Darvas, Lili (1902–1974)

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Darvas, Lili (1902–1974)

Hungarian-born American actress who topped off a distinguished career by starring in the internationally acclaimed Hungarian film Love. Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1902; died in New York City on July 22, 1974; married Ferenc Molnar (a playwright), in 1926 (separated around 1932).

In a career on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean that spanned more than 50 years and revealed a total mastery of three very different languages and cultural traditions, Lili Darvas proved to be a durable, superb actress. Born in Budapest, Hungary, she grew up in prosperous circumstances, her father being a successful physician. When his stagestruck daughter was 19, he financed a performance of Romeo and Juliet with a repertory theater that allowed her to take the lead. This, he said, was no more unusual than paying for the publication of a child's first book. Lili's performance was a sensation and one of Budapest's leading theatrical managers offered her a contract. Soon, she was a star not only in Budapest but throughout Hungary. In 1925, the famous German impresario Max Reinhardt invited her to Salzburg to audition for him. Despite the fact that Darvas knew no German and was famous only in Hungary, Reinhardt saw star quality in the young actress. He made her an offer she did not refuse, namely he would pay for an apartment for her and her mother in Vienna so that she could study German intensively with a tutor for one year, all expenses paid. The year over, she would make her debut in his Vienna theater. In return, she would sign a four-year contract with Reinhardt.

In that year, Lili Darvas completely mastered German, making her Vienna debut at the famous Theater in der Josefstadt. It was a complete triumph, and Otto Preminger, manager of the theater who was as delighted by the young Hungarian's performance as the audience, would note with astonishment decades later that Lili Darvas was the only foreigner he had ever encountered who had learned to speak German without an accent. Another turn in direction during this period of Darvas' life was her 1926 marriage to Ferenc Molnar. Almost a quarter-century older than his bride, Molnar was a world-famous playwright and almost as well known in Budapest for his practical jokes as for his plays. Darvas' career prospered during the next dozen years, and she worked in Reinhardt's theaters in Vienna, Salzburg, and Berlin. Her husband took an interest in her career by writing several plays for her to star in, including Delilah, Olympia and Still Life. In 1927, Darvas visited New York City on tour but, since she found the English language to be odd—she was particularly struck by a sign for a gift shop, since in German gift means poison—she made no plans to learn a third language, thinking it would be quite irrelevant to her career.

The Nazi occupation of Austria in March 1938 forced the Molnars to flee their beloved Vienna. Ferenc Molnar was Jewish and since Nazi racial legislation defined Lili Darvas as "a half blood-Jewess," their lives were in danger. Fortunately, they were able to flee to Switzerland by train. After a short stay in the United Kingdom, Darvas and her husband arrived in New York. Wealthy from his royalties, Molnar took a suite at the Plaza Hotel. Darvas rented an apartment nearby that she shared with a friend, a Viennese actor and director who had followed her into exile. Although the erotic part of their marriage was over, Darvas and her husband remained on the closest possible terms. Every day, she went to the Plaza to lunch with him and engage in lively discussions.

Determined to create a stage career for herself in New York, Darvas took the advice of friends like Walter Slezak and worked hard to perfect her English. Although she could never shake an accent as she had done when she learned German, Darvas nevertheless became fluent in the language of her new country. Having an accent was a distinct disadvantage in her career, for now she was called only to play "foreigner" roles. Still, her European reputation and her obvious talent landed her more than a few good stage roles, including that of a celebrated European actress in George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber 's Bravo, as well as jobs in radio soap operas. Her first Broadway role in English was in Ferdinand Bruckner's The Criminals, followed by Soldier's Wife, which ran for almost a year. In Henry Denker's drama "A Far Country," she portrayed Amalia Nathansohn Freud , the formidable mother of Sigmund Freud, receiving positive reviews from the New York critics.

Lili Darvas continued her acting career after her husband died in 1952. Besides roles in the new medium of television, she could still be seen on the Broadway stage, portraying the grandmother in Lillian Hellman 's My Mother, My Father and Me and Mme. St. Pé in the 1958 revival of Jean Anouilh's The Waltz of the Toreadors. Starting in the 1950s, she also began to make regular trips to Europe. She often spent her summers in Austria, and occasionally acted in Europe, including an appearance in a Berlin production of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. In the 1960s, she began to travel to her native Hungary. One of the most meaningful aspects of her Hungarian trips was being reunited with her stepdaughter—Ferenc Molnar's daughter by his first wife Margit Veszi . (Molnar's second wife was actress Sari Fedak ; his longtime domestic partner, Wanda Bartha , committed suicide in 1947.) Since Lili's stepdaughter was a woman her own age, this enabled Darvas to meet with her stepdaughter's children and grandchildren. During the next years, Darvas spent pleasant summers with her newly discovered family in a cottage on Lake Balaton.

In 1970, she was invited to appear in an Hungarian film being produced in Budapest. She flew to Europe and filmed her part, that of a bedridden woman aged 96 who does not know that her adored son is serving time in prison for a political offense. To protect the old lady, her daughter-in-law fakes letters from the son, telling his mother that he is in New York successfully working as a film director. The pretense is maintained until the old woman dies. The poignant story, based on novellas by Tibor Dery, gave Darvas an opportunity to once again star in a Hungarian-language drama. When the film was released in 1971 under the title Love, Darvas' depiction of the old woman living out her last days in a world of memory and fantasy was universally acclaimed as revealing "a fully developed character, although an invalid whose only backdrop is her bed." The film critic Stanley Kauffmann, a friend of Darvas, was overwhelmed by the quality of her performance in Love, praising the entire work as being "of all wonders, an exquisite political film, exquisite in its art, political because government policies sift out three lives."

Although in fragile health during her final years, Lili Darvas also appeared in the critically acclaimed role of the elderly Rachel in Hans Werner Henze's "Rachel, la Cubana," which was broadcast by New York television station WNET. Lili Darvas died in her Manhattan home on July 22, 1974.


"Hungarian Film, 'Love,' May Set a Trend," in The New York Times. March 3, 1971, p. 34.

Kauffmann, Stanley. "Album of Lili," in Michigan Quarterly Review. Vol. 23, no. 4. Fall 1984, pp. 563–575.

"Lili Darvas," in Variety. July 24, 1974.

Saxon, Wolfgang. "Lili Darvas, Actress of Stage and Film, Dies at 72," in The New York Times Biographical Edition. July 1974, p. 935.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Darvas, Lili (1902–1974)

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