Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Pasha and the Gypsy -- Part I

Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), 1934

LADY BRACKNELL: Indeed, no woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.
~"The Importance of Being Earnest"

I wasn’t born. I was ordered from Room Service.
-Zsa Zsa

In Turkey, the dead man’s frown is everywhere. So is his legacy: the state he created, the language he reformed, the image on the ever-unstable currency. It’s the same name, over and over, mentioned in every book about Turkey for the last eighty years.

My friend Don, a visiting scholar from New York, found this out when he arrived in Istanbul in the early 1960s. One night at a hotel bar he encountered an American businessman who was full of cheap advice and State Monopoly whiskey.

“You know,” said the American, with glassy-eyed seriousness, “you gotta be careful what you say in this country.”
Don promised that he would.
“I’m serious.” The man leaned closer; he glanced about to see if anyone was listening. “It’s Attaboy,” he muttered.
“They got this guy named Attaboy.”
“Don’t ever make fun of Attaboy.” He wagged his finger. “I mean it.”
“No kidding.”
“Oh, yeah.” The businessman waved his whiskey glass. “It’s Attaboy this, and Attaboy that.” He leaned in again. “I tell ya, you gotta watch yourself.”

Don didn’t need the warning: he already knew that in death, as in life, the name of Mustafa Kemal, the man who later became Kemal Atatürk, was nothing to mess with. In the years since 1923, when the Republic was established, and 1938, when its founder died, Atatürkism, buttressed by the weight of the Turkish Army, has become the state religion of Turkey. Visiting foreign dignitaries always place a wreath at his mausoleum. To insult his name and legacy are serious offenses. And the graven image is everywhere. I’ve already mentioned paper money and coins, and the requisite picture in every government office. To this add postage stamps and airports, universities and forests, and street names galore.

Then there are the statues. At the end of the film Topkapi, when Peter Ustinov and his cronies (Melina Mercouri, Maximilian Schell, etc.) are being interrogated by the Turkish police after their big heist, a sweating Ustinov turns his head to the right and flinches. It is a stone face, inches away atop a file cabinet, that produces this effect. Dour, frowning, with beetling brows and a nose that appears slightly swollen, the bust in the movie bears a striking resemblance to Mr. Magoo, the great Jim Backus-voiced cartoon character who was deficient in sight and prodigious in grumpiness. When they saw the film, most Americans had no idea who this visage represented. Of course, it was the man himself-Mustafa Kemal; Atatürk (the surname adopted in 1934); Kemal Pasha; the Gazi. Attaboy.

So hallowed is Atatürk’s presence that the foreigner in Turkey, at least when I was there, was wise not to refer to him, even in his own language. Two Ankara friends, longtime residents, evolved the stratagem of putting his name into code. As a ploy it was simple: they called him Fred. This could be quite useful. In Antalya, for instance, a city on the Mediterranean coast, there is a statue of Atatürk that borders on the surreal. The thing is huge, maybe twenty feet tall, and in it Atatürk is rising up, left arm extended and gesturing forward, with a great bronze cape flowing from his shoulders, looking for all the world like Superman-with the face of Mr. Magoo-emerging from a phone booth. At his feet, also in bronze, Turkish youths gaze upwards and cling to the Leader’s garments as they rise with him face the challenges of the future. My friends’ code makes it much easier to appreciate this statue. If you’re with a companion, for example, on a bus that is heading out of Antalya, and you’re surrounded by the locals, you can turn to your friend, ask “Did you see that statue of Fred?” and enjoy a reasonably safe smirk. Without the code word you’d best shut up.

And yet, say what you will about the wearying ubiquitousness of his image, no one can doubt that Mustafa Kemal was one of the prodigies of the twentieth century. To the Muslims of Asia Minor he was a genuine hero. Out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, in face of dismemberment by the victorious Allies and invasion by the Greeks, by sheer will, intelligence, and ruthlessness he fashioned a secular, coherent republic that has managed to endure to this day. It is the intensity of the man that fascinates: his ferocious intelligence, his energy, his utter fearlessness. In the World War and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22, he proved himself many times as a military leader. At Gallipoli in 1915, he began the campaign as a Lt.-Colonel assigned to a division that did not exist, yet within days he was the most important commander on the front. By summer’s end he became a full colonel, and in 1916 he was made a general, a Pasha. Yet after the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, he took off his uniform and never wore it again. For the next fifteen years he drove himself and the country onward. He abolished the Caliphate; he broke the established power of Islam; he changed the alphabet from Arabic to Roman; he gave the country a new capital, established the institutions of democracy, and modernized the legal code. If ever the phrase “force of nature” were applicable to a human being, it would have to be this man.

Speaking on the BBC in 1948, ten years after Atatürk’s death, Sir Percy Loraine, British Ambassador to Turkey from 1934-1939, delivered the following assessment:

He was not a convenient man-anything but. He was harsh-his life had been cast in harsh places-but he was just. He knew his own mind very clearly; but he would always listen. He did not frequent societies; he made them. He demanded loyalty, and he earned it. Power never went to his head. He was incapable of meanness. The welfare of the Turkish people was his first concern. He saw it in terms of peace, security, progress and fraternity; never in terms of war and conquest. Hard as he seemed, and unsentimental as he was, I think he nevertheless felt a deep need to be surrounded by affection.

That “deep need to be surrounded by affection” could be dismissed as the mere narcissism of a monarch, and this need was certainly part of the man’s character. But Atatürk loved company and the conversation that came with it; he loathed small-talk and lived for the intellectual give-and-take of discussion. As for the perpetual sternness of his image, this is both unfortunate and apt, for Kemal Pasha was as rigorous in his search for pleasure as of progress. He loved to dance, he liked his drink, and especially he loved women.

It is these latter two categories-wine and women-which are now inseparable from the Atatürk legend. In college I learned that he died of both, from a combination of syphilis and cirrhosis of the liver. This was only half right. Syphilis he never had. Drink, however, and the cirrhosis that attended upon it, were his downfall. This does not mean that he was a sloppy, staggering drunk. He tended more toward the macho-Socratic ideal: the lone intellect, glass in hand, still speaking in complete sentences as dawn breaks, his companions lie passed out, and the Symposium draws to an end. His eating habits were poor; he ate small portions at dinner and only occasionally took handfuls of chickpeas while drinking. Though his energy and intellect sprang from sources deep within, his calories came mostly from alcohol. He seems to have been the very model of a functioning alcoholic, a man who consumed vast quantities of raki, Turkey’s anise-flavored liquor, and yet never let it show, a prodigy of concentration and willpower even as he scarred his liver beyond the possibility of healing.

And yet, while Atatürk never let alcohol affect his composure in the short run, over the years of his life the photographs tell a different story. Take, for example, that squat, glowering bust-the classic Atatürk bust, really-which gave Peter Ustinov such a start in Topkapi. This is the image of Atatürk as President of the Republic: the man as he appeared in the 1930s, with his hair considerably thinned, his upper lip shaved, his nose so much larger, it seems, than it ought to be. Then take a look at pictures of Mustafa Kemal as he appeared at Gallipoli and during the 1919-1922 War of Independence. It is another face entirely; almost, one suspects, an impostor. This man of ten years before is as handsome as a human being can get. The nose is in proper proportion; the eyes are clear; his figure is that of a soldier. Both images show the same character: the ambition, the seriousness, the energy, the concentration, the iconic embodiment of the national truculence. But Mustafa Kemal is alive, while Atatürk is aging before his time.

And then, the women. They were, legend tells us, like unto the stars of heaven. Actresses, dancers, the wives of ministers, the daughters of diplomats-all were fair game. After them he lusted without cease. Atatürk had no children of his own. He married once, a woman named Latife whom he quickly divorced after her attentions became too obtrusive. Another adoring mistress, a cousin named Fikriye, went into deep depression and shot herself soon after his marriage in 1924. Over the years Atatürk adopted a total of six young women and made them his legal heirs. He sent them to school, provided for them, found them husbands, made them the objects of his Pygmalion-like attention. One became Turkey’s first female pilot, the first woman to drop bombs on Kurds. Another became a faithful domestic companion. No one knows how many of them were also his mistresses.
But since 1991, with the publication of her memoir One Lifetime is Not Enough, one woman in particular has donned the ermine and tiara and paraded to front rank in the Atatürk Mistress Pageant. In this she may seem the unlikeliest possible candidate. Next to a man of vast power, energy, and accomplishment, she appears utterly vapid, an actress who could not act, a performer who did not perform, the very model of tabloid glamour and artifice. Even her admission of a love affair is suspect, and there remains considerable doubt that it actually happened. What, some people ask, could she possibly have in common with greatness? I refer to the Queen of Outer Space herself, Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Whenever I look at Zsa Zsa’s publicity photos from the `40s and `50s, I am reminded of the Art of the Creaseless Smile, an expression taught to me by a female friend who learned it on the pages of Vogue. This is an expression where the model means not so much to show happiness as rapture, and to do it without breaking the surface of the face into unsightly career-shortening creases. In it the head is held up and inclined slightly to the side, the eyes are lifted in joy, the mouth is open but not quite smiling. The model is really enacting a demi-swoon, as if she has just fallen hopelessly in love or received a massive, possibly fatal, dose of heroin.

Like other glamour queens of the `50s, Zsa Zsa did this open-mouthed swoon a lot in her studio glossies. In her case it’s an especially absurd pose, because she and her entire family seem to have lived for nothing else than the enjoyment of laughter and smiles. Zsa Zsa set out to live, and in this she succeeded. Here, in this realization, is where it becomes difficult not to like this “hollow” and “artificial” celebrity. In his 1960 Memoirs of a Professional Cad, Zsa Zsa’s third husband, George Sanders, says:

Every age has its Madame Pompadour, its Lady Hamilton, its Queen of Sheba, its Cleopatra, and I wouldn’t be surprised if history singles out Zsa Zsa as the twentieth-century prototype of this exclusive coterie. Zsa Zsa is perhaps the most misunderstood woman of our times. She is misunderstood because she is guileless. She allows her vitality and instincts to spring from her without distortion. She doesn’t disguise her love of amorous entanglements or jewels or whatever else catches her fancy, because her character is pure. She is whole-cloth. An isotope of femininity. In a sense also radioactive and fissionable. Not for her is the conventional mask of studied behavior. Her behavior is spontaneous and genuine.

She is, in other words, exactly the right foil for a man who wears the mask of indifference, a man whose domineering aspect and chronic commitment-avoidance are vulnerable to the onslaught of feminine vivacity. Zsa Zsa states repeatedly her love of romance and of her attraction to dominating men, men whom she can worship as she worshipped her father. Zsa Zsa says:
I adored my mother, but it was Father I admired, and it was Father I wanted to please. He was unreasonable, he was jealous, he was violent, he was overwhelming-he was a man.
This is vintage Zsa Zsa, a fitting prelude to all her amours, and especially to her tempestuous affair in the `50s with Porfirio Rubirosa, Dominican pseudo-diplomat and archetypal playboy. In its dreamy heavy-breathing romanticism, this attitude resembles a classic entry in a mail-order book catalog, circa 1985, for a volume called White Thighs:

Emerging from the deceptive waters of youthful innocence, a commanding man and a comely woman are swept away by the fast currents of sexual abandon until they crash on the rocks of total debauchery. 238 pp. Paperback $3.95

As George Sanders has noted, to this vision of romantic involvement Zsa Zsa delivers a resounding Yes. And yet, regarding her liasion with Kemal Atatürk, the ultimate “commanding man,” the facts have been lost in a muddle of teen-age fantasy, genuine forgetfulness, and casual fraud.

Sari Gabor was born in Budapest on February 6, 1919. With good reason, this statement may be called rash. No one really knows when Zsa Zsa was born, and she isn’t telling. Though she has always given February 6 as her birthday, Zsa Zsa has, since her ascent to the throne of celebrity, done everything possible to obfuscate, to deceive, and generally to drag skunk entrails across the path of anyone who tries to nose out her real age. Zsa Zsa’s mother, Jolie, desperately wanted to become an actress before her marriage at age seventeen to Vilmos Gabor, eighteen years her senior, and when she produced in succession three gorgeous daughters, Magda, Sari, and Eva, she proceeded to pour into them all her frustrated ambition and hunger for fame. The young Sari received the benefit of this early, in the form of a nickname. Jolie had named Sari after her stage idol, a Hungarian actress named Sari Fedak. Sari Fedak’s baby daughter, in the manner of infants worldwide, gurgled and smooshed her mother’s name--in this case into a sound that was transliterated as “Zsa Zsa”--and this became Miss Fedak’s public nickname. Thus the young Sari Gabor received both the famous actress’s Christian name and her label in baby-talk.

In her public appearances, Zsa Zsa has always shown up dripping in jewels. “I have never hated a man enough to give his diamonds back,” she has said, and at times her marital history seems as much a treasure hunt as anything else. Like her nickname, this fixation with glittering objects also springs directly from her upbringing, since the family’s income, on both her mother’s and her father’s side, came from the sale and manufacture of jewelry. The family matriarch, Zsa Zsa’s grandmother Franceska Kende, was a fixture of Budapest society. She owned, says Zsa Zsa, one of the oldest jewelry workshops in Hungary as well as a famous jewelry shop in central Budapest. Vilmos Gabor also owned his own jewelry store, as did Zsa Zsa’s uncle Sebastian, Jolie’s brother. And Jolie Gabor herself, always ambitious, owned two stores in Budapest, one for jewelry and the other for fine crystal and porcelain.

Of her mother Zsa Zsa (through her ghost-writer, Gerold Frank) says the following:

She was determined that we would make our mark. We would be no ordinary girls. We must be taught every accomplishment befitting young ladies; then it would be up to us to make the world take notice. So we learned, whether we wanted to or not, piano, ballet, fencing, tennis, riding.

In furtherance of this, Zsa Zsa was sent away at age thirteen to Madame Subilia’s School for Young Ladies, in Lausanne, Switzerland. In Budapest, she had already grown up in a society that spoke German and Hungarian, both official languages of the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. (At her house, she says, they actually spoke German before they spoke Hungarian.) To these, at Madame Subilia’s, she added French and English. The first was mandatory, as the classes were taught in French. The second language she picked up because, as she noted in her first letter home, all the other girls in the school were English.

Zsa Zsa and her ghost-writers have produced two memoirs: Zsa Zsa Gabor, My Story as Written for Me by Gerold Frank (1960), and One Lifetime is not Enough (1990) with Wendy Leigh. The first is superior by far, with much more detail about her early life, especially her first marriage. Neither book is any more reliable than a standard, self-serving show-biz memoir. In both, however, Zsa Zsa makes it clear that she was sent off to Madame Subilia’s at age thirteen and spent two years in Lausanne. It was at the end of her second year, when the fifteen-year-old Zsa Zsa returned for the summer to Budapest, that she met two men who would change her life forever.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog, it was linked from Rasti's blog. I love it, and am looking forward to reading more(just finished part 1),
Best Wishes

April 22, 2008 at 7:22 PM  
Blogger Gordon Taylor said...


Thanks! I hope you like it after you've finished it!


April 24, 2008 at 8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said... interested about ataturk mistress,fikriye want to know about their relationship and if possible the girl photo.

August 25, 2008 at 6:05 AM  
Blogger Gordon Taylor said...

Thank you for your question. I don't know much about Fikriye. She and her tragic fate are discussed in several places by Andrew Mango in his book Ataturk. She is listed in the Index. There is also a photo of her in the middle of the book.


August 25, 2008 at 4:37 PM  

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