My Friend Maxo Vanka by Louis Adamic
from My America, 1928 - 1938, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, London, 1938, pp. 156-183
IN YUGOSLAVIA I MET A NUMBER OF INTERESTING OR IMPORTANT PEOPLE, WHOM I then put into The Native's Return. To the subsequently assassinated King Alexander I gave a chapter, the same to the sculptor Ivan Mestrovich ... and to Maxo Vanka, the painter, two or three paragraphs, telling a few simple surface facts: how we - Stella and I - met him and his American wife, Margaret, and spent part of the summer with them at their seaside villa on the island of Korchula, in Dalmatia; and how the four of us, without knowing very much about one another, quickly became good friends, and in the winter met again many times at their apartment in Zagreb, Croatia. Which was about all I knew and understood about him that lent itself to brief telling. I did not mention the curious feeling I had about him from our initial meeting. He was a most extraordinary person - one of the strangest I have ever come upon anywhere.
Maxo was then - in 1932-33 - in his early forties, a small, slim man with a soft golden-brown Vandyke beard, thinning brown hair, and mild gray-blue eyes, which illumined and enlivened a thin, smooth face, faintly Semitic-seeming and strangely handsome, suggesting that this was approximately how Jesus might have looked at forty-two. Twenty years earlier, in Brussels, Maxo's fellow art students had nicknamed him Inri, after "INRI," the inscription on the Cross. He was not Jewish; had been baptized and raised a Catholic, but was now a species of mystic who swung gracefully between intellectual agnosticism and a profound peasant-like faith in God, the Virgin, and all the saints and angels in Heaven. He was born in Zagreb, but, I gathered, was not a Croat. [Although not "genetically" a Croat, as implied by Adamic, Vanka was one among greatest Croatian painters, as well as August Šenoa was in the field of literature. Plenty of analogous examples can be seen in the USA, etc. D.Ž.] He spoke excellent German, French, and Croatian, some English, Hungarian, Italian, and Slovenian, and evidently had wandered more than casually in several fields of knowledge and speculation: philosophy, psychology, ethics, history (especially the history of art), sociology, botany, birdlore, metaphysics, comparative religion.
Maxo Vanka, autportrait
What first impressed me about him was his physical strength and stamina. He was slightly over five feet, frail-, delicate-appearing, but able to walk all day, as he and I did, over the hot stony roads on the island of Korchula and, unlike myself, not be tired in the evening. He swam for hours in the Adriatic, and I marveled how that bony, almost emaciated-looking body could contain so much energy and power of endurance, and be so agile, vivid, precise, and graceful in its movements. He was a superb cook, concocting all manner of delicacies out of the simplest materials, but he himself ate little more than a sparrow.
He had been for years professor of painting at the Zagreb Academy of Art, one of the best institutions of its kind in Europe, then under the directorship of Ivan Mestrovich, who had high regard for him as a stimulating, sophisticated
teacher; and was also a recognized painter of oils and watercolors in the styles of numerous schools: a veritable virtuoso. He had annual shows at the Art Pavilion in Zagreb, and had exhibited also in Belgrade, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Brussels, and Amsterdam. His pictures were in museums and galleries all over the Continent, and in numerous private homes. In Zagreb, I saw scores of them and I liked several, including the humorous, unpretentious murals in Gradski Podrum, a popular cafe; but he interested me less as an artist than as a person. However, while in Yugoslavia, though I wondered much about him, I made no serious effort to delve into his makeup or learn his story. I was too busy watching and investigating other things, personalities, and conditions which momentarily seemed more important than Maxo. Then, too, I felt he was an extremely subtle, indirect fellow, whom it would take time to know. Perhaps Margaret would succeed in getting him to America eventually, where I might see him and he might more or less reveal himself to me.
Meantime, in Yugoslavia, I was not greatly startled when, as we talked, he repeatedly guessed or anticipated my thoughts or words, and began to respond to my remarks or questions before I completely uttered them. Nor when I saw his little canary Muri fly to him from the open cage and alight on his head, hand, or shoulders, or "play dead" at his command in his palm, or be perfectly content to squat on the bottom of his coat pocket. This sort of thing, somehow, appeared normal for Maxo. When he played with the tiny green-yellow bird, the two were sheer delight to watch. Both comedians, Maxo called Muri bad names in several languages, and Muri responded mock-angrily in his canary language, flying off, teasing his master, hiding, eluding him, jabbering away, then abruptly sailing back to him again, and song rolling out of his tiny throat the moment he landed on his head, hand, or shoulder.
Nor was I greatly surprised when I came upon Maxo in an olive grove near his house on Korchula and saw perhaps ten or a dozen sparrows, siskins, and wild canaries circling about him, cheeping and crying, swooping down between his legs, the while he laughed at them, scattering bread crumbs, some of which they caught in the air; calling them scoundrels, blackguards, unquotable names, and reaching out at them as if trying to catch them. He explained he had a "touch" of what was known as "the gift of sympathy," which he himself could not define. Very few people had it. He attracted wild birds and other wild creatures, and said that if he came to this grove regularly every day for a couple of weeks, and brought them food, the sparrows, siskins, and wild canaries would get used to him and land on his head and shoulders a la Muri, and let him touch and hold them in his hands. I had no difficulty in believing this.
Nor did it seem unnatural when, one day, as we passed a stone fence near his villa, a tiny gray lizard suddenly scurried up Maxo's trousers leg and dived into his pocket in search of crumbs, and in a few moments emerged again and, while Maxo called him a thief and scavenger, sped around the small of his back, dived into the other pocket, came out once more, then sped down
the other trousers leg and vanished in the roadside rubble. Maxo said he had "made friends" with the creature a few days before; now it seemed to be waiting for him every time he came by this spot.
Nor did Stella and I doubt him when he told us that, off and on, especially after he had not used soap for a while, butterflies were attracted to his beard. He did not know how to explain this, either, but thought there probably was something in the odor of his body that drew them to him. "Sometimes," he said, "they're really a nuisance. They get me into trouble. Once an old peasant woman in Turopolye, where I was spending a holiday, saw me with several butterflies on my beard, and she concluded I was a saint or miracleworker; and I had to leave there, lest I became an object of pilgrimages and a subject of superstition and endless controversy among the peasants .... "
He possessed a unique, delightful sense of humor, to which he gave free exercise in connection with his "gift of sympathy." One day he observed a black-and-blue butterfly flying awkwardly from stem to stem, a few feet from where we sat. One of its wings was broken. So Maxo picked up the poor, delicate little thing, which then rested on his palm; and he went in back of the house, where a few minutes before he had seen lying amid grape leaves a lately deceased yellow butterfly, whose wings - one undamaged - were about the same size as the black-and-blue one's. Then he got scissors and mucilage, neatly clipped off most of the injured wing of the live butterfly, and pasted in its place the yellow wing of the dead butterfly; and, thus mended, the live one flew off, half black-and-blue and half yellow-one of the funniest, weirdest sights imaginable. Perfectly still while Maxo was working on it with his deft, light fingers, the butterfly had seemed to know he was trying to help it. Then it flew around the house for a few hours, amusing us all, and finally disappeared.
Margaret Stetten Vanka in 1930. Source
Margaret entertained Stella and me with the story of their marriage. She was the former Margaret Stetten, daughter of the well-known Park Avenue physician and surgeon, Dr. DeWitt Stetten. In several respects the exact oppsite of her husband, she was a buxom young woman in her late twenties: frank, simple, direct. A former art student, she had touches of culture in other fields, speaking French and German besides English, and some Croatian. Her face, with its clear big eyes, was lovely, and she impressed me as "just woman," patient, generous, without ambition for herself; immensely healthy and natural, deeply and quietly purposeful.
In the summer, 1931, Margaret was motoring with her father and his wife Alice through Central Europe and the Balkans, and one day, nearing Zagreb and seeking water for their car, they halted at a small chateau off the highway. The people of the little castle, who were somewhat run-down but proud Croatian nobility, asked them in and, proceeding further along the lines of their traditional hospitality, served them refreshments.
A week-end guest at the place, Maxo Vanka was introduced to the Americans; then, following his wont, he made sketches of all of them, presented the
drawings to them, and was generally very charming-one of the easiest things he can do. His hosts owned a few of his paintings, which they showed to the Americans, who liked them. And to keep a short story short, Margaret fell in love with him, but managed not to tell him so then and there.
Basically a highly sensible person, she had lately realized she possessed no artistic talent herself and, attached to art, determined to marry an artist, preferably a poor, unrecognized one, and help him. She had a monthly income, which she wanted to put to some use. She had been looking around for some time. Now, suddenly, here in this strange country of Croatia, was this wisp of a Jesus-like man who looked every inch an artist, was evidently not rich and but faintly famous in Yugoslavia, Belgium, France, and Central Europe; and whose career, her instinct told her, had scarcely begun. She asked for his Zagreb address and said he would hear from her.
Maxo's ability to guess people's thoughts did not work in this instance. He imagined the young lady would send him a card from somewhere, or perhaps some art books he had discussed with her, for Americans were reputedly generous. In the next few weeks, when no card nor anything else came, he all but forgot her.
Then, of a sudden, a telegram from Athens: she was Zagreb-bound, and would he please promptly resign his professorship at the Academy; she wanted to marry him and they would go to live in Paris or New York, where he would really realize himself as the fine artist he was. Since their first meeting she had looked up his work scattered through the Balkans and Central Europe, and shed all doubt as to the extent of his talent.
Maxo laughed, for of course it was all a joke. These American women! An ascetic, an aesthete, a celibate, happy with his art, living in a tiny studio, he had never given marriage a thought. His professor's salary was meager, but adequate for his modest requirements. He owned the little house on Korchula, where he spent the summers. His fame, true, was nothing like Mestrovich's, but not a few people here and there appreciated him as an artist. His students responded to his teaching. His colleagues at the Acadeniy respected him. He had valued friends and was invited to their houses. Besides, he had his little Muri; and when weary of Zagreb and human contact, he could always go into the country week-ends and have a gay time in the woods and fields, all by himself, with the birds, butterflies, squirrels, and lizards.
But the next thought turned Maxo's mirth into panic. The young American person might he crazy and really come and want to marry him! He decided to hide. Not finding him, if she came, she would soon depart. And, acquainting one of his Academy colleagues with the ludicrous situation, and instructing him to tell her he had unexpectedly journeyed to Siam and Java, Maxo shuttered his studio-dwelling and disappeared.
This would have been all very well hut for the fact that Margaret Stetten, a most untrifling person, had never been more serious about anything in her life than she was now in her idea to make Maxo her husband. She came and
upset the Academy, demanding they produce Professor Vanka, then turned over half of the capital of Croatia, frankly stating her purpose; and, hearing of this in his near-by hiding place, poor, chagrined Maxo was obliged to emerge. He begged her, politely, to go away. He was an artist, a teacher of art, a confirmed bachelor, an eccentric, completely content to live alone, and, begging her to forgive his bluntness, he queried, "And, anyhow, Miss Stetten, who are you to invade my life in this manner?" She answered she loved him; in fact, if he would pardon her using American slang, she was "nuts about him," and declared her determination not to depart from Zagreb till he came with her - now what did he think of that?
Trying another tack, and being genuinely humble, Maxo asked, "But who am I that you should honor me with your love?" - "Never mind about that," returned Margaret. "I know what I'm doing." He pointed out he was fifteen years older than she, funny-looking and skinny; all to no avail. She replied she had eyes to see and knew all about that.
Staying at the Hotel Esplanade, she insisted on seeing him daily. She argued: didn't he realize he was wasting himself in a provincial city like Zagreb, in a small country like Yugoslavia? Here were no opportunities for real work, unless one was a Mestrovich; and there was room for but one Mestrovich, and he had made his name not in his native land, but in Austria, Italy, France, England, and America .... "I want to help you," declared Margaret, simply. "In France, in America, especially in America, oh, in America, you will have opportunities galore to really show what you have in you ...
Maxo saw her daily, for otherwise she would have resumed upsetting the city, and he hinted he was in truth a most difficult person, a woman-hater, and what not. Beneath his seeming mildness he was really cruel. Like all artists, he was temperamental. His Jesus-like aspect was but a disguise for the devil in him. As a Balkanite, if they married, he might beat her. Margaret laughed. He told her he was an illegitimate child, in fine, a bastard, and she averred, "What do I care!" She was utterly uninterested in his origin; it was all-sufficient to her that he lived and painted. He asked her to pardon his frankness and remarked that he thought she was crazy, and she laughed again, saying she did not care if she was. Too many sane people in the world, anyhow.
Maxo perceived "crazy" did not dispose of the young woman. She was something elemental, genuine. Although the exact opposite of her on this point, he began to respect her directness and frankness. Then, with no slight inner perturbance, he realized he was growing generally fond of her as a person and a woman. Those tremendous, honest eyes of hers! Her whole generous personality ... . By and by he began to look forward to their meetings, following his classes at the Academy. Somewhere deep inside him, he was flattered that this girl had picked him out of possibly dozens of men she knew in New York and elsewhere who probably wanted to marry her.
This went on for weeks; the affair was the talk of Zagreb. Finally, with
the amused approval of all of Maxo's friends, he succumbed and they were married.
Margaret's victory, however, while great (everybody admitted that), was only partial. Consenting to the marriage, Maxo had stipulated they would not go to France or America, but stay in Zagreb, where he had his friends and his position, which gave him a standing and an income, which, however slight in her American eyes, was enough for his expenses. In New York or Paris he would have to live off her - something he was unwilling to do. Margaret said he was silly, for what money she had was not good for anything else than to support him; but she gave in to him temporarily, and they rented an apartment that was bigger than Maxo's old dwelling.
They had been married a little over a year when Stella and I met them. Talking with Margaret, I saw that, aside from the facts that he was an illegitimate son of high Austrian nobility, and a fantastically nice human being, she knew nothing - yet, in another sense, everything - about him. His illegitimacy did not interest her. She loved and accepted him.
Two months after we met the Vankas, Margaret gave birth to a girl Peggy, from the start a remarkably vivid, enjoyable child, amazingly vital and healthy, a blend or fusion of her parents. When Stella and I visited them during the winter, the four of us wantedly spent most of the time around the crib admiring the baby, then four or five months old.
Margaret was happy in Zagreb, but her mind remained set on getting Maxo to France or America, preferably America; and, quite frankly and directly, she enlisted me in her cause, which I served willingly, urging Maxo to quit his professorship, come to New York, and take a chance at making a place for himself in American art, the modern trends of which greatly interested him. I kept telling him that his scruples about living on Margaret's income were really silly. She, herself, was not earning what she had, but was receiving it from a trust fund; and he half admitted my reasoning was sound, then expressed his fear he might have difficulty in getting himself oriented in New York. He was no longer young, there was a depression in America, and - silly or not - he had been making his own living now for so many years that he would not be comfortable there if he failed to earn some money. We argued back and forth nearly every time we got together, and when Stella and I returned to New York in the spring, 1933, Maxo did not know if he would follow us or not; I had a feeling, however, that he would, and said so to Margaret.
But Maxo hesitated for another year and a half. Then - in the autumn, 1934 - he, Margaret, and little Peggy, now two years old and palpably a prodigy, arrived in New York, and I got a mighty triumphal hug from Margaret, who believed I had helped her in getting him to decide to come to America. What had, I think, really decided him just then was his thought that he had no right
to keep his wife and child in Europe, where the dangers of war seemed to be increasing by leaps and bounds.
I enjoyed showing Maxo New York. Every few minutes, as we walked in midtown, or in the financial district, or through the Rockefeller Center, he exclaimed, "Ovo ye kolosalno! (This is colossal!) Kolosalno!" Or, "There is something here! ... power, energy, the future .... Kolosalno!" The city exhilarated him, and for two or three weeks after he came he scarcely slept. Worn out from eight or ten hours' tramping with him on hard pavement, I left him somewhere late in the evening, then he wandered alone for eight or ten hours more before he finally went home. And the next day Margaret told me he had been exclaiming "Kolosalno!" in his brief sleep, and he recounted to me what he had seen and experienced.
Because of his beard and Jesus-like appearance, or for some other reason that does not occur to me, experiences came to him thick and fast in New York, whether he was with me or alone. People gazed at him; many smiled to him; others paused to talk with him. Jews asked him was he a Jew; others, was he French or what was he. An actor? An artist? A Greek Orthodox priest? To Maxo's amusement, urchin's shouted "Whiskers!" and ran. Somewhere on the East Side I left him on the sidewalk as I entered a drug store to telephone, and on coming out found him surrounded by a mob of little boys, arguing whether he was Santa Claus; and Maxo had a great time, talking with them in his picturesquely broken English, blessing them and clowning before them. Negroes came up to him, smiled, and shook his hand. An obvious prostitute stopped him to inquire if he would let her touch him "for good luck."
Almost immediately on their arrival in New York, the over-eager Margaret arranged for an exhibition of her husband's pictures in a gallery on Fifty-seventh Street, but it was ill-managed; the paintings shown were not his best; much of his finest work remained in Europe, owned by private persons and public museums; and the New York art world did not get excited. Later the Yugoslav consul in Pittsburgh arranged an exhibition of his work there, which also set nothing on fire.
Margaret found an apartment near Peggy's kindergarten, while Maxo made his studio in an empty loft of a building owned by the Stettens in the warehouse section off the Bowery, and began to work. He drew and painted mostly bums, white and Negro workers, prostitutes who stopped him in the street or with whom he otherwise became acquainted. On warm days he went outdoors and sketched or painted warehouse-district and river-front scenes, which fascinated him. Or, clad in a pair of corduroy pants and a leather windbreaker, he just "bummed around" with his sketch-book; then came to me with vivid word-pictures, accompanied by pencil drawings, of the unemployed living in fantastic "Hoovervilles" on both ends of Williamsburg Bridge, of diverse Bowery degenerates and unfortunates, of prostitutes on the lowest rung of their profession, of drunkards imbibing shoe polish and "canned heat," and of other characters from the substrata of American society. I saw that, somehow,
his sympathies and proclivities drew him in that direction more than to Park Avenue, although he was deeply fond of his in-laws and many of their friends.
He continued to be excited about New York; and, hypersensitive to line and form, he pointed out to me beauty or ugliness where I had not seen it before, so that by and by he was showing me the city as much as I was showing it to him. We visited the art museums and galleries, and he was impressed by the power and technical skills and innovations of the recent and current American artists. But, essentially a child of the Old World, he was often also deeply confused by the New World, and, brooding, came to me with tremendous questions. What was this civilization, with these sharp contrasts? What was its center, core, motivating force? Had it a "soul"? Was it all materialism? There were so many incongruities. The "lower depths" here were frightfully deep .... He witnessed a "Communist" demonstration on Union Square, and wondered if a Red revolution was not a part of America's immediate future. I assured him no. His impression was that deep in them, many Americans were unhappy people, hungry for something, with which I more or less agreed; and he wished, laughing, he really were Jesus and able to perform in America the miracle of loaves and fishes on the spiritual and cultural plane. ... I hardly knew how to explain the country to him; I tried merely to assure him that New York was not America.
In autumn and early winter I had to give some lectures in New England, upstate New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, while magazine assignments took me as far as Pittsburgh; and, if I happened to drive, I took Maxo with me. We had a great time; his reactions to places were nearly always interesting, and I was afforded new glimpses of certain phases of his character and attractiveness which I had but dimly noticed before. For one thing, it became clear to me that he was perhaps the most intensely conscious and observant person I have ever known. Nothing escaped him.
He liked rural New England; it was "so chaste, so austere," a bit bleak and cold - and this not only physically that time of the year (late November), but spiritually. New England faces fascinated him; some, he said, were like "ghosts of Puritanism, but strong, strong; so competent, held-in, and reserved." Unlike the people of New York, where Jews, Irish, and other "foreigners" predominate, no Yankee smiled to him, or came up to speak to him, though many looked at him, curious. Those who did smile, or who paused to talk to him, in New England were invariably Irish, Jews, or Polish or Canadian immigrants or Negroes . ... As we stopped in such towns as Concord, Salem, Lynn, and Lenox, Massachusetts, or Brattleboro, Vermont, he quickly sensed - somehow, in rough outline - these communities' past, though he had never read the history of New England. He was really uncanny.
Lecturing, I was usually obliged to put up at fairly good hotels; but Maxo always went to some fourth- or fifth-rate place, often no better than flop houses - this partly because he was naturally frugal, partly because he did not want to spend any more of the money he had not earned than he had to (he
wouldn't hear of my paying his bill), but perhaps largely because, as I say, he seemed inevitably to gravitate toward the lowly, dirty, degenerate, and neglected.
In Washington, for instance, where I had to be for a week, he established himself in a "hotel" within a few blocks of the White House, where he paid a dollar a day, and the furniture, what there was of it, seemed on the verge of moving under the impulse of the vermin that must have inhabited it. ... Busy, seeing people, I left Maxo to his own devices during the day. Evenings, he usually had many things to tell me. He had discovered that his "hotel" was really a brothel, but that did not disturb him. In the Negro district, an old black woman had invited him to her house and served him coffee with molasses, which she had stirred in his cup with her finger; and he had drawn a sketch of her. ...
He made friends with a young policeman who in his spare time was trying to become a writer, and who had stopped him to talk with him. He did not know why he had stopped Maxo, unless it was that he looked like an artist who might sympathize with a would-be author, or because he had a mouthful of aching teeth he could not afford to have pulled or treated, for he had a family and other responsibilities and expenses. He had not yet succeeded in getting anything published, but had manuscripts constantly in the mails or in the editorial offices. Maxo duly sympathized with him, and the cop visited him in uniform at his "hotel," which threw its owner or manager into panic, thinking the place was being raided. Maxo showed the policeman the sketches he had done since leaving New York, and mentioned he was traveling with me, and that from Washington we were going to Pittsburgh, where a gallery was having a show of his pictures.
Pittsburgh - with its great, smoking, flaming steel mills and its ugliness which is so honest and intense it almost becomes beauty - excited Maxo even more than New York, where we returned a week or so later, and where Maxo received a long letter from the Washington policeman, written on the Pittsburgher Hotel stationery: which I want to quote, in part, because it is an amusing self-portrait, indicative of the sort of people Maxo attracts, and why:
I have a long story to tell, and much time in which to tell it. I am in Pittsburgh. Two things brought me here: my interest in you and your art, and my toothache.
The toothache, itself, is a long story. I was unable to do anything about it, as I have told you, because of "economic conditions over which - I have no control." The other day, however, my sister came to Washington for post-graduate work in nursetraining; she met a dentist at a Government hospital and arranged for me to meet him. He offered to pull my teeth without charge. He pulled seven of 'em, oh boy!
... and I sold a bit of gold bridgework for $2.90 and got a three-day sick leave; so, having now both time and money, I bought a bus ticket to Pittsburgh.
At twelve midnight, with a hundred aspirin tablets, which I was supposed to take one every hour, I boarded an old wreck of a bus. First stop Baltimore, with a
half-hour lay-over, giving me a chance to get a cup of coffee. An aspirin. Then, for two hours, to a one-horse town called Emmitsburg. The restaurant there is usually closed at 3:30 a.m., but this time it was open, waiting for some runaway boys to be brought home by the east-bound bus. Another aspirin. When the four fifteen-year-old boys arrived, I could sympathize with them; I had done the same thing at that age. At five o'clock the west-bound bus picked us up, to take us over the mountains. It, too, was light and rickety, and the road humped in the middle, rolling like a ground-swell, as well as having many turnings, going up and around mountains. Fog reduced visibility to zero, but the driver was a good one; we got to Pittsburgh at eleven, as per schedule.
I walked to the gallery, hoping to surprise you, but learned you had left the day before. I looked at your pictures through pain- and sleep-weary eyes, and could not see them till I stood well back .... They are wonderful; that's all I can say. ...
While I was there, two poorly-but-neatly clad men of swarthy complexion came in. I guess they were your countrymen from Yugoslavia, for they exclaimed delightedly to each other, pointing at pictures that seemed to represent scenes from near their home region in the Old Country.
Leaving the gallery, I wanted only to get into a horizontal position on an innerspring mattress, but I couldn't afford a hotel room; so I walked the streets. I wanted to talk to a policeman about his pay, working-hours, and equipment, but every cop I saw was busy as could be. I went into a dentist's office to ask a simple question - were my gums healing properly? He tried to high-pressure me into letting him make me a plate. I told him I was returning to Washington in a few hours; then he used high-pressure trying to sell me a thirty-five-cent bottle of mouth-wash.
I like a cup of coffee at such a time in a cheap restaurant, where I can sit at the counter and nudge the guy next to me, and ask him, "What do you think Roosevelt is trying to do?" and get some kind of answer. But here I, somehow, walked into a drug store with a fountain, all stainless steel and marble and mirrors, which chilled me, and I almost turned around, but went in, anyhow. I ordered coffee and, because of the atmosphere in the place, I spoke to the clerk instead of my neighbor on the next stool. "Well, what do you know?" said I. "Not much," said he. "How's your razor blades?" I thought this was some kind of Pittsburgh gag, and made a gesture which might mean anything. And, presto! he dropped a milkshake on the stainless steel and brought forth from each vest pocket a package of Gillette razor blades. "We're having a 'special' on these: two packs for forty-three cents." I said I was a stranger in a strange city and had only enough money to get home. He whisked the blades out of sight and left me to my coffee. Conversation comes high in Pittsburgh.
I thought to myself: "I'll write to my friend Vanka and I'll feel as though I talked to him." So here I'm writing to you in the lobby of the Pittsburgher, hoping a bell-hop will not stop me as I go out, and charge me for the stationery. ...
Driving about the country, Maxo and I talked, and he gradually told me his story.
His illegitimate parents were a son and a daughter of two of the foremost families in the Hapsburg Empire. His mother's home was in Moravia; and when her condition became apparent her conventional, scandalized mother and elder sisters sent her to distant Zagreb, in Croatia, where no one knew
her; and she lived there incognito, in charge of a midwife who specialized in such cases, till the child was born and baptized. Supplied with a sum of money for the purpose, the midwife then turned the infant over to a poverty-ridden peasant woman named Dora Yug from the near-by village of Pustcha Kuplenovo; and Dora, receiving periodically a small sum of money from the midwife for his keep, fell deeply in love with the child as though he were her own, and raised him till he was about eight years old. Though she never knew anything but poverty, Dora was a large, buxom woman of extremely rich, open, generous nature ... and it is possible that, decades afterward, Maxo succumbed to Margaret Stetten because, albeit a daughter of Park Avenue, she physically and otherwise recalled to him Dora, who - as I have tried to show in my novel, Cradle of Life, which is based on Maxo's life-story - was more his mother than was the noblewoman who had borne him.
When Maxo was eight, his maternal grandfather, one of the wealthiest Austrian noblemen, suddenly learned of the lad's existence and came in person to Pustcha Kuplenovo, took him away from Dora and, through his confidential agents, established him in a castle in Croatia, where the boy thereupon lived for some years in charge of professional tutors, not knowing who he was. His surname "Vanka" had been given him in Putscha Kuplenovo, when he started going to school and was required to have a second name.
Following his removal to the castle, Maxo never again saw his grandfather, who died soon after; but there always was ample money for his needs throughout his youth. Having an extraordinarily acute mind, and being generally very sensitive, he puzzled endlessly about himself; and puzzling, enhanced his natural acuteness and intuition, and developed an intense consciousness of himself and everything about him. Already in his 'teens, if not even earlier while he was still with Dora, nothing escaped his eyes, ears, and mind. His paid tutors and other persons with whom he came into contact, and none of whom knew who he was, were consistently kind to him; but even so a subtle insecurity or uncertainty was the principal note of his early life, and he instinctively felt it urgent for him to get along with everybody, and he learned somehow - to anticipate everyone's thoughts and desires. Which probably is important to know in order to be able to theorize about some of his experiences in America, which I shall narrate.
In his mid-'teens, he determined to become an artist and went to an art school in Zagreb. At eighteen he had a profoundly unsatisfactory interview with his real mother, who - now a highly respected married noblewoman with several legitimate children - came to see him in Zagreb. This was his first meeting with her since birth, and his last. And about this time, through channels too complex to trace here, he also learned the entire story of his origin, including the name of his father, which he was sworn to keep forever secret. And soon after this, at once vaguely and deeply unhappy as he brooded about himself, he decided to leave Croatia, to leave Austria-Hungary, and study art in Brussels, Belgium.