Guest writer MATTHEW E BANKS reveals a strange tale from Bela Lugosi’s past in Hungary
On February 14th 1931 ‘Dracula’ the first talking horror film opened, with the sub-heading of ‘The strangest passion known to man.’ It made a star of Bela Lugosi, who portrayed the title character. Yet it would prove to be a burden not only to him personally, but professionally as well. With his piercing blue eyes, tall stature and Hungarian accent, Lugosi was made to be a star, but beneath the veil of that star was a haunted man, for Bela Lugosi was haunted by a mysterious woman with yellow eyes! The following account first appeared in 1929 and was subsequently revised in 1932 and reprinted in 1960.
The haunting did not begin in America, but in a little town on the shores of the Adriatic called Abazia, where the 32-year-old Bela Lugosi first came across the woman who introduced herself as ‘Hedy’ and four times she entered his life and made him her sex slave! In 1932 Lugosi claimed that he would never marry again, because he was afraid of the woman with the yellow eyes. “I was only a youth then, in the year 1914 [aged 32], when I met her [ ] and glanced into her eyes. It was though I had received a shock of electricity. It is utterly impossible to describe the fire, the ecstasy which shot through my veins. [ ] In an instant we were in each other’s arms and the world was lost.” He went on to describe her, “Her age was indeterminable. She was an actress. She was not outstandingly beautiful. Her hair was a pale brown. Her skin was deathly pale at times; at other times it was a blood, blood red – that was when she had been fed. Her mouth was thin and ravenous. Her teeth were tiny, and pointed. There had been many lovers. One never asked what had become of them. Men feared her – and went to her at her command. Husbands left their wives because of her.” This followed three wondrous weeks of romance and passion, until one night Lugosi had to run an errand and upon his return found the apartment that he was sharing with Hedy stripped of all her belongings – She had vanished without a trace into the night. The only thing to prove that she had existed was a note on the table which read, ‘We may never see each other again but remember you are mine always.’
A distraught Lugosi searched for her for weeks – “She was gone and I could not find her and for weeks I could not eat, I could not sleep. I tell you I was crazy, stark mad.” It was The Great War that saved him, being called to serve in his country’s army. He rose to the rank of second Lieutenant in the Forty-third Infantry Regiment, but was twice wounded and then sent back to Budapest to recover.
It was here that he was to meet his first wife, IIona Szmik and after the Armistice in 1918, Lugosi returned to the Royal National theatre. “I tell you we were happy. Two people could not be more happy. I returned to my work with a fresh enthusiasm…[ ] My future seemed assured and I love IIona as she loved me.”
Yet it was not to be as the woman with the yellow eyes returned one night as Lugosi was preparing to take to the stage, “No sooner had the curtain risen than I knew that something was wrong. I was not myself. I forgot my lines, I acted like a dummy. Then suddenly my gaze seemed drawn to a seat in the front row. There, her great yellow eyes glowing like a cat’s, sat Hedy! My blood turned to water in my veins and my limbs trembled so that I could hardly walk. [ ] as I looked into her yellow eyes, something happened to me. I managed to finish the play and when I hurried from my dressing room to find her, she was gone.”
Gone, but not forgotten, her words in the note echoed in Lugosi’s mind and soon his marriage crumbled. Again Lugosi tried in desperation to find the mysterious woman, who seemed to have an enchantment upon him. Night after night he thought about her, “I tried to find her but failed. At night I lay awake trying to solve the mystery of this strange woman who, with her stranger power, was keeping her promise that we should belong always only to each other. I recalled the weird folk-tales which I had heard from the peasants on my father’s estate in Lugos, stories of werewolves, of vampires such as Dracula was. Knowing something of hypnotism, I realized that this strange power of Hedy’s was similar to the second stage of hypnotism and yet unlike it. As for my wife, I never saw her again.”
Lugosi fled Hungary after the Bela Kuhn uprising failed and made his way to America as a political refugee. But that might not be the only reason as Lugosi said “I lost weight. I hardly slept. I had seen other young men fade and wither before my eyes and had heard the village folk whisper the dread cause. But when it came to me, I did not know it for what it was. [Vampirism] It was my mother who forced me to flee the country and never to return to it again until that woman and every trace and memory of her vanished from the sight of men.” In 1920 and despite his heart breaking, IIona and Lugosi divorced. Once in America Lugosi formed a group of Hungarian players and they toured in cities such as New York, Cleveland and others playing to Hungarian audiences. It was during this period that Lugosi married again, and again Hedy appeared and the marriage crumbled. After a show, Lugosi found Hedy waiting for him in his changing room and spoke to him in a low deep voice, that chilled the actor to the core, “There must be no third time, Bela. I came to you in Budapest and you felt my power. Here, across the water, you will feel it again. You are fighting against it but there is no use. You belong to me and always will. Let this woman you have married go.”
The many loves of Bela Lugosi
Lugosi unprepared to lose a second wife to this strange creature demanded to know what she was and “what is this thing you are doing to me?” Her response left him in no doubt that he was dealing with a supernatural being, “That I cannot tell you. I want to warn you, though, that there must be no third time. If there is, I shall strike harder. Someday Bela, we shall be together as we should be, you and I.” Then she vanished into the night and Lugosi’s marriage of four weeks ended in divorce. This forced Lugosi to contemplate who or what ‘Hedy’ was and then he remembered that “in the arms of my old nurse, I heard the tales of vampires and saw their victims. Ah, yes, as I grew older and could take notice of things about me I saw many a young man and young woman pale and sicken and seem to die with no cause given. I had a sceptical mind. I read widely, I made a brave attempt to laugh off such nonsense. Folklore gone mad, I told myself. I would shake off the charnel-house odors of such foul superstitions…” Yet that was not to be.
It was whilst touring with Dracula in 1927 that Lugosi met Beatrice Weeks, a young wealthy widow and they struck up a friendship and corresponded after the troupe carried on the tour. In late July 1928 the troupe arrived in San Francisco and within ten days of arriving Lugosi had wed and separated from his third wife, Beatrice, because of the woman with yellow eyes: “Two nights after my marriage when the curtain rose, it seemed as if the world crashed at my feet, for there, just as it had been in Budapest, just as in New York, two yellow eyes held mine from the front row! [ ] The moment I saw Hedy, I knew that she still held me and that my marriage was again doomed. [ ] Heartbroken, scarcely wanting to live, I told Beatrice, my wife, that it was all over. [ ] My first two wives had been Hungarian and we are a mystic people, a psychic race who feel. They at least had understood, if only that it was something I could not explain Beatrice could not.” The fear that ‘Hedy’ would strike harder echoed around Lugosi’s mind and perhaps her power did lash out for in May 1931, three months after Dracula became a cinematic success, throwing Lugosi into the limelight, Beatrice Weeks Lugosi was dead at 34. “My third marriage had lasted but a week, and now Beatrice, upon her soul be peace, is dead,” Lugosi lamented in 1932.
J. Eugene Chrisman, in 1932 described Lugosi as “A haunted man.” He went on to state that he believed that Lugosi was telling the truth as he was not the sort of man to make things up and did not tell the story for publication purposes. Further to this Chrisman stated that he had talked to a man who remembered Lugosi’s strange behaviour during one of his [Lugosi’s] performances when he stated Hedy had appeared to him. A variation of this tale comes from Mr L. P. Walter, a relative on Lugosi’s Mother’s side, who when writing to Richard Davis stated that when Lugosi was starting as a stage actor, he was ‘haunted’ by a mysterious ‘cat woman.’ Apparently she always turned up in the stalls where he was performing, gazing up at him with her ‘glittering green eyes’ and said to him “You and I are two of a kind, Bela, and in the end you must join me…”
In 1933 Lugosi married 20 year old Lillian Arch and that marriage lasted 20 years until 1953. Perhaps fearing that Hedy would come for him or Lillian, Lugosi made their first home “safe against invasion of any kind.” Yet after his marriage to Lillian, ‘Hedy’ was never seen again in human form … He then married for a fifth time to Hope Lininger in 1955. On August 16th 1956, Lugosi died in his sleep. Whether he, in the end joined Hedy is open to conjecture, but what is known is that Lugosi was haunted by ‘Dracula,’ the role which made him an overnight superstar and destroyed him. This haunting is for another tale… Lugosi was buried in his Dracula cape, thus there was no escape from the icy clutches of the Count.
MATTHEW E BANKS is a graduate of University of Plymouth. He lives in Cornwall with his wife Sam. Matthew’s main fields of interest are the supernatural in all its manifestations, horror film history and the ghost story genre.