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

October 17, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

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."

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