Nijinsky’s father-in-law: The Australian connection

When the dancers of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes sailed on the SS Avon from Southampton to Buenos Aires in 1913, there was plenty of time for romance and matchmaking as the liner crossed the Atlantic, but no one really expected that the company’s star, Vaslav Nijinsky, would get so close to his adoring fan, Romola de Pulszky. So close, that they decided to marry, not one day, but very soon.

On 10 September, 2013, four days after the ship arrived at Buenos Aires, the couple married at the Church of San Miguel and held a reception at the Majestic Hotel.

Nijinsky’s mother and his sister, Bronislava, were kept in the dark, deliberately, in case word got out to Sergei Diaghilev, the former lover of Nijinsky. (Diaghilev had not travelled with the company to South America.)

The only parent who knew anything about the wedding was Romola’s mother, the Hungarian actress, Emilia Markus, who received a cable from Nijinsky asking for her daughter’s hand in marriage. Her response, if any, is not in the Nijinsky/Diaghilev history books I’ve been reading.

There was, however, no need for anyone to contact Romola’s father, Karoly Pulszky.

He had been dead for 14 years, his remains lying in a grave in Brisbane, Queensland.

Karoly Pulszky had committed suicide in 1899, shooting himself with a revolver in the bush outside Myrtletown, a town near the northern bank of the mouth of the Brisbane River.

An engraved crest on his grave at the Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane, records the span of his life – “born in London, 10 November, 1853, died in Myrtletown, 5 June, 1899”.

How could any of this be possible and why would a man who had lived the good life in Budapest travel to Australia only to kill himself soon after he arrived?

This is what I’ve been able to find so far, although there are still missing parts in the puzzle.

Although he was born in London, Pulszky was a Hungarian, the son of Ferenc Pulszky, a politician, writer and scholar who spoke six languages and lived in three countries.

Karoly Pulszky was also a member of Parliament as well as the director of the Hungarian National Gallery and the founder of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.

He married Emilia in 1882 and they had two daughters, Tessa, born in 1883, and Romola, born in 1891.

Pulszky was not known for his calm demeanour.

Cable news sent to Australian newspapers from overseas reveal that in 1885, he fought a duel in Budapest with the pianist, Count Géza Zichy, a Hungarian composer who was also known as the world’s first professional one-armed pianist.

The cables noted that “both were wounded, though not severely. The quarrel arose out of an incident connected with some French visitors…at a reception in the salon of the Countess Forgach, M. Massenet and M. Delibes were accompanied by M. Pulszky.

“Count Zichy introduced the two former into the saloon, leaving M. Pulszky standing in the antechamber.

“The next day a concert of Count Zichy took place in honour of the French guests, but, in order to mark their sense of the treatment to which M. Pulszky had been subjected, they rose and purposely left the room just at the moment when Count Zichy was about to play”.

Pulszky’s golden days of salons and high society dissipated over the years and, in 1896, he was arrested for various transactions he made at the Hungarian National Gallery.

That year, in cable news columns, the press reported that Pulszky had been “arrested on a charge of injuring the frames of pictures belonging to the gallery”, which might have been one way of saying he was removing paintings from their frames to sell elsewhere.

Later that year, cable news columns revealed that he had been “arrested on charges of fraud connected with the purchase of pictures”.

I’ve not been able to find out whether he went to trial or not, but in 1898 or early 1899 Pulszky sent himself into exile, first to London and then to Australia.

The details of his death in Queensland became public knowledge much later, with the broadcast in 1982 of a radio play titled A Canticle for Karoly Pulszky, written by the Australian poet, novelist and playwright, Thomas Shapcott.

Shapcott retold the story in a novel, The White Stag of Exile, published by Allen Lane in 1984.

A Canticle for Karoly Pulszky was also published in Shapcott’s book, Selected Poems 1956-1988.

It’s a heartbreaking poem that interweaves poetry with police records.

These police records, as written in the poem, show the following:

“Deposition of John Bain on oath, Police Court, Brisbane, 10th day of June A.D.1899.

I am the licensee of the Hotel at Myrtletown. Remember Tuesday last the sixth of June. I saw Acting Sergeant Jennings on that day. He asked me to look at the dead body of a man. I saw the man the day previous. He came into my bar and had two drinks, they were shandygaffs [a mixture of bitter ale or beer with ginger-beer]. He was quite sober. He told me he was travelling for the AMP Society. He asked me to insure my life with him”.

“Charles Campbell Jennings on oath saith:

About a mile and a half the other side of Myrtletown Hotel about 400 yards from the main road I was pointed out the body of a man by a little girl called Katie Damrow. The body was lying on its left side behind a log. The right arm was bent, the hand resting on the ground was grasping a small revolver. In the right breast pocket I found a pocketbook which contained a letter addressed to Dr Hirschfeld. When I found the body the hair on his beard was slightly singed”.

“Eugen Hirschfeld on oath saith:

“I went to the hospital morgue with the German Consul. We identified Charles Pulszky whom he knew. I had known him about two months; he was that time in the colony. His father was an officer in the Austrian Army. Deceased had been married – his wife is Emilia Markus, an actress celebrated in Hungary. Deceased has two children, one fifteen years, one about eight. I do not know why deceased committed suicide”.

Footnotes:

Dr Hirschfeld migrated to Australia from Prussia in 1890. He was naturalised in 1893 and was appointed Imperial German Consul in Brisbane in 1906.

His son, Dr Otto Hirschfeld, was a physician and university chancellor.

Emilia Markus’ second husband was Oscar Pardany whom she married in 1903.

Nijinsky died in London in 1950. He was buried in London but his remains were moved to a new grave in the Montmartre cemetery in Paris in 1953.

Serge Lifar, the Russian dancer and former director of the Paris Opera Ballet paid for the statue of Nijinsky on the grave.

Romola died in Paris in 1978.

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Vaslav Nijinsky's tombstone, Montmartre Cemetery, Paris

Vaslav Nijinsky’s tombstone, Montmartre Cemetery, Paris

Károly Pulszky

Károly Pulszky

Romola Nijinsky, photo © Nick De Morgoli/Pix Inc./The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Romola Nijinsky, photo © Nick De Morgoli/Pix Inc./The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Vaslav Nijinsky and Romola de Pulszky's wedding, 1913

Vaslav Nijinsky and Romola de Pulszky’s wedding, 1913

Emilia Markus, 1903

Emilia Markus, 1903

Károly (Charles) Pulszky's grave, before reconstruction, at Toowong Cemetery, Queensland

Károly (Charles) Pulszky’s grave, before reconstruction, at Toowong Cemetery, Queensland

Károly (Charles) Pulszky's grave, after reconstruction, at Toowong Cemetery, Queensland

Károly (Charles) Pulszky’s grave, after reconstruction, at Toowong Cemetery, Queensland

White Stag of Exile, book cover

White Stag of Exile, book cover