THE MATINÉE IDOL—By Martha Nemes Fried

I have always been an avid theatergoer. Klári, one of my friends at lycée, and I went to the theater every Saturday afternoon from the time we were fourteen years old. Fortunately, my mother considered the viewing of a play a culturally enriching experience and approved my regular attendance. I became infatuated with a matinée idol by the time I was fifteen. Had my mother known about my crush on an actor she would have responded with extreme distress and grounded me for at least a month. For a while I was content with worshiping the object of my infatuation from my orchestra seat, but after a couple of months this became less than satisfactory and my mind was busily at work hatching a variety of plans to secure a personal encounter.

Klári discovered my favorite thespian had an acting class and hastened to tell me about it. I immediately decided to study a part and planned to call him to request an appointment as a possible student. Confident that I could gain an audience in this fashion, I promptly began to search through published plays for a suitable monologue. I chose a soliloquy written for and played by Hungary’s leading classical actress. I worked on the scene for weeks from the moment I finished my homework and my cello practice until everyone retired at night. I scrutinized every word of the monologue, for I did not dare miss the slightest nuance. I asked Klári to listen to my recitation many times until we were both satisfied I could perform the piece with reasonable skill.

I called the actor from a public telephone booth and told him I was an aspiring actress who would like to study with him; would he be kind enough to give me an audition? He agreed and we arranged the hour when I would come to his apartment. I was stunned by the ease with which I carried off my ruse, but terribly anxious at the thought of anyone finding out that I was going to enter and spend time in the apartment of a bachelor without a chaperone.

During the week directly preceding the appointment, Klári, Dolly and I spent almost every afternoon together, usually doing our homework. I practiced the cello after they left; it had become a comfort to me. Fearing I might slip up and give my precious secret away, I spent twenty minutes or so each day in St. Steven’s Basilica, around the corner from our apartment. It was quiet, people communicated with their Maker without a sound, and I felt protected from my mother’s ceaseless scrutiny.

I made my way to the actor’s apartment at the appointed time. He let me in, ushered me into his study, sat down behind his desk and signaled me with his hand to recite my piece. I have no conscious recollection of how I got from the first word to the last before I slumped into a chair opposite him, relieved the audition was over.

He casually said I had a slight talent as his gaze shifted to the window on his left. I told him my mother and I were planning to go to America. He said I could take acting lessons when I got there, and politely ushered me out. So, that was that. But not for long. I could easily accept his judgment about the insignificance of my acting talent for I cared not a fig about it, but the prospect of never seeing him again was too painful to contemplate. What next?

It took me six months to come up with a viable plan, one I believed was childishly simple. I would write a play for him, call him and ask him to read it. I had never written a play before, but a little detail like that was not going to deter me. I had written a lot of poetry since I was six, a play could not be so very hard. After all, what was there to a play, I asked myself and the answer came on the heel of the question. There was a beginning, a middle and an end. I planned to introduce a group of characters on the stage during the first act, throw them into an awful mess in the second, and sort out all complications before the curtain fell on the third. It took me two afternoons to write it. I returned to the public phone booth.

“I wrote a play for you. Would you kind enough to read it?”

He said yes, he would be interested and asked me to hold the telephone while he looked at his engagement calendar. He set a date for the reading at eight in the evening the following Friday. I told my mother that Dolly, Teréz and I were going to a school play. When the actor opened the door at the appointed time, he had a startled look on his face and questioning his memory, he asked,“Didn’t you want to be an actress?”

“Yes, I did, but now I want to be a playwright,” blushing at the ease with which I lied.

I could see a large group of people in his spacious study — his acting class. He said good night to them, led me to a pleasant sitting room, placed my manuscript on a tea table and commenced to read it. I sat opposite him again. I felt faint after fifteen or twenty minutes and asked if I might have a glass of water. He bade me to help myself in the kitchen. I opened and shut several cabinet doors before I found a glass. I was determined not to fall apart and gripped the edge of the counter for a few seconds hoping I could continue to conduct myself with the dignity the occasion demanded. Had I failed, he would have instantly taken me for a dilettante.

Back at the tea table, my eyes studied his handsome face as he perused my play. He folded the manuscript neatly when he finished reading it and told me I had a real gift. He said I had a good ear for dialogue and a good sense of plot. Of course, there were many technical things I still had to learn; but, on the whole, the work was sound. He convinced me that with real application, I could be a playwright someday.

“Keep writing,” he said. “You’re good.”

I didn’t walk, I floated out of that room and down the stairs and all the way home on cloud-borne images conjured up by my adolescent fancy. There was the first night audience shouting, “Author! Author!” after the last curtain. I was gently coerced onto the stage to receive the accolade of my public and someone handed me a bouquet of flowers and we all went to an elegant soirée to celebrate the rest of the night drinking champagne out of slippers.

Shortly before my fifteenth spring Germany occupied Austria. The Hungarian Green Shirts smashed the windows of cafés, shops and restaurants owned by Jews, and customers asked to be seated far from the windows in those establishments.

A blackout was ordered and two air-raid sirens were installed in Budapest. During the fall, after Germany occupied the Sudetenland, I visited the actor in his dressing room and we conversed pleasantly as he applied his makeup. Neither one of us suspected that this was to be his last starring role on a major stage. Two months later, all Jewish actors — including my idol — were expelled from the Actors’ Guild. His fellow actors were especially fond of him and organized a benefit performance to aid him in his darkest hour. I rushed to his side, offering to sell tickets.

He had moved out of his elegant apartment in Pest to modest quarters on Bluemarble Street on the Buda side of the Danube where the streets were crooked and cobblestoned. I ran many errands to and fro in the ensuing weeks to pick up more and more tickets for sale. I kept them in my book bag and with Dolly’s and Klári’s help I sold them to schoolmates when classes were over. Dolly, Klári and I attended the benefit together.

It was a huge success, but the money raised was not enough to support the actor for long. He toured the provinces, performing in regional theaters in small towns, ending up during February 1940 in a little theater in a suburb of Budapest playing a supporting role.

I went to visit him in his dressing room. It took an hour by streetcar each way. He asked me if I was still writing plays. Not wanting to disappoint him, I let him believe I was. We were having a pleasant discussion when, without any warning, he wheeled around and in a harsh, bitter voice shouted at me.

“You’re just a child, you haven’t lived at all. And you haven’t read much either. Are you familiar with the writings of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Voltaire, Stendhal?”

I was taken aback by his unexpected anger and simply told him the truth.“No.”

“Break every pencil for the next five years and live and read! Good luck in America.”

That was our good-bye.