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Archive for February, 2015

My Grandfather, the Greatest Journalistic Hoaxer

“This produced a stream of articles penned by a journalist, Joseph Szebenyei, and published in the ultra-conservative Morning Post. Harry Hanak has termed it one of the greatest newspaper stunts in English press history.” Mark Cornwall

From the minutes of the House of Commons, sitting of February 26, 1917:

37. Mr. DILLON

asked the Home Secretary whether his attention has been directed to the charges made by Dr. Seton Watson against the “Morning Post” newspaper that that journal has been made the instrument of a German-Magyar intrigue to deceive English public opinion, through the medium of its Budapest correspondent, as to the feeling in Hungary on the War, and in other ways has been used for enemy objects; whether he is aware that this correspondent is accused by Dr. Seton Watson of fabricating leading articles, purporting to have appeared in Budapest newspapers, and forging speeches purporting to have been delivered in Parliament by Hungarian statesmen, with the object of misleading this country for enemy purposes; whether he is aware that the same charges have been independently made by an official organ in Paris; whether steps have been, or will be, taken under the Defence of the Realm regulations to investigate these charges against the “Morning Post”; and whether, if it is found that the charges are true, steps will be taken to punish those responsible for these publications?

  • Sir G. CAVE

My attention has only been called to the matter by the hon. Member’s question. I understand that the charges are strongly denied, and I do not see my way to take any action in the matter.

  • Mr. DILLON

Am I to understand that the right hon. Gentleman, when such charges are made, not only by responsible persons in this country, but by one of the leading semi-official journals of Paris, will take no steps to ascertain whether they are well-founded or not?

  • Sir G. CAVE

I do not see my way to take any action. The hon. Member has already put questions to the Foreign Office, which has given a similar answer.

  • Mr. DILLON

If he was an Irish newspaper editor he would be sent to penal servitude.

Mr. A. F. WHITE

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the editors of this paper whether any uninterned alien enemy is in regular communication with them?

1677

  • Sir G. CAVE

No, Sir; I have had no cause to make any such inquiry.

  • Mr. WHYTE

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the editor whether a Magyar named Joseph Szebenyei is in the employment of the “Morning Post,” and will he take the trouble to satisfy himself and the public that the articles which have appeared in the “Morning Post” and which have seriously misled people in this country are bonâ fide articles?

  • Mr. DILLON

They are forged articles by foreign spies.

  • Mr. WHYTE

Or whether they have been composed in London out of speeches and articles which did not appear in the enemy capital to which they were attributed?

  • Sir G. CAVE

If my hon. Friend will give me any material on which to proceed I will make inquiries.

  • Mr. PRINGLE

Has the right hon. Gentleman not taken the trouble to investigate the material referred to in the question?

  • Mr. KING

Is the right hon. Gentleman willing to approach the “Morning Post” and ask for their explanation of this extraordinary incident? …

****

From the minutes of the House of Commons, sitting of April 25, 1917:

Mr. WHYTE

asked the Home Secretary whether he has concluded his inquiries into the case of Joseph Szebenyei?

  • Mr. BRACE

My right hon. Friend completed his inquiries in this case some weeks ago, and after a review of all the circumstances decided that Szebenyei should be interned. This decision was carried into effect on 28th March.

****

I think “carried into effect” meant the drawing up of the order of internment because, according to my grandfather, Joseph Szebenyei (Hungarian: Szebenyei Jozsef), he was sent to an internment camp on July 17, 1917, where he abided until September of 1919. This event may have had some historical significance. I will attempt to provide the background and the circumstances leading up to it and speculate on its consequences.

Family Background and Biographical Fragments

(In 1951, two years before his death, my grandfather Szebenyei published a book of autobiographical anecdotes in chronological order, titled Reporters, Kings & Other Vagabonds which I have relied upon to provide information I did not have or confirm facts I was uncertain about. I will refer to it as RKV .)

As I recounted in the post about my great uncle Erno and the sinking of the City of Benares my great-grandfather Sandor Szekulesz married Johana Lasicz who had a daughter, Jeni, in 1879. Johana died shortly thereafter (childbirth and tuberculosis). Jeni was my father’s mother.

Sandor then married Johana’s sister, Berta Lasicz, who had five children: Jozsef in 1881, my mother’s father (so my parents were both first and second cousins, my sister is also my second and third cousins and so on – endless merriment); Erno in 1883; a girl, Szidani in 1884 who apparently died in childhood; another son, Imre born about 1893, murdered by the Nazis in 1944; Stella born about 1897, spent the whole first part of her life in a tubercular sanatorium, came to the United States in 1940 and lived here until her death several decades later.

Sandor, his two wives and his first four children were all born in Keczel (pronounced Ket-sel, now spelled Kecel) a small southern Hungarian village then and now. Sandor, a gentleman farmer, owned one hundred acres and rented three thousand from the regional archbishop. In 1889 he moved his family, Berta and the four children, to New Jersey where he tried being a gentleman farmer again – which didn’t work out. Imre and Stella were born in New Jersey and, it would seem, Szidani died there. In 1898 Sandor died and Berta moved the family back to Keczel where she had inherited a small farm, probably from her parents. I assume the New Jersey property was either rented or went to the bank.

kecel map

Not long after returning to Hungary Joseph entered university in Debreczen (pronounced deb-retsen, now spelled Debrecen) to study law. He took jobs as a stringer for local newspapers, probably to support himself at school. It was at this time he took the name Szebenyei (“from Szeben” then a county of Hungary, after 1920, Romania) to conceal his Jewish identity in his anti-Semitic homeland. (This was a common practice, especially for people in the public eye. Some others of the same era were Ferenc Molnar (Neumann), Alexander Korda (Kellner), Eugene Ormandy (Blau) and Lajos Biro (also Blau). (Many Hungarians remain anti-Semitic – I read recently that an ascendant right wing political party openly proclaims anti-Jewish policies.)

Joseph dropped out of law school and worked as a reporter in Debrecen for about two years. In 1902, at age twenty-one, he was called to his mandatory service in the Hungarian army. Conscripts fell into one of two categories: “volunteers”, those with a high school or better education who served only one year and had rank and privilege not unlike a junior grade officer; everyone else, who served three years enduring the most menial duties and gratuitous humiliations. At conscription time the prospective soldier was allowed to choose his outfit. Joseph chose the 38th Hungarian Infantry Regiment, called the Mollinaris, a prestigious organization stationed near Kecskemet, not far from Budapest where he had a physician uncle.

Apparently, his American high school diploma wasn’t deemed sufficient at first and he was put in the three year group but this was later corrected through a complicated series of events and he was made a “volunteer”. One of the events involved was that he was detailed to write a history of the regiment which garnered him considerable recognition with all that went with that, including volunteer status. The experience also made him acquainted with the Mollinaris time in Wallonia (Belgium) which was the basis for a history of the Walloons which he wrote some years later.

After completing his military obligation and another stay in Debrecen, Joseph went on to Vienna where he was employed by the Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, a major paper in its day. He then went to Budapest where he continued his journalism career working for a newspaper called the Pesti Naplo (Pest Journal). Around 1906/1907 he married Rozsa Marie Klein, who was about five years younger than him, and had two daughters, Clara, born in 1908 and Agnes (my mother) in 1909.

In March of 1913, armed with agreements with several Pest newspapers to pay for an article or two per week, he went to London, leaving Rozsa, who approved of the plan, and the two girls in Budapest. In his first week in London to satisfy his Hungarian clients he scored several big name interviews, including Anthony Asquith, Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. At the end of the week he was granted an interview with Sylvia Pankhurst who was recovering from her last jailing and hunger strike. In his usual serendipitous manner he dreamt up a lecture tour of the Continent by Pankhurst, sold the idea to a lecture bureau and Pankhurst and acted as the paid advance man for the multi-city trip. His first reporting job in England was an article for Pankhurst’s suffragette newspaper.

After the completion of the Pankhurst tour the owners of the lecture bureau helped Joseph in getting a job with The London Morning Post, a very conservative newspaper. By 1915 his reporting assignment was to appear as though he was in Budapest, reporting sympathetically on Hungary’s circumstances, politics and suffering. (This bit of dateline chicanery was blown out of proportion for British political purposes and was the cited reason for interning him in 1917.) It appears that many Hungarians felt there was a good chance that the Axis would lose the war and that maintaining presumed good relations with Great Britain might help Hungary get out from under the Austrian boot and maintain its multinational empire. I’ll have more on all of this later.

Not long after, perhaps in 1914 or shortly after the war started, in 1915, Rozsa and the girls made their way to London. The trip was not without event. The itinerary was: trains across Hungary and Germany to the Holland border and then ferry to England. Germany was not allowing emigrants they suspected were heading for England across the Holland border or to take any money or valuables such as diamonds with them. The little girls, Clara and Agnes were taught to speak English by their father (to such an extent that my mother lost whatever Hungarian she may have had by the time she was six or seven years old) but on this trip it was imperative that they not do so. Rozsa had sewn money and jewellery into a muff she was carrying. Clara had an Easter basket she had carried with her all the way – but had left on the train at the Dutch border. As they walked down the platform Clara shouted “My Easter basket!” and Rozsa immediately muffled her (pun intended). Fortunately no one heard her and they and the muff safely made it to Dover.

The family stayed in Golders Green, a north London suburb, during the first two years or so. Later, during Joseph’s detention, Rozsa and her three girls (Eva was born in 1915 in England) lived in Kew, just across the road from Kew Gardens, which was conveniently located about halfway between central London and Feltham where he was interned. My mother often talked about their neighbors, a retired English colonel and his wife, who just loved “the little Hungarian girls”. I took my mother to Kew in 1991 but we couldn’t figure out how to locate where they lived.

Feltham is in the lower left corner and Kew about dead center

Feltham is in the lower left corner and Kew about dead center

I have included his narrative of the internment from RKV at the end of this post which not only contains almost the whole story but is very entertaining as well. The account of how he arranged for the inmates of the camp to create a toy factory and thus earn an income for themselves and their families is worth the price of admission.

I will comment on an interesting omission when discussing the politics of all of this.

In the spring of 1920, as soon after his release from the Feltham camp as possible, the family emigrated to New York. It appears that Joseph very quickly managed to get articles published in several quality magazines of the time. During the early years of the depression he had a feature column in the Nepsava, a Hungarian language daily newspaper, the largest in the U. S. He lost that job over a political dispute with the publisher and lived by his wits much of the rest of his life. In the 1940s he started a Hungarian language monthly called Magyar Magazin which he wrote on his old L. C. Smith typewriter with a very wide newspaperman’s platen, laid out, had printed and personally distributed (often carrying large string-tied bundles on the subway). It had a circulation in the low thousands. For years a restaurant on east 79th street, called the Balaton, provided Rozsi and him with free dinners, every night of the week. I was present at one fund raiser held in the Balaton. Being Szebenyei’s grandson made me a minor celebrity with that crowd and they would come up to me and ask in Hungarian if I spoke Hungarian, an easy enough question to recognize. When I replied “Nem” their puzzled looks were very funny. He also gambled, playing dominoes with his cronies, but I think he lost at least as much as he won which led to big fights with my grandmother.

At one point he imposed on his nephew and son-in-law, my father, to co-sign a five hundred dollar loan, a very large sum at the time which he never made a payment on. It led to major family stress, as you might imagine.

After the war until his death in early 1953 he made a modest living from his little magazine.

Personal Recollections

 My recollections of my grandparents go as far back as my fourth or fifth year. Rozsa was about forty-two when I was born and my understanding is that she was considered very pretty in her youth which made her quite vain. I was trained to call her “Rozsi”, the affectionate form of her name, as soon as I was able to talk (before my first birthday, I’m told), and my grandfather, “Joe”. My earliest memory is of a squalid apartment, a dark room with a single undraped window looking at the Sixth Avenue El tracks which were at the level of the window about fifty feet away. All conversation stopped every ten minutes or so when a train went by.

Joe took me to my first movie around that time at the Roxie Theater. The huge screen was rather frightening to me but much worse came when the movie ended. All the house and stage lights came up suddenly, a band emerged from the pit and a line of chorus girls kicked and stomped their way across the stage. I was terrified and kept crying “Joe, tell me to go home” until he relented and we left the theater.

By the mid-30s they were living in an apartment on the fifth floor of 101 West 78th Street, a wonderful location right on the NW corner of Amsterdam and 78th with the park attached to the American Museum of Natural History across the avenue. (The Google Street View images show that a couple of years ago the place was nearly unchanged from my memory of it; the more recent view shows that it was being renovated and remodelled.)

101 w 78th 2013

101 w 78th museum of nat hist

When I was about eleven or twelve years old, (1940, 1941) early every Saturday morning I would take the Q28 bus down Crocheron Avenue and Northern Boulevard to Main Street Flushing, take the IRT to Times Square, transfer to the Seventh Avenue line and get off at 79th Street, walk to the Museum’s side entrance and be there waiting for the guard to unlock the door. At noon I walked to my grandparent’s place where I was given lunch and then back to the museum and then home. This routine went on for at least a year – I got to know the museum better than the people working there.

After Rozsi died I tried to cheer up the old man by offering to collaborate with him on a translation of the Madach classic Az Ember Tragediaja (The Tragedy of Man) but he wasn’t in the least interested, which was just as well since I have no idea what I might have contributed to such an effort.

Writing and Publishing

 My grandfather’s earliest publications would have been the stringer reports that he did while a student in Debrecen. His next publication was probably a history of the Molinaris as I’ve already described and then after that, I’m not certain when, would have been the history of the Walloons. At some point in his twenties he translated some of Rudyard Kipling’s barrack room ballads into Hungarian. For this he was awarded a gold medal by the Emperor Franz Josef. There is an interesting oddity here: he makes no mention of the translations or the medal in RKV, which I’ll discuss later. I assume the medal found its way to the pawnshop, probably after 1920.

He published three novels and two collections of poetry in Hungarian in his younger years. I found references to all of them in catalogs in Hungarian of Hungarian authors. I found one of the poetry volumes as well. All on the World Wide Web.

I’ve mentioned that his first newspaper article in London was for Sylvia Pankhurst’s newsletter – he may have done others after that. From 1915 to 1919 he wrote articles for the The London Morning Post at least once a week. These were the articles that led to his internment. At the time, there was a political dispute going on in the UK over Hungary’s fate after the war. The liberals, led by R. W. Seton-Watson, favored stripping Hungary of its domination of all the states surrounding it. The conservatives and their press, led by The Post, wanted Hungary to retain its overlord status. In Hungary there was a group that felt that Hungary and England had had a mutual friendly relationship and fearing that Hungary was on the losing side of the war tried to maintain back-channel connections. This was the reason my grandfather’s articles were purported to be from Budapest and it was the reason he was interned – it was a political coup by the liberals and must have in some degree contributed to the outcome at Trianon in 1920. It would seem that at that time my grandfather was a supporter of the empire and the throne of St. Stephen but I never heard him address the irony implicit in his actions. The only comment I recall regarding the 1920 treaty was anger at Hungary’s loss of Fiume, Hungary’s only access to the sea.

Here is Cornwall’s account of my grandfather’s part in the whole affair:

“In contrast, another small pressure-group on behalf of Hungary had secured influence in the press for a full three years until early 1917. This produced a stream of articles penned by a journalist, Joseph Szebenyei, and published in the ultra- conservative Morning Post. Harry Hanak has termed it one of the greatest newspaper stunts in English press history .33 Although based in London, Szebenyei pretended that he was a correspondent working in Budapest. The Morning Post editor, H.A.   Gwynne, used the articles as evidence that Hungary was in fact Our Friend the Enemy , and urged the Allies (August 1914) to announce that they had no territorial designs on Greater Hungary. Szebenyei in turn detailed the Magyars alleged commitment to an early peace, their hatred of Austria and Germany, and their admiration for Britain: for the Hungarians too had always been the standard bearers of chivalry and fair play in war and peace alike. In February 1915 he observed:

Though we are at war with England English literature is quite a feature in the Press and theatres in Hungary [ ] a great cinema theatre is advertising a Conan Doyle series of pictures .34   The ruse was only ended in early 1917 when Seton-Watson exposed the Post articles as forgeries in the New Europe. However, Seton-Watson’s claim to the Foreign Office that it was a deliberate campaign to mislead British public opinion did not go unchallenged. The critical response indicates that, to many, the liberal nationalist case for Hungary’s dismemberment still remained to be proven. When asked, Max Miller commented:

It must be remembered that Mr Seton-Watson is a fanatic, if an honest one, and would be sure to regard the point of view supported by the Morning Post with a prejudiced eye. His idea of a Hungarian campaign to mislead public opinion through the instrumentality of Szebenyei is to my mind a flight of the imagination.

H.A. Gwynne himself concurred. Since Szebenyei’s articles had been based on actual material received from Budapest, Gwynne felt they were justified, for one might need eventually to conclude a compromise peace and in that case Hungarian good will would not be a bad asset .35 Despite this, a few months later Szebenyei was interned.   In a typical compromise, worthy in 1917 of the fence-sitting at the Foreign Office when it came to Austria-Hungary, Szebenyei was still allowed to translate Hungarian documents for Gwynne but not allowed to leave his camp to confer with the editor.36

 

Here is Hanak’s comment corresponding to the beginning of the Cornwall comment above: “Secondly there was the very numerous group of those who, mainly for sentimental reasons, wished to preserve the integrity of the kingdom of Hungary. Their campaign – intrigue would perhaps be a more appropriate description – centered largely on the Morning Post who employed a Hungarian, Josef Szebenyei, to write articles purporting to come from Budapest. He was not exposed until early in 1917 and even his internment did not silence ‘Our correspondent, Budapest’”

After returning to the United States in 1920 he published a number of political articles in several prestigious magazines such as Century Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Cassell”s and McClures. An online catalog of authors has this entry:

SZEBENYEI, JOSEPH (1879?-1953); Hungarian-American journalist, author, editor, publisher and translator. Born in Keczel, Hungary; died in New York City. (chron.)

_____, trans.

The earliest articles took up such questions as who should be the next king of Hungary. Later evolution led to pieces condemning the emperor and Horthy. There were a number of other articles in addition to those shown the above clipping.

In 1930 he published a story, apparently part truth and part fiction, titled “The Master of the Conjurers’ Guild”, in a popular pulp magazine named Adventure, which has some small significance in the history of detective fiction. Here’s the entry in Michael Grost’s exhaustive catalog of mystery/detective/crime fiction writers:

Joseph Szebenyei http://mikegrost.com/rogue.htm#Szebenyei

Rogue fiction gradually disappeared after World War I. Joseph Szebenyei’s “The Master of the Conjurers’ Guild” (1930) shows traces of it, although the story is not narrated from the criminals’ point of view, but from a reporter trying to track him down. This is a beautiful story, with many clever plot twists, and a sweetness that is not always present in mystery fiction. This tale is set in Vienna, and was published in Adventure, a magazine that encouraged exotic foreign settings for its tales, unlike most mystery publishers, who wanted their detective stories set firmly at home, among surroundings familiar to the reader. Blochman and Stribling also published in this magazine.

He reprinted this story with only trivial amendments in his final book, RKV. I have included it here as an appendix. I have no idea how much is truth and how much is fiction or embellishment.

In the clipping from the writers catalog there are two short pieces by Ferenc Molnar translated by my grandfather (actually, there were quite a few of such items). A novel by Molnar with the English title “Prisoners” shows the translator on the title page as Joseph Szebenyei. In the New York Times obituary which was given to the Times by his oldest daughter, Clara, it is stated that he translated Molnar’s plays The Guardsman and Liliom. In the published form of these plays (and most of the other plays) it is stated that they were translated (sometimes “adapted”) by Benjamin F. Glazer. Glazer was born in Ireland to a Hungarian Jewish family, became a lawyer in the U.S. and became rather prominent in the movie industry. He is generally credited with the first English translation of Liliom in 1921 but there is no mention, outside of the books, of translations or “adaptations” of the other plays. There is something distinctly “fishy” about all of this. I do remember several very angry discussions at my grandparents’ in the mid-30s with talk of lawyers screwing my grandfather out of something. I also remember mention of his name not appearing in The Playbill but for what production? I have no idea. I have a suspicion that there is some semantic sleight-of-hand behind all of this, something like this: my grandfather did a first rendering into English and then someone else, such as Glazer, edited for style and diction and other adaptations and then took complete credit for the translation. I do not believe Clara and her two sisters made it up or were mistaken. There is a comprehensive survey of Molnar’s works and the various translations at http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/molnar.htm. It shows Glazer as the translator of Liliom and a pair of translators, Grace I. Colbron and Hans Bartsch, for The Guardsman.

Finally, there was several years’ worth of columns for the Nepsava and the autobiographical collection of anecdotes, Reporters, Kings and other Vagabonds.

The Political Arc

 I’ve noted in passing several anomalies in my grandfather’s accounts of certain events. I think they may be explained by his political evolution. Clearly, in his younger days he was all for the Emperor and the Hungarian Empire. Then, after he had been in the United States for a few years, he wrote several articles in American magazines critical of the Emperor and the Hungarian government. I think this explains the omission of his receiving a gold medal from Franz Josef for the Kipling translations.

In the 1930s his eldest daughter, Clara, who was a favorite of her parents and influenced their thinking, became a Communist. He wrote articles critical of Horthy and he was fired from his Nepsava job by the reactionary publisher for espousing Communist opinions. One of the ugliest consequences of his “conversion” occurred at Rozsi’s funeral where a nasty verbal fight between the followers of right and left broke out right in the funeral parlor. I have always had the feeling that my grandfather really wasn’t very committed to his avowed political beliefs but was just parroting Clara.

(A digression about Clara: in 1935 she was one of the protesters who boarded the Bremen in New York harbor just as it was about to set sail for Germany, tore down its Nazi flag and chained themselves to the ship’s railing. I don’t think the protesters reckoned just how thuggish the Nazi sailors were and were severely beaten for their ignorance. The New York police had to rescue the protesters – a very ironic situation.)

I don’t know for certain why he was so coy in explaining the reason he was interned in 1917 but I guess he might have come to realize that his charade may have contributed to the harsh treatment dealt out to Hungary in the 1920 Trianon treaty.nyt obit

Appendices

 His Writings

First is the chapter from RKV on his internment in Feltham. It’s just a great story.

Next is the very entertaining Master of the Conjurers’ Guild

And then several of the magazine pieces from the 20s.

Supporting Documents

First is Mark Cornwall’s article about the dismemberment of Hungary after the first World War. It’s about as clear an explanation of the strange politics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Britain as you’re likely to find.

Next is Harry Hanak’s piece closely related to Cornwall’s.

 

In a British Internment Camp

On July 17, 1917, three months after the United States had entered the First World War and after a number of questions had been raised in Parliament concerning my status and why I had not been interned, two agents of the Ministry of Interior (Home Office) called at the Morning Post and very courteously requested me to go with them to an internment camp. I asked them to sit down until I could notify the editor. Mr. Gwynne received the news quite calmly and told me I needn’t worry, he would get me back in a day or two. Within a day or two I was notified at the camp that I might continue writing my daily articles for the Post; but as to being released, two years passed before the question came up for consideration.

The agents took me to my home to pack up whatever I would need at the camp. I consoled my wife with what Mr. Gwynne had told me and took leave of the little family, now comprising three children, Eva, the youngest being a year old.

The camp was a low-roofed, large factory building1in the east of London, flooded every time it rained, which was practically all the time. There were five hundred beds in rows of fifty, set close together, with barely enough space for a man to stand between them. We had to keep our bags and boxes on our beds, because the floor was wet, often covered by three or four inches of water. Luckily I only stayed there for a month or so; then I was shifted to Feltham Camp, near Richmond, in the north just outside London. I learned that the rest of the men were also transferred somewhere else only a week before twenty- five German planes bombed the place to smithereens.

I don’t even recall the name of the place. It may have been Stratford. The internees were of all nationalities, mostly Germans and Austrians. The Germans were merchant seamen, all civilians. It was a nightmare. The commandant was a fat, round-faced and awfully stupid-looking fellow who was always playing the bully. He thought the way to handle these mostly inoffensive and hungry men was to be harsh and gruff with them. He called me into his august presence when the order came from the Ministry permitting me to continue my writing for the newspaper, and warned me not to write a word about what was going on in the camp or he would break every bone in my body.

“Are you speaking for publication?” I asked.

“What d’you mean? I was just telling you not to dare to mention the camp.”

“I thought I could mention you, Sir, and what you just said to me.” I was only trying to razz him a little. People in the camp had commented on his stupidity and arrogance. He was unlike any officer I encountered in other camps or any English officer I have ever known. He spent half an hour assuring me that the privilege would be withdrawn if I should write anything about the camp or about persons—any person—connected with it.

As a matter of fact, there was nothing of any consequence one could use in a newspaper exposé. The people in general didn’t care a hoot about how badly the German internees were treated. The British interned in Germany had a more sorry time of it, no doubt, and I suppose the German camp commandants were a thousand times worse than our fat boss on his worst days. I just felt like kidding him a bit. Before we parted, he told me not to expect any privileges and that I should consider myself no better than any other internee. I replied that I did not expect and would not accept any privileges even if he offered them to me.

At Feltham Camp, to which I was transferred, our commandant, Colonel Johnson, was a very fine gentleman, as was his assistant Major George Tyer, a tall, fine-looking and lovable Englishman, who soon befriended me and remained one of my best friends throughout the rest of my stay in England.

Feltham Camp was a large modern building, formerly a reformatory for wayward boys. I had a separate room to myself. There were spacious grounds where we could take recreation and spend the time as we pleased without being pushed around as we had been in Stratford Camp. The internees at Feltham were mostly soldiers. There was not a single German among them. They were Poles from German Posen and Danes from Schleswig-Holstein, the territory which was returned to Denmark after the war. The civilians were mostly Danes, Hungarians and Poles, too. They had concentrated the “friendly nationalities” there for some reason. Later on they recruited Polish soldiers from among our men for the Polish Legion in France and also some of the Czechs.

Most of the men were sent out every morning to neighboring farms and factories to work. They received a shilling a day and this was a great help to them for they could augment their food with it. The food we received in the camp was rather unsatisfactory, the main dish being salted herring three or four times a week. These herrings must have been stored up for years—and they tasted awful. I only tried one, and never again. Of course, it was easy for me, for my wife brought in food twice a week and Major Tyer often invited me to dinner or lunch in his own quarters, or took me to the near-by village to buy food, and I usually could supply my friends with it, too. There were about forty or fifty civilians in the camp and most of them were without outside ties, without any income whatever. For weeks I pondered some way to secure a little income for the civilian internees, who could not even earn the shilling a day the soldiers were earning, for they were not permitted to work outside the camp. There were all sorts of artisans among them: carpenters, toolmakers, woodworkers, painters; and they were actually starving on the rations we received.

After weeks of thinking over the situation, I managed to cook up a scheme that was destined to solve the problem of penury among the boys. Before I could put it into execution, however, something happened that threatened to upset my charitable plans.

My birthday came around, and, feeling rather miserable that I had to be away from home and the children, I decided to go home and spend the evening and the night with the family. An old Irish doctor came to the camp daily to administer to the sick, and usually left by way of the South Gate, to which he had a key. That afternoon I stationed myself close to the gate and waited for the doctor to leave. He was riding a bicycle. When he reached the gate, he unlocked it and I, as if I had every right in the world, walked through it, greeting him pleasantly and passed through without anyone seeing me, the buildings being far inside the grounds. There was no sentry posted there, as the door was supposed to be locked, and high walls surrounded the place, a barbed wire fence protecting even the top of the walls. The doctor suspected nothing, thinking, I suppose, that I had a pass. I walked to the railway station and caught a train to London, and an hour later was at home. We spent a happy evening together and in the morning I went back, waiting at the South Gate for the doctor to come and open the door at ten o’clock. He came on the dot and let me in. A nice old fellow, very obliging, asking no questions. He rode away on his bicycle and I started walking towards the camp building, where in the courtyard the morning count was to take place at ten-thirty.

I hadn’t reckoned on the vigilance of Sergeant Philips, however, who stood at a distance and saw me enter with the doctor. He walked towards me and I knew the jig was up.
“When did you get Out?” he asked in an officious manner.
I thought it was best to tell the truth. “Yesterday afternoon,” I said.
“Come along.”
He took me straight to the hoosegow and locked me in a cell without any explanation whatever. It was an awfully bleak and uncomfortable place. These cells prepared originally for the wayward boys who were our predecessors in the place, and, I suppose, they had to be treated harshly to get them back into a mood for good behavior. A hard, wooden bunk with no blankets, no pillows, and not even a chair to sit on, was all the furniture in the place, and the half-hour I spent there didn’t help to elevate my spirits. Then back came Sergeant Philips. The commandant wanted to see me.

“I understand you broke out of camp yesterday and returned this morning,” he said with rather severe face.

“Yes Sir. It was my birthday and I wanted to spend the evening with my family.”

“You are the most intelligent man in the camp, and if this is the sort of example you give the others, I am afraid you will do more harm than good. I am sorry; I have to put you in solitary for fourteen days. You may go.”

That was the most he could give me according to the international convention affecting prisoners of war. It was rather tough, but I could not blame the colonel. He was perfectly right. I would have done the same in his position. Sergeant Philips took me back to the cell and told me that the doctor would come and examine me. It was the rule that every man sentenced to a term in solitary had to be medically examined before beginning to serve his time. He must be physically fit to undergo the discipline. A few minutes later, the old doctor came in, shaking his head.

“I didn’t know you had no pass. I wouldn’t have let you out,” he said, and asked me to show him my tongue. I did so. He shook his head again: “You are sick, you are not fit to serve a sentence.”

“I am perfectly all right, Doctor,” I protested.

“Shut up. The colonel told me to find you unfit, and an order is an order. What am I supposed to do?”

He walked out in a huff, and a few minutes later Sergeant Philips appeared again with the announcement that the colonel wanted to see me. I walked back to the colonel’s office under escort. This time he was very calm and serene. “I am sorry that the doctor found you unfit. I have no choice but to let you off.” He didn’t know, of course, that the old doctor had told me he was acting on orders from the colonel. I just said: “Thank you, Sir.”

“However, you must promise never to break out of camp again. That is my condition.”

“I am sorry, Colonel Johnson, I can’t promise you that. I have been put in here for no good reason at all. I should have received a decoration instead of this kind of treatment. I did not deserve it. It was a matter of expediency with the government. By breaking out of camp I only demonstrated my objection to my internment.”

“I see your point, but I work under rules and regulations and can’t change them on my own. I have to treat you the same way as any other prisoner of war and I have no right to question the intentions of the government. That’s not my business. I am in charge of this camp and I have to keep up its discipline.” “I accept all that, Colonel, and I concede that you are within your rights in enforcing the rules of discipline. On the other hand, as a prisoner of war I have every right to try to escape.” “You are right in that,” he said, “but how about asking for a pass if you want to leave the grounds for good reasons? You ask, and I’ll give you the pass.”

He smiled pleasantly and I could have embraced him, were it not for the matter of discipline with which he was so much concerned. I could only say: “It’s a bargain, Sir.”

News of my internment had reached Hungary a day after I was escorted to Stratford Camp and though the British newspapers devoted only a few lines to the event, the Budapest papers gave it quite a splash. Some of them called me “traitor,” others defended me and acknowledged that I had been trying to save the integrity of Hungarian territory and that the enemies of Hungary had placed me in my present predicament. I didn’t worry about what they had to say, for I was planning to return to America as soon as the war ended; waking and sleeping I had been looking forward to that happy day almost constantly. I had dreamed at least once a week that I was back in New York, roaming the familiar streets and talking to my boyhood friends.

I reported for a pass two or three times a week and Colonel Johnson always handed it to me with a smile: “A bargain is a bargain,” he would say, and wish me a pleasant day in London. I usually returned before nine at night. On these days I wrote my column in the editorial offices and time passed fast and pleasantly. However, towards the end of the year, the editor “gave me the sack,” as they say in England. Apparently, in the situation in which I existed, I did not rate the money be paid me. This gave me quite a shock, for I had expected more generous treatment from him, considering the precarious position I was in, but it was all in the day’s work, and I didn’t worry over it too long, as it has been my habit all through life not to take the knocks too seriously, however thick and fast they came.

I still had money enough to last us for a year or more, quite an unusual circumstance in my poverty-inured life, so I felt we were better off even as things stood than we had been when we started out.

I settled down to a life of internment and began to think seriously of other people who were worse off than myself. I mean my comrades in the internment camp. I had a scheme all worked out and all it needed was execution. The aim was to secure a weekly income of some sort for the civilians.

The scheme consisted of establishing a toy factory in camp. Before the war all children’s toys came from Germany. There were no toy factories in England, the reason for which I could never fathom. Now, German toys not being available, there was a shortage. I figured that if we forty or fifty civilians in camp, would set up a factory and manufacture all sorts of wooden toys, such as wagons, elephants, dogs, wheelbarrows and other things, we could sell them to a wholesaler and make enough profit to ensure every man working there two or three shillings a day —perhaps more, perhaps less. We had expert labor; we could get the raw materials—wood, paint and glue, these being the most important, and all we needed was a place to work and the machinery and tools.

First, I consulted Major Tyer, the assistant commandant, who promised to help us set up the factory. Then I called a meeting of the civilians and put it to them:

“We shall work on a co-operative basis. Every man will earn as much as the other and will have to work as much as any other.” I undertook to manage the concern and sell the products. We had all sorts of artisans, though none of them had ever worked in a toy factory. I had never even seen one—outside or in.

Those who knew something about machinery and woodworking tools compiled a list of what we needed. The estimate amounted to one thousand pounds, including raw materials for a month or so. Major Tyer had already allocated a special six-room guardhouse for the factory—six large, airy rooms and a courtyard. Now all we needed was a thousand pounds, half of which I had actually saved up, an amount which was to keep my family until after the war. I had planned to use my own money and get it back in installments, but then I had a better idea.

I had two friends in London who could easily spare a thousand pounds each and all I would have to do was to approach them. Both were Hungarians. One was Mrs. Rothschild, the wife of Lord Rothschild’s second son, a lovely young woman, a schoolmate of my wife’s, who came from the same town in Hungary and whom we often had visited while I was a free man. At the start of the war she asked me to list the names of all women whose husbands had been interned (the Hungarians, of course), and she had sent them weekly checks large enough to take care of the families for three years. Some three hundred families were involved. I knew she would send me the thousand pounds the minute I asked for it.

The other friend was a pearl merchant, Norman Weiss, who also spent thousands during the war helping the families of interned Hungarians. He was tiny, a five- foot stocky fellow, about forty at the time. I had met him during my first week in London, before the Sylvia Pankhurst incident and when I was still worrying about tomorrow’s lunch. At that time I was talking to some new Hungarian acquaintances at the Vienna Restaurant on New Oxford Street on a Sunday afternoon and was telling them that I was planning to establish a sort of news agency for the Budapest papers, but would need five hundred pounds to start and I had no money. A little fellow sat at the next table. He must have heard what I was talking about, for he turned to me and said:

“I’ll give you the five hundred, Mr. Szebenyei.”

I looked at the man in surprise and had to smile, for he didn’t look anything like a person who had five pounds, let alone five hundred. I smiled pleasantly and thanked him for his kindness, but took no more notice. He left soon after, and one of my companions at the table offered to give me four hundred and ninety-five for the five hundred if I cared to sell it to him. He knew who the guy was.

“Why, who is the fellow?” I asked.

“Norman Weiss, the pearl man. If he says he’ll give you the five hundred you can bank on it.”

He was the one in fact, who bought the Czar’s jewels from the Soviet Government some years later, paying millions for them.

Things turned out well, as you will recall, and I did not need Mr. Weiss’ money, but I always appreciated his fine gesture and we became very intimate friends later on. Many a poor Hungarian family would have gone hungry during the four years of war if it had not been for Norman Weiss.

I decided to turn to Mrs. Rothschild for the thousand pounds. She mailed her check to the camp by return mail. Colonel Johnson was amazed—I was not.

Next day I went out to buy machinery and tools. My experts made up a list of what we would need in a small- scale toy factory of the kind we planned. Forty men needed a good many hammers, saws, borers, planes, chisels, and tools of all kinds; also work benches, not to speak of the machinery we needed to cut wood and plane the boards that went into the wooden toys. I went to London to a second-hand machine dealer and bought everything. It was quite a large establishment with hundreds of machines of all sizes, motors and tools by the score. A government decree prohibited the sale of tools and machinery for private purposes at the time, and I knew that I couldn’t get anything delivered if I revealed that it was for prisoners of war who wanted to manufacture toys. When they asked me who it was for, I just said it was for Feltham Camp. That sounded military and official and no objections were raised to the purchase. I asked for the bill, which was about seven hundred pounds, but the manager said they would send it in time, I needn’t worry. Before returning to camp I deposited the check and waited for the bill to come. They sent the machines and the motors and tools, but not the bill.

We started to work. Not having any toy designer who could have given us an idea as to how and where to begin I bought some books on the subject and became the designer myself. During the first two weeks we built a dozen models of all kinds of toys. Hay wagons, elephants, moving trucks, dogs, cats, carts, wheelbarrows, snakes that wiggled and looked like real ones, scooters and other funny and lovely things. We worked out an efficiency and time saving system and settled down in earnest to earn our bread and margarine. When the line of samples was complete, I placed them on an army truck, many of which were attached to the camp to convey prisoners to and from farms and factories, and drove to Holborn to see the wholesalers. The first buyer I saw was our first and only customer. He asked for the price of the various toys and I gave him the list as we had prepared it. Our prices were lower than those of any other manufacturer, and I left the place with an order sheet in my pocket calling for “all your output”.

The first difficulty we had to eliminate was the matter of procuring lumber and wood of all kinds. Lumber was also restricted and dealers were not permitted to sell to persons not holding government permits. No prisoner- of-war gang could get a permit, of course, whatever they wanted to manufacture. When we began to work on regular scale we found ourselves with no lumber, and without wood we were as badly off as a baker would be without flour. We had to get wood. I called a meeting of the co-operative and some soldier friends who were interested in the enterprise and had been helping at night during the first stages. Some of them were experts in one phase or other of the work and were willing to put in their evening hours after a day’s work outside the camp. One of these, a Danish corporal, suggested that the men who were working in factories and farms outside could provide a good deal of wood, boards and boxes, and could bring it into the camp aboard the trucks which fetched them back from their place of employment, and all we would have to give them in return was a loaf of bread. A loaf of bread was a thing of great value to the soldier, because he could not buy it, though there was no restriction as far as the bakers were concerned. The soldier prisoner, however, did not have a chance to go into a bakery. We civilians could get as many loaves as we wanted in the neighboring village bakeries.

He went around and passed out the word to bring in as much wood and boards as they could lay hands on, promising white bread for it. Next day they stood in line with long and short pieces of wood, wooden packing cases, large tins of paint of all colors, glue and nails, tacks — in fact, everything that wasn’t nailed down where they were working in the daytime. The loot came in such quantities that I was afraid the two thousand soldiers would stop all British industry in time. I had to hire a truck in the village to ship the hundreds of loaves of bread I bought at the bakers in Feltham and Ashford.

On Saturday mornings, the army truck delivered the finished goods to the Holborn wholesaler, and a week later we got the check for the shipment. The first dividend we paid was over a pound for each man, the second was close to two pounds for a week’s work, and there were weeks when we each made as much as three pounds, the stolen raw materials helping out greatly in the matter of cost. We had no overhead, no rent to pay, no electric bills, no power expenses to cover. As a matter of fact, for many months we laid out no more than a few shillings a week for materials and our only costs involved the bread we bought at the bakers at four pence halfpenny a loaf. Soon I discovered that wooden fences along the highways had been utilized by my soldier suppliers, who tore off long boards and brought them home—to earn a loaf of [1 we bread. Even some of the camp fences were stolen in time. We needed a great deal of wood, though we made use of every splinter and wasted none of the stock.

Months passed, and the little factory was doing land office business with material coming in by the truckload and costing no more than the price of a few loaves of white bread. For an extra loaf soldiers reported for work after they returned from the farms and factories, and a night shift did the painting and planing of the boards so that is on, we increased production week by week. Everything was perfectly satisfactory. The only thing that worried me was the strange circumstance that the machine and tool tacks dealer had failed to send his bill for seven hundred they pounds. I waited for months, then again for months, but such no bill came, nobody demanded the price of the factory installations; when eight months had gone by without a hint from the merchant, I thought I’d better go and yes of inquire.

“Was it Feltham Camp, you said?” asked the bookkeeper-cashier at the Holborn establishment when I inquired after the bill.

“Yes, Feltham Camp.”

He turned the leaves of a big ledger and found the item at last.

“Here it is. It was paid by the Ministry of Munitions. It’s all right; you don’t have to worry.”

Good old Lloyd George had paid for our toy factory. It seems the merchants sent all bills relating to camps and other military institutions to the Ministry of Munitions and here nobody inquired into the disposition of loaf, the goods billed. They just paid and asked no questions.

I called a meeting of the co-operative and told them what had happened. I asked them for suggestions as to what was to be done with the seven hundred pounds. There were several suggestions, most of them to the effect that we divide the money among ourselves. They liked the idea of getting twenty pounds each for nothing. I had to explain the situation to them.

I told them the money rightfully belonged to Mrs. Rothschild. If we had no use for it, we should return it to her. Legally, however, the money belonged to the British government, because it had paid for the machinery which should have been paid for by us. However, if we disclosed that we had bought seven hundred pounds’ worth of machinery and had been using it for months, the man who sold it to us would be punished, for he had no right to sell it to us, and perhaps our own commandant would be taken to task because he permitted us to establish the factory and to buy machinery and material. The situation being very delicate, I proposed that we consult Colonel Johnson, the commandant and Major Tyer, and act according to their advice.

The members of the co-operative had to agree. I told them to name one other member to accompany me to the colonel, but they insisted that I go alone.

It took an hour to decide the course we were to follow. Colonel Johnson was terribly upset over the affair. He had known nothing of the transaction, not even of the fact that I had been buying machinery. He thought I had just picked up old pieces of junk here and there. He was of the opinion, as I had been, that the Ministry of Munitions must be reimbursed. He undertook the task of seeing one of the undersecretaries at the ministry, explaining the situation to him, and convincing him that we were doing valuable work for the country by manufacturing toys. Perhaps the colonel could persuade him to let us continue, and the ministry accept the seven hundred in payment for the machinery. It would be evident to the official that we, by offering to reimburse the ministry, were acting in all honesty and fairness, and that we could have kept quiet and retained the money if we so desired. That ought to gain us leniency and recognition—and it did. I even received a receipt and a letter of thanks in addition to their forgetting to collect excess-profit taxes from us, which would easily have amounted to another seven hundred pounds. They were decent enough to regard prisoner-of-war production as not taxable.

When November 11, 1918, came along we were expecting to be released almost immediately. The war was over, and it was natural to assume that nations would now exchange their prisoners. Nothing of the kind happened. Three months passed before the first group was sent home — the soldiers only. Civilians were kept there for some reason. In April, 1919, some of them were released; others, including myself and the Czechoslovaks, were still at Feltham Camp. I waited patiently for two more months and then asked my wife to go to the ministry and find out why they kept me interned seven months after the armistice. They said they couldn’t find my papers in the files. Two weeks later, she inquired again. Still they could not find my files. They were doing their best, but we must wait till they find the papers. The summer was over when she went to see them again. Only five of us were left at the camp by then. All others were released. The official at the ministry began to hunt for my files in earnest, and this time with success. I am sure you won’t believe this, but it’s God’s truth. A short girl typist had been sitting on the files, for she had to sit on something to reach her typewriter, and instead of using the telephone book like other good stenographers, she had put a dozen bunches of papers from the files on her chair, and there she sat on my liberty for all those months. I could have been free five months earlier if the girl had been taller. The authorities apologized; that was all.

It was September, 1919, when I left the camp for good, nearly a year after the armistice was signed. I was a bit disgusted and on my way to the railway station I began to make plans to get back to America.

**********

The Master of the Conjurer’s Guild

I had some friends among the top reporters in the Austrian capital and I had a hunch that one or another of them might be able to get me a job. And I was right. The Viener Allgemeine Zeitung was willing to give me a chance. I was to cover police headquarters. My German was rather unsatisfactory, but “someone would edit my copy.” In three months’ time it needed no editing.
I’d been on the job for about five months when at 11:25 P.M. on a Saturday night we were playing cards as usual in the pressroom. At eleven thirty we had to report to the night editor: “Last call, no news.” The forms closed at eleven forty-five. If there happened to be some trifling item, we would recite two or three lines of it so as to have a record of it in the morning issues. These were usually minor suicides, burglaries or accidents. At eleven thirty-five on that memorable Saturday night, the lieutenant in charge of the pressroom, whose job it was to hand out the releases, entered just as we were about to conclude the card game and adjourn to a more lively locality above the Ronacher Orpheum.
“Anything new?” we inquired.
“Yes,” he said. “Something quite unusual.”
We gathered around him and listened to the most amazing story I had ever heard. He told it in a hurried, spasmodic manner, watching our surprised faces as we gasped and refused to believe it. We were a hard-boiled lot of boys and men, some well advanced in years, veterans of the police pressroom, accustomed to weird happenings. Yet, the unprecedented strangeness of the story took us by surprise. It sounded too mysterious and preposterous, too irrational to be accepted in those matter-of-fact surroundings where mystery usually meant some murder where clues seemed to elude the detectives who were, as a rule, a sleepy bunch of incompetents and would only wake up to the importance of a case when it happened to involve some member of the Imperial family.
“It happened at the Imperial Opera House,’ he began. “The Archduchess Amalia and her two escorts, Duke Branderdorif and Count Eszterhazy, the two court chamberlains, occupied the royal box. Just opposite their box sat Baron Krondheim, the famous bank president, and the Baroness Krondheim. The Baroness was wearing a pair of earrings with a single pearl in each. This was the first time she had had them on. The baron had brought them from India and it appears he had paid a million kronen for them. They were unusually large and beautiful pearls, and were perfectly matched. Everybody gazed at them throughout the first act and people discussed them as sensational. Then, during the intermission between the second and third acts, a royal lackey entered the baron’s box and addressed the baroness:
“‘Her Royal and Imperial Highness, the Archduchess, would like to inspect the gems more closely. Would the baroness be good enough to permit her to do so?’
“Baroness Krondheim took one of the earrings from her ear and handed it to the lackey. That was the last they saw of the lackey and the pearl.”

“How so? And the archduchess?” we asked.
“The archduchess knew nothing about it. She had sent no messenger. The man was an impostor. He was attired in the royal household uniform. The baron swears that he wore the uniform of the court servants. As the archduchess sat directly opposite them, and had previously smiled at the baroness and greeted her cordially, she had certainly no reason to doubt the genuineness of the request. The archduchess is very much upset over the affair, she being the favorite granddaughter of the emperor.”
Of course, it was plain, as plain as A B C. The emperor would have heard the story by now and must have sent word to the police to get the man. He feared nothing more than scandal or ridicule and the case smelled of both. That a member of his family should be involved—even at a distance—in a scandal of this sort, was enough to awaken his ire. No wonder the police were on their toes and excited beyond measure. In fact, even as the lieutenant related the story, we could not help hearing the commands in the corridors, the hurried and noisy departure of the reserves, the humming of the crowd within the spacious building. Suddenly they had become alert and ambitious. Police cars were pulling up at the main entrance, the Chief of Police came hurriedly to take charge of the hunt, detectives were rushing Out of the building in pairs and singly. Two thousand men were mobilized in a few minutes.
Baron Krondheim, the banker, was a shrewd, brainy man. The money the pearl represented meant nothing to him. He would have kept silent about the loss if he had had his choice. It was the silly simplicity of the plot that annoyed him. People would laugh at him, he surmised. He was supposed to be the brains of Austrian finance, the genius who had attained his present position by cunning and by sheer brain power. And some petty thief had come along and made him look like a fool.
We rushed to see him, but he would say nothing. He sent word through his valet that the matter was in the hands of the police and that they would give us all the information there was to give. He had nothing to say. Anyhow, we had nearly forty-eight hours, for the story was too late for the Sunday papers and on Mondays the dailies did not come out. Sunday was our day off. We re treated to our usual night haunt over the Ronacher Orpheum and discussed the case until four in the morning. Then we rang up the inspector of the day at headquarters. There was no development whatever. The men were out working on the case. Any clue? No, not that he was aware of.

It was noon on Sunday when we sauntered into the pressroom again. There were several releases on our desks, as usual. One dealt with the pearl case. It told all about it, and of the efforts of the police to hunt down the thief. At one o’clock another release was distributed among the reporters. This is what it said:

Police Headquarters, Vienna Press Department
At 11:30 A.M. this morning a man attired in the uniform of a
captain of the State Police called upon Baron Krondheim, the
banker, and, representing to have been sent by the chief of the
state police, requested the banker to let him have the mate of the
pearl earring that was stolen the night before at the opera house.
He said the chief of police needed the second pearl in order to
facilitate the search for the stolen one. Having brought a written
receipt with him, the banker let him have the pearl without
suspecting anything. However, the chief of police stated that he
had not authorized anyone to call for the pearl and that it is
evident that the “Captain of Police” was the same person who
by a clever trick succeeded in getting possession of the earring
the night before. The investigation is being carried on.

“That takes the cake,” said Baumgarten, of the Tageblatt. “A mastermind! A genius! He deserves to get away with it! Imagine the impertinence of it! Going back for the second earring!” He laughed uproariously and we all joined in.
“And he will get away with it. A fellow of his caliber can outwit the police of the whole world, let alone those of Vienna,” remarked Gus Friedlander, of the Fremdenblatt.
“Well, there is a reward of ten thousand kronen offered by the banker,” the police lieutenant informed us, and upon the remark of Gus that he wouldn’t buy it for a nickel, there was general and hearty laughter.
As the afternoon wore off and no progress was being made by the police, we found ourselves rooting for the thief. There was a pretty fair description of the man in the hands of the police. True, the “lackey” was described as six feet tall, while the height of the “Captain of Police” who had called for the second earring was given as five feet eight by the banker and the doorman at the mansion. But the description of the face tallied somewhat. Both had small, piercing eyes, both were described as having longish faces and hollow cheeks, and both were estimated to be about fifty-five years of age. The police were convinced that the two impostors were the same person. A lone worker, and a clever one.
It was to be a first-page story and a long and sensational one, too. We were all hard at work writing and collecting data, exchanging information, conferring with our “cartel members,” and hiding special information from other groups who belonged to other cartels. There was keen competition among the groups, each composed of three or four of us. Gus Friedlander was the star man in my group. He directed the co-operative work. He came over to me and whispered: “Go and see Master Gibbons at the Erzherzog Stephan Hotel. Get his theory on the subject.”
I took my hat and walked out. Master Gibbons, in spite of his English-sounding name was a full-blooded Austrian. He had been a vaudeville performer in his younger days and had adopted that name for stage purposes at the time. He still used it. He had left the stage some twenty years before, and devoted his time to inventing tricks for the use of conjurers. He was known as “the master of the Conjurers’ Guild.” He would invent some canny trick and sell it to a conjurer, or to groups of them in all parts of the world, and live on the income for years, until he came forward again with a new device. It was he who had invented the “levitation” trick, where a girl, lying on her back, rises in the air seemingly unsupported, slowly dropping back on the floor; it was he who first made a box three by two feet, into which he would place a girl and then pierce the box with sharp swords, fifty of them, from all angles, and the girl would still be in the box unharmed; it was he who invented the guillotine trick, beheading a person with a regular guillotine, the head visibly dropping from the body as the ax fell upon the “victim”; and the next moment one saw the conjurer replacing the head with no ill effects to the subject. Most of the sensational and inexplicable conjurers’ tricks were his inventions. He was a genius in solving problems and finding facts from which to deduce other facts. We never failed to get his views on any major criminal case, ‘and whatever he said was always interesting. Even the police consulted him quite often.

I found the master seated in the cafe of the hotel in the company of a young detective. I have often seen the younger man at headquarters and immediately surmised that he, too, had come to ask the advice of the master in the mysterious pearl case.
“May I join the conference?”
“Certainly, take a seat. What will you have?” asked
Mr. Gibbons. “This is my nephew, George Gastein,” he added.
“We have met before,” I said, shaking hands with the detective. “Have you heard the latest, Master Gibbons?”
“George was just telling me about it. I was suggesting to him to go straight to Mr. Krondheim and tell him to return the pearls to his wife. It sounds like an insurance job. But George tells me that the pearls were not insured. I said, in that case, it is a family affair. The banker, perhaps, could not afford to spend a million kronen ($200,000) for earrings, so he chose this way of getting them back from his wife.”
“You don’t want me to quote you on that?” I asked.
“No, of course not. I am just fooling. It’s most unlikely. Still, that would be the first thing to suggest itself to me, if I were working on the case.”
“There is certainly a great deal to it. It never occurred to me,” said George.
“And it wouldn’t occur to a good many others, either,” said the old man with contempt in his voice. “They blow this affair up into a tremendous criminal case. It’s nothing of the kind. Just a clever thief. A bit of brain work, that’s all. They have to go out and find the man. Just as in any other criminal case. They ought to have a description of him. Half a dozen people must have seen him in his two uniforms.”
“Do you think he will try to leave town?” asked the detective.
“No, not with his brains. He’ll just stay indoors for some time. He knows the trains and stations are watched. He knows there is a description of him circulating all over the country. A man of his abilities stays indoors and waits. He knows that he couldn’t sell the loot on this continent. He had his plans laid before he took the first step, if I am any judge of men. I am afraid they will never get him. If it was the baron who engineered the thing through an accomplice, he will deny it and will know how to hide his man. How would you prove him guilty? No way, and who would think of charging him with the crime? No one. Besides, how can you charge a man with stealing his own property? You can’t.”
“What for publication, Master Gibbons?” I asked.
“For publication? Just say that I think this man is a great fellow, whoever he may be. That he worked with brains and mathematical precision. That he ought to be invited to join the detective bureau of the State Police. That a man of his abilities should have been employed by the state and not permitted to run amok with all that genius directed against society instead of for its benefit. Imagine what that man could do in the way of harm, if he once got going!”
I made notes of what the master said and left. Back in the pressroom, I gave the notes to Gus and my two other pals. When I casually mentioned that George Gastein was with the master, Gus told us in a whisper that George Gastein was not the master’s nephew, as he liked to call him, but his son.
It was a queer story, characteristic of Master Gibbons. The old boys, who had known him in his youth, recalled that affair of his with a vaudeville dancer who had committed suicide some twenty years before and had been Gibbon’s assistant on the stage at the time. It was after her death that Gibbons had retired from the stage and begun inventing tricks for the profession. George Gastein was the dancer’s son and, it was surmised, also that of Gibbons. It was never learned why she took her life. She was beautiful, the most beautiful girl in vaudeville in Europe. She carried off the beauty contest prizes among vaudeville people every year. It was whispered at the time that she had wanted to leave the conjurer and branch out in an act of her own. But Gibbons wouldn’t hear of it. So she killed herself. Of course, this was just talk. It might have been true or it might not. At any rate, those who were close to him knew that she had a son and that Master Gibbons had brought him up and paid for his education. They also knew that ever since the girl had died, Master Gibbons was a changed man. He never again appeared on the stage, he was never known to associate with any other woman, and he lived a secluded life, studying constantly and pondering over thrilling tricks that amazed the world and set audiences gasping.
Of George Gastein, the young detective, some people at headquarters knew that up to the time he had entered the service he had been a drifter and a good-for-nothing. He was educated and naturally intelligent, and he inherited the beauty of his mother, but nothing of the brains and genius of his father. He had tried his hand at various jobs, but was unsuccessful everywhere. It was Gibbons’ influence with the higher-ups at the Ministry of the Interior that had landed him the job in the detective bureau. George had not been very successful there, either. He was considered a mediocre man at detecting crime and was never given an important assignment. He was one of those fellows who would hold his position while his influence lasted, or until a new regime would come and sweep him out with the rest of the none-too- necessary bunch. Only those were retained by a new regime in the police department who showed exceptional ability and had performed some laudable and memorable act in the course of their service.
Detective Gastein had had nothing to his credit during his two years’ service at the bureau; not even ambition or initiative. Captain Wanger, Chief of Detectives, whenever he met old Gibbons at the cafe, where he would drop in now and again to look over the newspapers, did not enthuse over the old fellow’s protégé. He would have expected Gibbons’ son to exhibit greater powers of deduction and reasoning. He had kept on merely to please the old man who often helped the police with advice in major criminal cases and who was respected and befriended by the high officials of the ministry.
The fact that Detective Gastein was in conference with Mr. Gibbons when I went to interview him brought out all this information from my colleagues when we met after the day’s work was over early in the morning. We found it natural that the young detective should go to his father and get the benefit of his experience and specially- fitted mentality in a case of such importance as the Krondheim pearl case. The old man would certainly help his own kin first, and we soon came to the conclusion that Gibbons was giving the young man advice that he would not give to anyone else, and certainly not to reporters. We took it for granted that the suggestions he had dropped to me that afternoon were intentionally misleading, camouflage rather than anything else, and that his real tip, if he did have one, went to his son. We also surmised that the son was badly in need of some distinguishing deed if he hoped to keep his job for any length of time. We had implicit faith in the genius of old Gibbons. We knew of a number of big cases where his theories had been followed by prompt results. He had never worked on a case personally. We had never known him to take the slightest part in any. He just planned campaigns, drew innumerable plans on the marble tops of cafe tables and directed operations from the Cafe Archduke Stephan.
This being the case, we decided that in order to scoop the other “cartels” and all the rest of the newspapers, we would have to keep an eye on young Gastein and follow his activities, for we felt sure that old Gibbons was straining his brains as he had never strained them before in order to get a break for his son. At least, that was the theory we adopted, and now it was up to us to find out whether it was sound or just a hunch.
They put me in charge of this phase of the operations; I being the youngest in the group of four. The youngest fellow usually gets the toughest tasks and the toughest deal, as I have always experienced in my dealings with my colleagues around the pressroom. And I can’t deny that the boy who later joined us and relieved me from my position as the youngest got no better break from me than I had had from the older ones in my time.
I got up at an unearthly hour the next morning. At nine o’clock I was already consuming my breakfast at the cafe in the Hotel Archduke Stephan. I wanted to see if the young detective would meet old Gibbons there before he started out for the day’s work. Master Gibbons was there all right, but Gastein failed to turn up during the time I sat there. Before I left the place I sauntered casually across to Mr. Gibbons and inquired after his health.
“By the way,” he said, “is there any break in that pearl case?”
“Not that I know of,” I replied.
“How does it look to you?” he inquired.
“The pressroom is rooting for the thief. A clever guy can always command our sympathy,” I went on, “unless, of course, it’s a murder case. It’s always good fun to watch a fellow get away with a couple of pearls, so long as they belong to a millionaire banker”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that,” the old fellow reflected.
“Sure enough, if they fail to catch the thief it will be an everlasting blemish on the name of our police.”
“How is young Gastein doing?” I asked, turning the conversation in the direction I was most interested in. “I hope you gave him some sound dope to start him on the job.”
“Yes, I always do, whenever he needs my advice. He is young and ambitious and a little advice can’t hurt.”
“Have you any theory as to the thief?”
“The case itself is such that it presents but one theory,” he answered. “You see, the man and his work are both unusual and out of the ordinary. No habitual criminal of the usual type has brains enough and humor enough to conceive a piece of work such as this. You’ve got to search for the man somewhere where thinking is being done and where men with brains gather. You’ll never find him in a pub, a second-class hotel, or in the cheap suburbs. The very simplicity of the work shows a disciplined mind and a calculating brain. Sometimes I think I could have been the only one in Vienna to perpetrate a job like that,” he said with a smile and a proud gleam in his eyes. “I don’t know of any other man in this town who could have evolved the scheme. True, the man must be superior to me inasmuch as he could not only plan it but also carry it Out. I would have proved myself inferior there. You see, I can plan and construct the most unusual things in my own profession, but when it comes to trying them out and putting them on, I have to get my colleagues to do it. I couldn’t face an audience with any of my tricks any more. As a matter of fact, I never could. I was a second-rate conjurer while I was active on the stage. Some people are clever with their hands, others with their brains.”
He laughed good-naturedly and looked at me with his half-closed eyes as if to fathom my thoughts. I am sure he could have read them if he cared to. I felt like a looking glass whenever I talked to the man; he was so uncannily wise and so terribly superior. I noticed that he was evading the subject, so I persisted: “What angle is Gastein tackling?” I asked.
“Oh, you’d like to know, wouldn’t you? I’d say it would be unwise for him to show his hand, for the least little thing might upset the theory. You’ll have to wait and see. He may be chasing a phantom, for all I know. There is one thing, however, I am able to tell you, and that is that he has a theory of his own and is working on that and not on any of my hunches. True, he discussed it with me, and I gave him a couple of hints, but he is certainly working on his own initiative and testing his powers. I hope he succeeds,” he added after a pause.
I left him sipping his coffee—audibly enough. A crafty old fox, Master Gibbons! And a boastful one at that. He was the only one in Vienna to put over a job like that! He was the only brainy and mathematical intellect in town. And though I disliked braggarts, I had to agree with him. Perhaps it was he. Who knows? He might have been saying that just to sidetrack any suspicion we might have had. Ah, nonsense! Nobody would dream of suspecting him, the friend of all the big men in town, the wizard who had spent twenty years of his life in respectability, and was reputed to be a man of considerable means. Besides, everybody knew his face. He would have been recognized anywhere. My mind played with the fanciful idea merely because it would have been good story material, and because I had dreamed of winning a scoop for my “cartel”
one day that would establish my reputation as a reporter
among the boys.
I planted myself at the opposite corner behind one of those advertising set-ups—broad, round, wooden columns covered with posters—and watched the door of the cafe. I was waiting for Detective Gastein to turn up, and then to follow him and get a line on his theory. Meanwhile I
weaved fantastic dreams, trying to connect old man Gibbon with the theft. I had had enough experience by then to know how to start at the bottom of every case: to look for the motive first of all. What motive had Gibbons? He could not possibly sell the pearls. He could not risk
getting caught red-handed. He could not risk the reputation of a lifetime for money. There must have been some other motive. Perhaps he wanted to make a monkey of the Chief of Police. I had to laugh at my own stupidity in dwelling on a theory as preposterous as this. I would not have dared to hint at it to my colleagues lest they laugh me out of the pressroom. Really, I had no reason to suspect the old fellow at all. It was just the imagination of a youthful dreamer. And yet the hunch somehow persisted and I could not get my mind off the idea that the old man had played the trick as a prank, or with some more sinister purpose in mind. I could not fathom his motive. His own admission that he alone could have thought of a thing like that—though said as a joke—continued to excite my imagination, and I could not rid my mind of the suspicion that he had said that in order to carry his joke a step further, and to enjoy my stupidity in accepting his
words at their camouflaged value.
What made this hunch even more preposterous than it appeared to, be was the fact that old man Gibbons was noted as a man of golden heart and endless charity. They said he had given away fortunes every year to people who were hard up. He was beloved by all and his smiling eyes always gleamed with sympathy and love for all.
I hated myself for my hunch and was trying to dismiss my ugly thoughts when my meditations were interrupted suddenly. I saw Detective Gastein entering the cafe. Through the large windowpane I could see him approach the table where Gibbons had been just before, where he usually sat reading the morning papers. But I could not make Out whether the old man was still there or not. I advanced a few steps so as to get the sun out of my eyes and have a better view into the shady nooks of the cafe. Gastein was still standing and talking to a waiter. Gibbons was gone. Then I saw the detective emerge from the cafe and stand waiting in front of the terrace, as if at a loss, looking about him furtively as if he were pondering where the old man had gone. He glanced towards the hotel entrance now and again, as if expecting someone from there. I remained behind the post and watched.
A moment or two later I saw an officer dressed in the gala uniform of the Hussars emerge briskly from the hotel. He had two golden stars on his collar, denoting the rank of a lieutenant colonel. He was tall, slim and stately, with a small goatee and thick moustachios, pointed at the ends. He seemed typically Hungarian, with a walk of authority and the air of bravado that characterized the Hungarian Hussar officer throughout the realm. He carried a small brief case in his right hand, holding his sword under his left arm. The porter was busy getting a cab for him, and I had time to study him with considerable admiration while the cab drew up hurriedly and the man entered it. The cab drove off and I turned my attention again to Gastein. He looked after the departing cab for a moment, then darted towards the middle of the street where an empty taxi was slowly cruising and opened the door while it was still in motion. I saw him pointing at the departing cab as though instructing the driver to follow it.
In a flash I drew the conclusion that the officer in the lieutenant colonel’s uniform must have been the thief. The fact that he wore a different uniform, one that commanded respect, after having already used two other classes of uniforms with success, indicated to my mind that Gastein was perhaps on the right track and that it must have been the old man with his deductive mind. who had tipped him off to the theory that the thief would have to be sought in a uniform of some sort. A lieutenant colonel of the Hungarian Hussars would not be subjected to suspicion. It stood to reason. No police officer would dare accost him, or venture to breathe a suspicion of the mildest sort accusing one of the caste. And this one was dressed in a gala uniform; perhaps he was on his way to the emperor for an audience. A clever thief of the kind we had to deal with would resort to a uniform that would ensure immunity when making his escape. All this passed through my mind while I was frantically searching for a taxi to follow the two. Luckily, there was no traffic deserving of the name in Vienna at the time and the two minutes that passed between their departure and my finding a taxi did not make much difference. They were driving along the Great Ring towards the opera house and the Royal Burg and I could still see them in the distance, about ten blocks away, when I got into my taxi and ordered the driver to catch up with them.
The first car stopped in front of the Royal Palace. The officer motioned to the cabman to wait for him. The great iron gate was wide open and the colonel walked straight through it with the air of a man going home. The detective’s car drew up behind the first one just as the officer had entered the gate. I stopped my taxi on the other side of the broad ring and watched the drama enacted in front of the palace. It was short and to the point. The two sentinels in front of the palace saluted the officer by standing at attention and running their hands down the straps of their shouldered rifles and gazing after him with stiffened necks and bodies. Gastein jumped out of his car and rushed to the one in which the officer had come, telling the driver that he was a police officer. Then, opening the door of the first car, he took the brief case the officer had left in the cab. This done, he made a determined effort to run after the officer. The two sentinels, however, barred him from entering. I could see him showing his badge, arguing with the soldiers, but they would not budge. They had standing orders not to permit any civilians to enter. He blew a whistle and soon the uniformed man on the near-by post came trotting up. While he waited for him, Gastein opened the brief case and drew from it a small white package. I could see him unwrap it and gaze at the contents with amazed eyes, fingering the small objects for a moment and then slipping the package into his trouser pocket. The two cabs waited. Gastein took the serial number of the first one, then instructed the uniformed man to wait. He must have told him to arrest the lieutenant colonel of Hussars when he returned. Then jumping into his cab, he drove to a cafe three or four blocks away and rushed to the telephone. I followed and entered the adjoining booth to listen to what he had to report. I heard him say:
“Send a squad of men to surround the palace, Captain. He is in there. . . . Why not? Hell, the emperor needn’t know… . There will be no scandal at all. . . . No one will observe. . . . I put a uniformed man at the gate. . . . But he might escape through some other entrance. . . . You must. . . . I’ve got the pearls, all right. . . . Well, go and consult the chief. . . . Hurry up, for God’s sake, he’ll get away…
I watched the detective rush out of the place and enter the cab again. I thought I had seen enough. I was elated and happy. Good for Gastein! He had made good; his promotion was assured. I was torn between duty and admiration for the young man. Should I rush to the pressroom and tell my “cartel” members, or should I run to the Archduke Stephan Hotel and tell old man Gibbons first? It would be on my way anyhow. I drove back to the hotel, walked up two flights and knocked on the door of Gibbons’ apartment. I could not wait for the “come in” signal. I pushed the door open and entered. Old man Gibbons was standing before the mirror, tearing off his false beard and mustachios; the tunic of the Hussar’s uniform was lying on a chair and the trousers were still on him. I must have stared at him with protruding eyes and stammered some apology as I was on the point of drawing back when he turned. He had seen my entrance reflected in the looking glass. He said:
“Come in, old boy. Don’t get so excited. Sit down. I’ll be ready in a tick.”
I closed the door and bolted it with an automatic movement. He noticed my action.
“You seem to have more sense than I have.”
I was unable to utter a word. I sat down and watched him smear off the mucilage. He looked at me and smiled benevolently.
“You see, I saw you from the cafe, hiding behind the advertising post. Then I saw you following Gastein in a cab. I didn’t expect you to come up here. I thought you’d dash to the pressroom or to your paper.”

“I wanted to tell you” . . . . I stammered. “But what’s the meaning of ?” . . . .
“Well, you see, I am expecting to join my ancestors soon and I was afraid George Gastein would never make good in the department. I wanted to give him a lift before I cleared out. I have nothing to leave him, so I just wanted to put him right with his job.”
He paused and glanced in my direction to see how I took this confession. Then in a casual manner:
“I am sure your father would have done that much for you if circumstances had warranted it. You see, I tipped him off about the Hussar officer, who lived next door to me in this hotel. I rented the room a week ago in this uniform and my make-up. Gastein doesn’t know. He is hunting for the officer now, I bet. I knew they would not let him follow me into the palace. He is so dumb, you can put anything over on him.”
He had by this time resumed his original face, put the uniform away, and pulled on his dressing gown. Then he lit a cigar and sat opposite me in a big armchair.
“Thank God it’s over. I suppose it will be a good story for your paper. I am sure they won’t prosecute me, considering that I let them have the pearls back. But George will lose his job.”
“No,” I said, “he won’t lose his job on my account.”
“I knew he wouldn’t on your account,” he said. “You see, you have to help the other guy if he is weaker than yourself. He’ll gain confidence now and his pride in himself will urge him along. Now he’ll make good, I am sure.”
There are certain things one doesn’t even tell one’s cartel members. There are stories one doesn’t care to write for some reason or other. This was one I waited thirty years to tell, and I am not sorry.

 A Sample of Fugitive Pieces

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 GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY GREAT BRITAIN AND THE SPLINTERING OF GREATER HUNGARY

 

 

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