The woman who inspired Endre Ady and Ferenc Molnár, turned Puccini's brain, and won the Second World War for the United States.

...

Margit Vészi, Margit Mantica, Margit Veszi Mantica
journalist, screenwriter, painter, graphic artist, photographer

27 April 1885, Budapest, Austro-Hungarian Monarchy
11 July 1961, Palma de Mallorca, Spain

High-life romances, stormy youth

As the daughter of press baron József Vészi, she spent her childhood surrounded by journalists, artists and intellectuals. Social life, in which she was involved from very early on, revolved first around the flat above the editorial office of Budapesti Napló, and then later at the family house in Dunavarsány. She was engaged to Ferenc Molnár at the age of just 13, but two years later the girl broke it off. In Paris, she became close to Ady and perhaps Margit’s enthusiasm contributed to the poet finally taking up a steady post at Budapesti Napló. He recalled the inspiring young girl in his poem Margita élni akar (Margita Wants to Live):

I start the song of new Hungarian Sion,
Who once I proffered,
My cool sister, that girl Margita,
Long ago and almost love,
When yearning, heavy with doubt,
Blindly chained to bored woman,
That fine lady would prefer my strange face
And life, this dear illness, tormented.

(Endre Ady: Margita élni akar, 1912, excerpt)

Even as a youth, it was evident her energetic personality radiated some sort of talent. At grammar school, first her singing voice got her noticed but she soon realized that she was truly attracted to painting. She started the winter school of Sándor Bihari in Budapest; in her mind, the art of Rosa Bonheur was the model to follow. Although she began as a diligent and talented painter, the family teased her about her occasional failure, calling her, in typically witty fashion, ‘Rose Malőr’1. Later she enrolled in the women’s studio of Académie Julian in Paris, where her other role model, Marie Bashkirtseff, had studied decades earlier. Although her works featured in several international exhibitions, according to her own assessment and that of her fellow artists she had a much better sense for humorous caricature than painting.

 (source: Színházi Élet)

Margit Vészi travelled widely starting from her childhood. As a true cosmopolitan, she mingled with outstanding intellectuals in Italy and France and on her return to Hungary she played chamber music with Géza Csáth and Leó Weiner.

Meanwhile, Ferenc Molnár pursued Margit unrelentingly and although her father cautioned his daughter against the writer who was notorious for his rages when intoxicated, in the end she married him. The hot-tempered Ferenc Molnár frequently abused his wife and the world-famous stage play Liliom was inspired by their stormy relationship. Margit “acknowledged and rejected”2 the message of the play idealizing male aggression and in 1910 she divorced her husband and moved to Berlin with their child, Márta.

She placed her daughter in boarding school, she became increasingly engaged with journalism and regularly published (in Hungarian) articles on her everyday life spent among celebrities. Members of the bohemian company she kept in Berlin included Lajos Bíró, husband of Jolán Vészi and Margit’s brother-in-law, who became famous thanks to Sándor Korda as a screenwriter of such world hits as The Last Command (director: Josef von Sternberg, 1928) and The Thief of Bagdad (directors: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, Tim Whelan, 1940); film director and screenwriter Pál Fellner and writer Lajos Hatvany.

On the cultural and military front line

At the outbreak of the First World War, Vészi tried her hand at being a war correspondent. The book Az égő Európa (Europe Burning) was compiled from her reports. “According to mischief-makers, she was riding on the front line where the bullets whistled and still she managed to write dull reports.”3 At the same time, Ferenc Molnár also worked as a war correspondent, although in his case he listened to and coloured the stories of soldiers in a remote pub a safe distance from the battlefield, which Margit Vészi recalled as “anecdotes worthy of the pen of Chekov or Maupassant”.

Although she displayed great talent in very many fields, still she never created anything lasting in any of the arts. As her first husband, Ferenc Molnár, frequently noted with a degree of ill will, “Margit always knows everything better than anyone else, but besides that, nothing else.”5 At the same time, memoirs and Magit Vészi’s reports on her own life clearly show that her remarkable personality attracted and inspired artists around her, and she was looked upon as a memorable figure of society. Such verbal talent is difficult to document, and to this day we consider an impulsive figure and ease moving through society to be an advantageous social skill rather than a manifestation of talent in itself. However, forms of talent that are more difficult to categorize or cannot be associated with a specific profession may also be worthy of recognition.

Mátyás Sárközy and the elderly Margit Vészi in London (source: 168 óra)

Many of the anecdotes told to Mátyás Sárközi, grandchild of Margit Vészi, are stories that back up this particular facet of her personality. The fact that she persuaded Tódor Kármán to visit the air show of French pilot Henri Farman appears to be nothing more than a kind gesture, yet the experience sparked the interest of the inventor in aeronautics and not long thereafter he was nicknamed the scientific patron saint of the US Air Force. “This is how Margit won the Second World War for America”6 is how Tódor Kármán wound up their mutual story when speaking at social engagements.

As well as Hungarian poets, writers and inventors, she had a great impact on Puccini. In her memoirs, Margit Vészi suggests that besides the adoration the world-famous opera composer showed for her, it is possible that the basic idea for Madama Butterfly came from Pierre Loti’s work Madame Chrysanthème, which Vészi was at the very same time engaged in translating into Hungarian.

Not long after this she married one of her journalist colleagues in Italy, the socialist and syndicalist Baron Paolo Mantica who was born into the aristocracy; this is how Margit Vészi became titled Baroness Mantica. They travelled a lot and she took up writing and painting again. She worked for Az Est and Színházi Élet, and her first volume of novellas, Éjféli mese (Midnight Tale), was published. However, her husband grew increasingly sick and they became estranged until his death in 1935. Sensing the strengthening political ties between Mussolini and Hitler, Margit – now as a widowed baroness – fled to the United States.

Veal stew with noodles – how to make it in Hollywood

She felt that for her, journalism in the United States was ruled out because of its strict formal and stylistic criteria, so she imagined herself instead in Hollywood as a filmmaker. However, at the time of her arrival neither her brother-in-law Lajos Bíró nor Sándor Korda were in America, and her lack of contacts made finding work very difficult.

She even learnt to cook to impress her Hollywood compatriots with Hungarian flavours but she only maintained somewhat distant relations with a few figures from the world of film, amongst others Henry Koster, director of the first CinemaScope film, and Menyhért Lengyel, screenwriter on such films as Ninotchka (director: Ernst Lubitsch, 1939) and Silk Stockings (director: Rouben Mamoulian, 1957).

Initially, Margit took a job as librarian at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer but she also worked as a studio assistant, she proofread, drew caricatures and took photos. Since she had already had a go at screenwriting in Hungary on the film Hotel Imperial (director: Jenő Janovics, 1918), she regularly tried out screenwriting ideas at Columbia and Warner Brothers. She didn’t live long enough to see her single true success, the premiere of All in a Night’s Work (director: Joseph Anthony, 1961). In the film, the frenetic couple Shirley MacLaine and Dean Martin take us through a convoluted plot about the murky circumstances surrounding the death of a wealthy owner of a newspaper.

As finances became increasingly problematic, she was forced to move to New York, but since she could not find a well-paid job there either she returned to Europe and moved to southern Spain where living was easier. She corresponded with her grandson Mátyás Sárközi from Alicante, recounting her adventurous youth. Although her daughter, Márta Sárközi, often commented on her mother’s snobbish behaviour and overblown stories, conversations with her grandson give posterity a sense of the remarkable personality of this woman of the world.
Margit Vészi died in 1961, just before the successful debut of All in a Night's Work. The cause of death was established as an overdose of sleeping pills.

Notes

[1] Sárközi Mátyás: Margit. Budapest: Kortárs Könyvkiadó, 2019. 5.
[2] U.o. 46.
[3] Székely Ilona: Molnár Ferenc élvezettel verte, Ady Endre halhatatlanná tette a világjáró magyar múzsát. 168 óra, 2019. augusztus 7.
[4] Sárközi Mátyás: Margit. 58.
[5] U.o. 5.
[6] U.o. 47.

Sources

Sárközi Mátyás: Margit. Budapest: Kortárs Könyvkiadó, 2019. 
Székely Ilona: Molnár Ferenc élvezettel verte, Ady Endre halhatatlanná tette a világjáró magyar múzsát. 168 óra, 2019. augusztus 7.
Vészi Margit tudósításai

Babos Anna