Okay, so, I tend to overdramatize. I can’t help it. I was born with a hyperbole on my lips. Turns out, I am still a man of the world wide web, despite the scheduled (and currently ongoing) landline repairs I lamented previously. At least, the prospect of not having access to the internet motivated us to realize some last-minute holiday plans by booking a trip to . . . Budapest. However eager I might be to share my experience, the challenge, as always, is not to drift too far from the format and subject of this journal and yet to make it reflect my everyday life, whether I am spending An Evening with Queen Victoria (as I will be on 22 April) or going back to my old neighborhood in New York City (on 14 May). Still, it is going to be (almost) all about Budapest from now until my royal visit.
“There is no such place as Budapest. Perhaps you are thinking of Bucharest, . . . and there is no such place as Bucharest, either,” New England wit Robert Benchley once remarked. Fortunately, especially for someone with a non-refundable ticket, there is ample proof to the contrary on the birth certificates of a number of film and radio personalities; and, as much as I love goulash or views of the Danube, I shall devote subsequent entries in the broadcastellan journal to the exploration of a few Hollywood-Budapest connections, whether prominent or obscure. To director Michael Curtiz, perhaps (whose Mildred Pierce I revisited earlier this year), or matrimonially challenged Zsa Zsa Gabor, whom I spotted not too long ago in Touch of Evil.
Then there are playwright Ferenc Molnar, whose Liliom was spun into a musical Carousel, and director Géza von Bolváry, who made movies starring the glamorous Zarah Leander (recently back in the limelight, in commemorations of the 100th anniversary of her birth). Never mind character actor Paul Lukas, who became a US citizen in 1933, or (soon to be exhumed?) escape artist Harry Houdini, who denied his Budapest birthplace. How could I, as an old-time radio aficionado, resist a few half-hours with “gorgeous” Ilona Massey, whose Top Secret adventures were blurted out on US radio back in 1950.
Now, I don’t question that Ms. Massey was indeed gorgeous; the quotation marks are merely embracing the adjective to suggest that the actress was billed in this manner when she agreed to become incorporeal for the sake of starring in her own thriller series (before materializing on television in 1954, when, years after her meeting with an Invisible Agent (a 1942 comedy-thriller co-starring Austro-Hungarian Peter Lorre) she got to host a variety program named after her).
In Top Secret, the aforementioned Hollywood actress played a Baroness on perilous assignments of “international intrigue and espionage before and during the World War II.” It all began on a “Night Train to Berlin,” in a compartment of which the Baroness found herself locked up with a Gestapo officer who threatens to break more than her silence: “Your fingernails, your knuckles, your beautiful white teeth, that golden hair. I promise you, your hair will be gray as ashes before the treatment is over.”
Not exactly the Beverly Hills spa treatment. How did she get into such a pickle? And how come she carries six lumps of poisonous sugar in her handbag and a radioactive transmitter in her heels, like some “walking Geiger counter” in search of tea or uranium? “It is very simple,” the Baroness explains in an accent thicker than the plots she was dealt. “A long time ago, a man, a very wonderful, brave man,” offered her a job and she took it. Who would refuse a position that guaranteed “no credit in success, no protection in danger, no recognition even in death,” a career in which “your first mistake will be your last”? The job takes her to Berlin, where the Baroness works . . . as a manicurist. “It is surprising how much one can pick up in a beauty parlor. And I do not mean, er, tips.” A real nail salon-biter.
Massey got out of Hungary for that? I’ll have to study the travel brochures more carefully next time. Anyway. I may not be a Man of the World like debonair William Powell (whom I watched last night, opposite Carole Lombard, presuming to be one); but it sure is swell to be traveling to foreign countries now and again. I get to enjoy all those Hollywood stopovers.