The best dreams of an ancient lineage are often had on beds of straw. This is the thought that engages me as I stand outside the house where Patrick Leigh Fermor’s former girlfriend strangled her flatmate in 1969. This end of Budapest’s Pannonia Street is more chipped and faded in appearance than the more prosperous commercial stretch further south which is guarded by the elegant facade of the Vigzinhaus – the city’s Comedy Theatre. This neighbourhood of the XIII district called the Újlipótváros or New Leopoldstown was still a very new part of the city when Leigh Fermor first came to Budapest in 1934. It soon established itself as home to the literary and artistic set and also formed part of the residential area favoured by some of Budapest’s Jewish community. Today part of that Jewish community is again reestablishing itself here according to recent census information.
Standing outside 48 Pannonia Street, I am trying to imagine it as Xenia Cszernovits knew it when she moved here in 1957, so soon after the
revolution which tried to end Soviet rule in Hungary. I am trying also to imagine how this woman of distinguished lineage, born into a family of landed gentry in 1909, coped with the ‘class enemy’ status imposed on her by Communism and how she coped too with being sent to work as a labourer in a textile factory.
Xenia Csernovits de Mácsa et Kisoroszi was a ravishing dark-haired beauty. She was the daughter of a Transylvanian land owner from Zam, Mihály Czernovits de Mácsa et Kisoroszi. The family was of Serbian origin. Xenia married Gábor Betegh de Csíktusnád, scion of an old Transylvanian noble family, while still in her early twenties but at the time she met Leigh Fermor in 1934 the marriage was going through a turbulent phase. It later appears to have settled down again because they had a daughter two years after Xenia’s tryst with Leigh Fermor.
Xenia’s niece by marriage, Stefania Betegh, doubts that the affair with Xenia ever happened. She has no particular reason to defend Xenia’s honour. She was not, after all, a blood relative. There is also the issue of the confused manner in which Leigh Fermor attempts to disguise, and yet not disguise, Xenia’s identity in Between the Woods and the Water. At one point in the narrative he gives her full name, the location of her family house at Zam and enough detail for us to know exactly who she is. Then he disguises her as ‘Angela’ and even adds a footnote about the need to ‘alter names’ having already made her one of the most identifiable characters in the book. She seems not to have been bothered by this and when, in her seventy sixth year, she read a translation of the book in Hungarian by her relative, Miklos Vajda, she wrote to PLF to say how much she had enjoyed it.
Leigh Fermor’s attraction for women and his success as a seducer are well known. The balance of probability, in the seduction stakes, most likely rests with his success with Xenia. It was one of the last happy periods of her life. Miklos Vajda, recalls her as a free spirit and ‘a woman with something of the exotic gypsy in her looks and nature’. Men found her irresistible and the regular absence of her husband on business trips meant that she had frequent liaisons with various male admirers, amongst whom Leigh Fermor is the best known. Once Hungary had become a postwar Soviet satellite state, her life was altered in a way that was unimaginable in 1934. As a ‘class enemy’, she was sent to do menial work as a house painter and later in a textile factory in Budapest. She ended her days in a squalid little basement flat which she moved to after she strangled her flatmate in Pannonia Street on 20 December 1969.
copyright : Michael O’Sullivan