Midnight in Budapest
In a fantasy world that Woody Allen might envision, author Adam LeBor travels back in time to the Boscolo Budapest hotel’s New York Café a century ago. A drink with Ferenc Molnár? Persze!
People keep telling me it was a hallucination, that I dreamt the whole thing, had drunk too much red wine, or stumbled onto a film set. But I was wide awake and sober. I know that it happened. I carry the evidence, crumpled now and a little faded, but still legible, in my wallet.
I was sitting in the New York Café, at my favorite table by the window, watching the bustle of Budapest on a summer’s evening, admiring the décor. I’d been in the city a few days, and I was reading The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnár, the doyen of Budapest’s literary golden age. A century ago, Molnár was a fixture here.
Budapest then was full of coffeehouses, but none could rival the splendor of the New York Café. The story goes that when it opened in 1894, the writer grabbed the keys, marched down to the Danube, and threw them in the river, declaring that the café must never close.
The New York soon became a second home for penurious writers. They could come here and spin a coffee out for hours. The waiters would supply them with sheets of paper (which they called “dogs’ tongues”), pens, and ink.
The café is still a temple of luxury, with beautifully restored gilded ceilings, cherubs prancing on frescoes, marble staircases, and sparkling mirrors—a Renaissance palace dropped into the heart of downtown Budapest. But nowadays, of course, the New York Café does close, at around midnight—just at the moment when I finished the last page of The Paul Street Boys. The book tells the story of a gang of kids in Budapest’s run-down District VIII, who tenaciously defend their playground from another gang—a metaphor for the nationalism that would soon consume Europe. It’s the kind of story that stays with you.
The waiters were clearing the tables, and I gathered my coat and bag and stood up to leave. I tried to imagine how the café must have looked in Molnár’s time, packed with journalists, novelists, actors, politicians, poets, and their hangers-on, all scribbling, flirting, and scheming. I wondered where Ferenc Molnár had sat, surrounded by admirers, as he held forth on the plot of his next book or play.
It was then that it happened. The room fell silent, shimmered, and filled with a golden light. A roaring sounded in my ears, then suddenly stopped.
The end-of-evening atmosphere was gone, replaced by a party in full swing. Laughter echoed around the café, the hubbub of conversation, snatched phrases, shouts for more wine, water, more of everything, and now, all to be brought by a legion of waiters scuttling past me, bearing trays of coffee, cognac, food, and sheets of paper.
I smelled seared onions and goose liver, cigar smoke, coffee, perfume, and the heady aroma of pálinka, the rich Hungarian fruit brandy. Everyone was speaking Hungarian or German. They wore clothes that were at least a century out of date: the men in well-tailored three-piece suits, with stiff celluloid collars on their shirts, and the women in low-cut dresses gathered tight at the waist with enormous skirts.
I stood in the center of the room, trying to make sense of it all, and not get in the way of the waiters, when a kindly-looking man beckoned me over. He had a pudgy face, dark hair parted to one side, and wore a monocle in his right eye. He sat at a large table, and was clearly a figure of some importance in the café’s literary firmament. Admirers circulated around his table, accepting his acknowledgments of their presence like the grateful subjects of a wise king. A pretty blonde in a blue polka-dot dress sat on his left side. A bottle of cognac, half-full, sat on the table with three glasses.
I walked over and he stood up to greet me.
“Molnár Ferenc,” he said, in the Hungarian fashion. “Please do join us.” I returned the greeting similarly and he gestured at me to sit down. He picked up the carafe and looked at me, raising his eyebrows. “Yes, please,” I said.
I turned to the young woman, who offered me her hand.
“Hatvany Nora,” she said, smiling when I shook it.
“It seems, kedves Nora, dear Nora, that our friend is much more modern than we are,” said Molnár, his voice amused. “Where he comes from they no longer kiss a lady’s hand. Nora works for my publishers.”
Nora and Molnár raised their glasses. The three of us wished each other “Egészségedre, good health!” Molnár drank half of his cognac in one go and put down his glass.
“Now, let me explain to our young friend the scene in front of him. That gentleman over there is the key to your visits, even your career,” he said, pointing at a frazzled waiter organizing the dispatch of drinks and food.
“Reisz Gyula, Uncle Gyula, can keep you supplied with everything from coffee and food to paper, pens, and ink. He will send and receive messages for you, deal with your landlord when you have no money to pay the rent. If you run out of funds he will bring you the writers’ plate: bread, ham, cheese, and salami. You will pay when you sell your first article. I will introduce you to some editors.”
Molnár paused and his wide forehead creased for a moment. “You are a writer?” Yes, of course, I said.
“Good. There is a lot to write about here. Over there is Frigyes Karinthy, my fellow scribe. He loves this place so much that the cover of his new book shows him working at this table here, dipping into an inkwell—his own head. Clever, eh? To your left are the cinema crowd—Sándor Korda and Mihály Kertész.”
A loud burst of laughter interrupted him. Molnár smiled indulgently. “Theatricals. Actors, actresses, and their friends,” he said, pointing to the noisiest and most crowded gathering. “They call themselves Castle Kövessy, after Albert Kövessy, the theater director. See the box on the table? That’s for donations, for their fellow thespians who no longer take the stage. Now take a look at that large, kidney-shaped table by the window,” he instructed.
I nodded and turned to look. Nora pulled a face, which somehow only emphasized how pretty she was.
“The critics,” said Molnár, his voice arching. “I won’t dignify them with their names. They like to boast that they don’t only eat the café’s food, but also the writers who come here. Still, they keep our names in the newspapers.”
“Would you write something for me, Mr. Molnár?” I asked, sipping my cognac. “I’m a great admirer of your work.” He nodded and signaled to a waiter who passed him a sheet of paper. Molnar pulled a fountain pen from his pocket. He wrote quickly on the paper, folded it over, and handed it to me.
I thanked him and put the note in my jacket pocket. He turned away from me for a moment and said something to Nora. She looked at me, smiled, and laid her hand on my arm. “Would you like to join us for dinner?” I started to answer when the roaring began again in my ears. The room grew brighter, then glowed. The sound in my head subsided and all was quiet again.
A waiter came up to me and said politely, “We are closed now, sir, it is after midnight.” I nodded and stepped outside onto the Grand Boulevard, into the crowded summer evening. I reached into my pocket. A teenager on in-line skates swerved around me, white cords dangling from his ears. I could still feel Nora’s fingers resting lightly on my arm.
I took out the piece of paper and carefully unfolded it. It was franked with the New York Café watermark. There, in elegant, cursive script, was one sentence: “With best wishes to our visitor, your friend, Ferenc Molnár.”
Creativity is just connecting things