S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 May 25, 1946: 28-41

If you happened to visit New York in the winter of 1908 (or even if you lived here), you could scarcely avoid seeing "The Devil," a play by the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar. Probably for the first time in the history of the New York theatre, four companies were simultaneously performing one play. Two of the productions were in English, one was in German, and one was in Yiddish. In one of the English versions, produced by Henry W. Savage at the Garden, the fascinating Devil was played by Edwin Stevens; in the other, produced by Harrison Grey Fiske at the Belasco, the part was played by George Arliss. Judge came out with a cover that showed Mephisto, perched on a rock, leering down on a New York street solidly made up of theatres, all of which were playing "The Devil." A caption recorded Pluto's satisfaction with what Molnar had done for him: "I seem to be quite popular." The Devil was so popular, not only in New York but throughout the United States, that producers complained it was impossible to get leading men anywhere; they were all away somewhere or other playing Dr. Miller, which was the pseudonym affected in the play by the distinguished visitor from below. There was also a grievous shortage in opera capes and silk hats, for Dr. Miller was a formal dresser.

In the thirty-seven years that have passed since these multitudinous productions of "The Devil," seventeen other Molnar plays have been produced in New York, a record few American playwrights can claim. In 1914, David Belasco put on "The Phantom Rival," with Leo Ditrichstein, and it was extremely successful. In 1921, the Theatre Guild, then just getting started, took a leap into the unknown and produced his most famous play, "Liliom." A quarter of a century later, the Guild is presenting it again—expatriated to Massachusetts—as "Carousel," with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. "The Guardsman," a later Molnar play, was the first production of the Theatre Guild that made real money. In it the Lunts acted together for the first time and had their first major success, and they chose it for their first and only film. During the next several years, Gilbert Miller put on three Molnar works—"The Play's the Thing," with Holbrook Blinn; "The Swan," with Eva Le Gallienne; and "The Good Fairy," with Helen Hayes and Walter Connolly—and all three were very successful. At the moment, three theatres in Budapest are playing Molnar—"The Swan," "The Play's the Thing," and a bill of one-acters. "Liliom" and "The Play's the Thing" are also current in Vienna. Of contemporary playwrights, only Shaw, Maugham, and O'Neill, it would appear, have shown a comparable durability.

Molnar, who has been living at the Plaza ever since he arrived in this country in January, 1940, was born in Budapest on January 12, 1878, of a Jewish family named Neumann. His change of name was not an assimilationist caprice, nor was it akin to the naive aspiration which in Boston animates the Kabatznicks to assume the dubious protective coloration of Cabot. The shift from Neumann to Molnar was a gesture of patriotic assertion rather than of escape. Until late in the eighteenth century, Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were not permitted to dignify themselves with surnames. Then Emperor Josef II, in a burst of tolerance, made the pronouncement that they could wear swords and have surnames, provided that these were German and were approved by the officials. Hungary struggled against the process of Germanization until well into the nineteenth century, and even before 1867, when a decree making German the official language was revoked, a revolution took place in the nomenclature of the Hungarian Jews, whose abruptly acquired family names were often the coarse inventions of grossly comical German officials. In some cases the imposed names were scatological, in others merely ribald. Molnar's family had escaped the elephantine vagaries of official German humor, but he himself felt that he could not write under any German name whatever; he felt it would be unfair to Hungarian literature. Almost every Jewish doctor, lawyer, and businessman had somewhat the same feeling. "Molnar" is Hungarian for "Miller;" this was the profession of his favorite uncle, and he took the name over. It was a fling at nationalism.

In a preface to one edition of his collected plays, Molnar wrote a capsule biography of himself up to 1925:

1878, I was born in Budapest; 1896, I became a law student at Geneva; 1896, I became a journalist in Budapest; 1897, I wrote a short story; 1900, 1 wrote a novel; 1902, I became a playwright at home; 1908, I became a playwright abroad; 1914, 1 became a war correspondent; 1916, I became a playwright once more; 1918, my hair turned snow-white; 1925, I should like to be a law student at Geneva once more.

Molnar's father was a fairly successful physician, and the son's earliest memories are of people sitting in the Doctor's darkish waiting room. The whole household atmosphere was gloomy, and the boy, to liven things up, often played practical jokes on the patients. There is the legend that one of these jokes was so vivid that it quite literally scared his grandmother to death. (Probably this is the malicious invention of someone who suffered from his practical jokes in after years. According to Molnar, his grandmother merely broke a leg.) Except for whatever excitement of this sort he was able to whip up, the first five years of his life seem to have been, as he puts it, a "hiatus." In quick succession, for the next thirteen years, he attended a number of schools in Budapest, ending his local scholastic career at the Royal Hungarian University of Sciences, where, he recalls, he got into the habit of going to the Central Café, a local Mermaid Tavern, to do his homework. There he laid the foundation for that capacity to concentrate in cafés which later made it possible for him to toss off "Liliom" at a marble-topped table in one of the town's most populous restaurants, to the music of a military band. At the Royal University he studied law, concentrating on its criminal branches, and wrote a disquisition on criminal law and criminal statistics that appeared in Pesti Hirlap, a Hungarian political paper. He leavened these solemn activities by composing stories and light verse for a humorous paper.

In 1896, when he was eighteen, Molnar decided to devote more of his time to journalism. He presented himself at the editorial offices of Pesti Hirlap, where he was told that the managing editor was away hunting. On subsequent visits, he got the same story. This hunting trip lasted fourteen years; Molnar didn't meet the editor until 1910. When he did, however, he got a job. In the meantime, piqued by the prolonged absence of the tireless huntsman, he decided to tackle plays. His first major dramatic effort, "The Blue Cave," had been successfully produced when he was fourteen—on a stage he constructed himself at a cost of eight florins—in the basement of a friend's home. There was a lot in this play about alchemy, and the props were mostly blue bottles filched from his father's office. The play must have been controversial, for the performance ended in a riot. Molnar had to wait ten years for his next production. This was a farce called, not too surprisingly, "The Lawyer." It was produced at the Gaiety Theatre, in Budapest, in 1902. Only the other day, forty-four years later, Molnar sold the film rights of "The Lawyer" to R.K.O. An incident of this sort brings to mind Shaw's advice to young dramatists. "Don't go in for Hollywood or radio or anything else," he adjures them. "The money you earn by these sidelines will vanish. The earnings from your old plays will support you in your old age." At the moment, Molnar is drawing six hundred dollars a week from "Carousel" alone, and occasional film sales of old works keep the wolf still farther away from the lobby of the Plaza.

Molnar never practiced law, though he went to Geneva, after he had finished with the Royal University, to continue his legal studies. In Geneva, he tried his hand at feuilletons and correspondence for the Budapest papers, and his material caught on so well that he definitely decided to give up the law. To the intense unhappiness of his family, he abandoned his studies, returned to Budapest, and set himself up as a full-time journalist. It was as a journalist, not as a dramatist, that Molnar won his first distinction; he was the leading newspaperman of Hungary from the beginning of the century to the end of the first World War. His plays were a byproduct of his newspaper work. For a time, in Pesti Hirlap, he wrote a column—its name can be loosely translated as "Miscellaneous Chronicles"—which thoroughly delighted the town. It did not deal in celebrities, as most of our columns do now; it dwelt upon the caprices and currents of life, as fiction does. Many of the columns were overheard, or imagined, dialogues. One of these dialogues was a conversation between two servant girls about their men. Molnar used this dialogue again in writing the story of Julie and Marie in "Liliom." In fact, it was the nucleus of the play. "Jozsi," an earlier play, was also a dramatization of one of his newspaper sketches.

Molnar was very handsome in those days, and very witty. It has been said of him, as it has been said of Oscar Wilde, that his real genius is revealed in his conversation. A serious-minded friend of this period regrets that Molnar was so lavish in social extemporization. "Had he written it down instead of talking it away in all-night carousals," the man recently said, "we should have had volumes of brilliant humor." Molnar speaks French, German, and Italian fluently, as well as his native tongue, but when he arrived here in 1940 he knew little English. One night soon afterward he went to a dinner party in New York at which most of the guests, Broadway people, spoke only English. He felt painfully out of things. On the way home, he said to a compatriot, "You know, I used to dominate occasions like this one. It is terrible to have no English. True, I have learned to say quite well 'Where is my hat? ,' but it does not seem to excite people." He now speaks a cultivated and easy English, and, surrounded by dictionaries in his room at the Plaza, is experiencing the adventure of writing a play in his most recently adopted language.

In 1896, when Molnar celebrated his eighteenth birthday, his native city celebrated its thousandth. It had a culture all its own. In those days, everybody in Budapest wrote, painted, or composed music. Entering a café one day, Molnar observed a gentleman at a table who was deep in a book. "There sits the greatest reader in Hungary," Molnar said. "In fact, I am not sure he is not the only reader in Hungary." In spite of its antiquity, its glitter, its winy gaiety, Budapest was a provincial capital. None of the city's enormous output of literature was exported. The true Austro-Hungarian capital was Vienna, a five-hour journey from Budapest. The German-language writers and playwrights of Vienna were well known in Budapest, but none of the authors of Budapest had broken into the charmed circle of Franz Josef's city. Not one Hungarian play had been seen by the theatregoers of Rome, Paris, or New York. Molnar changed all that. In 1907, he wrote "The Devil," and it was such a success in Budapest that it was soon translated into every major language and played the world over. Thereafter, Hungarian plays were in. Molnar's plays became Hungary's principal export, and a large demand developed for the work of his colleagues. (It is said that when, during the last war, the Russians bombed Budapest, they destroyed two playwriting factories.) The stir in Budapest when first it was realized that Molnar was an international success was enormous.

Nevertheless, Molnar stuck to his newspaper work. He had by that time written novels, sketches, and short stories, but it did not occur to him to give up his profession. Molnar's fame as a playwright later outdid his reputation as a novelist, but, like Maugham, he has practiced both crafts all his life. In between "The Hungry City," a bitterly satiric novel on Budapest corruption, published in 1901, and his most recent work, "Farewell, My Heart," written in New York and published by Simon & Schuster in 1945, Molnar wrote many novels. Of them all, "The Paul Street Boys," a story of juvenile gang warfare, is considered by most Central Europeans his masterpiece. His own choice is "The Green Hussar," the tragic love story of a chorus girl.

There does not appear to have existed, in the Budapest of that time, any line of demarcation between journalism and what is nowadays loosely called "creative work." All the novelists, playwrights, poets, and short-story writers were working for newspapers or magazines; journalism was their mainstay, and they did not feel that what they did for their employers was on a lower plane than their other work. Molnar even now calls himself a journalist. While he was still a practicing newspaperman, he once set down the following view of his calling:

Reporters in America and elsewhere go out and get the news, whereas we more often than not stay in the office or in our garrets and make the "news." By that I mean that we report the news of the mind and soul of our characters as much as we do the actions and happenings of daily life, which are, after all, the material accidents of existence rather than the significant realities of life. But some of it, I insist, is literature. True literature is life translated into letters.

By this definition, of course, "Swann's Way" and "The Brothers Karamazov" make pretty good journalism.

Not long after "The Devil" became a success, Molnar found himself the head of an informal organization known as Molnar's Gang. On one of the boulevards of Budapest, the New York Life Insurance Company had built a grandiose five-story Wolkenkratzer, or skyscraper. Not long afterward a restaurateur leased the ground floor and basement and called his place the New York Café. The opening of this café was something of an occasion. Molnar was given the key to the front door by the owner and, escorted by his Gang, he proceeded to the Danube and ceremonially threw it in the river, as a fairly intricate way of saying that the café would never shut its door. In the memories of its patrons, the New York Café was a fabulous establishment. It had marble columns, terraces, and bars. It had lunch rooms where the poor could sip a glass of beer and munch a roll, and dining rooms for those who wanted luxury. It had rooms with dance orchestras and rooms without dance orchestras. Because Molnar's Gang made its headquarters there, the group was known alternatively as the New York Crowd. For a newcomer with artistic ambitions to be invited to sit at Molnar's table in the New York Café was an accolade, a kind of decoration. Molnar's disapproval of a play or book or piece of music could have a serious effect on its career; his saying that a young man was talented got the young man a hearing. The New York Crowd was made up of a dozen or so of the city's most celebrated men—composers, painters, and sculptors, as well as novelists and playwrights. There was only one requisite for membership in the Crowd —talent. Molnar himself plays several instruments well, and in his youth he wrote, along with everything else, some songs and lyrics. Among his musical protégés were Viktor Jacobi, the composer, and Dr. Albert Sirmay, now the musical editor of Chappell & Company. The group travelled everywhere together. They went to dress rehearsals and first nights in a body and then repaired to the New York Café for the post-mortems.

One member of Molnar's Gang, now distinguished in musical circles in New York, was astonished when he discovered that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II have an office. In Budapest you worked at home, and when you had business to transact you went to one of the cafés. Each theatre had a café that was considered its own, across the street or around the corner, and when you wanted to see the manager or the director, you could be certain—unless, regrettably, he had died during the night—that he'd be in that café every afternoon. The café took care of everything: you could plan a production there, do your casting, and even, as Molnar sometimes did, write your play there; if you needed money, you could get an advance against royalties from the café manager or, if he was evasive, borrow from the headwaiter. The café headwaiters were important and apparently lavish personages. The most famous and the most lucrative was Uncle John, of the New York Café. His loans over the years to the less lucky customers took on the aspect of an annuity, appropriate to the actuarial setting. After Molnar became prosperous, Uncle John would say to him delicately, before delivering the change from a large note, "Anything on account?" Molnar would tell him how much, and the headwaiter would presumably allocate the amount to the liquidation of forgotten debts. This went on for several years. Finally, Molnar decided it was time to stop. "You've been collecting from me for several years," he said when Uncle John made his usual request. "Surely I didn't borrow as much as that from you!" Uncle John grew purple in the face; he began to shout at Molnar. "And what about all those who can't pay?" he demanded.

To many of the survivors of the era of the New York Crowd, a considerable number of whom are now in this country, Budapest still seems a little paradise. There are dissidents who say that the town was all right for those who could escape into the literary and theatrical Bohemia but that it had another side. There is an actress who, although not Jewish herself, was upset, when she was a girl, by the lurid anti-Semitic posters she saw on her way to school. She also remembers going on a picnic in the lovely countryside along the Danube and being shown a wood where, her companion told her, with a great longing for the return of the good old days, a considerable group of Jews had once been taken out and shot in inexact reprisal for the Communist uprising, headed by the Jewish revolutionist Bela Kun, just after the first World War. Some members of the Molnar Gang, including its leader, were conscious of these undercurrents. Threaded through many of Molnar's plays is a light, Heinesque awareness of this lurking enmity. He himself was, however, immune from persecution, and so were his friends. Immersion in the arts washed them with a shimmer of inviolability, even of honor. In 1908, official Hungary gave Molnar recognition by making him a member of the Petofi Society, a kind of national academy of arts and letters. The head of the Hungarian Democratic Party was Molnar's closest friend, and if Molnar had had serious political aspirations, he probably could have done very well. He was, in fact, actually elected a Democratic member of the City Council of Budapest, but although he attended a number of sessions, he never made a speech. "He is not a fighter," a more militant contemporary has said of him.

Those who remember the Budapest of the golden days remember not only the city but their youth as well, and this may easily heighten the town's glamour in retrospect. Just the same, life there was once beguiling, and it afforded one amenity of undeniable worth that unfortunately has never taken root elsewhere. This was the system of the Red Caps. The Budapest Red Caps did not carry baggage; they were uniformed messengers who did miscellaneous errands. They had beats and favorite corners all over the city. If you found yourself unable to pay your bill at a café and your credit with the headwaiter was overextended, you simply called the Red Cap on the corner and had him take your watch to a pawn shop. If you wanted to borrow money without security, you sent him with a note to whomever you wanted to touch. Lazy borrowers devised a time-saving system: they wrote one letter and addressed envelopes to five or six prospects. The Red Cap was instructed to deliver the letter first to the most likely. If it met with a rejection, he was to recover the letter, put it in the envelope addressed to the second-best bet, and go there, and so on until the loan was forthcoming or the list was exhausted. The Red Caps made it possible to converse in cafés with continuity even if you were insolvent.

The Red Caps were used for a hundred things. They were hired to wake up people who had slept through an appointment or to wake oneself up. There is a story of a theatre manager who sent theatrical-page items every day by a Red Cap to a newspaper editor who hated him. The editor would invariably take the material from the Red Cap and, ostentatiously throw it into the wastebasket. After a while, the Red Cap would just bring in the dispatches, bow to the editor, and throw them into the wastebasket himself. Once Molnar, dissatisfied with some goulash in a little restaurant he frequented, sent a Red Cap to a rival restaurant for a goulash and ate it before the stricken gaze of the proprietor. The oldest and most cherished, if not the sturdiest, Red Cap was naturally stationed near the New York Café. He was ancient, white-bearded, arthritic, and given to procrastination. Nevertheless, he bore gallantly on the visor of his cap the legend "EXPRESS!" One of these messengers was Molnar's prototype for Wolf Beifeld, whom the servant girl Marie falls in love with in "Liliom," mistaking him for a soldier because of his uniform.

Molnar wrote "Liliom" in Siberia. Siberia was a name given to one of the terraces in the New York Café because it was patronized by Hungarian dancers who came home broke after touring Russia. It was a custom of Budapest managers to send companies of dancers to Russia. Some of the dancing girls were successful, stayed in Russia, and married noblemen. The Czar's government was strict with the less accomplished ones. If they failed as dancers, they were not allowed to remain and improvise. The unfortunates who returned made at once for Siberia. Molnar, himself an inveterate fancier of far-off places and with an inborn hatred of the minutiae of actual travel, came to love Siberia. He arrived there one evening at his usual time, settled himself at his usual table, and ordered an expansive dinner, after which, with the café's military band going full swing in the background, he began "Liliom."He wrote till dawn. After three weeks of exile, the play was finished. It opened in Budapest, on September 5, 1909, and failed. Molnar was by now married to his first wife. She had furnished for him an ideal writing room, with a polished mahogany desk, silver inkwells, and comfortable armchairs. Somehow, Molnar found himself not using this room to work in. It was too lonesome and it had no military band. When "Liliom" failed, Mrs. Molnar was angry but triumphant. "This is what comes of not working at home," she said. Then she reproached him for having written such trash and extracted from him a promise that he would never compound the offense. Years later, after the Theatre Guild success with "Liliom" and a general reversal of opinion about the play, Molnar recalled this vow. "It is about the only promise I ever made to a woman that I fully kept," he said.

Molnar's first wife was the daughter of Jozsef Veszi, a local newspaper publisher. This man was a great figure in the town, cultivated and gay, who kept open house and seems to have attracted and stimulated everybody who had anything to do with him. Molnar, like everyone else, loved going to his house, and he had an adoring affection for his future father-in-law. There were wonderful dinners and literary and musical parties. The man had four daughters, so Molnar married one. Possibly owing to her insistent critical faculty, the marriage did not last. There is a point, with a writer, at which candor may be excessive. They had one daughter, Molnar's only child, who is now a widow and lives with her two sons and a daughter in Budapest.

Probably because of his lighter plays, there is an atmosphere about Molnar which conveys the impression that he has had a multiplicity of wives, but he has had only three, and he is still married to the third, the actress Lili Darvas. Molnar's second wife was Sari Fedak. She was the greatest stage star of Hungary, equally brilliant in straight parts and in operetta. She was so famous at home that when Erno Rapee, the Hungarian conductor, came to America, he at first called himself Fedak, under the impression that this resplendent name would guarantee an easy success in New York. Mr. Rapee was grieved to find that the path to recognition here was somewhat more devious. After a highly publicized courtship of seven years, Molnar and Fedak, in 1922, married. This marriage celebrated the end rather than the beginning of their relationship; it has been described by a contemporary as a "farewell marriage." This seems to have been a peculiarly Budapestian form of leave-taking. It was on the occasion of this wedding that Molnar made one of his most frequently quoted remarks. When his friends came to escort him to the ceremony, they were shocked to find him wearing a gray business suit. When they upbraided him, he answered, "I dress only for premières."

By the time Molnar married Fedak, he was deeply involved emotionally elsewhere. There had appeared in Budapest a new young actress who, though only seventeen, had made a big hit in an inconsequential play. Her name was Lili Darvas. Everybody ran to Molnar to ask him to go to see her. He refused. He seemed to regard the new star as an intruder. Without seeing her, he predicted that her success would be only temporary, but instead it grew with each new play she appeared in. Molnar's friends assured him that Darvas was just the sort of actress he was writing for. Molnar's resentment grew. For a long time he refused to meet her. (Later, long after his hostility had ebbed, he explained to her. "It was your youth," he said. The emergence of a new star so young had made him aware that his own generation was growing old, that the next generation was pushing up.) The question of casting a part in a new Molnar play arose. Molnar had chosen for it an actress with whose husband, a jealous man, he had recently fought a token duel. Fedak refused to allow her to play the part and insisted that Darvas have it. Eventually, Molnar yielded. Within three years, Darvas and Molnar were married. This seems to have had the effect, for a time, of somewhat diluting their relationship. But it has survived the years and many plays and war and exile, and though Molnar and Darvas are living in separate establishments in New York, there is still a deep friendship between them. She is playing the Queen in the Maurice Evans "Hamlet," now on the road, and during its recent run here, when, on matinee days, there was too little time between performances to go to her own flat uptown, where she was living with her mother, she had dinner with Molnar in his favorite delicatessen, near the Plaza.

Molnar's parsimony is as legendary as his wit. His prodigality seems to be confined largely to conversation. When he was divorced from Fedak, he paid her thirty thousand dollars. Before he married her, they had given many elaborate parties, on which she spent a great deal of money. Molnar had a flat of his own, but the parties were given at Fedak's flat, an arrangement which suited Molnar admirably. The thirty thousand dollars was like the payment of a long-overdue bill at a restaurant. The parties at Fedak's are still remembered by those lucky enough to have been invited. One of the regular guests was the Mayor of Budapest, who played the piano far better than Jimmy Walker and who often accompanied the famous tenor Richard Tauber. There were other parties, too. One evening, in the home of a well-known politician and his wife, Tauber was singing and the Mayor was playing the piano. Molnar, carried away by the Stimmung of the moment, found himself absentmindedly embracing his hostess. In his free hand he held a lighted cigar. Her husband walked over to Molnar and spoke to him. His manner was severe and his tone unfriendly. "Mr. Molnar," he said, "may I see you alone?" Molnar followed him into another room. He felt miserable, for he is a man who hates all conflict that is not verbal. "This," he thought in Hungarian, "is it!" The husband closed the doors behind them, then faced him. "I must request you, Mr. Molnar," he said, "not to smoke while Herr Tauber is singing. It is bad for his throat." It was a music-loving atmosphere.

Not the least of the diversions at the Fedak parties were the occasional quarrels between Molnar and Fedak. Molnar gave her a large but uncelebrated painting, and occasionally, to counteract the calumny that he never gave anyone anything, he would proudly point it out to the guests. One night, after a sharp difference of opinion between him and Fedak, he had the picture taken down and removed to his own flat. Later it reappeared in Fedak's flat. During the course of the next few years, this painting made many trips back and forth. When people started gossiping about Molnar and Darvas before their marriage, the opinion was frequently expressed that this time it must be real love because, it was reported with stupefaction, "he spends money on Darvas!"

Molnar himself capitalizes anecdotally on the widespread legend of his stinginess. In 1927, on his return to Budapest after his first visit to America, where Darvas was by then playing in Max Reinhardt's repertory company at the Cosmopolitan Theatre, he was given a welcome-home dinner party. A former friend who had become an enemy managed to be invited. Molnar was in good form and told a number of stories about New York. One of them concerned the night Darvas had come home to their hotel weeping. Her purse, which had more than a hundred dollars in it, had been stolen out of her dressing room. To calm her, Molnar recounted, he had said, "Don't cry. I will give you the hundred dollars." Then, surveying the table through the monocle he has always worn, he caught the look of utter incredulity in the eyes of his estranged friend. "Don't be so startled," said Molnar. "I only promised it." Recently, in New York, someone asked him whether he was able to send anything to his daughter in Budapest. "Yes," he said. "In the beginning, I sent her money through Rumania, then through an American soldier who was going to Budapest, then through the Red Cross, but now I hear that all you have to do is go to the bank and just send. In fact," he added, his voice broken with factitious sobbing, "it's getting easier and easier and easier!" Molnar says that he finds a reputation for stinginess costly. When a man has a reputation for generosity, he believes, people are apt to say, "Well, he's so nice and kind and gives so much that I can't approach him." On the other hand, of a stingy man, they think, "He's so tight it will be a pleasure to nick him."

Hungary’s one reader must have been hard put to it to keep up just with Molnar's output. For some twenty years before the first World War, Molnar led an industrious life in his native city. The literary program to which he determinedly adhered was: a feuilleton or a short dialogue for the papers every day, a short story every week, and a play and a novel every year. His fame grew, but in those years travel, which was forced upon him later by the Nazis, was very unattractive to him; he would not stir out of his beloved capital. No one could budge him from it, though many tried. One day, a friend just returned from America met Molnar in a café and talked persuasively of the delights of New. York. Molnar sighed and said it sounded wonderful.

"If it seems so wonderful to you, why on earth don't you go?" the friend asked. Molnar t made a gesture to convey the fantastic improbability of such a journey.

"Is it that you dislike boats?" inquired the friend.

"No. Although I have never been on one, I rather like the idea of boats," Molnar said.

Emboldened, the travel agent pursued his advantage. "Is it that you are afraid of the Atlantic, like Grieg?" he asked.

No, Molnar had no special prejudice against the Atlantic.

"Are you afraid of seasickness?"

Mildly, perhaps, but Molnar might take a chance.

"Is it the rail journey to Le Havre or Villefranche that puts you off?"

Tiresome, perhaps, but with a hamper of books and brandy it might be managed.

"Why, then," his companion shouted triumphantly, "don't you just pack up and go to New York?"

Molnar ordered a brandy and came to grips with the situation. "All the stages of this journey I think I might accomplish," he said, "except the most hazardous of all—the one you have not mentioned."

"What is that?" asked his friend.

"Getting from this terrace where I am sitting," said Molnar, "to the railway station in Budapest. That I cannot do. That, I feel, is beyond me."

Budapest had much of the intimacy of a small town. Molnar remembers having a political argument with a friend in his rooms on the second floor of an apartment house. The argument undoubtedly became noisy, because a passerby in the street who disagreed with one opinion came upstairs and joined in the argument. Another time, Molnar was going past Viktor Jacobi's house in a cab. He heard Jacobi playing the piano. Molnar asked the driver to stop the cab and listened carefully to the tune. Jacobi was working out a new melody. While playing cards with Jacobi in a café a few days later, Molnar started casually humming it. Jacobi went pale. "Where did you hear that tune?" he asked. "In Paris," said Molnar offhandedly. "It's quite a hit there." "Strange," Jacobi said. "I wrote it and thought it was original. I must have stolen it unconsciously."

Molnar's working habits were celebrated. He would not emerge from his rooms until early evening. Then he would stroll or ride to the New York Café, where he would dine and afterward sit till dawn, writing, conversing, drinking, and listening to the music. His courtship of Darvas made only a slight change in this routine. He would meet her after the play and take her to what would be her supper and his lunch. He would then escort her home and return to his Gang. In one of the public gardens along the Danube was a statue of Lajos Kossuth, the Hungarian patriot. It was considered improper in the New York Crowd to go home before the tiny bronze lettering at the foot of the statue was legible. There came a day when Molnar's rigorously nocturnal existence was interrupted; he was summoned to be a witness at a trial. It was borne in upon him that he had to appear in court at ten in the morning. Red Caps were mobilized to see that he got up in time, his friends bivouacked in his rooms as a further precaution, and, at nine-thirty on that grim morning, the still incredulous and foggy Molnar found himself in a carriage being driven through the streets of Budapest, unfamiliar in the unaccustomed light, to the courthouse. Molnar looked around. The streets, he discovered, were full of people bustling about at this insane hour. He was appalled, "Can it be," he asked, "that all these people are witnesses?"

During the first World War, Molnar was a war correspondent for the Budapest papers. Three volumes of his war correspondence were published, and as a result of his experiences the plays he wrote immediately afterward contained a good deal of tragedy. In the postwar period, the Molnar Gang began to dwindle and a rival gang began to form. The new one included a number of what one of Molnar's adherents described as "character enemies." It is a requirement of Molnar's nature that he constantly have on hand a pet enemy on whom to focus his lethal epigrams, and by systematically attacking people in rotation, he has been able, through the years, to build up a considerable body of opposition. Of a mediocre painter who was an inveterate and brilliantly successful gambler, Molnar said, "Yes, he's awfully good at the roulette table, but everything he makes at night he paints away in the daytime." The authorized translator of Bernard Shaw in Germany was Siegfried Trebitsch. "What have Bernard Shaw and Siegfried Trebitsch in common?" someone asked in a literary symposium. "Neither understands German," Molnar answered. To a magazine publisher who had accidentally dropped Molnar from his free list, Molnar wrote, "Let us get my relation with your magazine clearly established. If I am not on your free list, I see it too seldom, and if I am, I see it too often."

There was a diverting group in Budapest known as the "revolver journalists." These gentlemen had mastered an unusual variety of blackmail. They all published little papers, some of them no more than throwaways. Their method had a refreshing modesty. They attempted to hold up not the bosses of big business firms but their subordinates. The procedure was simple; one of them would print an effusive article about the chief clerk or the vice-president of an organization. The tenor of the article would be that the head of the firm was a mere figurehead, that the real brains of the organization was the subordinate. The journalist would call upon the selected victim and show him the article, then ask him to subscribe for so many copies. The man would be horrified, especially if the praise was justified. "You can't print this," he would say. "It will cost me my job!" He would have to pay heavily to suppress the rave notice. A gentleman named Schweiger, one of the best-known practitioners of this art of extraction by loud praise, encountered Molnar when he was taking the cure in Karlsbad. Evidently Schweiger had run out of superlatives, for he asked Molnar for a loan. Without saying anything, Molnar threw him twenty pengos, which was less than five dollars. Schweiger was hurt. "From a Molnar, twenty pengos?" he said. "No," Molnar said. "To a Schweiger, twenty pengos!"

One of Molnar's intimates was once asked whether Molnar was not his enemy. "No," the man replied. "Just now Molnar has Feleki, but he's got an option on me for October." Of this Feleki, a well-known, startlingly thin journalist, Molnar one day remarked pleasantly that when he was born, the nurse threw the child away but kept the umbilical cord. Feleki resented this description, and the feud between them was prolonged and bitter. A reconciliation was finally arranged; Feleki was to be brought by mediators to the New York Café for supper with Molnar. Molnar was sitting at his table, surrounded by his court. The great moment came; Feleki appeared, and the enemies shook hands; they were friends. But there was an assurance about Feleki's manner that annoyed Molnar, and he suddenly had the feeling that the reconciliation was premature. With a cordial wave of his hand, he motioned his old friend to a seat at the next table, then calmly began to eat his meal, stopping now and then to fix his chagrined and glowering enemy with his monocle.

After the first World War, Molnar began to pay the penalty for his long and undisputed dominance in his native city. The papers did not receive his plays with the unanimous fervor to which he was accustomed. They actually ventured criticism. As a result, he began to make excursions from Budapest. He went first to Vienna, where he was able to enjoy a new flood of adulation. His plays were produced in the Burgtheater, which was a national honor reserved principally for playwrights who were dead. His third wife, who accompanied him, also had a great success in Vienna. Thereafter, Molnar spent more and more of his time away from Budapest, and this defection was resented at home. Molnar's chief crime, however, was his commercial success in other countries. In the higher literary circles of Budapest, there was one sin which was beyond forgiveness. That was to be prosperous. In his memoirs, Stefan Zweig said that the same thing was true of Vienna; to make money out of literary work was considered vulgar. In either town, to make money out of America was the ultimate solecism, which confined you to a limbo from which no good works could possibly rescue you. Molnar committed this ultimate solecism repeatedly. His enemies said he no longer wrote for Hungary, he wrote for America. It was like a Harvard halfback making a touchdown for Yale. In the cafés, they called him Checkspeare. Between 1920 and 1930, Molnar's gross earnings from his plays were, in fact, enormous—amounting to well over a million dollars—but the net was much less, averaging about twenty-five thousand dollars a year, which was still an imposing sum in Hungary. His fiscal relations with agents and translators were very complicated and their fees were exorbitant. From "Liliom," not counting the substantial income he receives from "Carousel," he has made, in thirty-seven years, about fifty thousand dollars net. He sold the film rights for five hundred dollars. For a while, Molnar had a prix fixe of twenty-three thousand dollars for the foreign and film rights of all his plays. How he arrived at this figure he does not know; it just appealed to him. Three thousand dollars of the price was an advance against the stage rights and twenty was an outright payment for the film rights.

Molnar's absences from his native city kept getting longer. For the two decades following the end of the first World War, while his books and plays were current all over the world, he maintained what he called his "five-room apartment"—a room in the Hotel Hungaria in Budapest, another in the Imperial in Vienna, a third in the Pupp at Karlsbad, and one each at the Danieli in Venice and the Negresco in Nice. The five staffs necessary to keep up this apartment, he used to say without vanity, were numerically and in skill on a scale few men could afford in their private establishments. He felt that even the very rich might well envy him his unicellular luxury. Molnar believed in the dispersal not only of his apartment but also of his bank balance. The sensational failure, in 1931, of the Creditanstalt, Austria's leading financial institution, was a disaster for many people. It was possible for Molnar to be philosophical about it because he had acted (or so, at least, he claims) on a pet investment theory all his own. "In case of bank failures," he says, "the small depositor is always paid off first. Therefore, if you have a hundred thousand dollars, all you have to do is keep two dollars in fifty thousand banks. Under this system of dispersed deposit, a great many banks will have to fall simultaneously to do you any real harm."

Molnar's political instinct is extremely keen, and for a long time before the second World War he felt that a debacle was coming. Sitting on a café terrace with Gilbert Miller in 1936, he waved a hand toward the Danube, flowing peacefully below, and said, "This won't last, you know." All through the thirties he allowed the money his plays earned in America to remain in this country. He was deeply impressed by a lighthearted remark he once overheard in a Budapest café and has often quoted it during the years of his exile: "A Jew should never own more property than he can jump quickly over a fence with." He has also remembered another: "A Jew should never keep his money in the country where he is. He should send it to some other country. But he should always be in the country where his money is." In September, 1937, Molnar left Budapest for what may have been the last time. He spent the next year in the Venetian room of his apartment, and in 1939, when the war broke out, he was in Geneva, Switzerland, a country that had always courted visitors but was now nervous about them. It was afraid of food shortages, and there were even demonstrations against foreigners. Visitors were urged to go home, advice which it was peculiarly impossible for Molnar to act on, because the Nazis had already infiltrated into Hungary.

A companion of Molnar's Budapest days who visited him in Venice in 1938 noticed a great change in his outlook. The friend made a joke about the Jews and Hitler. Molnar said sharply, "It is bad taste to joke about things like that." This was a surprise; in the old days, the two men had joked about everything. The friend, on the defensive, said that before he left Budapest he had given five thousand pengos to help the historic boatload of Jews marooned in the middle of the Danube, on a ship that was unable to exercise one of the traditional functions of a ship; namely, to land somewhere. This gift, he argued, gave him the right to joke. But the easy mechanics of levity, which would have served in the old days; served no more; the scope for comedy was shrunken indeed. Molnar was grim. The friends parted, and the pengo giver came to America. In 1939, he and a number of other exiles, including Molnar's wife, who had been here for a year and a half, sent him cables urging him to follow. The expressions on the faces of the Geneva hotelkeepers became more and more forbidding and finally Molnar sailed for New York. Gilbert Miller reserved a room for him at the Plaza. He arrived on an Italian ship on the evening of January 12, 1940, his sixty-second birthday. Darvas and four Hungarian cronies of old met him at the pier and escorted him to the hotel. They all had dinner in Molnar's room. There was a tense and agonized interval at the end, when the waiter came in with the check. For a moment time stood still. Molnar signed the check.

(This is the first of three articles on Mr. Molnar.)

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