Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Pasha and the Gypsy -- Part II

Richard Tauber with his signature monocle

The Turks are not known as a frivolous people, and Burhan Belge, by Zsa Zsa’s account, was as serious as they come. Born in Damascus in 1899, formerly a Member of Parliament in Turkey, the holder of a degree in architecture from the University of Heidelberg, a writer, journalist, and broadcaster, Burhan sprang from the very heart of the Turkish political elite. Like most intellectuals of his era, he had flirted with Marxism. Until 1933 he had co-edited “Kadro” (The Cadre), a political journal of leftist/nationalist thought, along with Yakup Kadri Karaosmano?lu, a diplomat and a prolific novelist, who was married to Burhan’s sister. The slant of this journal made the authorities nervous, however, and after they had closed down “Kadro,” both Burhan and Yakup Kadri were kicked upstairs to safer jobs. Now Director of Press for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Burhan Belge traveled on a diplomatic passport and was called “Your Excellency” by all who addressed him. He was, in other words, an important man. Burhan was thirty-five; Zsa Zsa was fifteen.

They met at a party given by Zsa Zsa’s grandmother, Franceska Kende, just after Zsa Zsa got back from school. Frau Kende was a good friend of the Turkish Ambassador, and Burhan Belge, visiting on government business, had come with him to the party. Zsa Zsa remembered a dour, almost sinister-looking man of medium height, with a wide pale forehead which only emphasized his dark eyes and the little pouches beginning to show under them. He must have been in his middle thirties, and he looked world-weary and bored.

They used German, which Burhan spoke “perfectly,” and according to Zsa Zsa their conversation consisted mostly of the kind of banter which might pass between an exceedingly pretty, flirtatious child and an adult who could not take her seriously. At the end of it, after Zsa Zsa had objected precociously to his patronizing tone, an amused Burhan promised to marry her “when she grew up.” Thus ended their five minutes of acquaintance.

At 6:00 o’clock the next morning, says Zsa Zsa, she was dragged out of bed by Jolie Gabor, who overnight had begun her transformation into Stage Mother of the Century. Zsa Zsa, still groggy after her trip from Lausanne, had evidently been the hit of the previous night’s party. Her aunts, seeing how pretty she had become, had urged Jolie to enter her in the Miss Hungary pageant, which was taking place that morning at 11:00 o’clock at a hotel in Budapest. Jolie Gabor, feverish with excitement, had stayed up all night planning. They now had five frantic hours in which to get ready.

As Zsa Zsa describes it, this was a beauty pageant of a simpler era, far removed from the complex industrial-strength expositions of today. Other than the ability to walk back and forth, presumably without chewing gum at the same time, no “talent” appears to have been needed. They called it a beauty pageant, and beauty was all they were after. And the beauty of Number 146, the number on Zsa Zsa’s dress, won the contest.
Except she didn’t. At least, not officially. The minimum age for entry was sixteen, and Zsa Zsa was only fifteen. The judges conferred, decided they had to withdraw the title, and instead named Number 146 as runner-up. Jolie was heartbroken and incensed. Zsa Zsa was bewildered. If Zsa Zsa had won, she and her mother would have gone to the Miss Europe competition, in Cannes. To have come this close to the magic French Riviera, and with her beautiful daughter, was more than Jolie Gabor could bear. For days the Gabor house echoed with lamentation. At last Vilmos Gabor could stand it no more. To make peace, he offered the classic Gabor consolation prize: a week of shopping. In Vienna. Just Jolie and Zsa Zsa. All expenses paid. Jolie Gabor, delirious with gratitude, smothered her husband in kisses.

The next chapter in her life, says Zsa Zsa, began at an outdoor concert in Grinzing, a town just outside Vienna. It was August, and as the music played they chatted and sipped from tumblers of wine. Mother and daughter were seated at a table with two of Jolie’s friends when a waiter arrived bearing a piece of folded note-paper. Zsa Zsa’s beauty and vivacity had caught the attention of a gentleman seated nearby, and he asked for a word with them. The man’s face could not have been more distinctive. He was well-dressed, a florid, smiling man who wore a monocle in his right eye and smoked his cigarette in a holder. Everyone at the table knew instantly who he was. And Jolie Gabor, ambitious stage mother from Budapest, was most thrilled of all.

Even in the twenty-first century, when millions think of Caruso as the quintessential tenor, far fewer remember Richard Tauber. And yet, as a singer Tauber could be regarded as Caruso’s equal, and as an all-round musician-a conductor and composer, as well as performer-he was surely superior. By 1925 he was Europe’s premier interpreter of Mozart, as well as being equally proficient in the standard Italian roles. After 1926, working in a series of new operettas by Franz Lehar, composer of The Merry Widow, Tauber re-invented himself, revived Lehar’s career, and made musical history. During the 1920s and `30s, in Europe and across the world, no singer was more beloved than Richard Tauber, and his recordings made him even more famous. Eventually the insanity of Nazism (Tauber’s father, unbeknownst to him, was half-Jewish) brought an end to his continental career, and he spent the last years of his working life in England. But his fame died hard. Tauber brought to music-making an instinctive joy, an exuberance that people remembered long after. Following a London concert, one critic wrote: “He seems to stand and contemplate his purest notes like a boy watching irridescent bubbles float through the air.”

One Tauber story concerns a marathon bicyle race in Berlin during the Depression, the kind of working-class spectacle that was typical of the time, not much different in tone or clientele from a prize fight or a professional wrestling match today. One night, in the middle of the race, word got around the stands that Richard Tauber had arrived and was in the audience. Excitement grew among the fans, predominantly working-class and male, who had gathered to watch the race; calls rang out for him to stand and be acknowledged. At last Tauber did so. Someone demanded a song, then someone else. Soon the entire stadium was joining in the request. Tauber had no choice but to oblige. And so he stood. Immediately the mass of men fell silent; the bicycle racers stopped in their tracks; and on that night in pre-Hitler Berlin, Tauber sang one of his signature melodies, a song by Franz Lehar. This was Richard Tauber. This was the power that he held over the listening public. This was the man who had sent a note to Zsa Zsa and Jolie Gabor.

One can only imagine the giddiness, the fluttering, the near-hysteria that erupted as Richard Tauber joined the Gabors at their table. But the great singer was on a serious mission. Tauber had come to Vienna to produce the first full-length operetta of his own composition, a piece called The Singing Dream, which was scheduled to open at the end of August. He, of course, would star in it. Seated at a nearby table, with his monocle screwed in and his cigarette plugged into its holder, Tauber had seen Zsa Zsa in conversation, and he became convinced that she was ideally suited to play the soubrette part in his new operetta. Was the young fraülein available? For a stage mother like Jolie Gabor, such a question was the fulfillment of a dream.

Three weeks of intensive coaching followed: singing lessons, dancing lessons, acting lessons, rehearsals. Zsa Zsa was terrified, bewildered, exhausted. Jolie lived in a frenzy of transferred ambition. Vilmos Gabor, however, was aghast. He had sent off his wife and fifteen-year-old daughter for a week of shopping, not a career in theatre. Poor Vilmos. It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the man, prosperous but put-upon, drowning in diamonds and blondes. Of course he gave way. And on August 31, 1934, Sari Gabor appeared as Violet, the soubrette part, in the world premiere of Richard Tauber’s operetta, The Singing Dream.

And now it must be said, for anyone chasing that most elusive of trivialities, the True Age of Zsa Zsa, that this is a very important date. For even though Zsa Zsa Gabor has mentioned this production in both her autobiographies, even though she repeatedly states that she was fifteen years old when she got the part, and even though in her first book she says that The Singing Dream opened on August 31, she never yet has seen fit to mention the year. But anyone who bothers to read a biography of Richard Tauber can find it. And anyone can do the math. The Singing Dream, with fifteen-year-old Sari Gabor in the cast, opened at the Theatre an der Wien on 31 August 1934. So much for the “mystery” of Zsa Zsa’s age.

The Singing Dream ran for three months, and at the end of December 1934, without Sari Gabor, it left Vienna to go on tour. Even with a chaperone to attend her, these were heady times for the young Zsa Zsa. Mere months before, she had been in a Swiss finishing school. Now she was on stage, making entrances and exits, attempting to sing, speaking her lines, exchanging gossip about her fellow players.

She even acquired a sugar-daddy, an Austrian composer named Willi Schmidt-Gentner. Gentner (1894-1964), primarily a film composer, posted some ninety-five movie credits spanning the years 1926-1956. Throughout the run of The Singing Dream, this married would-be roué pursued Zsa Zsa relentlessly, taking her to night clubs and to restaurants, even on day trips to the Alps. The two could not stay apart, and Willi made it clear that he wanted her to become his mistress. Despite her infatuation, Zsa Zsa never gave in. In December, her virtue intact, she returned to Budapest.

Ah, but Budapest was not the same city that she had left. Because Zsa Zsa was not the same. She had won-or almost won-the title of Miss Hungary. She had appeared in an operetta alongside the greatest singer in Europe. She was beautiful, and she knew it. A famous film composer had fallen in love with her. Moreover, the Hungarian film producer Alexander Korda, now resident in England, had seen her in Tauber’s operetta and wanted to give her a screen test, but he had been unable to obtain for her a British work permit. After all this, how could she return to Madame Subilia’s School for Young Ladies? And if she could not go back to Lausanne, what would she do in Budapest? Go to another school? Find a job in theatre? Work in a jewelry store? What could she possibly do now?

Four weeks later, says Zsa Zsa, she was on the Orient Express, heading for Istanbul.

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Anonymous Bulbul Sarwar said...

i really amazed..........
waiting for the book.
Salute to Gordon, Sir!

February 27, 2010 at 8:37 PM  
Blogger Gordon Taylor said...

Many thanks, Bulbul effendi. Alas, the book is a fantasy. But thank you for the thought.

February 28, 2010 at 1:19 PM  

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