The picture dates from 1926. My mother, Alma Lubin, a recent graduate of Smith College, is in Florence, standing on the broad front steps of the palace of Baron Paolo Mantica, an important journalist and political commentator. The stylish woman in the light summer dress greeting her is the Baron’s wife, Margit Mantica, nee Veszi, a Hungarian writer and translator with exceptional connections to the European artistic elite. She befriended my mother and awakened her to the world of art.
Thirty years later she did exactly the same for me.
When I met her in New York in the 1950s, she was an impoverished refugee like countless other European Jews. Her husband’s early enthusiasm for Mussolini had gradually transformed into angry resistance, which meant that he and his wife were subjected to constant harassment by the secret police. After the Baron died in 1935, life in Italy became untenable. Margit found refuge in Hollywood, working on the fringes of the movie industry, researching and translating and rewriting whatever was sent her way. Her main claim to fame there was a story credit for All in a Night’s Work, a Dean Martin picture of 1961.
From Europe’s artistic elite to Dean Martin. That was Margit’s trajectory. It didn’t amuse her, but it didn’t depress her either. At least she had escaped the Nazis. At least she had never starved.
A mid-level job at the advertising firm of J. Walter Thompson enabled Margit to leave movieland and settle in the more congenial atmosphere of New York. Not long after she arrived, she reached out to my mother and renewed their friendship. And I was the lucky beneficiary.
Margit and I would sit for hours on our living room sofa and leaf through the large picture books I brought home from the library of famous theatrical productions from the 1920s and 30s. My great passion at the time was stage design. I idolized the English visionary Edward Gordon Craig and asked Margit if she had ever met him. “Countless times,” she said. “He was living in Florence when I was married to Baron Mantica. He was the mad genius type, you know, very gifted but impossibly self-destructive. One dismal evening I invited him to dinner with Max Reinhardt, the most important theatrical impresario in Europe. The moment they met, Teddy- I always called him that because he loped along like an overgrown teddy bear- unleashed a giant monologue, claiming that his difficulties in doing Hamlet with Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater in 1911 had put him off all actors, all impresarios and all directors. If Reinhardt wanted Edward Gordon Craig, he’d have to give him total control. Poor, mad Teddy! He desperately needed the work, but he couldn’t rein in his giant ego. Fortunately, Count Harry Kessler, a lovely, highly cultivated man, took pity on him and commissioned him to illustrate Hamlet for his Cranach Press. Thanks to Count Harry’s generosity and patience, Teddy produced his one true masterwork- a livre d’artiste filled with the most exquisite woodcuts. I bought a copy but left it behind when I fled Italy.”
“What happened to it?”
Margit shrugged her shoulders and smiled.
Another time, we came across the settings for the American premiere of Molnar’s Lilliom that the American Lee Simonson had designed. I knew that Margit had once been married to the playwright, so I asked her what he was like.
Another shrug, another smile. “People called him the Hungarian Oscar Wilde, but I preferred the Irish original. He wrote a column for my father’s newspaper and wormed his way into Papa’s good graces. He started appearing at my family’s dinner parties, showing off shamelessly, one bon mot after another, mainly for my benefit. After years of this nonsense, I finally gave in and agreed to marry him. That’s when my problems began.”
“What sort of problems?”
“He thought a wife was a servant. He once woke me up at two in the morning and asked me to scramble him some eggs.”
“At two in the morning?”
“When I reminded him of the hour, he got snippy. ‘But I’ve been working all night on act three!’ ‘And I’ve been trying to sleep.’ He ripped off the bedsheets. ‘Get up and make those damn eggs!’ He had that dangerous look, the one he got before striking me.”
I was shocked. “Ferenc Molnar actually hit you?”
“I hit him right back, of course.” I shook my head in disbelief. “Yes, Lilliom was no fantasy. Ferenc Molnar was an expert on wife-beating.”
“How could you stay married to him?”
“It only lasted four years. Once we divorced, he became much more tolerable. I actually was quite sad when he died a few years back. He had that spark, you know, true creativity.”
“But he hit you!”
“Come, come, that was ages ago. Molnar finally found a more suitable wife- Lili Darvas, an excellent actress. She and I still get together from time to time.”
Her equanimity about all this astounded me. “So, what happened with him and the scrambled eggs?”
“I got two playing cards, cut them into bite-sized pieces and added them to the other ingredients. He never asked for my scrambled eggs again.”
Food often played a role in Margit’s stories. “There was a very lovely fellow who came to Florence as the British consul and I wanted to do something special for him and his delightful wife. He had a big birthday coming up: he was turning forty.” She turned to me and smiled. “Horrifying, isn’t it, the thought of turning forty? Anyway, I invited this young couple to join the Baron and myself for a typical Florentine birthday feast. As a special treat, we invited twenty or thirty of their closest friends for after-dinner liqueurs. On the night of the party, Paolo and I escorted the couple into our dining room, which was vast, truly baronial. Lorenzetto, our butler, came in with the first course, the beef carpaccio, but just as he reached the table, he tripped and the dish landed at the base of the sofa. I was mortified, but our dear, sweet guests pretended not to notice. Our butler apologized profusely. I said it didn’t matter and sent him off for the next course. He promptly returned with the pasta- Graziella’s spaghetti alle vongole, one of her specialties. I took my first bite and nearly gagged. The dish was disastrously oversalted. I told my guests not to eat it. They were startled, of course, but did as they were told and maintained an unruffled, diplomatic silence. I assured them that all would soon be well. Graziella had created a very special entrée in their honor- roast prime ribs of beef nel modo inglese. You must understand that while I was dealing with the steady flow of disasters from the kitchen, more and more of the consul’s friends showed up for their after-dinner drinks. They’d been invited for ten but they started appearing at nine. It was disconcerting, to say the least.”
“What did you do with them?”
“I couldn’t have them wait on the street, so I told them to join us at the table, which was large enough to accommodate a small army.”
“But what about your dinner?”
“Well, the roast beef was still to come. While we waited, I instructed the staff to give our guests champagne. This lightened things up and led to much hilarity, which was certainly a positive development. When Lorenzetto finally reappeared, there on our best silver platter lay a giant lump of charcoal, the smoldering remains of the prime ribs of beef. Lorenzetto shook his head sadly. ‘Baronessa, scusa, Graziella she got so busy with the pasta, she forgot to take it out. Maybe we could scramble them some eggs?’ I treated his remark with the contempt it deserved and sent him back to the kitchen. Everywhere I looked I saw dismayed faces. ‘Dear friends, dear guests,’ I said, rising to my feet and tapping my spoon on a wine glass, ‘this hasn’t been our finest hour. The Baron and I truly apologize. But, as you very well know, a play hasn’t ended till the final curtain falls.’ At which point all the doors of the dining room burst open and a horde of waiters I’d hired for the occasion rushed in with a true Florentine birthday banquet, while the guests, who had been in on the deception from the start, put on their party hats and shouted, “Happy birthday!”
“Wow. What an incredible surprise.”
“Yes, it worked out rather well. You know, I was talking with your mother about doing something similar for you. I had the delicious idea of getting a giant paper dragon like they use for the Chinese New Year, the one with all the people inside, that runs through the streets of Chinatown. I planned to get one and fill it with your friends. You’d open your door and find a giant dragon prancing down your corridor.”
“That would have been amazing.”
“Alas, your mother wouldn’t allow it. She thought the neighbors would object.” There was often a curious tension between Margit and my mother, even though they had been friends long before I was born. Today, looking back, I suspect that Mom felt Margit had too much of a hold over me. But I welcomed her hold. She told such incredible stories!
Since Margit’s salary at J. Walter Thompson was meager, she constantly hunted for free-lance writing assignments. She owned a set of letters from her great friend Puccini about his struggles to finish Turandot, his final opera, and wanted to write about them. Though Margit owned the physical letters, Puccini’s family had the rights to his words and wouldn’t let Margit use them.
“The fact that Maestro had been very close to a woman who wasn’t his wife – a Hungarian Jewess, no less – was too much for them,” Margit explained. “I had placed the article with a very good magazine at a very nice fee, but without Puccini’s words, the editor wouldn’t print it .”
“Just write about something else. You’ve got so many amazing stories to tell.” That was my constant theme. She’d published short stories and war reportage back in Hungary during the 1910s and 20s and had had so many fascinating encounters with so many astonishing people. I was convinced that Margit’s memoirs could become a best-seller.
She finally began work on them in the mid-1950s. Day after day, she went home after work and lost herself in her past. She submitted the first episode to the New Yorker, which promptly rejected it. She worried that her English had been the problem; it was, after all, her sixth language. She showed it to my mother, who had written for newspapers and magazines.
In fact, Margit’s English was perfectly acceptable. Her piece described a visit to her brother-in-law in the south of Italy, who, unlike her husband, was an enthusiastic follower of Mussolini, a card-carrying Fascist. He kept a caged wolf at the entrance to his villa and for Margit, this poor beast symbolized the suffering that Mussolini imposed on Italy. Sadly, her piece lacked the wit and vitality of her extempore story-telling. There was no hint of the Margit I knew and loved.
Though I never came out and told her, she must have sensed my disappointment. One day, quite out of the blue, she said, “You know, Ian, Philip Toynbee recently wrote that some people aren’t writers, but born conversationalists- and that’s accomplishment enough.”
It most certainly was. Especially in her case.
In the late 1950s Margit’s money problems forced her to leave New York for Alicante on the Costa Brava in Spain with its mild climate and affordable prices. We promised one another we would reconnect once I graduated from college and set our sights on the spring of 1962. She sent me a few letters in anticipation of that event, full of cultural asides and her infectious enthusiasm: I mustn’t miss the frescos of Piero della Francesca in Arezzo when I visited Italy; she loved Vincent d’Indy’s interpretation of the Sanctus from Bach’s B Minor Mass that she heard in Paris at the Schola Cantorum in the 1910s- “it sounded like angels dancing;” she was still annoyed with the Ricordi publishing house for hiring Alfano to finish Turandot; they should have used Pizetti, a far more gifted composer. More ominously, she told me she was buying lottery tickets, hoping for a miracle.
Our reunion never happened. She died before we could meet.
Quite recently, a new Puccini biography described her as one of the composer’s most significant lovers. I wasn’t especially surprised. Even in her seventies, she exuded an erotic allure. I felt a twinge of regret when the book also noted that Margit and Puccini had gone to Dresden in 1911 to hear one of the first performances of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. If only I had known it at the time, if only Margit could have told me how Puccini reacted to Strauss’ masterwork! Was he impressed, dismissive, ambivalent?
In my mind’s eye, she faces me once again, her small turquoise eyes sparkling, her face caked with the lilac-scented powder she always favored. She’s wearing her usual purple wool dress with a small Victorian brooch pinned over her left breast. She leans towards me, pats my knee confidingly and starts spinning her magic web.
Ian Strasfogel, an internationally renowned opera director born into a distinguished musical family, has plumbed the depths of his personal experience to portray the dazzle, drama and delight of a life on stage.