Simon Böske as Miss Europa; the two who tied for the Miss Universe title; Böske and her dog; Simon Böske Memorial Plaque; Hargitay and Mansfield; the picture that caught the eye of Mae West; Mickey with his daughter Mariska
She was the daughter of a Jewish physician, Dr. Simon Sándor; born on February 15th, 1909 at Keszthely, in the southwest corner of Lake Balaton as Simon Erzsébet. At age 15, in 1924, she already turned heads to the point that she was named “a keszthelyi Korzó Szépe” (the Belle of the Keszthely Promenade). That competition was based on photos only. Shortly thereafter, however, she won a live beauty contest as “Balaton Tündére” (The Fairy of Balaton). Both contests were organized by Incze Sándor, the editor of the popular illustrated weekly Szinhazi Élet (Theater Life).
Following western trends, in late 1928, Incze announced the first Miss Hungary contest. In January 1929, Erzsébet, now becoming popular by her nickname Simon Böske, won the title. By her own admission, her only preparation for the competition was putting on some lipstick for the first time in her life, urged on and helped by her girlfriend.
In February 1929, the new Miss Hungaria traveled to Paris, escorted by her mother and Incze Sándor, to be entered into the second Miss Europa contest. There the Hungarian-American entertainers, the twin Dolly Sisters took her under their wing and provided her with outfits from the famed French designer Jean Patou, as well as coiffures and make-ups by the best salons, thus properly preparing her for the big event. Ultimately, Simon Böske won the Miss Europa title, sporting a Trianon cockade. The prizes were presented by the King of Denmark and the President of France.
Upon her return to Budapest on March 13th, in a horse-drawn carriage decorated with flowers, Böske was received by a large jubilant crowd. Orchestras played the national anthem and the Mayor greeted and congratulated her. In tears, she expressed her pride in having been able to represent and glorify her country. Among the cheers, however, ugly anti-semitic jeers were also heard.
The competition for Miss Universe was held for over three months in Galveston, Texas. But Maurice de Waleffe, the founder and organizer of the Miss Europa contest, complained that the Americans invited 48 contestants from the US and only a handful from Europe. In objection, he decided to stay on the other side of the Ocean and elect his own Miss Universe from among fifteen European beauties. Thus, in July, Böske returned to France and in Deauville, on August 7, 1929, she won the European-held title of Miss Universe in a tie with Ella van Hueson, Miss America. Of the two winners, the “Junoesque” American from Chicago was the initial favorite, but Simon Böske was deemed classier, more aristocratic and won over the jury, so that a tie had to be finally declared.
The blonde, blue-eyed girl from Keszthely became an overnight celebrity who received offers of film contracts with American and German studios, and famous companies such as the “4711” cologne, while illustrious painters were competing to paint her portrait. Even a Maharajah held a large dinner in her honor and princes were vying for her hand.
Simon Böske, however, had no such ambitions. All she wanted was to lead a quiet, happy life in a quiet, happy marriage. To that end, on December 22nd, the end of the year of her multiple victories, she tied the knot with Brammer Pál, heir to his family’s legendary textile emporium. The marriage lasted only five years; in April, 1935, Brammer fought a mock revolver-duel against Jób Dániel, the artistic director of Vígszinház (Comedy Theater), for the alienation of Böske’s affections. Neither was hurt but both were fined. Soon Jób, 29 years Simon’s senior, became her second husband.
World War II and the Nazis were merciless to Simon Böske and her family. By 1939, after 18 years at the theater, Jób, as a Jew, was no longer allowed to work there. The couple survived the war by hiding in the cellar of the villa of an actor friend in 1944. Her parents were among the 829 Jews deported from Keszthely to Auschwitz, where all but six of them perished. Böske emerged from this tormented period emotionally and physically shattered.
After the war, the former beauty queen and her husband were never able to re-establish their lives and lived in poverty until Jób’s death. Böske’s health steadily deteriorated. From the time she was widowed in 1955 until her own death in 1970, she lived under the care of her brother, Simon Imre, and his family in Budapest. She is buried at the Kozma Street Jewish Cemetery.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
About a generation had to pass before guys reached equal status with women on the beauty scene. Indeed, nobody suspected in 1926 that Hargitay Miklós, born in Budapest on January 6th, would once be the first man to attain the distinction of being declared the…but wait a minute…we’re not there yet!…
His father was extremely athletic and raised his sons to become athletes. The family had an acrobatic act that they performed throughout Hungary. He was an exceptional soccer player and a speed-skating champion. During WWII, he fought the Nazis with the Hungarian Resistance, creating the double act of soldier and strongman stage performer. But in the aftermath of the war, when the Soviet troops’ occupying presence became more obvious in the country, not seeing any promise for his future, he fled Hungary in 1947.
In the same year, Hargitay managed to immigrate to the United States, working as a plumber and carpenter and started bodybuilding. He walked into an Indianapolis gym one day and, never having lifted weights before, he astonished the owner when he lifted 215 pounds over his 180-pound frame.
His big break came when Mae West noticed him on the October 1953 cover of Strength and Health magazine and made him a member of her muscleman nightclub act. Mickey Hargitay did much to change the concept of the art of bodybuilding that had been discouraged by athletic coaches as freakish. He broke into the field theretofore dominated by Americans only.
After a few years of working at odd jobs, seeing Steve Reeves on the cover of a magazine, Hargitay began training for the Mr. Universe competition and – end of suspense! – the hunky Magyar won the 1955 Mr. Universe title!
Next year, after divorcing his first wife, Mary Birge, he moved to New York City. At the nightclub in the Latin Quarter where he performed, the super-famous and well-endowed actress Jayne Mansfield appeared for dinner one night. When asked what she’d like to eat, she responded, “I’ll have a steak and the man on the left”. She got what she wanted. It was love at first sight and they married in January 1958, becoming one of the most visibly stunning couples in Hollywood. Together they made a series of – not too memorable – movies as well as three children, Mickey Jr., Zoltan and Mariska, superstar of Law and Order Special Victims Unit. He remodeled their Beverly Hills mansion, the Pink Palace, including building the famous heart-shaped pool.
Despite their scorching romance, Mansfield and Hargitay divorced in 1964 and she died in a car accident three years later. Mickey arranged to have a heart-shaped headstone erected for his ex at her place of burial.
In 2003, Mickey appeared in one episode of daughter Mariska’s TV show. He died of multiple myeloma in Los Angeles at age 80, on September 14th, 2006.
According to a columnist, “what President Eisenhower did for golf, Mickey Hargitay did for bodybuilding, because he brought it to the forefront”. Arnold Schwarzenegger called Hargitay an “inspirational force”.
The demure, conservative ingénue in the closed-neck, long-sleeved dress was oddly considered the female beauty ideal of the day, as juxtaposed to the “roaring twenties”. Bathing suits still covered half of the thighs and all bosoms, which were understated rather than emphasized. But in the advent of the self-assured, independent “modern girl”, Simon Böske’s subordinate but elegant poise certainly caught the eye of the jurors, domestic as well as international.
In the wake of wars and death people usually realize life’s fragility and they foster the “carpe diem” attitude. Perhaps that was partially responsible for men’s desire to face life’s challenges by becoming strong and invincible, in contrast with the somewhat effeminate, sophisticated male ideals of the pre-war movies. It was the perfect ambience for noticing and appreciating bodybuilding Mickey Hargitay.
Conclusion: our beautiful stars seem to prove that to be at the right place at the right time is the key to rule the Universe! (At least for a year…)
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.