By Tom Teicholz
A streetlamp flickered erratically as Hattay Sandor walked down the dark, damp alley, his hat pushed down over his brow, his raincoat tightened at the waist. The neighborhood, commercial for the most part, was deserted at night. He hurried, afraid he would be late, his footsteps echoing on the slick pavestones.
For a moment, he was disoriented. Then he saw the small green light in the window. He headed down stairs that led to a locked basement door. Sandor knocked three times as Gigi had instructed him. A little window opened at eye level.
“Name, please,” a man’s voice said.
“Jojjon be, kerem,” the voice said as the door opened.
The room was even darker than the street, but alive with sound, and as crowded as it was smoky and hot. The walls were covered in fabric-covered cork to keep the noise inside. He gave his hat and coat to the hatcheck girl, and then pushed his way through the crowd to the end of the bar where he found a spot with a good view of the stage.
Gigi had been appearing here for the last few Saturday nights, and had asked him to stop by. She was an actress, not a singer, but hadn’t been able to work for months. However, knowing how popular she was, an impresario had offered her a residency at his private club.
Sandor looked around. This was not the Budapest he knew – one where people were worried, sent to forced labor, or in endless meetings and arguments about what was right to do, how best to prepare, or of rumors, terrible rumors, and facts avoided and ignored.
Here, on this other planet, people were laughing, drinking, and having fun. It was as amazing as it was infectious. These were the people one used to read about in the society columns. Were there still society columns?
As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he recognized many of the actors and dancers as Gigi’s friends, The Jeunesse Dorée, and also a few prominent businessmen, former politicians, and store owners. They were not here with their wives.
The bartender spotted him.
“Cognac,” Hattay said.
“10 pengyo,” he said.
Hattay handed him a twenty. “Give me five back and keep the change.” They charged three times the price of any normal bar. But then again, these customers couldn’t frequent just any bar. This was one of the few remaining private clubs.
An attractive young woman walked up and handed the bartender her purse, which he placed under the bar. She threw her long auburn hair back and gazed at Hattay with a look that could have melted the polar ice caps, but he shook his head no. She made an expression as if to say, “Too bad, your loss,” before asking a gentleman sitting alone at a table if she might join him. He stood and pulled out a chair for her.
Sandor watched as a waiter appeared at her side, as if on cue, and quicker than you could snap a finger, he returned with a champagne bottle in a silver bucket and two champagne flutes. The waiter popped the cork, and the woman flashed a smile at her table companion that surely made him feel like the handsomest, most virile man in all of Budapest.
The lights dimmed and a short, middle-aged man bounded on stage in a shiny tuxedo, the few remaining hairs on his head plastered to his brow in a high sheen. He had a wide smile and, as he grabbed the microphone, applause erupted in the room.
“Jo reget kivanok. Mesdames, and Messieurs. Café Max. or Maxie’s as most of you know it, is pleased to present tonight, Budapest’s own Betty Boop, Kertesz Eva.”
There was thunderous applause and some whistling. Customers tapped their feet and smacked their hands on the bar so hard that Sandor could feel the bar itself shaking.
The stage went black, and then a single spotlight lit the stage.
Gigi Bach took the stage wearing a traditional Hungarian peasant shirt with red and green stitching which bared her shoulders and gave a hint of her bosom, as well as a gypsy skirt that ended, somewhat scandalously, at her knees.
She smiled at her applauding fans and did a little curtsy.
It was one of the unexplained mysteries of human nature how Gigi’s cute and innocent stage persona could strike Sandor (and all the other men in the room) as so sexy and knowing.
She turned to the band, confident and at ease, and said: “Maestro?”
The lights came up on a little quartet that began to play a jazzy intro. She walked up to the microphone and, in a breathy, Hungarian-accented English, pouted:
“I vant to loved by you,
By you and nobody else but you
I vant to be loved by you
By you and nobody else
Sandor was smiling. She was awful. Truly awful. She had little voice to speak of, and what she had was slightly off-key. Her delivery was breathy, more declarative than tuneful. Without doubt, it was one of the most awful singing performances he had ever heard. If he were still a critic, he would have questioned how she was even allowed to perform. Yet his opinion, or that of any reviewer, mattered not at all. She was a giant success.
The crowd was cheering wildly. Every seat was taken, the bar was full, and the audience in love with her. They ate up every note, every inflection, and every gesture. They came to cheer her on, and to eat, drink, and wring out every last ounce of joy from the evening.
At one point, she broke into a little soft shoe, which wasn’t bad – and it forced those few patrons who weren’t mesmerized by her legs to notice them.
Every so often, she would strike a pose – one he recognized from the ads she had modeled for – and the audience, as if given their cue, would hoot and cheer.
About thirty minutes later, after a set that included mostly Hungarian favorites, sprinkled with international hits such as “A-tisket, A-tasket,” the lights went to a single spotlight.
“This next song comes from a Fred Astaire movie,” Gigi said. “Maestro here heard it on the radio and fell in love with it. He translated it into Hungarian and prepared a beautiful arrangement. However, when we rehearsed the song, it took on another tone – so we want to perform it as simply as possible.”
The light went out. The piano start to play a slow playful tune. The spotlight came back on and Gigi, talking more than singing, whispered the lyrics:
“There may be trouble ahead,
But while there’s music and moonlight,
And love and romance,
Let’s face the music and dance.
Before the fiddlers have fled,
Before they ask us to pay the bill,
And while we still have that chance,
Let’s face the music and dance.
Soon we’ll be without the moon,
Humming a different tune, and then,
There may be teardrops to shed,
So while there’s music and moonlight,
And love and romance,
Let’s face the music and dance.”
And then the spotlight went out. The audience applauded politely. But Sandor sensed that too much reality had intruded on their night’s pleasure.
To Sandor’s great surprise and relief, the band was prepared for this. They immediately struck up a raucous version of a Karady Katalin song. The spotlight came back on. Gigi stood on stage, singing and conducting the audience as they sang along. Everyone in the room, started clapping and stomping their feet. Some threw their arms around their neighbor’s shoulders, swaying left to right, right to left. Together they all sang: “Don’t flee / Don’t run from your fate,” as the cymbals crashed to signal the end of the show.
The audience was on its feet, applauding wildly. Gigi made a little curtsy and left the stage.
Max, the Emcee, ran back on stage. “Gigi Bach, Gigi Bach! Fantastic! Fantastic! She’s here every Saturday night. Wunderbar! All right, everyone, remember your waiters, and we’ll be back in a few minutes with the next act.”
The room became busy again as conversation took over. People made their way from table to table, greeting friends, meeting new ones. Glasses were filled, refilled, cigarettes lit, waiters summoned.
Gigi came up to Sandor at the bar. She was already in her cloth coat. Her face was flushed and she seemed strangely shy as if all her stage presence had evaporated. No one seemed to notice her now.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said, taking him by the hand.
The luxury stores on the Vaci Utca were long closed. A cold wind blew through the avenue, unusually cold for a March night. Sandor wrapped his coat over hers and put his arm around her.
“You were marvelous,” he whispered into her ear.
“No, I’m terrible. I know that. But I’m still young and pretty, and that counts for something.”
“The audience loved you.”
“They are fools. But you – you are sweet.” She gave him a hug and raised her face to his. They kissed deeply.
“Sandor,” she said, “there is something I have always wanted to ask you.”
“After we first met, that time on the movie set when you came to write a feature for your paper on Erno, the director. You came back a few times, but you never talked to me. Why not?”
“I suppose,” he said, “if I really think about it, I suppose I was afraid.”
“Please. Tell me something I’ll believe.”
“Well, it was just that. This is hard to explain. But I had the feeling that I wanted to watch you from afar – observe you like some rare bird in the wild, and write about you. To me, that was easier and safer than actually risking being rejected by you.”
“Are you sure I would have rejected you? I don’t remember being so discriminating.”
“Thank you. That’s very flattering. But you made it clear that you had greater ambitions than dating a journalist.”
“A journalist who had ambitions of being a novelist!”
“Still, you didn’t seem too interested.”
“I was being coy, testing you. I wanted to see how interested you really were. And let’s face it – it worked, didn’t it?”
Sandor shrugged, smiling. They continued down the cobblestone streets. They didn’t talk, just walked holding hands, swinging their arms like children.
They came to Rakoczy Utca and started to walk down the wide boulevard. They passed The Egyptian, the ornate 1920s movie palace where Sandor had first seen Gigi on the large screen, performing in the very movie on whose set they had first met. That seemed a lifetime ago.
He kissed the top of her head. She turned, looked up into his eyes, and they engaged in a full embrace, kissing even more deeply – right there on the sidewalk.
She did not know when she had ever felt happier.
“Sandor –” she began.
Suddenly the ground began to shake. A little, then more. The rumble got louder and louder.
“What is it?” Gigi asked.
“Shh,” Sandor said, pulling Gigi with him into a doorway.
Gigi spotted them more than three blocks away. “My God, Sandor, look!”
Hidden in the shadows, Sandor shuddered as he saw a giant German Tiger II tank lumbering down the boulevard, the muzzle on the long barrel of its main gun pointed haughtily upward. They held their breath as a cavalcade of tanks, trucks, motorcycles and riding cars swept by, swastikas and SS markings displayed. What Sandor had long predicted had come to pass, but the reality of the Nazis arriving in Budapest stunned them to the core.