S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 June 8, 1946: 32-47

Since January 12, 1940, Ferenc Molnar, the Hungarian author of more than fifty volumes of plays, novels, short stories, essays, war correspondence, and children's stories, has spent most of his time in one long, narrow room at the Plaza, with an incomplete collection of his own works. On the bookshelves beside his one window, which looks out on the fountain in the Plaza, are a mere twenty of the fifty volumes in the Hungarian set of "Molnar Ferenc Müvei." He managed to find room for these twenty in his luggage when, a few short jumps ahead of the Nazis, he fled Budapest; the rest he had to leave behind. On his shelves he also has some French, Italian, German, Finnish, and Serbian translations of his novels. Molnar is apologetic when he shows you his bookshelves; he is aware that their contents are somewhat monotonous. The library in his abandoned apartment in Budapest contained five thousand volumes, some of them by other authors. All but a few of the books were eventually confiscated by the Nazis. On the walls of the room at the Plaza are Gauguin prints. Behind a massive and polished desk is an armchair with a deflated balloon cushion. Molnar has long since given up the attempt to keep it pumped up and has allowed it to relax permanently in flat discouragement. On the floor beside the desk, like a faithful mastiff, is his unabridged Webster, given to him last Christmas by his compatriot Sir Alexander Korda.

Leading off this room is what Molnar calls his "combination library-kitchen;" this contains a small electric stove and a set of shelves intended for kitchenware but bulging with manila envelopes stuffed with manuscripts and piled compactly to the ceiling. The detritus of a long and international career trickles out of the manilaed walls: caricatures of Molnar clipped from German, English, Hungarian, and Italian magazines, commentaries on his work by Central European critics, notes on the backs of Berlin and Vienna hotel menus, clippings of interviews with him in several languages, and playbills of countless Molnar productions. Of these last, one has a particularly sad aura. The late Joseph Goebbels, before his intolerance hardened, permitted the Jews of Berlin a ghetto theatre in which they could put on plays, provided all the participants, including the author and the audience, were Jewish. One looks at this playbill and sees the actors in a performance of Molnar's "Delilah." There they are, in the cheap newsprint, being seductive and winning, flirtatious and amatory. Pinned to this playbill is a long and serious review of the play, clipped from a ghetto newspaper. It is written as though the critic were unaware that he, as well as the actors he admonished, would soon be swept away.

Molnar's theory of hotel life is simple: get the cheapest room in the best hotel and eat in the best cheap restaurant in the neighborhood, preferably in a "grocery," his name for a delicatessen. His favorite locally, a small but excellent delicatessen with booths in the back, is at Fifty-eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. There he lunches almost every day and dines several times a week, often with his devoted Hungarian secretary, Miss Wanda Bartha, who, he says, is his best literary adviser and best friend. Molnar is well satisfied with the Plaza. It provides him, he figures, with a staff of twenty-six well-trained servants. For Molnar, who is an exceptionally frugal playwright, there is an added advantage to hotel life. He suffers from insomnia and has been an addict of sleeping powders for thirty years. He usually goes to bed with a book rather early, takes his powders, and waits for sleep to overcome him. Often he falls asleep without turning out the light. This negligence, he says, would be very expensive if he lived in a flat of his own. There is, however, one flaw in his Plaza existence. Telephone calls from this hotel cost eleven rather than ten cents, and he is irritated by the sociability of some of his Hungarian visitors, who are very casual about using his telephone.

Molnar has always hated walking, but his American doctor has prescribed this form of exercise and he does his stint by walking around and around the block on which the Plaza is situated. A methodical man, he notes down in a book at the end of each walk the number of times he has circumnavigated the block and how long he has been outdoors. Whether afoot or in a car, he rarely gets more than a few blocks from the Plaza. Sometimes he will go out of his orbit to dine in one of the fashionable restaurants his friends patronize, but it is a wrench for him to forego his regular booth in the Fifty-eighth Street delicatessen. In whatever restaurant or private house he finds himself, he does not rely on the cutlery set at his place; he carries a sharp penknife, which he uses to cut his meat.

On the way to his delicatessen, Molnar usually passes Bergdorf Goodman, and he usually stops to gaze at the mannequins in its windows. They have perhaps a special interest for him because one of his plays, "Riviera," was laid in a fashionable shop; its plot revolved about the weary and underpaid shopgirls and clerks at the moment when they were putting Riviera costumes on their mannequins. By watching the Bergdorf Goodman windows, Molnar follows the changes of season and fashions. He prefers this to the more direct method of attending dinner parties, because an engagement to attend a dinner party, even if it is several weeks off, destroys for him the entire interim period. He knows that no matter what happens, he will still have to squeeze through the funnel of that dinner party. A few years ago, Molnar found out, by way of Bergdorf Goodman's windows, that Christmas was coming; an elegant mannequin, unharassed by the turmoil of Christmas shopping or any other pressures, held his attention until she disappeared to change for New Year's Eve. Molnar wrote a children's story about this mannequin and called it "The Blue-Eyed Lady." It was published by the Viking Press. "Just think what he could do if he ever got as far as Radio City," a Hungarian friend of his remarked afterward.

In further obedience to his doctor's instructions, Molnar, who is sixty-eight, has lately given up smoking, drinking, and rich food. This asceticism, he says, is a tribute less to will power than to a fear of dissolution. The mortuary customs in America, which smear death with the obscenities of makeup, revolt him, and he wishes to delay the event as long as possible. Like many men who live in their imaginations, Molnar is, as he admits himself, cowardly. In 1944, after one of Hitler's most threatening secret-weapon speeches, Molnar became convinced that the bombing of New York was imminent. When a less cautious friend suggested that he might at least wait for more tangible evidence, Molnar said, "Tomorrow one million people will he leaving the city. The stations will be crowded. I must leave tonight." With his secretary and two impressionable friends, he departed that night for Lake Placid. The quartet sat the blitz out there.

Owing to his timidity, Molnar is a nervous motorist. When he had a car and chauffeur in Budapest, he tried the experiment of installing a horn in the hack, so that he could blow it in tight situations. The division of command did not work out; it resulted one day in the chauffeur's getting rattled end running into another car. Molnar was only mildly shaken up, but he lost confidence in his chauffeur and eventually switched over to cabs. During the odd and dangerous episode of the revolution of Bela Kun, following the first World War, the streets of Budapest were not safe. Molnar had a little seat built on the running hoard of the cab he regularly used, and rode around sitting on that and talking to nonexistent passengers inside to give thugs an impression of numbers. During that period, Molnar rarely went out, however; he used to telephone desperately to his friends to come to see him. One night a newcomer was brought along—a man of enormous stature. At the end of the evening, Molnar went up to the giant and shook his head with a worried expression. "You're so tremendous. You're so strong," he said. "Aren't you afraid to go home alone? Aren't you afraid you'll attack somebody?"

Molnar tells a story about the Bela Kun days that is a tribute to the tenacity of playwrights. A Communist author of that time was trying to peddle a play around Budapest. He went to producer after producer, but no one would put it on. When the Bela Kun regime was established, this playwright became a member of the cabinet. The play went into rehearsal. But the regime didn't last long enough for it to open. Time, as they say, passed. In 1945, the Communists came back to Budapest as conquerors. The play is on.

Though scattered in Paris, London, Hollywood, and New York, the Hungarian émigré colony is a closely knit community. At its center is Molnar. For all the Hungarian exiles, Molnar, whom they call Feri, is the wise man and elder statesman. Most of the Hungarians who shuttle busily between London and Hollywood visit him when they arrive here and go to say goodbye to him when they leave. There are not only theatrical and film people but also novelists and journalists. His leadership of the Budapest group known as the New York Crowd—its headquarters was the New York Café—has survived the transposition to New York itself.

In Molnar's revolving circle are Sir Alexander Korda, who put the British film industry on the map when he produced "Henry VIII," and was knighted for it; Michael Curtiz, the Hollywood director; Dr. Albert Sirmay, now music editor of Chappell & Company, who was in charge of the music for a cabaret Molnar ran in his youth; Gabriel Pascal, the conduit between Bernard Shaw and the movies; Emmerich Kalman, the composer; Alexander Ince, the producer and publisher ; Erno Vajda, the author of "Fata Morgana;" Geza Herczeg, the author of "The Wonder Bar;" and a great many others, including several Austrians and Germans, such as Kurt Weill, Ludwig Bemelmans, Ernst Lubitsch, Otto Preminger, and Alfred Polgar (the Viennese critic who supervised the translation of most of Molnar's plays into German), who have been taken into the group as honorary Hungarians. Today the circle includes a great many people who didn't know Molnar in his younger days, and a newcomer still considers an invitation to sit down at Molnar's table an accolade, even though the table is not in the New York Café but in the Fifty-eighth Street delicatessen. Molnar's routine is so definite that his friends can reach him at any hour. They know when to go to the Plaza and when to go to the delicatessen. Some one of them is always asking him for advice. A few weeks ago, the Hungarian director of a play written by another Hungarian came to him and complained that he was unable to cast the leading role properly. "What type do you want?" asked Molnar. "I need an actor who looks like Oscar Karlweis," the director said. "I need someone with Karlweis's comic intonation, with Karlweis's charm, with his walk, with his timing, with his gestures." "Why, then, don't you get Karlweis?" inquired Molnar, not unexpectedly. The director recoiled. "For this part, Karlweis!" he said. That is the kind of thing Molnar has to handle all the time.

The Hungarian émigrés are bound together, it would appear, by a kind of invidious camaraderie. They coöperate in the face of a common calamity, but they relish telling stories about one another's duplicities. A Hungarian will recount to you, as though describing a skillful piece of legerdemain, how a Budapest husband, separated from his wife and ordered by the courts to pay her fifty dollars a month, faithfully paid her every time and then called on her, enjoyed an excellent dinner at her house, and won the fifty dollars back from her at pinochle. "This was Budapest!" the Hungarian will say ecstatically. Or there will be the story of the composer whose long and unsatisfactory pursuit of an ambassador's wife was interrupted when her husband was suddenly transferred to Berlin. The composer packed his bags and prepared to follow, but his impresario, anxiously awaiting delivery of a score, counselled restraint. "What will you gain?" he argued. "Supposing you succeed? What then? After all, you will admit, the chief benefit you will derive will be from telling about it in the café. Well, tell it anyway and save the trip!" The composer found the argument irrefutable and rushed to a café.

In their new environment, with its naïve standards, the more exuberant Hungarian refugees seem to have acquired a zestful perspective on their national traits. "If you have a Hungarian for a friend," an objective Hungarian will say, "you don't need an enemy." Another will tell you that a recipe in a Hungarian cookbook starts with the brisk injunction "Steal two eggs . . ." Another will say, "Hungarians are enemy aliens even in peacetime." They will go as far as to quote the German saying "A Hungarian will sell his country out, but he won't deliver it." When a friend of Molnar's was asked whether it was true that Molnar was writing his memoirs, the friend replied, "He'll never do that, because he can't attack himself." Another Hungarian, contemptuous of the otiose existence led by his luckier compatriots in Hollywood, says that a movie producer finally had to put up a sign in the writers' building saying "You must work here. It is not enough just to be Hungarian." This man also tells a story about Emmerich Kalman, who, a while back, arrived in Hollywood to write the score for an M-G-M musical and was received with a maximum of graciousness by Louis B. Mayer. The studio, Kalman was informed, was prepared to do its utmost to make his stay on the lot happy. He was offered, among a great many other things, a choice of librettists from his native Hungary. "If you like," said Mayer, "you may have Melchior Lengyel." Kalman was transported. It didn't seem possible; to come to Hollywood and to work with Lengyel, for whom he had had, since his childhood, an admiration amounting to worship—it was too much to expect. "Or would you prefer Erno Vajda? " Mayer asked. It appeared that to work with Vajda had been the secret ambition of Kalman's life. Was it to be achieved at last? Beaming, Mayer kicked open still another door in the fabulous Metro stables. "How would you like Bus-Fekete?" Kalman was overcome. His admiration for Bus-Fekete was inexpressible. "Of course, Mr. Kalman," Mayer went on, "if you wanted to, you could have an American Hollywood writer." "Good," said Kalman quickly. "I'll take the Hollywood writer."

All the backbiting and self-criticism among the expatriate Hungarians seem to fall into a design of mutual aid. When a Hungarian actor is after a part in a play, other Hungarian actors do everything they can to see that he gets it, and the journalists, playwrights, and producers are helpful in the same way. When an important Hungarian scientist was mentioned in the papers in connection with the development of the atomic bomb, there were ripples of satisfaction all through the colony. Perhaps it is because each success by a compatriot serves as a hopeful augury. Another cause of their closeness is that they all speak the language of exile. And they all look hack on Budapest as the happy hunting ground where naughtiness was conventional and a keystone of manners, and, shuddering a bit in the more astringent atmosphere in which they now find themselves, laughingly adapt themselves to the quaint regime.

Even Hungarians who could not tolerate one another at home stick together remarkably well in exile. There is the Hungarian editor of a scandal magazine who for fifteen years bedevilled Molnar, Korda, and other well-known Hungarians. Molnar says that this editor was almost as effective as the oncoming Nazis in driving him out of Budapest. Molnar alone supplied the mephitic publication with enough copy to keep it going for years; his marriages and his romances were the editor's lifeline. Whenever the magazine languished, Molnar gave it nourishment. This editor spared nobody; in one issue he attacked Gundel, the thoroughly respectable proprietor of the most famous restaurant in Budapest. The restaurateur, distressed, came to Molnar and said, "I must answer this man: I must write a letter of denial to the papers. I must do something!" "I advise you to ignore this scorpion," Molnar said "But if you must reply to him, print your statement on the back of your own menus. They have a far larger circulation than his paper." When, a couple of years ago, the editor came to New York, lost without his vehicle of vilification, bereft of his sheaf of poisoned arrows, Molnar, Korda, and a few other distinguished Hungarian exiles invited him to dinner. They don't know why; they just did. At this dinner, says Molnar, the unemployed executioner experienced such an expansion of the soul that he forgave them all.

Molnar's émigré disciples have to derive what comfort they can from the edged benevolence of his humor. Unsuccessful young compatriots come to him with their hopes, successful ones with their accomplishments; he is openly skeptical about both. Young or old, they also come to him with their disputes. Then he quotes one of his favorite lines, which is from Saint Augustine: "If two friends ask you to be judge in a dispute, don't accept, because you will lose one friend; on the other hand, if two strangers come with the same request, accept, because you will gain one friend." It was so worldly of a saint, Molnar remarks appreciatively, to notice this. He is pessimistic about the state of the world and about the individual destinies of his countrymen. "We are all dead, we refugees," he says. "We walk around, shadows among shadows, ghosts of what we were, in a world that does not know us and that we only faintly comprehend." But most of the refugees feel far from dead; the successful ones swim lustily in the stream of artistic activity, the unsuccessful ones exert themselves mightily to get into the stream. Molnar's own moribundity is highly active; since his arrival here he has written half a dozen plays, two novels, and one juvenile, and has found the time, besides, to be extremely helpful in converting "Liliom" into the immensely successful "Carousel." This success affords Molnar only a mitigated pleasure. The fact is that Puccini wanted to use "Liliom" for an opera libretto. Molnar refused, on the ground that "Liliom" would disappear as a Molnar and survive as a Puccini, the same fate that befell Murger's "Vie de Bohème." Later the Theatre Guild tried to persuade him to allow George Gershwin to do an operetta version, and again he refused. Would it have been better to let Puccini have it? Was it a mistake to turn down Gershwin? Will "Liliom" survive "Carousel"? From the contemplation of such questions, Molnar suffers a certain erosion.

Inevitably, Mulnar's thoughts now hover about the past. He sits in the Fifty-eighth Street delicatessen, surrounded by his Hungarian friends, and one reminiscence leads to another. Soon they are all back in Budapest, in the great days of the New York Café and of the Gaiety Theatre, where Molnar opening nights were major events. Old dramatic criticisms are recalled, bygone performances are analyzed, Gundel's wonderful menus are recited, old quarrels are refought, and forgotten mots scintillate again. Many of Molnar's fondest reminiscences of Budapest have New York associations. He tells about the time Eva Le Gallienne went to Budapest after playing Julie in the original New York production of "Liliom." Molnar took her to see the amusement park around which he had written the play. When she saw the merry-go-round, with its barker high-pressuring customers—when she beheld the actuality behind the illusion—she wept. Another American star, Bertha Kalich, who also visited Budapest, was even more tenderhearted. In his overoptimistic youth, Molnar had fallen wildly in love with a well-known actress. Without being unduly encouraged, he confidently set about finding a rendezvous, so that, when the moment came, he would he prepared. He went to Buda (Budapest's "old town") and there, on a dark alley, he found what appeared to be the ideal place. It was a noisy, dingy two-room flat, but since it was on the dark alley, one could get in or out of it without being noticed. Molnar engaged this flat at once. The rendezvous never materialized, but he lived in the flat for twenty-two years. When Miss Kalich came to Budapest, she expressed a wish to see the place he lived in and Molnar took her to his flat. She tried, while she was there, not to show her horror, but after she returned to America, Molnar was touched to hear that she was attempting, overcome by pity for his manifest poverty, to arrange a benefit for him.

When Margaret Perry, a daughter of Antoinette Perry, the theatrical director, visited Budapest, she took with her a letter of introduction from her mother to Molnar. Molnar responded by inviting her to dinner and at the appropriate time he called for her accompanied by a dark and younger man, who, he explained, was a gigolo who danced much better than he could. The three of them had a happy evening in an open-air restaurant. The gigolo would give Miss Perry a whirl, then bring her back to the table, and Molnar would pick up the conversation where he had left off.

Molnar likes to recall his first visit to this country, in the winter of 1927. He came over principally to be with his third wife, Lili Darvas, who was playing in Reinhardt's repertory company here.  Molnar remembers an audience with Calvin Coolidge. Gilbert Miller escorted him to Washington and, to fortify him for the White House call, took him to breakfast with a friend who had an excellent library and the kind of cellar specialists collected during prohibition. Miller's friend handed Molnar simultaneously an excellent brandy and a copy of a Molnar play to autograph. Molnar drank half a dozen brandies and signed half a dozen of his plays. When the man's collection of Molnar plays was exhausted, there was a lull in the hospitality, and Molnar, glancing at the shelves, saw a beautiful volume of Shakespeare. "I have the knack of imitating Shakespeare's autograph," he told his host. He quickly found himself inscribing "Hamlet." By the time he and Miller, who had been joined by the Hungarian Minister, Count Szechenyi, arrived at the White House, they were relaxed. Coolidge was not talkative. Molnar remembers a prolonged silence after the introductions. Finally, behind his hand, the President inquired of Miller, "What does this man do?" (Molnar spoke no English, but Coolidge didn't know it until Miller told him.) Miller described Molnar's activities. "Yes," said Coolidge, "but how does he earn his living?" When this was made clear, the President inquired of Molnar, "What is the political and economic situation of Hungary at the moment?" Count Szechenyi translated the query to Molnar. Molnar said to the Count, "As you know, my knowledge of these matters is limited. But I will keep talking to you for a few minutes as if I were explaining the political and economic situation of Hungary to you exhaustively and with authority. You can tell him anything you like as coming from me." Molnar then recounted to Szechenyi a few choice items of Budapest gossip and the Count presently transmuted them, for the President, into a discourse on politics and economics. By the time Molnar left, Mr. Coolidge was impressed by the fact that a man whose livelihood depended on activities so marginal should have so acute an insight into graver matters.

Molnar was in this country six weeks on that visit, during which he celebrated his fiftieth birthday. He remembers his stay mainly as a blur of parties and theatregoing. The only tranquil occasions were when he went to Reuben's at three o'clock every morning to meet Max Reinhardt. They would sit there talking until dawn. "It is very healthy to get a few hours' sleep before breakfast," Molnar once remarked, and after these nightly sessions with Reinhardt he was always careful to get them. The graph of the relationship between Molnar and Reinhardt was extremely angular. Reinhardt was the first person Molnar had told about his idea fur "Liliom," years before. Reinhardt was very enthusiastic and implored Molnar to write the play. Reinhardt, says Molnar, had immense charm and was a wonderful listener, but he never actually heard what you said. He had a remarkably mobile face, which registered keen attention; his absorption was complete, but it was in what he was thinking rather than in what you were saying. As Molnar outlined the story of "Liliom," the dancing light in Reinhardt's eyes and the mobility of his expression doubtless followed the parade of some private drama of his own. At any rate, a year or so later, after Molnar had written "Liliom," he sent it to Reinhardt, who was then the leading producer of Europe. For a period of two years he got no answer. Finally, Molnar sent him a telegram which said, "It is a great honor to be produced by you, but not to he produced by you is no honor at all." Molnar turned the play over to a more responsive producer, and Reinhardt and he did not speak to each other for thirteen years. Then, after they were on good terms again, there was the matter of Lili Darvas's contract to play the Nun in "The Miracle," when Reinhardt's company was first coming to this country, in 1923. Darvas, then a radiant young actress who had made a great success in Budapest, seemed to Reinhardt the ideal Nun. He offered her a handsome salary to go to America with him and offered, besides, to pay for English lessons, to help her establish herself as an actress here. The contract was signed, the departure date set. But Molnar was very much in love with her, and he persuaded her into thinking she was ill. A confirmed hypochondriac, he was able to create a valetudinary atmosphere at will. Darvas went to a hospital. Molnar, having deprived Reinhardt of his star, was not to be mollified; he broke off with Reinhardt again, this time for three years. That was not difficult; Molnar, on occasion, has found it possible to break even with a friend he has not inconvenienced. The Hungarian playwright Heltai was a close friend and the distinguished author of serious plays in verse. One night Molnar had a horrid nightmare; he dreamed that he was being publicly executed. Just as the hangman was about to slip the noose around his neck, he looked down at the crowd milling around the foot of the scaffold. Right in front, looking up at him with an expression of uncontrollable glee, was Heltai. When Molnar woke, the memory of this look of joy on Heltai's face remained with him. Molnar, churning with anger, did not speak to Heltai for five years.

There are only two periods of his life that Molnar remembers as completely blissful. One of these lasted two weeks and the other six. The first was spent in custodia honesta, the second in a hospital. This custodia honesta was a form of punishment that only Budapest could have devised. It was not common imprisonment; it was more like being a house guest. For certain minor infractions of the law, a man was put into a room in a municipal building and told to stay there for a specific period. The door was left unlocked; he was on his honor. When Molnar was a young man, he fought a duel, with pistols. He and his antagonist emerged without the least injury. Swords were not customarily used in Budapest duels, because with swords you might get hurt, whereas with pistols you could make an impressive noise and all you had to do was miss. Duelling of any sort was against the law, however, and Molnar was sentenced by the chief magistrate of the city, who was a companion of his and a great admirer of his plays, to spend two weeks in custodia honest, the regulation penalty. Molnar kept putting off serving his sentence, but finally a pained and peremptory message came from his judge. "This time, my dear Molnar, you really have to go," it said. Once incarcerated, Molnar was dismayed because the sentence was so brief. His room overlooked the Danube and a rose garden. From the sentries walking up and down outside, he got an unparalleled sense of security. There were no telephones. No one could get at him, and he was free of all obligation to do anything himself. It is a jewelled fortnight in his memory. Once Molnar was out, the tribulations of love beset him again and he took an overdose of veronal. It was the fashion then in Budapest to commit mild suicide, and Molnar succumbed to it. He had been drinking heavily and he rather overdid it. He was rushed to a hospital and his arrival caused a romantic flurry among the nurses. "This is the boy who tried to kill himself for love," the nurses whispered, and for six exquisite weeks they pampered him. "It was the only failure that I ever enjoyed to the hilt," Molnar once said.

Like many other wits, Molnar remembers his own mots word for word. He frequently recalls his reply when he was asked how he happened to become a playwright. He said, "In the same way that a woman might become a prostitute. First I did it just to please myself, then I did it to please other people, and now I do it just for money." He has written over forty plays, and he continues to turn them out by a kind of automatism. He has just finished a new one—based on an old notion—that is in his earlier comedic, ironic vein. It is about a nonexistent character, like Harvey, and is full of minute comic invention. One of his favorite plays is one that he has never got around to writing but to which he keeps adding amusing scenes in his head. It is concerned with Napoleon, about whom Molnar has accumulated a vast lore. It supposes that in his youth, in Corsica, Napoleon fell madly in love with a girl whose father put up a great resistance to the match. Napoleon, to show that he can overcome opposition, marries her. He settles down and becomes a successful cloth manufacturer, eventually engaging in a fierce textile war with England. His wife deceives him and, in a rage, he denounces her. "I am only a provincial businessman," he shouts, "but had I followed the impulse I had before I married you, to enter the world arena—had I become a great soldier or a great figure in Europe—you would not serve me so!"

Molnar even likes to recall other people's mots. He generously points out that many famous remarks made by others have been attributed to him, attracted by the centripetal force of his reputation as a wit. There was a Berlin banker named Fürstenberg, whom Molnar never met but whom he knew well because of three celebrated mots, which were all the man possessed that was not confiscated by the Nazis. Fürstenberg telephoned another Berlin banker, whom he did not like but had to see on a business matter. The man said he would have to look through his engagement book before he could make an appointment. Fürstenberg heard the surf of the pages being ruffled in the man's book. No free time in January, February, or March. The third of April was his first free afternoon. "On April third," said Fürstenberg, "I have a funeral." On the overnight express from Berlin to Vienna, the understanding was that you could, if you wished, have a first-class sleeping compartment to yourself; the upper was simply not made up. One night when the train was crowded, the conductor implored Fürstenberg to surrender his upper to an elderly baron, who otherwise would not be able to get on the train. "Give me the night," Fürstenberg countered, "to think it over." On one of his birthdays, Fürstenberg received a present of a huge, silver-framed group photograph of his family, including all his cousins and in-laws. He found the ideal use for it. He gave it to the porter of his apartment building. "Study this photograph well," he said, "and whenever any of these people show up, I am out."

There was, Molnar also enjoys recalling, a dreadful man in Vienna named Haas, an inveterate first-nighter and a fountain of malice. At one opening, just before the curtain rose, somebody asked him a question, involving some esoteric family relationship, which he couldn't answer. The moment the first curtain came down, he rushed to his questioner. "Your question cost me a sleepless first act," he said. The remark killed the play.

Opening nights in Budapest and Vienna were festive; the boxes would glitter with uniforms and tiaras. A Frau Baroness von Pollack was always present on these occasions. One time, after the curtain fell on a dingy play about poor people, the Baroness, according to Molnar, felt let down. "It's no play for a première," she said.

Molnar adapted an enormous number of French plays into Hungarian. Once he was given a comedy by de Flers and de Caillavet to work on, and was asked to hurry; he started on it late in the afternoon, worked all night, and had the adaptation finished by morning. Of the many plays he adapted, he remembers only one distinctly, and that one only because of a line in it which, he says, illustrates perfectly his notion that the theatre should exist for entertainment. The line came in the course of a courtroom scene; a young Frenchman from the provinces was up before a Paris judge for examination. He gave all the standard data—birth, date of marriage, and so on—and the judge asked him if he had any children. "Nine," said the defendant. The French birth rate was then rapidly falling, and the judge showed considerable astonishment at this statement. "Nine!" he exclaimed. "Did you say nine?" "Yes, Your Honor," the husband explained glibly. "You see, there was no theatre in our town."

Among the contents of Molnar's combination library-kitchen is a copy of the London Graphic for August 22, 1931, which has a full page of caricatures by Autori, a popular artist of the period, gently lampooning the celebrities attending that summer's Salzburg Festival. There are Reinhardt, A. P. Herbert, Anita Loos, Moissi, C. B. Cochran, Bruno Walter, and Molnar, who looks very elegant leaning against a pillar and staring impersonally at his surroundings through his monocle. Somehow or other, the world it calls up seems remoter than Spy's; the near past has been so irremediably splintered by events that it is farther away than the more distant one. Molnar, already white-haired when Autori sketched him, was plump, cool, assured, foppish; now he is much thinner, and though he still wears the monocle, his expression is mellowed and kindly, and his sharp brown eyes, still young and vivacious, are lit with a tragic impishness. His skin is clear and his face almost unlined. Today, Molnar is a grandfather. His daughter, his only child, who lives in Budapest with her two sons and a daughter, is a widow; her husband was put into a concentration camp by the Nazis and died there. Her children were taken in and protected by a family of peasants. Molnar is very much moved by this. The nobility and the peasants, he says, did not join in the persecution of the Jews in Hungary; it was largely the work of the middle class. Molnar's first wife, and the mother of his daughter, is Margit Veszi, who is now in Hollywood and a successful film writer. His second wife, Sari Fedak, who was a great stage star when Molnar married her, became a violent Nazi and is now a prisoner of the government in Budapest. His third wife, Lili Darvas, from whom he is amicably separated, is on the road in this country, playing the Queen in the Maurice Evans production of "Hamlet."

When summer comes now, it brings Molnar no suggestion of Salzburg Festivals; he simply leaves the Plaza for Montauk Point, where he spends the season in modest lodgings. His wife and his friends visit him there. Except for these trips, he has left New York only a few times since coming to live here. He went to New Haven for the opening of "Carousel," and once he ventured to Mount Kisco for a weekend at Billy Rose's. Packing is for him a long and elaborate ritual. He has a special medicine case for his pills and sleeping powders. When he went to Rose's, he declined a dinner invitation for the preceding Thursday night because he had already started packing. Every spring used to find him in Venice, in a small corner room in the Danieli Hotel, looking out toward the Campanile. His favorite people in the world are the Italians and his favorite city in the world is Venice. His niche in the Danieli was one of the rooms of what he called his "five-room apartment," which he maintained in hotels in Budapest, Vienna, Karlsbad, Venice, and Nice. Venice was a dead city, a mercifully silent city, and every night he would come back to his room, look out over the motionless canal, then get into bed and wait for the midnight bell. It would come, twelve liquid strokes, the last a pianissimo, a lullaby. In Venice, he recalls, he gave excellent advice to Gilbert Miller, who visited him there almost every spring. The plague of Venice, as of all Italy, was the beggars. Mussolini abolished that plague, but he automatically created another. All the beggars became peddlers. They legitimatized themselves by selling something. When you sat in St. Mark's Square with your apéritif, they bedevilled you to buy corn to feed the pigeons, dark glasses to shield you from the sun, and maps of the city. Molnar advised Miller to supply himself with these commodities before he arrived at the café. This worked magnificently; they sat in peace, a map of the city unrolled on the table, a bag of corn at their feet, and dark glasses handy. When, this spring, it was suggested to Molnar that now, with the war at an end, he could return to his beloved Venice, he dismissed the idea. The time for that is past, he thinks. He feels that he can no longer afford to spend his strength in travel.

Molnar regards this country as a fascinating experiment, and he is glad to be permitted to watch its operation. He has taken out his citizenship papers. He adored Roosevelt. Last summer, while he was at Montauk, he satisfied the masochism that is one side of his complicated nature by reading the tabloid columnists. "Every day," he remarked, "they disinter him so that they may once more spit upon him." His friends mildly reproach him for reading the newspapers so much; his preoccupation with political news, they say, interferes with his work. Asked one day whether he was quite happy here, Molnar said, "Yes, I am happy, but quite happy, that I am not." He has the poise of a man who, in spite of wars, persecutions, and imperious personal drives, among them the almost searing dualism of the impulse to suffer and the impulse to impose suffering, has yet managed to make his life, on the whole, pretty much what he has wanted it. He manages still. The five-room apartment is now reduced to one, but its window looks out on the lovely back of a graceful girl. On moonlit nights the Plaza fountain murmurs in silver and the spring evenings filter in, soft, beguiling, and without memory.

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

Copyright © 2009