news letterOur mobile application

Weekly newsletter

‘Opium Waltz’ Honors Katalin Karády, the Hungarian Femme Fatale

Fanni Kaszás 2019.03.05.

Actress and singer Katalin Karády is known as the femme fatale of the Kingdom of Hungary. First celebrated across the country as an icon, she was later known for saving Jews from deportation during World War II. She left Hungary in 1951 and never returned. Upon receiving a governmental invitation on her 70th birthday to return to Hungary, she only sent a hat, baffling officials. The Magyar Színház premiered a jazz-story of her life on 15 February, titled Opium Waltz.

The Hungarian femme fatale was born as Katalin Kanczler. She was born the seventh sibling on 8 December 1910; however, similarly to other celebrated actresses of the era, the date of her birth is still subject to debate. She was raised poor, but due to the help of a charity organization, she was able to spend five years studying abroad in Switzerland and the Netherlands. After returning home, she swiftly attracted attention with both her language skills and her looks. Prior to entering into her first marriage, she studied marketing.

She fell in love with theatre and acting after watching Juci Lábass perform on the stage of the City Theater. She obsessively collected articles about the actress and watched her performances. When the primadonna died suddenly at the age of 36, the young fan stayed in bed for days.

In the early 1940s, she became one of the most celebrated movie stars in Hungary. She began using the name Katalin Karády at the recommendation of Zoltán Egyed, a theatre journalist who helped her at the start of her career. She got her first, true taste of fame acting opposite of Pál Jávor in Halálos tavasz. Although Karády was just starting out, she spurred a revolution in Hungarian cinema. With her sultry looks, unusual voice and femme fatale persona, she became a celebrated diva and sex symbol of her age, a ‘Hungarian Marlene Dietrich.’ Between 1939 and 1943, Karády starred in 22 films — seven of which were with her first co-star, Jávor.

Karády’s anti-German stance was well known and, as a result, she was constantly being attacked by the extremist rightwing press. Karády was in love with Miklós Horthy’s head of intelligence, István Ujszászy. However, they could not get married because after the Germans invaded Hungary during the Second World War, Karády was gradually blacklisted. Her songs were blocked from the Hungarian Radio and her films were no longer played in the cinemas. The Gestapo later arrested and held her captive for three months.

After being released and receiving news of her fiancée’s murder from Moscow, she suffered a nervous breakdown and spent nine months in bed. Despite the hard times, she saved a great number of Jews from deportation. In the winter of 1944, during the Arrow Cross reign of terror, Karády saved a group of about 20 Jewish children from being murdered on the bank of the Danube. Later, she took in children in her own villa, hid them in the cellar and provided them with food.

In 1951, she immigrated to Austria. She then relocated to Switzerland, Brussels, and finally to Brazil, Sao Paulo, where she opened a millinery. However, she longed to live in the USA, and after spending 15 years in South America, she finally chose to start a new life in New York. She performed from time to time and even recorded an album but preferred to stay out of the limelight. When invited to Hungary on her 70th birthday, she sent a hat in her place.

She died on February 8, 1990. In 2004, Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem recognized Katalin Karády as Righteous Among the Nations for her rescue efforts during the Second World War. In 2012, she was awarded a stamp on World Theater Day. In her final television interview, she said:

It doesn’t really matter what they think about me; it’s more important to feel their love.

The Opium Waltz, a jazz-story based on the actress’ life by Ferenc Lengyel, premiered on 15 February at the Magyar Színház. Szilvia Pataki performs Katalin Karády’s songs in Gábor Subicz and the Modern Art Orchestra’s special jazz-infused adaptation.

photo: Éva Juhász/Magyar Színház

The creators said:

She was a celebrated star of an era, yet few people endured such a desperate fate as her. However, Karády never broke; an overwhelming love helped her through everything.

The play, which consists of 12 stations with 12 monologues and 13 songs, is about success, loyalty, humanity, home and love in the life of a mysterious woman who experienced a difficult life.