Sunday, April 6, 2008

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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