the night a wide choice of alcoholic beverages was on offer to the guests, but nothing to eat except a variety of pistachio and other small nuts.

This was drink concealing a death-fast; self-discipline as a form of suicide. It was Kemal Atatürk burning with a hard, gem-like flame. After the Republic Day party, Atatürk traveled to the east of Turkey, where a Kurdish rebellion in the province of Dersim (now Tunceli) had been brutally suppressed. Back in Ankara, notes Andrew Mango, there were two more all-night sessions at Karpiç’s restaurant. The candle’s wick, however, was burning down. By the end of 1937, Atatürk had weakened so much that he could not make the short walk from his private rooms to a meeting of the Turkish Historical Society at the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. At last, in January 1938, the doctors were summoned to the spa at Yalova, and a correct diagnosis was made. His liver, they told him, was enlarged and dysfunctional. The peril could no longer be ignored.

At dinner after the diagnosis, Atatürk and his companions sat stunned. At last, it would seem, the truth had to be faced, and the Pasha’s habits would change. But within days Atatürk made the short journey to the city of Bursa, where, after officially opening a wool-processing mill, he went to a ball, danced the zeybek, a strenuous regional folk-dance, and stayed up drinking until four in the morning. From Bursa he proceeded to Istanbul, where at the Park Hotel he spent another night drinking. Two days later, he was diagnosed with pneumonia; but two weeks after that he felt well enough to greet Metaxas, the Greek dictator, as well as the prime minister of Yugoslavia, both in Ankara for meetings of state.

“I had amused him in the last months of his life,” Zsa Zsa declares (1960), looking back on their association. No, almost certainly she did not. It seems quite likely that the two did indeed have an affair, if only because Kemal Ataturk would not have let a morsel as juicy as Zsa Zsa pass him by. But whatever happened must have taken place years before his death, probably in the years 1935-36.

For whatever reason-forgetfulness, carelessness, an effort to conceal her age, Zsa Zsa has blurred the record to make it seem as if she arrived in Ankara early in 1937. Except for the premiere date of The Singing Dream, which she manages to exclude, the chronology is reasonably straightforward up to the time of her engagement. Then on the “honeymoon” train to Turkey, four months after her 1934 debut in Richard Tauber’s operetta, suddenly we see Burhan reading a stack of newspapers, one of which reads, “Barcelona Bombed!”-an event which first took place in December 1936, two years later. Once in Ankara, she plunges into the diplomatic scene and describes her encounters with, among others, Franz von Papen, Hitler’s ambassador to Turkey. Papen, however, did not present his credentials in Ankara until May 1939. And the Munich Crisis of 1938 seems to happen almost at once.

Of course, anything is possible-a man who can receive a death sentence one day and dance the zeybek the next is not someone we can underestimate. Still, life after November 1936 was no picnic for Kemal Atatürk. And as 1938 ground forward, despite the advice of a French specialist in the disease, cirrhosis was making his existence a horror. The bursts of energy flagged as his belly swelled. Yellow jaundice suffused his flesh; the rash persisted; his muscles wasted away. The life of Kemal Pasha became a constant round of doctors and examinations, punctuated with last, valiant attempts to perform his official duties. When doctors tapped his belly to relieve the pressure, gallons of fluid gushed forth. In the hot summer on the Bosporus his yacht, Savarona, became a floating hospital, where cakes of ice were procured to cool his fevered body. On September 5 his will was completed and notarized. By autumn he was bed-ridden, longing to return to Ankara, the city he had created. The doctors, fearing the effects of a rail journey, would not allow it. And so he stayed in Istanbul, in his room at the Dolmabahçe Palace by the Bosphorus shore. On 15 October he fell into a coma, from which he awoke seven days later. “What time is it?” he asked on November 8, before slipping into a coma for the final time.

Zsa Zsa writes (1960):

On Thursday afternoon in late autumn, 1938, I emerged from the Ankara Riding Club and stopped short. Everything about me on the street seemed subtly changed. Then I realized: I was surrounded by silence. People stood in front of their shops, in little clusters on the sidewalk, whispering; some were weeping. As I walked on, like a rustle the words came to me, “El Ghazi-el Ghazi, he is dead.”

Kemal Atatürk had died at 9:05 that morning, November 10. In Istanbul, the official announcement came at noon.

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The Pasha and the Gypsy -- Part IV

Ankara Station in the 1930s

By the year 1935, the newly-surnamed Kemal Atatürk was cruising at the height of his political power. At age 54, his most daring moves were behind him, and the reforms that he had instituted were taking hold. Now, as President, he left the day-to-day running of the government to others, especially his Prime Minister, Ismet Inönü. This freed time for less pressing concerns, like looking after his Model Farm on the outskirts of Ankara, conferring with linguists on new Turkish words, or pursuing such oddball ideas as the Sun Language Theory, which posited that all human languages had derived from Turkish-a theory that, to his credit, he later abandoned. He had also acquired a vacation home in Istanbul, as well as a yacht.

At times, he began to complain of boredom. There was still plenty for him to do, of course. Decisions had to be made, affairs, both foreign and domestic, to be monitored. The fate of the Syrian province of Alexandretta, then under French mandate, was a special concern. In the remote mountains of the East, then as now, there were rebellious Kurds who did not like their forcible conversion into Turks. Just because he left the daily tasks of government to such as Ismet Inönü does not mean that he abdicated responsibility. Still, life for Atatürk must have paled when compared to the battles of preceding decades. His most recent biographer, Andrew Mango, cites Atatürk’s words as reported by his private secretary, Hasan Riza:

I’m bored to tears. I am usually alone during the day. Everybody is at work, but my work hardly occupies an hour. Then I have the choice of sleeping, if I can, reading or writing something or other. If I want to take the air for a break, I must go by car. And then, it’s back to prison, where I play billiards by myself as I wait for dinner. Dinner doesn’t bring variety. No matter where it is, it’s roughly the same people, the same faces, the same talk. I’ve had enough, boy.

But no matter how life may have palled, Kemal Pasha seemed to find ways of bouncing back. His restless mind would discover new interests, new people, new ideas to challenge it. Those around him expected this. They tended to look past the moods and complaints and see the same amazing person with all the astounding energy, even if he wasn’t always there. And in his social life, to be sure, he never slacked off. Rarely did he go to bed before 3:00 A.M.; nor did he rise before noon.

Kemal Atatürk seems not to have known what it was to spend a peaceful night at home alone. The symphony, opera, and ballet-all state-sponsored with his encouragement-offered a bit of diversion. And if there wasn’t some function to attend, then he created one simply by going out. (Sir Percy Loraine: “He didn’t frequent societies; he made them.”) In the Ankara of the 1930s, “going out” meant limited options. There was the cabaret in the Ankara Palas hotel, just opposite the old Parliament building in Ulus, near the Old City. But mostly there was Karpiç’s Restaurant.

If there was a real center to upper-crust Ankara life during those years, this had to be the place. Ivan Karpiç was a Russian immigrant who had opened his restaurant near Ulus Square, just around the corner from the Ankara Palas Hotel and the Parliament. Through the Second World War and into the 1950s, his place remained a fixture of Ankara life. During the war, when Turkey remained neutral, Hitler’s diplomats, as well as the diplomats of other Axis powers, would dine at Karpiç’s, literally within spitting distance of their British, Russian, and American counterparts. In the Hachette Blue Guide to Turkey, published in 1960, the Karpiç Lokantasi (”orchestra in the evening; tel. 12-236″) still shows up plainly on the fold-out map of Ankara, the only restaurant to be so-honored. In Istanbul Intrigues, his study of espionage in wartime Turkey, Barry Rubin describes it thus:

Legend had it that Ivan Karpiç began his restaurant at Atatürk’s request so that the republic’s founder could have somewhere to dine. Atatürk even held cabinet meetings there. The décor was simple; one journalist compared it to a “Kansas railroad station lunchroom.” Yet Karpiç’s colorful clientele made it a magical place?Karpiç’s assistant, Serge, darkly handsome like a film star, actually ran the place. But the bald, round-headed Karpiç, with his thick accent and white coat, provided the atmosphere. He personally scooped caviar in generous dollops from a big dish, supervised the preparation of the food, proudly oversaw his shish-kebab specialty, presented flowers to the ladies, and watched to ensure that everyone was happy with everything.

So when Zsa Zsa tells us that Burhan one day announced, “We’ll take Leman and Yakup to Karpiç’s,” this makes perfect sense. It is simply unthinkable that they would have eaten anywhere else.

In an oblique way, Zsa Zsa’s memory of Karpiç’s confirms the impression of a “Kansas railroad station.” She remembers a huge square room with pillars, a gigantic Turkish flag above the entrance, and Atatürk’s portrait everywhere else. One can almost hear the click of scurrying heels on the terrazzo, the announcement of what train is leaving from which track. Their table sat to one side of the dance floor; next to that the orchestra (Hungarian musicians, says Rubin) was playing. Zsa Zsa was looking at her menu when music and conversation suddenly stopped. The restaurant fell silent, the double doors at the entrance flew open, and amid a flurry of evening gowns and tuxedos, one man came into focus.

About the color of his eyes, there is disagreement. In most accounts, they are a shade of blue. King Edward VIII, without noting the color, said they were the coldest, most penetrating eyes he had ever seen. Sir Percy Loraine remembered them as a “penetrating ice-blue.” In 1990, Zsa Zsa remembered them as green. In her first account, however, she looked up from her menu and saw a “slim man with gray eyes the color of steel.” He wore black tie, and accompanying him were three or four other men, similarly attired, along with women in evening gowns. A squad of uniformed police had preceded him, and these now formed a cordon as the gray eyes entered and stood gazing at the room. By now everyone was standing, and Zsa Zsa quickly followed.

“Atatürk,” Burhan whispered in her ear.

Zsa Zsa stared. Atatürk, remote, immobile, and aloof, withdrew a cigarette and tapped it on a gold case as he surveyed the room. Their eyes met, and the rest, she says, was inevitable. That, at least, is what Zsa Zsa says in her 1990 memoir, the book where she “tells all.” The 1960 book with Gerold Frank delivers less kismet but more detail and is, therefore, a lot more interesting. In that book Atatürk doesn’t make eye contact at all when he enters. But she continues to stare. The room, she says, remained quiet, at attention, as the great man was seated, and until he sat down no one else, women included, would do so. The resemblance to royalty could not have been more complete.

Yakup Kadri stood on Zsa Zsa’s left. He leaned over and asked “teasingly” what she thought of their “Grey Wolf”-another of Atatürk’s nicknames, and the title of a negative biography (1932) by H.C. Armstrong. This bantering about the great man was certainly in character. Yakup Kadri knew the man well. He dined with him often, and, though not an intimate friend, by that point he had certainly moved beyond idolatry.

Zsa Zsa turned again to stare at Atatürk, who was only some thirty feet away. Desperately, Leman whispered to her not to stare, not to call attention to herself. Yakup Kadri grinned and continued to tease. His wife was right, he told Zsa Zsa: Atatürk may try to “adopt” her.

By that time in her Turkish residence, Zsa Zsa certainly knew all the stories about Atatürk: he was the greatest soldier, the greatest lover, the indefatigable playboy, the great reformer, the savior of the nation. She knew about his adopted daughters, his mistresses, and his capacity for strong drink. She didn’t know which stories to believe or disregard. Some, however, her own husband had told her, and Burhan was not the kind of man to pass along lies. Now she could only look on, a comely young woman melting before a dominant older man.

Inevitably, however, as Zsa Zsa glanced at the President’s table their eyes did meet. Zsa Zsa blushed and looked away, but it was too late. Soon an aide arrived, inviting Burhan Belge, Yakup Kadri, and their ladies to join Atatürk at his table. There was, of course, no way of turning down this invitation. As Zsa Zsa describes it, all of them knew what was up. Leman, Burhan’s older sister, looked terrified. Her brother, she must have assumed, was about to be cuckolded by the President of the Republic. Yakup Kadri the novelist could barely contain his laughter. He knew Atatürk, and he knew that his brother-in-law had married a knock-out. One can almost see him twirling his mustache, gleefully contemplating the entry that this incident would make in his writer’s notebook. As for Burhan, Zsa Zsa reports that his face had darkened like a thundercloud.

At the Gazi’s table, Burhan seated himself and his wife as far from Atatürk as possible. Still, she became the immediate focus of conversation. Atatürk asked if she had ever tasted raki.

“No, Pasha Effendi,” she answered.

This got a big laugh from the rest of the table, but Zsa Zsa did not know why. She had in fact confused two titles of address. Mustafa Kemal had certainly been a pasha, a general, but he was never an effendi. This was a label generally reserved for menials. [Ali Pasha, for example, was the famous ruler of Ioannina, in northern Greece. But if a man named Ali owned a restaurant, he would be called Ali Bey. And if another Ali worked at that restaurant sweeping the floors, he would be called Ali Effendi.]

Since Zsa Zsa had never tasted raki, which is very much like ouzo or Pernod, Atatürk (”with a hand that trembled slightly”) poured a glass and sent it to her. Zsa Zsa, after a fit of coughing, managed to get it down. Atatürk next asked if she smoked. Again, to repeated laughter, she told the “Pasha Effendi” that she did not. Promptly the Pasha sent down one of his own, “a thin, flat cigarette rimmed in gold, with `K.A.’ embossed in tiny crimson letters.” Zsa Zsa puffed, tried to inhale, then coughed. Atatürk, she says, seemed to be enjoying himself.

In this, it is the detail that convinces: the hand that trembles slightly; the initials on Kemal Atatürk’s custom-made cigarettes. And there is another telling detail as waiters arrive to serve the food, and the members of the party begin to eat. For according to Zsa Zsa, Atatürk only watched. He ate nothing. But his glass of raki was continually refilled.

At length Atatürk asked one of the other ladies present if she danced the waltz. The lady in question demurred. Atatürk then asked Zsa Zsa. Of course she knew the waltz: she was from Budapest. Kemal Pasha rose, a bit unsteadily, and the entire room rose with him. And so, before the entire company, Fred and Zsa Zsa took a turn.

Fred and Ginger it was not. She was terrified; he was full of raki. The pasha danced heavily, she says, and held her strongly in his grip. They conversed. Atatürk explained to her the absurdity of “Pasha Effendi.” He asked how she liked Turkey. Of course, she adored it. Zsa Zsa, feeling more confident, began to regret the simple black dress she had worn and wished she had worn something with a plunging neckline. She essayed a look at the Gazi’s eyes. Gray or blue-or green, as she described them in 1990? All the above, it seems. “The pupils,” she says, “were so light blue as to be almost colorless; it was like looking at a blind man and yet one whose eyes pierced you through.”

Back at the table, Atatürk, proposing a toast, announced that Hungary and Turkey would henceforth be sister states. Their languages were similar; their people had similar histories. At last he sat down heavily, and those at the table continued with their meal in silence. That was when Atatürk announced that he was leaving, and that he would drive Madame Belge home.

One does not envy Burhan Belge at this moment. One does not envy anyone at the table. Indeed, given the tensions involved, it’s a wonder that any of Karpiç’s food got eaten that night. Burhan, however, showed what he was made of.

“If you please, Excellency,” he said, “I should prefer to do that.”

Ignoring him, Atatürk went on: Burhan could take home whichever of the other ladies he wished.

Burhan repeated: he would take his own wife home.

What? Atatürk asked. You don’t want one of these lovely ladies?

This time Burhan didn’t reply, and this time Atatürk laughed. Burhan had passed the test.
“This is a man,” he said with approval. And with that, after appropriate bows, the President’s party left the restaurant.

Atatürk’s behavior wrought predictable reactions: Burhan and his sister were angry; Yakup Kadri was amused; Zsa Zsa was excited. She was sixteen years old, and she had danced with one of the great men of the age. “I think he approves of you,” Yakup Kadri said. In the space of a few minutes, her life had exploded like a star.

In the following weeks, little changed in Zsa Zsa’s routine. Fatushka the white Arabian remained the center of her existence. Sometimes she would ride her almost to the grounds of the Presidential Palace on Çankaya Hill, and there she would hope that Atatürk would emerge so that she could say hello. On Wednesdays she met with the Prime Minister’s mother, an ancient lady who invited the wives of government officials to take tea with her on that day. There she chatted in broken Turkish with the old woman, a fiercely traditional female who refused to take off her veil just because Atatürk told her to. At other times she had tea with the Loraines, who told her stories of their life in Cairo.

But Zsa Zsa became homesick, and who can blame her? Her best friends-her family-lived a thousand miles away. They could only communicate through letters, and the letters from Budapest, though welcome and full of news, only reminded her of the lush, vibrant world she had abandoned. In Ankara she had no one to confide in. Burhan was more a guardian uncle than a friend. She had spent two years in a Swiss finishing school followed by three months’ work in an operetta; she spoke four languages and was learning a fifth; she had gone to a man she didn’t love and talked him into marrying her. And now? More and more, Zsa Zsa felt like a castaway, self-marooned in an ocean of dust.

One day she rode past the Circassians’ antique shop in old Angora. Numad, she says, was seated by the front door in the sunshine, and he called out a greeting. Her Excellency must come in, he said, for he had something to show her. In his office, after he had sent a boy for coffee, Numad took out a tiny object wrapped in tissue wrapper. He handed a magnifying glass to Zsa Zsa.

Zsa Zsa, daughter of the diamond store, lover of jewels and glitter, was entranced. It was a miniature of a human hand, fashioned in gold. According to Numad, it would bring good luck to whoever possessed it. The Hand of Fatima, he called it-modeled on the hand of the prophet’s youngest daughter, she who married Ali, the fourth Caliph, and was mother to Hussein, founding martyr of the Shi’a sect.

But Zsa Zsa was also skeptical. It could not, she thought, be the Afghan Ambassador again, for his taste in jewelry wasn’t that good. So who was it this time?

Numad dropped the tiny object into her hand. Out of his mouth came the same line as before. It was hers because she was so pretty. Zsa Zsa began to object, but this time Numad seemed more serious. It would bring her good luck, he said. She should not refuse. Somebody wanted her to have it because “beauty with good fortune is a blessing, but beauty without good fortune is a curse.”

And so this time it wasn’t as easy. This time a tiny, beautifully fashioned object had been offered to her, not a gaudy bracelet crusted with gems. (Eventually, Zsa Zsa says, she found out that it came from the Topkapi Museum.) It’s mine? she asked: I can take it with me? Not quite, Numad said. From the same drawer he produced a key. She could have the Hand of Fatima and the luck that went with it, but first she had to use this key, which opened the door of a house in the Old City. He promised her that it was not what she thought; she would not be compromised. But he could tell her nothing else.

Zsa Zsa has guts, as George Sanders noted, but she is no fool. Already in Vienna she had turned down the chance to become the kept woman of Willi Schmidt-Gentner, a man she adored, and instead became the proper wife of Burhan Belge. And still she had managed to keep her virginity. This piece, the Hand of Fatima, absolutely enchanted her. And the key? Human curiosity was beginning to make inroads.

However, “This is ridiculous,” she told Numad at last. He could take back his magic totem.

The Circassian begged Zsa Zsa to think it over. “Excellency,” he said, “you cannot let this pass.” He was quite serious. But she walked out anyway.

Zsa Zsa didn’t sleeep much that night, and for the next week she lived in a fever of speculation and curiosity. Who was doing this? What was going on? Was it all a practical joke? Perhaps the ever-mischievous Yakup Kadri had arranged it. But he was out of the country. And Burhan was the last person to do something like that. Several times she rode past Numad’s shop and stopped in to see the Hand. By the end of week, mad with curiosity, she went back to the shop for a final time:

All right, I thought. I’ll find out. I said to Numad, “Where is the key?” He produced a small key. On a slip of paper he wrote the address in the heart of the old city. “At four o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” he said. “Do not be late.”

In both of her memoirs, despite the fabrications, fantasies, and contradictions, Zsa Zsa tells the same basic story of the Hand of Fatima, the key, and the house in the Old City. Of course, it’s quite possible to believe that she has made it all up, that these are the fantasies of a glamour queen who wants to embellish her legend and sell books. But this time it sounds like the truth. There is George Sanders’ assessment of her character: guileless, spontaneous, willing to take a chance. There are the details that ring true: the look of the Old City; Atatürk’s drinking habits. But above all, there is one indelible image, that of the gorgeous blonde Hungarian, charming and a bit spoiled, bored and adrift, riding alone on a white horse through a dusty Anatolian town. Say what you will about romantic fantasies, the cold fact is that in the sparse, brown Ankara of the 1930s, Zsa Zsa would have been impossible to ignore. And in that city there was one man who ignored nothing.

Anyone who has traversed the upper streets of Old Ankara remembers the way they dip and twist as they negotiate the contours of the hill; the way the cobblestones, polished and broken by the centuries, seem to shift beneath the feet. This time Zsa Zsa, sans Fatushka, had to walk the gauntlet alone.

Zsa Zsa tells of her impressions from that day: the fresh carcass of a sheep hanging in a butcher shop; the dim cave-like shops; the street cries; the merchants lounging in front, calling out for the favor of her patronage. For any woman, let alone a sixteen-year-old girl, such a walk cannot have been easy. As a society, Turkey is relentlessly male, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the streets of its older neighborhoods, where merchants, houses, and life lie together in jumbled knots.

Eventually she found a street so narrrow it was virtually an alley, and a slender wooden door cut into a high wall. Numad’s key meshed with the lock, and the door swung open.

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