Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Pasha and the Gypsy -- Part III

Zsa Zsa: The Art of the Creaseless Smile

George Sanders wrote, “Whatever else could be said about Zsa Zsa, one thing is certain: she has a lot of guts.” And audacity, we might add. Delicious, disarming audacity. The kind that made her name a synonym for “fun.” The kind that reduced powerful men to puppies.

No, the Turkish Embassy told Zsa Zsa when she phoned, His Excellency M. Burhan Belge was not in Budapest at this time, but he was expected back from Berlin at any moment. She should call back later in the day. Two days later, contact made and date arranged, the sober diplomat and the Hungarian teen-ager were walking along the Danube Esplanade. They stopped in front of the Ritz, and Burhan suggested a drink at the Prince of Wales Bar. Burhan ordered scotch and soda; Zsa Zsa settled for a small glass of sherry. After some some moments of small talk, Zsa Zsa could stand it no more. “Excellency,” she blurted out, “will you marry me?”

One thing can be said for Burhan Belge: faced with a golden opportunity for legalized pedophilia, he made a creditable effort at resistance. After first gagging on his drink and then turning red, he asked her to repeat the question. Zsa Zsa reminded him of his promise from that summer: he would marry her when she grew up. Well, she asserted, she had grown up. Burhan laughed. Technically, she was correct: he had spoken those words. One can only imagine the bewilderment that assailed him. He was a true gentleman, a thoughtful and serious man. (Too serious, Zsa Zsa told him: he needed someone like her.) He was unmarried, and though Zsa Zsa didn’t know it, he had been married twice before. Predictably, he stalled for time. Burhan asked if he could think it over. How long? Zsa Zsa pressed. Until tonight, he suggested. They could have dinner together.

Burhan chose the Hotel Gellért, a grand 233-room palace built in 1918 in the Art Nouveau style. It sits on the Buda (west) side of the Danube, and its restaurant still features a gypsy orchestra for dancing. Before dinner they danced the waltz, says Zsa Zsa, and she did her utmost to break through the older man’s reserve. The dress probably helped. Clinging to her body was a black gown that Eva had helped her get into. Also, she had brought some publicity photos to show him, including one of her in an open blouse eating grapes, another clad in a tight red sweater biting provocatively into an apple. Later, seated with this beautiful child at the dinner table, confronted by these teasing fruity images, Burhan Belge again looked down the barrel of The Big Question.

“Have you made up your mind, Excellency?” Zsa Zsa asked.

Poor Burhan. How difficult this must have been. Turkish nationalists are such serious people; and they hate to surrender. But they also like a challenge--and blondes. “Why not?” he said with a sigh. And yes, he conceded, she could also bring along Mishka, her favorite Scotty dog.

The family’s reaction, says Zsa Zsa, was surprisingly mild. As usual with the Gabors, some hereditary form of nitrous oxide, an aerosol of insouciance, seemed to fill their lungs. Her mother, seeing the need for a bridal trousseau, seized upon the news as an excellent excuse to do more shopping. (Before her daughter left, Jolie told Zsa Zsa, “It doesn’t have to be forever. If you don’t like Burhan, you can always come back to me.”) Her grandmother thought her very young for Burhan Belge, but she knew the man and thought very highly of him. As for Vilmos Gabor, Zsa Zsa thought that he was secretly relieved. This was a man who had hoped for a son and instead got three unmarried girls. In the past six months he had seen his house suddenly disrupted by a beauty pageant, sent his grieving wife away on a shopping trip, and ended up with a daughter in show business. And now, just weeks after returning from Vienna, that same daughter, little more than a child, proposed to marry a Turk. Vilmos, seeing that this willful girl was about to be taken off his hands, probably slept a lot easier.
Eva’s reaction, however, was different. The night before the wedding ceremony the two sisters crept into bed together for a hug and a good cry. The impulsive Zsa Zsa was now frightened, and for good reason. This was not a shopping trip to Vienna. She was fifteen years old, about to travel a thousand miles to a strange oriental land with a man she barely knew. If ever her sister needed help, Eva promised, she would come from the ends of the earth. All Zsa Zsa had to do was wire one word: “Gypsy.”

And so she did it. At the beginning of 1935, some weeks before her sixteenth birthday, Her Excellency Mme. Burhan Belge arrived in the capital of the new Turkey. But Ankara was not your normal capital city. Sometimes called Ancyra, and then Angora, the town traced its history back to Rome, St. Paul, and the Celts. It was famous for long-haired animals-goats, cats, rabbits-but little else.
Only fourteen years before, in the summer of 1921, Ankara had been a mere outpost, a small town with a telegraph wire on the tail end of the railroad from Constantinople. For those reasons only had Mustafa Kemal chosen it as his command post in the war against the invading Greek army. Other than its remoteness, the place had few natural defenses. To the west, whence the invaders came, it lay open to the rolling uplands of Anatolia. And indeed, the town almost fell to the Greeks. It was in August 1921, at a bend in the Sakarya River just thirty miles from Ankara, that the two armies fought the great battle (Lord Kinross, Atatürk’s biographer, calls it “the longest pitched battle in history”) which decided the fate of the country. Two years and two months after the Battle of the Sakarya, the Republic had been proclaimed, with Ankara as its capital. Eleven years and a few months later, Zsa Zsa arrived.

A decade of building had left Yenisehir, the New City, more a façade than a reality. Ankara-still referred to as Angora by the New York Times-was a work in progress, a government boom town with a population just over 100,000. Far removed from Istanbul, with no views of water or the sea, it sat on a semi-arid plateau in the middle of nowhere, a provincial town slightly grown up from a village. In its ancient north end, a jumble of hillside alleys twisted beneath the crumbling citadel. In the broad valley to the south, German-designed cubes of buff, ochre, and brown lined the clean new boulevards. Everywhere lay reminders of the soil that nourished and besieged the city: black, pungent swirls from the soft coal burned in winter; a delicate dusty haze in the summer heat; the tan hills and rock always lingering in the distance. And out of this soil swam what one writer referred to as the “earth-fish,” the shoals of Anatolian peasants who migrated into the city to work on its buildings, to excavate its guts, to lie down in its dust for their mid-day naps. To foreigners stationed there, Ankara was a “diplomatic concentration camp.” If they needed fun and amusement, they had to make it themselves. But to Turks it was the hope of the future, a new chance at nationhood, a monument to the man who created it.

M. and Mme. Belge lived in a house on Embassy Row, situated along Atatürk Boulevard as it climbs from the center of the New City toward Çankaya Hill in the south. There, says Zsa Zsa, she tried to become a good wife. She stayed home; she learned to brew Turkish coffee; she studied Turkish with a tutor and was quizzed on vocabulary by Burhan when he came home from the office. After the quiz she would sit on a large hassock and listen while Burhan, trying to make up for her lost schooling, read to her from French, German, and English literature. Soon Burhan bought Zsa Zsa a horse, a white Arabian mare named Fatushka, which she stabled at the Ankara Riding Club north of town. From the stables she would go trotting off, traversing the entire length of Atatürk Boulevard from its beginnings at the edge of the old city, down and across the valley, dusty with new construction, up past the embassies and government ministries to Çankaya Hill, where Atatürk had built his home. She loved Ankara; Zsa Zsa says it “electrified” her with its mixture of modernity and exoticism. And almost immediately she began making friends.

Zsa Zsa, who spent much of the daytime on horseback, met her first important friend while doing just that. One day at the Club, as she was about to ride off, she become aware of someone staring at her from behind. Sir Percy Loraine (spelled “Loren” by Zsa Zsa) told her years after how clearly he remembered that first meeting. “I saw you on a horse,” he said, “a perfect little figure in a riding habit, with golden hair under a black velvet cap.” At first, he claimed, he did not want her to turn around, because he knew he would only be disappointed. She did, however, and he was not. So together, they rode on: the expatriate Hungarian girl and her new friend, the British Ambassador.

Sir Percy Loraine, whose memories of Kemal Atatürk have been repeatedly quoted since their first broadcast in 1948, was perhaps the best friend Zsa Zsa could have made. Fifty-four years old, tall and graying, with blue eyes and that easy charm which English aristocrats seem to have invented, Sir Percy, says Zsa Zsa, made Burhan seem “tortured” in comparison. Loraine (1880-1961) was a veteran diplomat who previously had served in Cairo, Tehran, and Athens, and he would be Ambassador in Rome when war broke out in 1939. Sir Percy and Lady Loraine did not want to be in Ankara; both disliked the place intensely. Using the night train, Loraine escaped to Istanbul as often as possible. Only after the Ankara Hippodrome opened in 1934 did Sir Percy, a veteran horse breeder and racer, take a greater interest in Ankara life. Since then the equestrian academy had become the location of his stud farm.

Loraine’s tenure in Ankara (1934-39), which included a 1936 visit to Istanbul by King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson, saw a major thaw in relations between Turkey and Britain. Soon he and his wife had invited the Belges to the Embassy for supper, and often thereafter Zsa Zsa came to tea. Sir Percy and Lady Loraine were kind to her; from them she added to her knowledge of etiquette and protocol, social graces so necessary to the wife of an important government official. Sir Percy Loraine, says Zsa Zsa, was “perfect.” She began to wish that she had married him instead.

Zsa Zsa’s love of parties meshed nicely with her social position, for these occasions were a large part of her marital life. She grew to love the diplomatic round, and it’s easy to imagine that, with her looks and linguistic ability, she would become an attraction. Even shopping, not a major leisure-time activity in a city as austere as Ankara, helped pass the time. What Ankara lacked in modern consumer goods, it made up for in local crafts and antiques. Zsa Zsa’s favorite antique shop, which she visited often while on her daily rides, was run by six Circassian brothers, the eldest of whom was called Numad.

At least, that is what she says in her first memoir published in 1960. In her 1990 book, Zsa Zsa says that the antique shop was owned by seven “Armenian” brothers, one of whom was named “Ahmed.” Since neither she nor her ghost-writer could be bothered to go back to the first book and check for inconsistencies, this should give us an idea of the level of reliability we are dealing with in Zsa Zsa’s memoirs. The 1960 account of “Numad and the Circassians” seems far more likely. Ahmed is an obvious Muslim name, and Armenians, God knows, are not Muslims. Besides, after eight years of war, famine, massacre, and deportation from 1914-22, there weren’t a lot of Armenians left in central Turkey by the 1930s.

There were, however, plenty of Circassians. In their way, and in lesser numbers, the Circassians’ fate presaged that of the Armenians. These people, Muslim villagers who lived in the mountains at the east end of the Black Sea, were killed or driven from their homelands by Russian expansion in the 19th century. They were a small part of the massive, century-long influx of Muslim refugees from former Ottoman territories-the Crimea, the Caucasus, the Balkans, and Greece-territories which had either become independent or had been taken over by the Russian Empire during the century from 1821-1923. In the 1860s and after, the exiled Circassians migrated into Anatolia and as far south as Syria and Palestine, where even today they are strongly represented in the officer corps of the Royal Jordanian Army. Most, however, settled in Anatolia, where they have been largely assimilated into the Turkish nation.

Zsa Zsa compares Numad and his brothers to Modigliani figures, with long, slender faces, dark eyes, and the austere look of Spanish saints. Their shop was in the Old City, probably near Ulus Square. She would stop in on her way back to the stables, they would give her coffee, and she would browse among the copperware, the jewelry, and the rugs. Often, she says, Numad would present things for her appreciation, showing off his newest acquisitions, allowing her to try on a ring or a necklace. One day he showed her an especially lovely pearl. Zsa Zsa held it in her hand and admired it. The Afghan Ambassador, said Numad, would love to send it to her if she liked it.
“Really?” she asked. “And why should he do that?”
“If you would be nice to him-”

Zsa Zsa was insulted. Immediately she put him straight on that subject, threatening to leave his shop at once and not come back. We can presume that Numad apologized, for several days later Zsa Zsa was back. This time he brought out for her delectation a gold bracelet studded with emeralds and rubies.
“And who wants me to be nice to him now?” asked Zsa Zsa.
One can imagine this moment: a tiny shop in the narrow streets beneath the old citadel; in the background the cries of street venders; the sound of horse-drawn wagons creaking past on the cobbles. What feelings must have arisen in these Circassian brothers! Here was a blonde girl, a foreigner beautiful beyond imagining, standing in their shop wearing jodhpurs and carrying a riding crop. To them she was as unreachable as a cloud. Yet others, rich and powerful others that they could assist, might be luckier.
Numad chose his words carefully.
“Please, Your Excellency,” he began. “This gentleman doesn’t even ask to be thanked.” He went on. The nameless gentleman would gain pleasure simply by knowing that she had accepted the gift. Then sometime, perhaps-and with this Numad paused-perhaps he could come here and enjoy a coffee, so that the benefactor could see how beautiful the bracelet looked on her.
Zsa Zsa does not mention a film of oil glistening on Numad’s fingertips as he presented this innocent plan; still, it is easy to imagine. In any case, Her Excellency Madame Belge flicked her riding crop under his “long Circassian nose” and told him to forget it. And with that she went home.

But it wasn’t as if the thought of romance--real romance, hot love, and steamy sex--had not crossed Zsa Zsa’s mind. It was, after all, one of her chief daydreams. Jolie’s parting words pretty much set the tone; in her marriage to Burhan Belge, Zsa Zsa was not much of a wife and far from being a lover. So far she had kept him at bay, and the marriage remained unconsummated. On their first night as man and wife, aboard the Simplon-Orient Express, Zsa Zsa retreated to her berth and curled up with her little dog Mishka, who growled and yapped at Burhan when he drew near. Since then they had kept their distance, and she had played the part of untouchable schoolgirl to his stern professor. Burhan was cold, says Zsa Zsa, and distant. He seldom laughed and often withdrew into his own thoughts. She was afraid of him: not physically-she knew he would never harm her-but because with one look he could suck all the joy from her life. He was a serious intellectual, a thinker, a very famous man. Every Saturday afternoon on Ankara Radio he broadcast a summary of world events to the entire country. All his friends were ministers or diplomats. He often left Turkey on official missions, which he told her nothing about. He held regular political meetings in their home, and he warned her sternly never to repeat anything she might hear. All in all, Zsa Zsa felt privileged to be Madame Belge. But it soon became obvious: from one trap in Budapest she had talked herself into another.

In the few times they met, Zsa Zsa felt far closer to Burhan’s brother-in-law, Yakup Kadri, the Turkish ambassador to Albania. Here again, the man was much older, and they had few intellectual interests in common; still, Yakup Kadri was charming and fun, “lusty and out-going,” and he was proof that Turks did not have to be dour. Zsa Zsa first met him and his wife, Leman (who was, she said, as cold as her brother), when she arrived in Istanbul to meet Burhan’s family. At that time, family surnames had just become mandatory in Turkey. Mustafa Kemal changed his name to Kemal Atatürk. Burhan had become Burhan Belge; Yakup Kadri became Yakup Kadri Karaosmano?lu. [Before 1934, first names only were used, with personal tags sometimes added to differentiate among those with common names. Mustafa, for example, was extremely common. Mustafa Kemal added the second name, meaning "perfection," after it had been bestowed upon him by one of his teachers.]

Using this full name, Yakup Kadri Karaosmano?lu (1889-1974) became one of the outstanding writers and political figures of his era, and according to Andrew Mango he was one of Atatürk’s four favorite writers. Yakup Kadri was born ten years before Burhan Belge, and like Burhan he came from an old Ottoman family, the Kara Osmans of Manisa, who were famous enough to be mentioned in the poems of Lord Byron. Into his eighty-five years he packed a lot of living. In 1922 he witnessed the fall and burning of the great city of Smyrna, now called Izmir. As a writer and journalist he supported the rise of Mustafa Kemal, and his novels chronicled the social changes that Turkey underwent after the revolution. As an ambassador he served in Albania, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Iran, and Switzerland, and in the 1960s he became a member of Parliament. Zsa Zsa describes his luxuriant mustache, his twinkling eyes, and mischievous laugh, which, she said, “captivated” her.
Zsa Zsa says that some months after her arrival in Ankara, Yakup Kadri was promoted from his post in Tirana to an ambassadorship in the much more desirable city of Berne, in Switzerland. To celebrate, and because they were leaving the next day, Burhan suggested that they should take Yakup Kadri and Leman out to dinner. This, it turned out, would be an important event. Here again, however, we run afoul of Zsa Zsa’s unreliability as an historian. She specifically states that Yakup Kadri had been posted to Berne. However, the biographies of Yakup Kadri are quite clear: he did not go to Berne until 1942, and then, for a second posting, in 1951. The posting cited could not have been Berne: by 1942 Zsa Zsa no longer lived in Turkey. But surely we can forgive her for this mistake. She was, after all, only sixteen years old, and the exact details of the man’s diplomatic career were not her concern. After Albania, however, the biographies do say that Yakup Kadri was posted to Prague in 1935. Even more than Berne (a notoriously stodgy capital in any case), this certainly would have been considered a step up from Tirana, and congratulations would have been in order. Zsa Zsa remembers a farewell dinner for Yakup Kadri and Leman. Surely this was the occasion.

In considering the events that followed, we must remember that Ankara was a “diplomatic concentration camp.” Sir Percy Loraine referred to its “pathetic bleakness.” His wife called it “the most Godforsaken hole I have ever been in.” The city’s total population may have risen to 100,000, but the ruling elite and its attendant diplomatic corps numbered a lot less than that. Within this tightly closed perimeter, everybody either knew everybody else or knew someone who did. And one man-ever-inquisitive, hungering for society-was always ready to make new friends.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Reading this I thought of the comment that my grandmother made once about Zsa Zsa, that her brother . Douglas Chandler, said he's had an affair with her when he was in Turkey (probably sometime in the 30's). Gabor was married to a "pasha or something" and so she had to hide under the bedcovers when she wanted to talk to my great-uncle. I had always imagined a harem scene and so your history is very helpful in correcting my boyhood impressions.

April 10, 2014 at 1:31 AM  

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