George Jonas

The poet and the ballet dancer

by George Jonas
National Post

In lieu of offering my views about same-sex marriage, I'll tell a story. Last month a 66-year-old American died in a faded hotel room in a remote town in India. He had been ill for some time and he died alone. Looking through his meagre possessions -- books, mainly -- the proprietor came upon an e-mail address in North Carolina. He fired off a note, which was how Eric Johnson's friends learned of the final chapter in a bizarre, romantic, and ultimately tragic love story.

Love stories usually begin when the participants meet, but this was a literary romance and it began four years earlier. In 1962, Andre Deutsch published a book called My Happy Days in Hell. It was the autobiography of the Hungarian emigre poet, George Faludy, describing his life in Europe under Hitler and Stalin. It was a bravura performance. "Faludy is the kind of man we'd all like to be, besides being ourselves," commented the British historian Arnold Toynbee.

In New York a ballet dancer named Eric Johnson, then 26, read the American edition. He became obsessed with the idea of meeting the man who wrote it. Johnson wasn't the only ballet dancer who read books, but may have been the only one ever to suspend his career for one. Deciding that he had to learn Hungarian before meeting the author, he stunned the communist authorities by arriving on their doorstep in 1964, demanding permission to live and work in Budapest. The officials were so dumbfounded that they actually gave Johnson a job as a sportscaster in the English-language section of the state radio network. He worked there for the better part of a year, then said goodbye to his thoroughly confused hosts, and left Hungary in search of Faludy.

He found him in Malta, where Faludy, by then 56, was living alone following the death of his second wife, Zsuzsa. Their only son, Andrew, was in a boarding school. As a sexual being, Faludy was an omnivore. He was attracted to beauty, youth and intellect; the gender to which these qualities were attached made little difference to him. Johnson was certainly intelligent and in 1966 (I'm looking at his photograph as I'm writing this) he was undoubtedly beautiful. It wouldn't be accurate to say that it was love at first sight between the poet and the ballet dancer, because for Johnson, then 28, love had preceded first sight by nearly two years. His love was an intellectual vinculum, which Faludy lustily proceeded to convert into a physical attachment, via the emotional medium of poetry. The outcome was a group of sonnets, among the finest in the Hungarian language, equalling if not surpassing the poems Faludy had written for his dying wife. "Fate has decreed me to be twice your age," he wrote in one. "Next to your body I become weak/The bone falls out of my arm."

Faludy and Johnson spent the next 36 years together, living in various parts of the world, including Toronto, where they shared a small apartment with a pair of free-flying finches. The tiny birds liked to hitch a ride on the carriage of an old-fashioned typewriter Faludy used for his work. The finches learned to hover like miniature helicopters every time the bell rang at the end of a line, waiting for Faludy to slam the carriage home before settling on it again for the next trip. The birds and Faludy wrote several books together, while Johnson contributed Latin poetry to the Vatican's Osservatore Romano -- just about the only market left in the world for Latin verse.

After the collapse of the Soviet empire, the couple moved back to Budapest, where people worshipped Faludy and tolerated Johnson. The post-communist government assigned a spacious apartment on the east bank of the Danube for their lifetime use -- more precisely, for the lifetime use of Hungary's national icon, for Johnson as the poet's "secretary" had no official status of any kind. Still, it looked as if they might live happily ever after in their opulent (by Budapest standards) abode. "I'll look after George as long as he lives," Johnson told me once. "I have no other plans."

The last time I spoke with him was in the spring of 2002, just before Hungary's run-off elections. He expressed the hope that the liberal-socialist coalition would win, because a centre-right government was more likely to rescind their lifetime occupancy of the apartment. I had a dim view of liberal-socialists, but couldn't blame either Johnson (by then 64) or the poet (92) for not wanting to move.

The liberal-socialists did win, but, as it happened, Johnson's occupancy of the apartment was rescinded all the same. The child-god of love let lose his arrow and hit Faludy straight in the heart. The national icon fell, and fell hard, for a 26-year-old photo model named Fanny Kovacs. Cupid's bull's eye made Johnson possibly the first man in history to be jilted by a 92-year-old lover.

If same-sex marriage had been available to Faludy and Johnson, in 36 years of living together they might, at one point, have tied the knot. As it was, by the summer of 2002, it was Faludy and Fanny Kovacs who were getting married, and Johnson was on his way to India. Later Faludy said to me that he and Fanny would have been happy for Johnson to stay, but evidently the former ballet dancer wasn't thrilled by the notion of a menage a trois.

Would the story have been different if the poet had been obliged to divorce the ballet dancer before marrying the model? Maybe. Or maybe not. As a student of the classics and a persistent lover himself, Johnson was probably resigned to the fact that Eros isn't to be trifled with -- at any age. Omnia vincit amor.

In India, Johnson joined the Dalai Lama's entourage and he wrote letters to friends saying that he was happier than he had ever been. For all I know -- we never talked again -- it was true. Still, when he was diagnosed with cancer last October he didn't seek treatment. His diagnosis came a year after Faludy and his new wife had posed for the cover of the Budapest edition of Penthouse magazine.