One of the most enduring and entertaining images of Hungarians during the second half of the 20th century was the idea of Hungarians as aliens or Martians.
Much of this is tongue-in-cheek, is not intended to be pejorative, and has been exploited to good effect and with great enjoyment by Hungarians themselves to the point of their likely having been behind its origination… There are multiple overlapping/competing descriptions of how all this started. Consensus suggests that it came out of the circles of émigré nuclear scientists, physicists, and mathematicians who came to the US during 1930s and 1940s, many of whom were collected at Los Alamos, New Mexico for the Manhattan Project.
As George Marx, a Hungarian professor of atomic physics in Budapest, asks in his extremely engaging chapter entitled The Martians’ Vision of the Future, how is it that there were groups of Austrians, Germans, and Italians involved in these scientific breakthroughs and yet it was Hungarians alone who seemed to gain the moniker and association of ‘alien?’ Marx appears to prefer the account according to which one day the Italian Enrico Fermi was speculating about the universe and the possibility of life on other planets, and Leo Szilard, a Hungarian, ventured an answer to Fermi’s question:
"And so," Fermi came to his overwhelming question, "if all this has been happening, they should have arrived here by now, so where are they?" It was Leo Szilard, a man with an impish sense of humor, who supplied the perfect reply to Fermi’s rhetoric: "They are among us," he said, "but they call themselves Hungarians." (according to Marx, this is Francis Crick’s version of the myth)
Marx Elaborates on the birth to the legend:
The myth of the Martian origin of the Hungarian scientists who entered world history on American soil during World War II probably originated in Los Alamos. Leon Lederman, director of the Fermilab, reported possible hidden intentions.
The production of scientists and mathematicians in the early 20th century was so prolific that many otherwise calm observers believe Martians settled Budapest in a plan to infiltrate and take over the planet Earth… According to myth, at a topsecret meeting of the Manhattan Project, General Groves left for the gents’ room. Szilard then said: "Perhaps we may now continue in Hungarian!"
Hungarian émigrés enjoyed speaking their mother tongue whenever a chance offered itself. This made them look suspicious. Los Alamos was a place of top security. General Groves was annoyed that Neumann and Wigner had frequent telephone conversations in Hungarian. [Teller, talk in Budapest 1991.]
The ‘thick Hungarian accent’ was often heard even in the corridors of the Pentagon. (The Lugosi accent made the alien power of Dracula, the count from the faraway Transylvania even more realistic.)
Marx recounts the details of the arrival of the Martians-cum-Hungarians on planet Earth: "Gabor, von Kármán, Kemeny, von Neumann, Szilard, Teller, and Wigner were born in the same quarter of Budapest [author’s note – most were Jewish…it is interesting to note that some anti-Semitic Hungarian nationalists at the same time assiduously include these names in lists of famous Hungarians]. No wonder the scientists in Los Alamos accepted the idea that well over one thousand years ago a Martian spaceship crash-landed somewhere in the center of Europe."
There are three firm proofs of the extraterrestrial origins of the Hungarians: they like to wander about (like gypsies radiating out from the same region). They speak an exceptionally simple and logical language, which has not the slightest connection with the language of their neighbors. And they are so much smarter than the terrestrials. (In a slight Martian accent John G. Kemeny added an explanation, namely, that it is so much easier to learn reading and writing in Hungarian than in English or French, that Hungarian kids have much more time left to study mathematics.) [quoted by Marx from Yankee Magazine].
Finally, in a somewhat more serious vein, the alien connotation has been explained in analytical terms as follows: If we understand SteeDee’s theory correctly, the first Hungarians-are-aliens story arose from some minor human incident. The Hungarians may have stood out from the rest of the staff at Los Alamos, perhaps by maintaining their own cliques and speaking their own indecipherable tongue, and this made the English speakers uncomfortable.
The Queen of Hungaria (or How a Woman Named Zsa Zsa Defined a Nation)
The Hungarians were like aliens to the rest, and since there were many reports of ‘flying saucers’ in the popular press in the 50s and late 40s, the ‘Martian’ label was a convenient way to sublimate the social tensions. To be called extraterrestrials, in a jocular, rib-poking way, might have helped reduce this social friction both inside and outside the Hungarian group. If there were a problem with communication, the recurring alien joke would provide a means to make light of it, thereby expressing frustrations that could not otherwise be spoken. (See "Fun With Folklore: Exploring The Hungarian Connection").
According to Marx, "as a matter of fact, these suspicious Hungarians – Theodore von Kármán, John von Neumann, Leo Szilard – enjoyed the myth. Edward Teller became especially happy of his E.T. initials, but he complained about indiscretion, ‘Von Kármán must have been talking’."
From Teller to Talleah… Zsa Zsa and Her Sisters
This brings us from Teller to Talleah, the difference being that Teller was a real Hungarian scientist who pretended to play the part of an alien… whereas Talleah is the name of an alien from the 1958 King of the B Scifi Movies, Queen of Outer Space… starring none other than perhaps the most well-known Hungarian among Americans, Zsa Zsa Gabor, who plays the role of an alien scientist! [More about this hysterical film and its hysterical reviews below.]
Of course, June 1989 put Hungarians on the map for many Americans. The reburial of Imre Nagy, the huge crowds, the solemn ceremony before hundreds of thousands and a live television audience, a landmark event in the history of Hungary… No, that was 16 June 1989… I am referring here to 14 June 1989, the day Zsa Zsa slapped a Beverly Hills police officer, an incident that immediately became fodder for every late night comedian and even two years later was the subject of a spoof starring the actress in the satirical film series, The Naked Gun. Such is the fate of Hungary and Hungarians in the United States.
There were actually three Gabor sisters: Zsa Zsa, Eva, and Magda. I am not sure whether to say marriage or divorce ran in the family. The three sisters had more marriages than they did important movie roles. To borrow a page from Dave Barry, here are the final tallies of the three sisters in Marriages: Zsa Zsa 9, Magda 6, Eva 5. It is difficult to know how exactly to calculate Zsa Zsa’s total number of husbands… since as she once responded: "How many husbands have I had? You mean apart from my own?"
These numbers may be affected by the fact that both Zsa Zsa and Magda were married to the English actor George Sanders, if sixteen years apart. Not to make too much light of things, but Sanders eventually committed suicide. He played the part of Mr. Freeze in the Batman television series, that Zsa Zsa made guest appearances on.
It seemed only fitting in early 2007 surrounding the macabre and absurd Anna Nicole Smith custody fight that Zsa Zsa’s most recent husband – Prinz von Anhalt – claimed that he had a ten-year affair with Anna Nicole and was the father of her orphaned child. (Supposedly, Zsa Zsa was angered and hurt by this admission, but can one completely discount the possibility that it was yet another attempt for Zsa Zsa to get back in the limelight, and after all, hadn’t Anna Nicole Smith only been famous for being famous?)
It may surprise almost no one in a certain sense, but Zsa Zsa’s daughter by Conrad Hilton (the only child of all three Gabor sisters) is grandaunt to Paris and Nicole Hilton. Zsa Zsa claims that she won the 1936 Hungarian beauty pageant (according to one Hungarian source, Sandor Incze who discovered Zsa Zsa, invented the idea of the beauty pageant… but I don’t think so), although her mother Jolie (‘pretty’ in French), married only twice, and fond of "new math" long before we knew it was new (like her daughters she seemed genetically incapable of telling her true age; if she was telling the truth her first daughter, Magda, would have been born when Jolie was thirteen!), claimed it was she (the mother) and not Zsa Zsa who had won the beauty pageant. (To use the famous Casey Stengel line "You can look it up!"…these things should be verifiable, although I will leave that to others to investigate since it is beyond the intended scope of this article.)
The Queen of Outer Space (or Damn it, Jim, I’m a Former Hungarian Beauty Queen, Not an Alien Scientist).
The film critic Jabootu summarizes Zsa Zsa’s film career as follows:
Unfortunately, Ms. Gabor’s Hollywood career proved much less epic [than her married life or run-ins with the law]. In John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge, Zsa Zsa played, in a bold move, a Euro-sexpot opposite Jose Ferrer’s Toulouse-Lautrec. The following year she appeared in a supporting role in the musical Lili, which co-starred the unrelated but similarly monikered Mel Ferrer. From there, though, it was all downhill. Her few starring roles included playing twins (!!) in the hilarious-sounding espionage flick Girl in the Kremlin. In case you’re wondering, one of the twins [is] Stalin’s mistress (!!), the other a spy working against the Soviets. Zsa Zsa also had a bit part in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. (For his full review of Queen of Outer Space, see: www.jabootu.com/queen.htm)
But perhaps ‘Jabootu’ is being too hasty and superficial in judging Ms. Gabor’s career. Maybe we have underestimated Zsa Zsa’s roles in movie and television. For example, Zsa Zsa has recounted how she liked playing the role of ‘spy’ when she guest-starred on the Batman serial as Minerva, a beauty parlor owner, whose hairdryers could read the minds of (male) clients. Was the episode perhaps a skillful allegory about how the totalitarian state uses the most banal and subversive means to pry into the lives of its citizens? (Was the ‘mullet’ a communist plot to make Americans look stupid? Tune in next time, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel…)
Evidence for such a more enlightened revisionist view comes from the 1958 movie Queen of Outer Space, in which Zsa Zsa plays Talleah, an alien scientist, who leads the women of Venus against the sadistic, disfigured Queen Yllana, thereby saving a flight crew of men from Earth whom Yllana has cruelly imprisoned. I argue here that this film only appears to be a sexist, cheesy, and moronic vehicle for profit, when in fact that is part of its subterfuge and inner-brilliance. The movie is, in fact, a subtle and sophisticated allegory of communist Hungary and the outbreak and crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Let us take another look at this film – although, unfortunately, we are forced to rely on the flippant and sometimes juvenile comments of Jabootu for a discussion of the plot.
In this first extended excerpt, we find Zsa Zsa’s Talleah (symbolizing the Hungarian resistance) being informed that recently arrived Earthmen have been imprisoned by the evil Yllana (the communists/Soviets, as ‘bourgeois’ intellectuals, ‘men’ had been banished from the planet, although ‘scientists and mathematicians’ were retained because they were needed). Talleah recounts for the men the sad history of the planet, the destructive war, how Yllana went from well-meaning rebel to tyrant, etc. The astute reader will notice here that Zsa Zsa is in fact recounting the destruction of World War II in Hungary – she says "Ten Earth years ago" – the coming to power of the communists, the initial ‘popular’ image of the Soviets as liberators, and their construction of a people’s dictatorship….
Richard Andrew Hall holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University, where he focused his studies on east central Europe. He is the author of articles on Romania, Hungary, nationalism, and east central Europe in general, in academic journals and more recently on the Internet.