Top: Fedák as "János Vitéz"; Molnár Ferenc; Fedák Sári the diva. Bottom: Zsazsa with Medgyaszay Vilma in "János Vitéz"
She was born at Beregszász (now Berehove, Ukraine) in 1879. Her mother was Kókay Emilia, her father a chief medical officer, Fedák István. A conservative gentleman, he initially objected to his daughter’s theatrical plans but ultimately agreed to Sári’s enrollment in Rákosi Szidi’s drama school in Budapest, from where she graduated in 1899. After 1900, she played at Pozsony, as well as in various theaters in Budapest.
In 1901, wearing Japanese clogs, she performed in the first Hungarian silent movie, “A táncz” (“The Dance”), whose copy was destroyed.
She enjoyed her first successes at the Népszinház. Nobody seems to know why, but bizarrely juxtaposed to Elizabethan theatre where men played female roles, an important point of Fedák’s career was the title role of Huszka Jenő’s “Bob herceg” (Prince Bob). She was a huge sensation in playing a man’s role. We should remember that in those days, women did not wear pants; only the most courageous women wore culotte-like bloomers, mostly for hiking. And cross-dressing was not in vogue.
Encouraged by the great triumph of "Bob herceg", in 1904 Zsazsa was again cast, and enjoyed perhaps her greatest success ever: playing another man in the title role of the musical drama “János Vitéz” (John the Hero) by Kacsóh Pongrác, produced at the Király Szinház.
By her own account: “The Király theatre was in bad shape those days. I lived at Rákosi Szidi’s, the mother of the theater’s owner, Beőthy László. She worried constantly about the finances of her son’s theater. Whenever I came home from rehearsals, she badgered me: ‘Will this be a success? Wouldn’t it be nice if it could run for 25 shows?’. I could not appease her. Then, at the first rehearsal with costumes and orchestra, Aunt Szidi came down to the theater. There were about 30 others in the audience. Then I sang the theme song, and the fate of the show was decided. Everyone in the audience cried, and I cried with them. Beőthy came up the stage and said: ‘This piece will run 100 times!’ Mama Szidi doubled it: ‘200 times!’ They were both wrong. I alone played it 574 times!”
For whatever reason, the audience loved seeing the two women, Fedák and Medgyaszay Vilma, as a couple in János Vitéz.
In the same year, an obviously impressed judge bought Zsazsa a mansion in the country, which even today is open to the public.
To escape being blamed for driving her manager into suicide by pressing him for an unduly high salary, Fedák fled abroad in 1907. Having a command of six languages, she traveled to and played in Berlin, Vienna and Prague, and returned to Budapest only in May of 1910. Although by professional standards, her singing voice was far from top quality, her personal magic rendered her a gigantic star on the operetta stage, starring in works of Lehár, Jacobi, Fényes Szabolcs and others. Fedák Sári became a household name, to the extent of being entered into the bidding of a popular card game ulti: double, redouble, re-redouble, Fedák Sári …
She painfully needed to be the center of the stage, of attention, of activity. As an outstanding raconteuse with a great sense of humor, she always earned that. Yet, in the token of extremes – a classic characteristic of thespians – when she was alone at home, she often cried. While she was her own most severe critic, she resented negative comments by others.
After the start of World War I, Sári volunteered as a nurse. As a deviation from the horrors of the war, she made her home the venue of weekly meetings of artists. One of the regulars was the playwright Molnár Ferenc (see MNO, Dec. 2017) They had known each other for years in a rather public, loud, and stormy liaison.
During the war, Fedák incited against the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, then, during the Tanácsköztársaság (Hungarian Soviet Republic), she campaigned to recruit for the Red Army. After the crushing of that regime, she fled to Vienna where she was recognized and briefly imprisoned. Due to her involvement in that infamous reign, in 1920 and 1921 she could only play abroad, albeit with great success. By then her flame with Molnár Ferenc faded, especially since he met and fell in love with the decades-younger actress, Darvas Lili. However, Zsazsa requested that Molnár marry her (not Darvas!) in a “farewell wedding” – as their contemporaries characterized the event. In October 1922, Molnár and Fedák tied the knot.
After the happy event, Molnár almost instantly moved in with Darvas Lili (!!!) but, in the strangest “ménage-à-trois” form, he always appeared at public occasions with his now legal wife, Fedák. Their marriage lasted four years. They divorced in 1926 so that he could now marry Darvas. And all this was happening in the public eye, in the style of today’s tabloids.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Zsazsa even played in the United States, in cities with large Hungarian populations. Her memoirs were published in 1928. In the late 1930’s and the pre-World War II years, she played in some motion pictures, such as “Mámi” (1937), “Hazafelé” (“Homebound”, 1940) and “Tokaji aszú” (1941). By then she was in her 60’s, which used to signal the end of divas’ careers. She could and would have survived that, but her windmill political attitudes backfired for her.
As a correspondent of the Nazi German radio station Donausender of Vienna, she took the position, in 1944, that the war should be continued. Thus, after WW II, the Hungarian People’s Tribunal condemned the formerly “Red” actress as a Nazi enthusiast and glorifier of the Arrow Cross leader Szálasi. She was sentenced to two years in prison, which was reduced to eight months. After that, Fedák was not allowed to return to the theater for three years. She purchased a house at the village of Nyáregyháza, where she moved with her maid. Yet, the farmers’ cooperative soon requisitioned the nicely restored house; they were evicted and had to move to a run-down, one-room house at the end of town.
Once again, in 1954, the director of the Déryné Theatre invited her to play the title role of the comedy “Nagymama” (“Grandmother”). Fedák fervently planned on returning to the stage, but she was prevented by a stroke before the opening. She passed away in May 1955, in Budapest. Her grave is at the Farkasrét cemetery.
We could say “Sic transit gloria mundi” (Thus passes worldly glory). But while other mortals die without a trace, the memorable ones keep making you laugh and cry, perhaps forever.
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.