At 84, Agi Jambor reclaims joy of piano after her many performances of a lifetime


Agi Jambor should have written her memoirs.

She achieved fame as a pianist twice, and was forgotten each time; she used to play duets in Berlin with an amateur violinist named Albert Einstein; she arrived penniless in America after World War II, unable to speak English and without a piano, and resumed her career by practicing on a battered upright at a YWCA in Washington; she married and divorced a Hollywood star; and she was a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance in her native Budapest, where she narrowly escaped death several times by passing herself off as a prostitute named Maryushka.

"I rather liked posing as a prostitute," says the tiny, 84-year-old pianist in her rich Hungarian accent of her wartime experiences. "It was fun -- I got to wear heavy makeup, wear shameless clothes and change my personality. But it was no joke, the war -- I almost died."

But Jambor is now alive to recollect such matters because of a musical friendship with Joseph Stephens, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University medical school. Today at 5:30 p.m., Jambor and Stephens (a respected keyboard player) will give a two-piano recital at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. This free concert will be only Jambor's second public appearance in almost 25 years.

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Joe," says Jambor in her living room, which is dominated by two grand pianos, at her Bolton Hill home in the appropriately named Beethoven Apartments. "So if I play any wrong notes, it's his fault -- because I'd be dead otherwise. Some people you can never thank enough."

Then, turning to Stephens, who lives around the corner from her, Jambor adds: "Joe, don't you blush that I say all these nice things about you."

"Yes, Agi," Stephens says with a smile. "I'll have to put on my halo."

Four years ago when Stephens was learning an obscure piece by Bach that Jambor had recorded, he wondered if the pianist -- whom he had known in the 1950s when she was on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory -- was still alive. When last he heard, she was teaching at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia. He called telephone information until he tracked Jambor down in rural Pennsylvania.

'Like a recluse'

"She said, 'Come to see me, I'm an old woman now,' " Stephens says. "So I went. She was a mess, living like a recluse in a house filled with garbage. She was in dreadful health -- she had diabetes and Lord knows what else -- and she was getting terrible medical attention from a doctor who was giving her shots of morphine. She would call telephone weather so that she could hear the

sound of a human voice, and her only companion was a vicious cat who wouldn't let anyone near her."

An all-white cat suddenly appears in Jambor's living room, leaps softly into the startled Stephens' lap and begins to lick her paws.

"Ah, Mignon," says Jambor lovingly. "Don't you know that your stepbrother hates you?"

Stephens continues:

"I persuaded her to move to Baltimore where -- at the very least -- I could make sure that she got decent medical care."

Stephens' lawyer looked into Jambor's financial situation and worked out a plan whereby Jambor -- by selling her house -- could live comfortably for the rest of her life. Agi Jambor, her two pianos, her huge library in five languages and her cat returned to Baltimore.

"It wasn't hard," Jambor says of the move. "I have moved my whole lifetime."

She was born in 1909 in Budapest to a wealthy businessman and his wife, a prominent piano teacher. A child prodigy, she read music before she learned how to read words and made her debut with orchestra at the age of 12. Five years later, the great German pianist-conductor Edwin Fischer heard her and invited her to Berlin to become his student.

Berlin, where she lived from 1926 to 1931, was then the center of the cultural world. Musicians such as Fischer and Artur Schnabel were rediscovering Bach, Mozart and Schubert; the dramatist Bertolt Brecht and the composer Kurt Weill were creating a new kind of musical theater; and physicists such as Einstein were transforming the way human beings perceived the universe.

Jambor became friendly with Einstein's mistress, Toni Mendel -- "She was like a second mother to me," the pianist says. "When she asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said 'Einstein!' On my birthday, I opened the door and there he was."

The physicist and Jambor played Mozart sonatas all evening.

"He was like a child, so endearing," she says. "Except for the wrong notes -- I don't think he ever practiced -- he was a very good violinist."

Jambor soon fell in love with another physicist. She met Imre Patai on a summer vacation in Budapest and married him in 1933. Her husband, who played the piano, urged her to enter the 1937 Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

Going for the pearls

"I was sure I would lose," Jambor says. "He said if I lost, he'd give me a string of pearls."

In a field that included several other pianists who went on to important international careers, she took a top prize -- the only Hungarian pianist so honored. She called Budapest to say that she'd lost the string of pearls.

"When I got home, he was waiting at the train station with a little box," she says. "Inside was a string of pearls. During the war they were stolen by my maid. If she's still alive, she may be wearing them now."

The pianist and her husband were living in Holland in 1939 when the Nazis invaded. Unable to escape to the West, Jambor -- whose mother was Jewish -- and Patai returned to Hungary, which was still neutral. In 1943, she gave birth to a son who died shortly before the Nazis arrived in 1944.

"Sometimes I cannot sleep because it haunts me what I saw," Jambor says haltingly. "Despite what the Americans thought about the Russians during the Cold War, they never slaughtered children. I saw two German soldiers, one of whom threw a baby into the Danube while the other said, 'beautiful work.' These were the same people who had produced Bach and Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller. I still don't understand how a country with such culture could have killed so ruthlessly."

She turns to Stephens.

"Joe, you understand human nature -- how could it have happened?"

"I don't know, Agi," Stephens says. "It's a mystery."

It's also a mystery that Jambor, who arrived in this country with her husband in 1947 and re-established her career as a pianist, let it slip away from her. By the time her husband, whose health had been weakened during the war, died of a heart attack in 1949, she had earned rave reviews for concerts in this country and in Europe. Within a few more years, she had become a favorite soloist of Eugene Ormandy, the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and a contract with Capitol Records had produced several outstanding recordings of Bach. But after she left Peabody for Bryn Mawr in 1957, she began to perform only in the Philadelphia area. A marriage in 1959 to the actor Claude Rains fell apart after one year because of his alcoholism. Shortly thereafter, a case of viral encephalitis nearly killed her and left her unable to play the piano for almost three years.

Premier Bach player

Still, her reputation as one of the world's premier Bach players and her friendships with people as influential as Ormandy could have jump-started her stalled concert career.

"I really had no choice," Jambor says. "A businessman -- which is what a concert manager is -- shouldn't tell you when and where you should play. And who likes the bad reviews?"

"Agi," Stephens says, "you never got any bad reviews -- at least none that I ever saw."

"Maybe I tore the bad ones up," the pianist says with an impish grin.

"I just don't think Agi ever pursued a career very aggressively," Stephens says.

At the time of her return to Baltimore in 1989, poor health had kept her away from the keyboard for years. But the medical attention Stephens saw that she received and his gentle but persistent prodding brought her back to the piano. Early in 1990, on her 81st birthday, she gave a private concert for friends. And last March she made her first public appearance in almost 25 years, playing several Bach concertos at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. So she must like performing again.

"Yes!" says the pianist, her dark eyes shining. "It doesn't matter whether it's in the home or in a concert hall. As long as I feel that the composer wouldn't hit me on the head because I play so badly, I love to play."

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