By Sigurd Neubauer
Yvonne Kalman, the youngest daughter of celebrated Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953), fondly remembers her father as “one of the kindest and most wonderful people” she ever met.
“I was about three and a half years old when I first became aware that my father was a composer. Along with my brother, Charles, who was eight years older than me, we were invited by our father to see him conduct the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) Orchestra in New York City,” Kalman recalls.
At the time, her brother explained to the little girl that “all the people walking down into the orchestra pit are musicians. Next, he told me what a baton was as father began conducting. It was the most beautiful music I have ever heard, and it was my first encounter with my father’s music.”
Almost seven decades since his passing, Kalman continues to champion her father’s legacy by tirelessly promoting his music around the world. This past September, for instance, the Budapest Operetta Theatre held a concert in honor of Kalman’s 85th birthday where excerpts of her father’s most famous music was performed. “It was a wonderful and very touching experience,” she says. From there, she traveled to the Slovak city of Košice, where a new production of Kálmán’s The Duchess of Chicago premiered. The timing of the premier was also tied to her birthday.
The Duchess of Chicago performed in Košice, Slovakia. Photo credit: State Theatre Košice
Her father became attached during his childhood to Hungarian folklore, history, and literature, which inspired his compositions.
“Kálmán’s popularity rests, in part, on his deft fusion of Viennese waltz rhythms and the fiery strains of the csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance,” explains Michael Miller of the Operetta Foundation in a separate Man & Culture feature dedicated to celebrating the late Hungarian composer’s life and legacy.
Die Csárdásfürstin, or The Gypsy Princess, stands out as one of Kálmán’s most beloved operettas. It quickly became an international sensation, and by the time World War II erupted in 1939, it had reputedly been performed over 100,000 times around the world. On Broadway, it was known as The Riviera Girl. While to this day Die Csárdásfürstin remains his most popular work across the German speaking world, Central Europe, and Russia, Gräfin Mariza (1924), or Countess Maritza, is his most famous and celebrated operetta in the United States and the English-speaking world.
Leading up to World War II, Kálmán was one of the most popular composers in Vienna as his success had afforded the family of five – Charles (1929-2015), Elizabeth (Lili) (1931-1973) and Yvonne (1936-) along with his wife Vera (1907-1999) – a luxurious lifestyle in their 28-bedroom villa in one of Vienna’s most desirable neighborhoods.
But with the rise of Nazism, Kálmán, who was Jewish, was about to lose almost everything.
Kálmán lived in Vienna from 1908-1938, but fled the city for Zurich, Switzerland, before eventually immigrating with his family in 1940 to the United States via Paris and Mexico.
“My father had gone through a terrible time by the time we arrived in New York City,” Kalman says.
“At first his music was banned, then his money was frozen, and then we became refugees on the run.”
While his wife entertained New York's high society in their Park Avenue apartment, Kálmán preferred informal conversations in the kitchen
While in Paris, prior to the Nazi occupation, the entire family converted to Roman Catholicism.
The Chancellor of Nazi-Germany, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), dispatch an emissary to Paris meet Kálmán, offering his full protection. “My father wouldn’t ever consider something like this,” Kalman recalls as the family departed the following day for New York – via Genova, Italy – by ship.
Fortune proved to be on the side of the Kálmán family as then U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull (1871-1955) was traveling on the same ship. During a meeting between the two men, the composer inquired whether his family would be able to stay in the United States, the top diplomat responded affirmatively. “My mother was so beautiful,” Kalman relays, suggesting that her beauty and charm had influenced Hull.
Once in the United States, the family moved to Los Angeles so that Kálmán could take a position with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studio. At the end, Kálmán couldn’t make any films in Los Angeles because the U.S. was at war with Hungary and the music and culture that he represented didn’t fit the times, Kalman recalls.
“He was like a fish out of water in Los Angeles, which is why the family moved to New York City where the composer was able to reconnect with old friends from Hungary and Austria.”
Vera – the ever socialite – loved socializing and throwing parties at their newfound home on 417 Park Avenue. “Our parties were always discussed in the media the day after,” Kalman recalls, adding that Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992), among other notables, was a frequent guest.
Describing her mother as “very beautiful with a wonderful personality,” Kalman notes how people were constantly smitten by her as she was always fantastically put together. She lit up the room. My mother knew who she was,” referring to her social rank, and she “wasn’t shy about it.”
Mothering, however, was another topic altogether. It took years of psychotherapy for Kalman to finally connect with her mother, she says.
“She didn’t like being a mother. I was ultimately able to relate to her as being her ‘little friend’ and she would be my ‘big friend, which is how we established a relationship.” This enabled Kalman to enjoy a stable relationship with her mother throughout her long-life.
“She was glamorous and beautiful until the very end,” Kalman recalls.
Her father, in contrast was shy, “and so am I,” Kalman explains.
The parties, which were highly desirable to attend, was also used to raise money for Kálmán’s show, including the Marinka operetta which premiered on July 18, 1945 at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York.
While the show was very successful, shortly afterwards, Kálmán suffered a stroke from which he was never fully able to recover as his entire right side became paralyzed, Kalman recalls.
“Afterwards, my mother insisted on moving back to Paris – where he received the Legion of Honour – while having the pleasure of witnessing the world of theater telling him how much they had missed him.”
The family moved to Paris in 1949 when Kalman was 13-years old.
Living in the United States was difficult for Kálmán as he didn’t speak English. While Kalman’s first language was French, the family spoke German at home, she reveals.
Because of the war and what had happened to Europe’s Jews, Kálmán couldn’t move back to live in either Austria or Germany as his entire family had been killed in the Holocaust.
While the family was ultimately able to recover its villa in Vienna after the war, art looted from the composer by the Nazis from the Paris home is still missing. “If we knew where it was, we would have recovered it,” Kalman explains.
Following Kálmán’s death in 1953, Austrian Chancellor Julius Raab called his widow to personally ask that the composer be laid to rest in Vienna at a burial plot around the corner from Johan Strauss II (1825-1899), another beloved operetta composer. During the call, Raab did not apologize for what had happened to the Kálmán family during World War II, Kalman reveals.
“My mother agreed because the War was over; Austria was decimated and the Marshal Plan was underway, which was about providing Europe with a new start,” Kalman relays, before pausing and asking rhetorically: “Where else was he going to be laid to rest? He never wanted to be buried in Hungary because it was a communist regime. While he had his successes in Vienna, he was a staunch Hungarian but an anti-communist.”
Vera and Yvonne, Los Angeles, California, 1940. Photo credit: The Operetta Foundation
Turbulence in the family
“After my father died, we didn’t have a family anymore,” Kalman says, as everyone moved apart, and the good memories of a happy childhood came to an abrupt end.
Following Kálmán’s death, “mother made a name for herself as Kálmán’s widow and became a very popular television personality in Germany and Austria. She was beautiful until the very end of her life.”
Her mother enjoyed a comfortable life and lifestyle, which included frequent travels across Europe for mostly social engagements.
While Kalman enjoyed a close relationship with her mother and was frequently in touch, her brother did not. “They had a very tumultuous relationship,” she confesses.
“Once my mother died in 1999, she was laid to rest next to my father. Mother never regretted that he was buried there as it was the right place for him,” Kalman says.
“My brother Charles was a very talented composer who is well known for his film music. He also had a fantastic sense of humor. Charles was an offspring of my father; they were very close and always told jokes and laughed; and I was always included,” Kalman fondly recalls.
Kálmán, however, did not want his son to follow in his footsteps by becoming a composer, although the two loved discussing music. “My father didn’t want him to become a composer because he knew what a hard life it would be. Charles was very sensitive, and our father didn’t want him to get hurt.”
Charles nonetheless had a calling for music and loved the music of George Gershwin (1898-1937) in particular. Kálmán even hosted Gershwin in Vienna as the two were friendly. “Everyone loved the music of Gershwin and Jerome Kern (1885-1945),” Kalman says referring to the 1920s America as “a very special time.”
Charles, a graduate of Columbia University, also studied composition at the Paris Conservatory, before moving permanently to Germany.
Kalman, however, believes that Charles made a mistake by leaving New York City because of the type of music that he loved.
“While he had a nice career in Germany, had he stayed in New York or the U.S., he would have had an even better one,” Kalman asserts.
Lili, for her part, was also a talented musician and could play piano by ear.
On what happened to Lili, Kalman prefers not to discuss it, other than describing her as a “tragic figure who had problems adjusting.”
Lili was gruesomely murdered in Paris in 1973. For those interested, the details can be found in Kálmán biographer Stefan Frey’s eminent book titled: Laughter Under Tears: Emmerich Kálmán.
None of the three Kálmán children had any children.
On what Judaism means to Kalman, she responds by preferencing that she wasn’t raised in the Jewish religion. While her mother wanted the children to be raised outside of Judaism, Kalman “loves Jewish culture and people” but emphasizes that she doesn’t “know much about Judaism, even now.” Neither did she really identify as Jewish throughout her life. Her now deceased husband, Helmut Klump, a German, wasn’t Jewish either, she explains.
What Judaism meant for the late composer, Kalman describes him as “never too religious but he lived by the ‘Golden Rule.’ He always treated people very well and was very kind.”
What Kálmán did was observe the high holidays, which are the Jewish New Year (Rosh HaShana) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
Her mother didn’t consider herself as a Jewish person at all, Kalmam relays. She wasn’t raised Jewish but in the Orthodox Russian faith. Vera, née Marya Mendelssohn, was born into a Jewish merchant family in Perm, Russia, in 1907.
For the curious reader, Vera’s fascinating life and larger-than-life personally, including how she met her husband and how their engagement came about, is discussed at length in Frey’s eminent biography of Kálmán.
“My father lost everything because of his religion,” Kalman explains, referring specifically to the hardships the family experienced.
Promoting the family legacy
Following her studies at Emerson College in Boston, Kalman traveled to Rome where she ended up spending seven years. From there, she moved to Los Angeles and instantaneously fell in love with California and its beauty.
“California unfortunately is not what it was because of crime and insecurity, and people are constantly angry,” she laments.
In addition to promoting her father’s legacy, Kalman spearheads the Yvonneka Foundation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, which is a shelter for rescue dogs. ‘My father gave me a love of animals, especially dogs,” she says.
From the early 1980s, Kalman began promoting her father’s music internationally. It all began with the Vienna Volksoper’s initial 1984 concert tours in the United States – where it would perform Franz Lehár (1870–1948) and Johan Strauss – but not Kálmán. At the end, Kalman successfully convinced the Volksoper to include The Gypsy Princess, which “received rave reviews.” Kalman started her own public relations company dedicated to promoting her father’s music in the United States and successfully had Countess Maritza performed by the Santa Fe and Los Angeles opera companies, respectively.
In 1978, she met the love of her life, Klump, who at the time was the executive spearheading Lufthansa North America. They would eventually marry and moved to Australia in the early 1980s where they remained until 1991.
While in Australia, Kalman, of course, also promoted her father’s music.
“I love promoting my father and his music. I am always amazed how beautiful it is.”