National Geographic : 1938 Jan
THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE gentlemen, politicians, and business men. We swung past three sets of doors, then pushed aside a semicircular curtain of heavy red blanket cloth. It overlapped three feet and dragged the floor like a train. Windows were double and weather proofed. Thus no chill breath of winter mixed it self with bluish air of the large room where human bodies and burning tobacco shared the heating task with a tiny airtight stove, efficiently placed many warm pipe-lengths from its chimney. A hundred newspapers in holders hung on a rack. Boys learn patrons' favorites and bring them to the little tables. Perhaps for convenience of coffeehouse reading, Hungarian papers are tabloid in size, and actual circulations are much larger than the number of copies printed. Yet a good issue of an American small-town daily contains more advertising than the largest Budapest papers combined. "Fellow Rotarians here," said the banker, "think hard-working American business men must be money mad. Most Americans work hard, I explained to them, for what money brings-everything that makes life so rich and varied in your country. "Here they won't believe that, though your gangsters and G-men are well known." He chuckled. "A bearded Pecs restau rateur once ordered a portrait and refused it, on completion, as 'unrecognizable.' "It drew laughing crowds when the an noyed artist displayed it, in a store window, labeled 'Capone in Disguise.' "Everyone knew of Capone, and from his beard recognized the now furious res taurant man, who paid immediately." Late that afternoon I left Pecs by train. "First call" filled the diner with men who ate leisurely, smoked, and talked until, two hours later, we reached Budapest. "It's the coffeehouse tradition on wheels," remarked my tablemate. TAXIS LACK SELF-STARTERS The next Sunday an Englishwoman in vited me to meet "a prima donna, past 80, once Liszt's pupil." A cab driver in padded overcoat gra ciously bowed us into his taxi. Fare was 20 cents for our first mile, 12 cents for the next. "Must all Budapest taxis still be cranked?" my companion asked. "I kiss your hand; yes, madam," he re- plied. I noted in two months only three cabs with self-starters. We climbed a long stair, traversed dark corridors, and rapped beneath a placard: "Carlotta Feliciana, Singing Lessons." A little old lady let us in. She wore an ornate dress of dull-green velvet and tar nished gold braid, snug-waisted, wide of skirt. The dress itself was faded; strangely, the sleeves were not. She sang "The Last Rose of Summer," in Hungarian, playing it on an oaken piano. In this so-much-lived-in little room it was like a burnished golden throne in a cob bler's shop. Clippings in scrapbooks told Carlotta's story-her debut, her marriage, her studies with Hungary's great composer. "Once I praised Wagner to Franz Liszt," she said, "forgetting they weren't friends. Maestro threw my music on the floor and stomped out. I was afraid of him after that." A DRESS WITH A HISTORY From opera programs-some on silk we could follow Carlotta, singing her way in splendor across Europe. There were royal photographs, signed, and masculine handwriting on fine note paper, still white. "Mash notes? I liked them anyway. This was from a Hussar. He sent me 36 white roses after I sang in 'The Barber of Seville.' I let him see me, wearing the dress I am wearing now." "That dress?" I asked, incredulously. "I've worn made-over costumes for years. This is the last. Long ago I cut off the train and saved it to make new sleeves. Those pillows and rag rugs were costumes once." As we were leaving, Carlotta showed us a large, stained old photograph of two pretty women with a tall, vaguely familiar young man, riding camels by the Pyramids. "That's Tom Lipton, a countess I knew, and me," said Carlotta. "Tom liked her-" "You mean Sir Thomas Lipton?" I asked, recalling the trim old yachtsman who had spent so liberally and fruitlessly to re gain for Britain the America's Cup. "Yes. He hadn't been knighted, but he was a millionaire, in pounds, even then. Yet he was thrifty. When I told him about the countess's birthday he gave her two flowers." "Orchids?" "Two big daisies. He picked them him self," she said, laughing, as we left her.