Hollywood stars, crafty inventors and intrepid adventurers, the world has Hungary to thank for providing so many talented individuals over the years. Here we pick out ten Magyars you may be surprised to learn are actually Magyar, either by nationality or being born to a Hungarian parent.
Count Almásy/The English Patient
Memorably played by Ralph Fiennes in the multi Oscar-winning movie, the English Patient was, in fact, Count Almásy (László Ede Almásy de Zsadány et Törökszentmiklós, if you please).
Although Almásy’s character is fictionalised in the film, set in Cairo and the deserts of North Africa during World War II, key exploits of his are portrayed. His discovery of the Cave of Swimmers, unveiling Neolithic drawings in the Libyan desert, for example, proved that the Sahara once held water. (That probably wasn’t his copy of Szerelem Szerelem, sung by Márta Sebestyén, providing the musical accompaniment to a torrid bedroom scene, though…)
An accomplished aviator and fearless explorer, Almásy earned the Iron Cross for his clandestine war-time operations and was forced to flee Hungary, and the KGB, after 1947. He died in Austria in 1951.
The name of László Bíró (‘Leslie Judge’) would not have come into common parlance had this Budapest-born newspaper editor not invented the everyday item that enshrines his legacy in ink: the biro. Seeing how fountain pens would run and stain the page, Bíró teamed up with his brother, György, a chemist, to create a pen whose tip would revolve and deposit ink onto the page judiciously. In short, a ballpoint.
Having patented the pioneering artefact in 1938, Bíró, a Hungarian Jew, was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Europe. He settled in Argentina, where his biro was produced, just in time for Bíró to gain revenge, of sorts, on Hitler – his pens were used by RAF aircrew during bombing missions over Germany. Bíró died in 1985 – but lives on every 29 September, when Argentines celebrate his birthday, the nation’s annual Día del Inventor.
In many ways, the Hungarian mother of Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody is more remarkable than her son. The star of Roman Polanski’s The Pianist – and the outraged Dmitri in Grand Budapest Hotel – Brody was born in 1973 to renowned photographer, Sylvia Plachy.
Hidden away from the Nazis as an infant in Budapest, Plachy escaped Hungary as a 13-year-old girl after the 1956 Uprising, her family concealing her in a horse-drawn cart until they crossed the border in Austria. From there, they reached America and she gained global acclaim as a photographer, her images featured in The New Yorker, The Village Voice and numerous equally prestigious publications.
Among her many exhibitions, When Will It Be Tomorrow showed here in Budapest at the Mai Manó House in 2015. Brody, whose father Elliot is of Polish-Jewish descent, will have channelled much of his family background into his performance in Polanski’s war-time drama set in the Warsaw Ghetto. Brody remains the youngest actor to win an Oscar.
One of the world’s most renowned war photographers was born Endre Ernő Friedmann in Budapest in 1913. Spending his formative years here, the later Robert Capa fled to Berlin, then Paris, where he changed his name and found a new identity.
Earning acclaim for his work in the Spanish Civil War, Capa befriended Ernest Hemingway, who describes him in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Capa’s images of D-Day, shot when waist-deep in water and conflict raging, are among the most iconic of World War II. He died when covering the First Indochina War in 1954.
In 2013, on the centenary of Capa’s birth, the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center opened in Budapest and continues to host challenging temporary exhibitions.
The star of Some Like It Hot never forgot his Hungarian-Jewish roots, donating significant sums to the reconstruction of the Great Synagogue in Budapest and many other Jewish places of worship around Hungary.
Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz in New York in 1925, his parents emigrés from eastern Hungary and what is now Slovakia. Curtis visited his father’s home town of Mátészálka several times, a handy subject of conversation for locals.
Of his 100+ films, the one that launched him was playing Hungarian escapologist Harry Houdini, alongside his then wife, Janet Leigh, in 1953.
The world’s most famous escapologist was, of course, Hungarian. Born Erik Weisz in 1874, the later Harry Houdini spent his earliest years at what is now Csengery utca 1, two blocks behind the Grand Boulevard in District VII.
When he was four, his family emigrated to America, where he found fame and fortune wriggling his way out of impossible situations. He died in 1926.
In 2016, a fellow Hungarian magician, TV star David Merlini, opened a House of Houdini museum in Budapest’s Castle District, full of the artefacts he had collected over many years.
Born to a Hungarian father and Serbian mother in Lugos, today in Romania, Béla Blaskó is best known for his definitive portrayal of Count Dracula in pre-war horror films. Having spent several years working on the stage and in early cinema in Budapest, he emigrated and managed to find work on Broadway and in Hollywood.
Successful but then typecast for years, Lugosi developed an addiction to opiates and fell into penury. His sad last years also saw him dependent on Ed Wood, a budding B-movie director, for work, a relationship chronicled by Tim Burton in the 1994 film of the same name. Martin Landau won an Oscar for his portrayal of Lugosi, who died in 1956.
A genuine, sold-gold, Hungarian success story, Joseph Pulitzer made his fortune in American newspapers, his legacy the writerly prize he established and funded in his will. Born in Makó, southern Hungary, József Pulitzer spent most of his boyhood in Budapest before heading for America to join the Civil War.
Making his way in journalism in St Louis, Pulitzer later took over the high-circulation New York World and joined the House of Representatives. The $2 million he bequeathed after his death in 1911, allowed for the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism to be established and his eponymous annual Prize.
Some of you may have passed, even frequented, Budapest’s Toldi cinema, a bar and nightspot in its own right, without realising its greater significance. Right by the window is a plaque – this was where Tamás Erdélyi, aka Tommy Ramone, was born and spent his early childhood. His parents had survived the Holocaust, hidden away by neighbours.
Born in 1949, Erdélyi was taken to America after the 1956 Uprising, and went to high school with the soon-to-be Johnny Ramone. A founder member of the seminal band, drummer on their first three albums and the live one recorded on New Year's Eve 1977, Erdélyi played his last show with the band at CBGB's (where else?) in 1978.
The only Hungarian inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he was part of a bizarre show at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington in 2004, singing Let’s Dance with the then American ambassador to Russia, and other incongruous bandmates. Erdélyi was the last of The Ramones to die – ten years after his old schoolmate Johnny in 2004.
One of the greatest players in the history of women’s tennis, ten-time Grand Slam champion Monica Seles is an ethnic Hungarian, born and raised in Novi Sad just south of the border in Serbia.
Moving to America in her teens, Seles received expert coaching and began beating the world’s best by the late 1980s. At the height of her fame, she was stabbed in the back by a mysterious individual during a tournament in Hamburg. The perpetrator went virtually unpunished while Seles never got her career fully back on track. Her last major tournament was in 2003 – four years later she gained Hungarian citizenship.