In this extract from a longer work on Patrick Leigh Fermor and Budapest, Michael O’Sullivan looks at the fate of one of Paddy’s girlfriends in Budapest under communism and also solves the riddle of a postcard Paddy received about his stolen rucksack. The extract is part of a book Michael is working on called Between the Counts and the Comrades which looks at the fate of some of the old Hungarian noble families under communism.
Michael tells me that he has “… traced many of the descendants of the families he stayed with in Hungary especially his first port of call here which was with Baron and Baroness von Berg at Uri Utca. He tried to get access to the house on his last visit to Budapest and there is a rather sad photograph of him at the closed door.”
The best dreams of an ancient lineage are often had on beds of straw. This is the thought that engages me as I stand outside the house in Budapest where Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ex-girlfriend strangled her flatmate in 1969. This end of Budapest’s Pannonia Street is more chipped and faded in appearance than the more prosperous commercial stretch further south which is guarded by the elegant facade of the Vigzinhaus – the city’s Comedy Theatre. This neighbourhood of the XIII district called the Újlipótváros or New Leopoldstown was still a very new part of the city when Leigh Fermor first came to Budapest in 1934. It soon established itself as home to the literary and artistic set and also formed part of the residential area favoured by some of Budapest’s Jewish community. Today, according to recent census information, some of the capital’s Jewish community is again reestablishing itself here. Standing outside 48 Pannonia Street, I imagine it has changed very little since Xenia Cszernovits moved here in 1957, soon after the revolution which tried to end Soviet rule in Hungary. I am trying also to imagine how this woman of distinguished lineage, born into a family of landed gentry in 1909, coped with the ‘class enemy’ status imposed on her by Communism and how she coped too with being sent to work as a labourer in a textile factory.
Xenia Csernovits de Mácsa et Kisoroszi was a ravishing dark-haired beauty. She was the daughter of a Transylvanian land owner from Zam, Mihály Czernovits. The family was of grand Serbian origin. Xenia married Gábor Betegh de Csíktusnád, scion of an old Transylvanian noble family, while still in her early twenties but at the time she met Leigh Fermor in 1934 the marriage was going through a turbulent phase. It later appears to have settled down again because they had a daughter two years after Xenia’s tryst with Leigh Fermor.
Xenia’s niece by marriage, Stefania Betegh, doubts that the [Paddy’s] affair with Xenia ever happened. She has no particular reason to defend Xenia’s honour. She is not, after all, a blood relative. There is also the issue of the confused manner in which Leigh Fermor attempts to disguise, and yet not disguise, Xenia’s identity in Between the Woods and the Water. At one point in the narrative he gives her full name, the location of her family house at Zam and enough detail for us to know exactly who she is. Then he disguises her as ‘Angela’ and even adds a footnote about the need to ‘alter names’ having already made her one of the most identifiable characters in the book. She seems not to have been bothered by this and when, in her seventy sixth year, she read a translation of the book in Hungarian by her relative, Miklos Vajda, she wrote to Leigh Fermor to say how much she had enjoyed it.
Leigh Fermor’s attraction for women and his success as a seducer are well known. The balance of probability, in the seduction stakes, most likely rests with his success with Xenia. It was one of the last happy periods of her life. Miklos Vajda, recalls her as a free spirit and ‘a woman with something of the exotic gypsy in her looks and nature’. Men found her irresistible and the regular absence of her husband on business trips enabled her to have frequent liaisons with various male admirers, amongst whom Leigh Fermor is the best known.
Once Hungary had become a postwar Soviet satellite state, her life was altered in a way that was unimaginable in 1934. As a ‘class enemy’, she was sent to do menial work as a house painter and later in a textile factory in Budapest. She ended her days in a squalid little basement flat which she moved to after she strangled her former flatmate in a fit of rage in Pannonia Street on 20 December 1969. Such was her popularity with her neighbours that many of them testified in court to the justification of her actions, claiming that the victim was an unbearable woman, thus leading to a reduced charge of manslaughter.
There has been much talk in Budapest recently about the publication of the final installment of Leigh Fermor’s account of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. In the third volume The Broken Road he moves onward through Rumania and it is his favourable view of the old enemy that has irritated some amongst his admirers in Hungary. Presenting the Rumanian nobility as better read and more cosmopolitan than their Hungarian neighbours has not endeared him to some of the descendants of his former hosts. ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ is how one of them put it, at a recent event to mark the anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. But despite this he is remembered with great affection in Budapest where his friend, writer and translator, Rudi Fischer, now in his 90s, still lives.
Meeting him one can see how Leigh Fermor admired him and came to rely on his extraordinary knowledge of Hungarian history and culture. Fischer recently solved a Leigh Fermor conundrum when he admitted authorship of a hoax postcard addressed to Paddy from Kirchstetten, W.H. Auden’s Austrian retreat. In it he claimed that it was his grandfather, ‘Alois Schoissbauer’, who stole Paddy’s rucksack containing his money, passport and travel journal, from a Munich hostel in 1934. To add veracity to the hoax Fischer claimed that the author of the postcard later inherited the rucksack and that it was stolen again by ‘an Australian hippie’ as he travelled across Asia to Peshawar. He signed it ‘Dr Franz Xavier Hinterwalder, Professor of Farsi and Pashtoo, Firdausi School of Oriental Languges, Kirchstetten Lower Austria. The card was written after a bibulous lunch at the Traveller’s Club in Pall Mall. Paddy enjoyed it enough to copy it to Debo Devonshire.
There are plans in Budapest to raise a plaque in the city to mark Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1934 visit and plans too for a commemorative lecture about his time in the city.