Hungarians on U.S. postage stamps
Postage stamps are a mirror of a country's heritage. They depict notable sites and commemorate important events, famous persons and cultural milestones. As such, their educational value is invaluable. Since the introduction of postage stamps in the middle of the 19th century, issues by the U.S. Post Office have honored an enormous array of distinguished men and women. While presidents and leading public figures dominate, individuals from science, literature, entertainment, sports, arts and many other fields have not been neglected.
Eight Hungarians are portrayed on American stamps: Lajos Kossuth, Joseph Pulitzer, Eugene Omandy, Georg Szell, Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, Harry Houdini, and Bela Lugosi. While Kossuth spent only a few months in the United States, all the others were immigrants and long-time residents; hence it's perhaps more appropriate to refer to the latter seven as Hungarian-Americans.
Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894) led Hungary during the 1848-49 War of Liberation against the ruling Hapsburg dynasty. When the struggle was suppressed with the aid of a huge Russian army dispatched by Czar Nicholas I, Kossuth and thousands of patriots fled abroad. There was much sympathy for the Hungarian cause in America and in 1851 the U.S. government invited Kossuth as the "nation's guest." He arrived on December 5, 1851 and until July of the following year toured the country, seeking help to renew the fight. His forthright demeanor, his superb command of the English language, and his spellbinding oratory made a profound and favorable impression. Although he managed to raise a substantial sum of money, no official diplomatic or military aid came forth and a disappointed Kossuth returned to Europe. Nevertheless, he was one of the individuals honored by the U.S. Post Office in the Champion of Liberty series in 1958; he appears on a 4-cent and an 8-cent stamp. Although Kossuth didn't settle in America, three of his sisters and their families did. Consequently, five of his nephews participated in the Civil War: the four Zulavsky brothers (Emil, Ladislas, Casimir and Sigismund), sons of his sister Emilia and Albert Ruttkay, son of his sister Lujza. All of them wore Union blue and the four who served as officers in the U.S. Colored Troops have their names engraved on the African-American Civil War Memorial.
Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) was only 17 years old when he arrived in the United States in the midst of the Civil War. He enrolled in the 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry and served till the end of the war as a private. Afterwards, he became involved in journalism and politics in Missouri. In 1878 he acquired the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Five years later, he purchased the World, published in New York, and moved to the great metropolis. His meteoric rise in the business, his sundry innovative practices, his role in raising the funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, and his generous legacy which allowed the establishment of the School of Journalism at Columbia University and the prestigious prizes which bear his name are told in dozens of books and countless newspaper and magazine articles. Upon the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Post Office issued a stamp on which is printed one of his most insightful sayings: "Our republic and its press will rise or fall together."
The School of Journalism is a veritable shrine to Pulitzer. His name is inscribed over the main entrance as well as adjacent to the door. Inside the well-appointed lobby there is a bust of Pulitzer, a dedication to his daughter, and a plaque displaying his famous dictum which appears on the stamp. A superb example of Pulitzer's largesse to his fellow New Yorkers is the fountain named after him in Grand Army Plaza at the southeastern corner of Central Park. The fountain is surmounted by a statue of Pomona, the goddess of abundance, a work of the eminent sculptor Karl Bitter. Pulitzer's opulent residence, modeled after a Venetian palazzo at 11 East 73rd Street, has long been subdivided into luxury apartments.
Music is often called the universal language for its power and beauty aren't "lost in translation." Although Eugene Ormandy and Georg Szell are no longer with us their wonderful renditions survive and continue to delight listeners who appreciate quality music. Both were included in the Classical American Composers and Conductors series of postage stamps brought out in 1997.
Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) was such a precocious violinist that he was able to enter the National Hungarian Royal Academy of Music at the age of 5. Two years later he was giving concerts. The principal teacher in his early youth was Jenő Hubay, one of the giants of violin who established a definitive Hungarian school.
Arriving in the United States in 1921, Ormandy struggled for a while until his remarkable musical talents were fully recognized and appreciated. In 1931 he substituted for the revered Arturo Toscanini in Philadelphia which in turn led to his appointment as music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Following an appearance at Carnegie Hall on December 6, 1932, Olin Downes, the long-time critic of the New York Times praised him effusively, calling him a man of "unusual talents" and one endowed with "a wealth of musical sense" and the "conductor's flare for effect." His recordings at Minneapolis made him nationally known.
In 1936 he returned to Philadelphia and two years later became the orchestra's music director, a post he retained until 1980. During his four decades with the ensemble Ormandy brought it world-wide acclaim. Possessing a prodigious memory, he was able to memorize an entire symphony in one or two days. One critic observed that Ormandy's talents shone especially when conducting music "of broad sentimentality and exacting rhythm." After attending a performance conducted by the maestro in 1936, the musical reviewer of a major newspaper wrote that "his manner is authoritative and unostentatious but decisive."
In 1937 Ormandy was the recipient of an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Pennsylvania and was also elected president of the Schubert Memorial, Inc., an association dedicated to furthering the interests of young American musicians. In the following year, the Mahler Medal, presented annually by the Bruckner Society to the conductor who accomplished most to further the appreciation of Gustave Mahler's compositions, was bestowed on Ormandy. The medal itself was designed by Julio Kilenyi, a fellow Hungarian who came to the United States by way of Argentina and was enjoying as much success in sculpture as Ormandy did in music.
As a permanent tribute to him, the University of Pennsylvania created the Eugene Ormandy Memorial in 1989. "His utmost concern as a conductor was the creation of beautiful sound," was the verdict of a posthumous publication.
Although he appeared with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1930, he didn't become a permanent resident in the United States until the outbreak of World War II. His debut in New York was an overwhelming success. In 1946 he became musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra, a post he retained until his death. Szell's achievements with the Cleveland Orchestra will associate him with that ensemble for all time. He always strived for the highest artistic standards.
During his lifetime many honors and awards were heaped upon him; the one he especially cherished was the Laurel Leaf Award in 1954, given for performing more American contemporary works than any other conductor. Noted music critic Irving Kolodin once remarked: "The size of his figure will grow as time recedes and the magnitude of his accomplishment emerges in greater grandeur against its background."
Like Ormandy, Szell worked with a glittering array of outstanding musical performers from around the world. When Erica Morini, once a child prodigy and later one of the most outstanding violinist of her day, played the Mendelssohn concerto under Szell, Louis Biancolli of the New York Telegram and Sun said: "This was Mendelssohn, the poet and singer... It is as new as last night's performance." Morini treasured the experience and summed up her admiration and gratitude toward the maestro: "Working with Georg Szell was an unforgettable joy in my life."
The true scope of the work by scientists, engineers and other technical personnel are difficult to comprehend and appreciate by those outside these fields. Although certain such individuals are familiar to the general public - e.g. Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawkings, and in Canada, David Suzuki - the overwhelming majority do not bask in such recognition. Hungarians made innumerable contributions in a multitude of technical areas in the United States, but the role of five immigrants in the success of the Manhattan project is cited most often. The five were Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Theodore von Kármán and John von Neumann.
The 1992 stamp featuring Theodore von Kármán (1881-1963) denotes him an aerospace scientist, which he was, but his knowledge, activities, and contributions were not limited to a single field. Far from it. He was involved in fluid mechanics, turbulence theory, supersonic flight, rocket propulsion (he was an enthusiastic supporter of Robert Goddard) and of course the harnessing of atomic power. He was one of the experts summoned to ascertain the reasons for the collapse of the Tacoma Bridge, an incident that remains a glaring example of what can happen if not all the important factors are adequately examined during design and construction. Today's generation knows him best for his work with wind tunnels and he is often described as the "father of the supersonic age."
Von Kármán visited the United States in 1926 but didn't become a resident until 1930 when he accepted the directorship of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. He took out citizenship in 1936. Throughout his long and illustrious career, he was showered with honors and held a number of important posts in the public and private sectors.
Von Kármán's 75th birthday in 1956 was celebrated at a lavish dinner organized by the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences and he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In February 1963 he was awarded the National Medal of Science by President John F. Kennedy. "I know of no one else who more completely represents of the areas with which this award is appropriately concerned - science, engineering, and education," intoned the President. Sadly von Kármán didn't have long to savor this latest recognition; a heart attack claimed his life on May 6 of that year.
The exact opposite of the withdrawn, humorless scientist stereotype, von Kármán was an unusually sociable individual, well known for his keen wit, but he never married. Until her death, his sister Josephine, a fine scholar and proficient linguist in her own right, kept house for him. Her untimely death plunged him into a deep depression lasting for several months. In 1967, the book The Wind and Beyond, based on von Kármán's writings and edited by Lee Edson, chronicling the famous scientist's life and career, made its appearance with considerable acclaim.
Like von Kármán, John von Neumann (1903-1957) was gifted with a brilliant mind that delved into several fields. Also like the distinguished rocket scientist, von Neumann was anything but a recluse; he relished social gatherings, readily mingled with people, and was invariably the center of attention for his wit and intellect. He was fluent in several languages and according to one newspaper interview was extremely fond of Hungarian goulash and wines. However, while von Kármán enjoyed a long life and many productive years, von Neumann was cut down in the prime of life by bone cancer. The stamp honoring his accomplishments as an extraordinary mathematician was released in 2005.
Following studies in Hungary, Germany and Switzerland, von Neumann, a true mathematical genius, gained widespread recognition for developing the so-called "game theory," which describes competitive and cooperative interactions mathematically. He came to America in 1930 as a guest lecturer at Princeton University. Shortly afterwards, he became affiliated with the school's Institute for Advanced Study and contributed to almost every facet of the mathematics of the 1930s. His most noted colleague at the university was Albert Einstein.
During World War II he played a significant role in the Manhattan project by his creation of the high-speed electronic calculator, commonly referred to as Superbrain. In 1955 he was appointed to the Atomic Energy Commission. Despite the ravages of the dreaded disease, he kept on working. His many obituaries took notice of his dedication and lamented the briefness of his life. "He gave generously of his rare and great gifts of mind for the defense of his adopted land and the cause of freedom," said President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Both von Kármán and von Neumann have been honored on Hungarian stamps as well; the former in 1992 and the latter in twice, in 1992 as well as in 2003. Eugene Wigner was the subject of a Hungarian stamp issued in 1999 and in 2008 the Hungarian postal service released a stamp featuring Edward Teller, the "Father of the Atomic Bomb." But neither Teller, Wigner or Szilard have received recognition on American stamps. However, Szilard's invaluable contributions are recorded in the book Genius in the Shadows by William Lanouette. By the way, there was a time when the Hungarian regime was not favorably disposed toward Teller. His brief entry in the Új magyar lexikon [New Hungarian Lexicon], of 1962, mentions his sobriquet as the father of the hydrogen bomb, and, in accordance with prevailing Communist political correctness of the time bristled that Teller is közismert mint a lefegyverkezést ellenző, háborús politika híve [widely known as an opponent of disarmament and a disciple of belligerent politics].
The mere mention of the name Houdini (1874-1926) immediately evokes baffling magical acts and incredible escapades. For many the irrepressible showman is synonymous with magic and there are more than a few who believe that he possessed a certain amount of supernatural abilities. The mystifying illusions and unbelievable escapades earned Houdini a myriad of nicknames: the Handcuff King, the Elusive American, and the world's greatest, non-fingerprinted, jail-breaker.
Discrepancies about his life abound, befitting a master of mystery. For example, recent edition of the National Cyclopedia of American Biography states that he was born in Budapest, but an older version has Appleton, Wisconsin, as his birthplace. It is certain, however, that Houdini was born Erich Weiss and grew up in the small Midwestern town. From an early age he was utterly fascinated by magicians and their amazing repertoire. His idol was Robert Houdin, the legendary French conjurer and magician of the 19th century, and when it came to choosing a stage name for himself, Harry Houdini was an easy choice. The postage stamp depicting him at the height of his fame was issued in 2002.
Many of Houdini's acts, especially the intricate escapades, required an excellent physical condition. Consequently, throughout his life he was extremely fit and neither drank nor smoked. "I live in constant dread lest someone invent a cell or a straightjacket or a pair of handcuffs from which I cannot extricate myself," confided once the great escape artist to a reporter. This didn't happen and Houdini was able to remark in a 1919 interview: "If I were to die tomorrow I could not complain because I have performed every known feat of magic from the smallest to the largest."
The motion picture industry was still in its infancy during Houdini's heydays, but the showman fully appreciated its enormous potential in reaching out to the public throughout the globe. He made several films centered around his most astounding feats. His 1919 The Grim Game was advertised as the "greatest thriller ever filmed," and as the "most startling, thrilling, hair raising picture ever made." Terror Island, dating from 1920, combined action with romance, starring the beautiful Lila Lee as the hero's love interest. Houdini made movies not only for financial gain but also to ensure that his amazing feats would be seen and appreciated by future generations.
Spiritualism also came under Houdini's scrutiny. Although the practice has a long, if not altogether reputable history, it flourished with special vigor during and after World War I. The staggering death toll of the conflict and subsequent influenza epidemic left countless grieving family members who wished nothing more than to contact their loved ones. Mediums claiming to be able to converse with the dearly departed became ubiquitous. The belief that communicating with those on the other side through the intercession of a medium - compensated with cold cash - was a viable proposition cut across all layers of society. Among the prominent ardent spiritualists of the day was the eccentric Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who ruled Canada for over twenty years. King relied as much on voices from the other world as on opinions by living colleagues. His contacts from the beyond, which included his late mother, were surprisingly well versed in all facets of running a government and guiding the destiny of the masses. The Mackenzie King episode demonstrates that an unsophisticated and gullible public will accept any concoction of fact and fiction if attractively packaged. This lesson has not been lost on his political heirs.
Communication with the spirit world wasn't possible, Houdini declared unequivocally. After having observed mediums during séances, he had no trouble demonstrating that they relied on tricks, identical or similar to those he employed on the stage.
Houdini never had any contact with the Canadian leader but he was well acquainted with another prominent disciple of spiritualism, namely Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While the celebrated author's fictional sleuth was the very embodiment of logic and reasoning, Sir Arthur was bereft of both traits when spiritualism was involved. Initially, Houdini and Doyle shared their interest in spiritualism on an amicable basis but an irreversible breach occurred in their relation when the creator of Sherlock Holmes stubbornly refused to see the transparent manipulations of charlatans.
For some perplexing reasons vampires are popular than ever. Characters with protruding fangs whose principal diet is fresh human blood abound on TV, in the movies, on stage, and in the printed word. Perhaps it's a sign of the times. The unquestioned prince of the undead remains Dracula, whose infamy and popularity span the entire globe. Dracula has been depicted on stage and the screen by a slew of talented actors. However, the most faithful and definitive portrayal belongs to Bela Lugosi (1882-1956). Watching his characterization of the bloodsucking Count can still sends chills down one's spine.
A classically trained and versatile actor, usually playing suave characters, Lugosi came to America after World War I. He officially entered the country through Ellis Island, making him one of the most famous alumnus of that great emigration depot. As a matter of fact, descriptive brochures about Ellis Island invariably contain more than a passing remark on him. The movie industry was enjoying its Golden Age and Lugosi found steady employment, mostly as the elegant and sophisticated albeit somewhat sinister foreigner. While the introduction of sound ended the career of many of Hollywood's foreign colony, Lugosi survived. Indeed, his distinctive accent boosted his screen persona.
Playing Dracula catapulted him into fame but it also typecast him. Although there were films in which he wasn't impersonating a deranged scientist or a supernatural creep, he was most often the villain, the foil to the hero. Lugosi's career declined precipitously as the parts became more lurid, inane and forgettable. In several movies he was teamed with fellow Hollywood "monsters" Boris Karloff, best remembered as the Frankenstein creation, and Lon Chaney, Jr., the hirsute Wolfman. Financial and marital problems caused him to seek solace in drugs. The devastating habit not only hastened the deterioration of his health but also spiraled his career to new lows. His last film, made shortly before his death, was Plan 9 from Outer Space, a cheap quickie which has attained cult status for its preposterous premise and thespian theatrics. He was laid to rest in his Dracula cape and the postage stamp, released in 1997, appropriately portrays him in his most iconic role.
Vampire aficionados know that it was Bram Stoker's tale Dracula that launched the vampire cult and craze in the English-speaking world. But few people are aware of that the Irish-born author's creation was inspired by the writings and experiences of the celebrated Hungarian traveler, folklorist, Orientalist, and master of languages, Arminius Vambery. Vambery, who harbored strong pro-British imperialist sentiments, spent considerable time in Queen Victoria's realm and was personally acquainted with Stoker. Vambery's influence in the Dracula saga is related in several books; particularly informative is The Dervish of Windsor Castle by Lory Alder and Richard Dalby, published in 1979. After gleaning and absorbing the information from Vambery, Stoker used literary license in defining the Count's pedigree and location.
There is no shortage of worthy candidates to grace future U.S. stamps. Individuals of Hungarian heritage meriting consideration for inclusion in this select group include the following:
Agoston Haraszthy (1812-1869) was one of the few Hungarians living in the United States prior to the events of 1848. An initial visit to the North American continent left such a profound impression that he emigrated with his entire family. Settling in Wisconsin, he was a founder of Sauk City. Following the discovery of gold in California, he trekked west, becoming one of state's colorful early figures. He served as sheriff of San Diego and later was superintendent of the mint at San Francisco. But he is best remembered for his efforts to put the California wine industry on a sound footing, which earned him the appellation "The Father of California Viticulture." His palatial home at Buena Vista, in the Napa Valley, was a visible emblem of his success. A man of indomitable energy and a restless nature, Haraszthy, accompanied by several family members, moved to Nicaragua after the Civil War. There he established a thriving plantation and sawmill. He disappeared one day while trying to cross an alligator-infested river. The tragedy received considerable publicity in the United States as well as in Hungary.
A veteran of the 1848-49 War of Liberation, János (John) Xantus (1825-1894), an ornithologist and naturalist, came to the United States in 1852. The possessor of an excellent education, he worked at a series of odd jobs after his arrival. When he became employed by the US Coast Survey he had the opportunity to study birds and other wildlife in the newly-acquired state of California. He made similar observations and contributions as US consul at Manzanillo, Mexico. In 1864 he returned permanently to Hungary and was subsequently appointed head of the ethnographical section of the National Museum. Writings by and about Xantus are extensive; perhaps the most instructive for non-Hungarians is his Letters from North America, translated by Theodore Schoenman and Helen Benedek Schoenman, published in 1975. Incidentally, while roaming in the American West, Xantus compiled a Hungarian-Comanche dictionary. There are no reliable figures as to how many Hungarians or Comanches have taken advantage of this exercise.
Edouard Remenyi (1828-1898) needs no introduction among music lovers of the world. He was one of the 19th century's most popular and charismatic violinists, garnering triumphs throughout Europe and the United States. Like Kossuth, an exile after the events of 1848-49, he lived in several countries before settling down permanently in New York City. He died on the stage during a performance at San Francisco. His body was brought back to New York and his grandiose funeral was attended by thousands. Among his pallbearers was Thomas A. Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park. Today, the House of Remenyi in Toronto continues his distinguished musical legacy.
Dr. Arpad Geza Gerster (1848-1923) came to the United States after completing his medical studies. As professor he taught a multitude of appreciative pupils, among them the Mayo brothers, William and Charles (who are featured on a 5 -cent stamp released in 1964). Dr. Gerster's groundbreaking 1888 Aseptic and Antiseptic Surgery passed through three editions in two years. In addition to being a leading physician, he was an artist of considerable abilities; his depictions of people and places in the Adirondack wilderness are recorded and illustrated in a chapter devoted to him in Caroline Mastin Welsh's Adirondack Prints and Printmakers. Etelka Gerster, his sister, was a world-renowned soprano and the reigning diva on the New York opera scene in the 1870s. However, unlike her brother, she didn't become a resident of the United States. Besides his professional commitments and hobbies, Dr. Gerster was a leader of the fast-growing Hungarian community. He was often the keynote speaker at important events.
George Julian Zolnay (1863-1949), a scion of the famous Zsolnay family of the city of Pécs, came to America in 1892 as an observer to the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago. Already an accomplished artist of high repute, he liked the country so much that he decided to make it his home. While the overwhelming majority of the some 300 Hungarians who participated in the Civil War wore Union blue, Zolnay became the pre-eminent sculptor of the Lost Cause, acquiring the sobriquet "Sculptor of the Confederacy." His creations may be seen throughout the South; among the most notables ones are the monuments to Jefferson Davis and Winnie Davis, and Sam Davis, the young Confederate scout. Zolnay participated in a host of cultural movements; for example, he was one of the founders of the National Arts Club in New York City in 1897.
As mentioned, Julio Kilenyi (1885-1959) came to the United States by way of Argentina, hence the Julio instead of Julius or Gyula. Already enjoying considerable fame as an artist in Europe and South America, he quickly established himself as a leading sculptor, specializing in medallions. Throughout his illustrious career he designed a myriad of commemoratives celebrating historical events and the achievements of individuals. Among his most notable creations are the Lindbergh Medal of St. Louis, the inauguration medal for President Calvin Coolidge, and the medal commemorating the 150th anniversary of the battle of Bunker Hill. Kilenyi dabbled in the design of postage stamps but without much success; however, he did the official poster for the 1932 Olympic Games at Los Angeles. Julio wasn't the only extraordinarily talented member of the Kilenyi family; his brother Edward and Edward's son, Edward Jr., were both gifted musicians with long entries in various musical lexicons.
Emery Roth (1871-1948) was only 13 years old when he came to the United States, all by himself no less. Thanks to his own innate abilities, hard work and the kindness of strangers, he became employed by Chicago's most prestigious architectural firm. Roth's work for the Columbian Exposition in 1893 so impressed Richard Morris Hunt, the Father of American Architecture, that he invited the young man to New York. It wasn't long before Roth established himself as a dominant figure in the design of towering luxury apartment buildings and grand hotels. Even today many of the Big Apple's rich and famous are proud to declare that they reside in one of his skyscrapers - the San Remo, Ritz Tower, Beresford, and Normandy, to name but a few. The architectural firm he founded still exists, managed by his descendants.
Nickolas Muray (1892-1965) was a true Renaissance man. Not only was he an outstanding portrait photographer, he was also an innovator in the field. Arriving in New York City in 1913, he set up a studio in Greenwich Village and quickly rose to the pinnacle of his profession, specializing in portraiture. In the 1920s and 1930 he photographed thousands of prominent Americans. A world-class fencer, he was national saber champion in 1927 and 1928, represented the United States on two Olympic teams, and is enshrined in the US Fencing Hall of Fame. He acted as the official photographer for the Wenner-Green Foundation of Anthropological Research on an 8-month around-the-world expedition led by fellow Hungarian-born Dr. Paul Fejos. For years Muray was Frida Kahlo's mentor and lover. While his association with her is conspicuously absent from Selma Hayek's film Frida, his association with the renowned Mexican artist is certainly discussed in writings chronicling her life and work; Salomon Grimberg's book I Will Never Forget You is particularly comprehensive and revealing about the relationship between them. Paul Gallico's The Revealing Eye, Personalities of the 1920s containing many of Muray's most iconic photos - including portraits of Clarence Darrow, Babe Ruth, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jean Harlow and F. Scott Fitzgerald - published two years after his death, is a wonderful and loving tribute to the artist's memory. The noted sports columnist, war correspondent and author was a close friend of Muray.
Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (1898-1986) won the Nobel Prize in 1937 in physiology and medicine. Coming to the United States after World War II, he was affiliated for many years with the marine laboratories at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Other Hungarian-born Nobel Prize winners who have spent much of their lives in America include the aforementioned Eugene Wigner (1902-1995) and Georg von Bekesy (1899-1972).
Notes and Acknowledgments: