A Hungarian noble's path to Pittsburgh

Elegant and modest, Count Antal Karolyi spent his final years near his daughter


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A nurse at the Lawrenceville senior community home suspected that the quiet man might have a regal past.

In their room at Canterbury Place, Anthony Karolyi and his wife often flipped through albums of old family photos. There were "beautiful houses" in these pictures, the nurse, Suzanne Carben, recounted. They hinted at a former life of luxury, one from a different time.

"They were like things you would see in 'Masterpiece Theatre,' " she said. "The older houses were really grand. On the back of one photo, it said 'Karolyi House, Budapest.' "

It wasn't until after he died June 4 that Mrs. Carben learned the old man who loved sweets was a member of Hungarian nobility.

Born Count Antal Karolyi, the retiree moved to the city nine years ago to be close to his daughter, South Side resident Josita Karolyi Person. His wife, Josette Karolyi, is still a resident at Canterbury Place. Until shortly after his death at age 85, his family had chosen to keep their titles largely private.

"I didn't know if I wanted to open up this bubble," Mrs. Person said. "But we decided that it would be a way to honor his memory -- to put it out in the public domain."

A comprehensive detailing of the Karolyi lineage is here.

Mr. Karolyi lived two lives: one as Antal, the young noble, and another as Anthony, the charming emigre who rose in the ranks of insurance brokerage firm Marsh & McLennan.

Caught in the Soviet invasions of 1944, Mr. Karolyi and his family fled their home at Magocs manor when he was 15 years old. They were among the thousands of Hungarians who took refuge in Austria, where they waited 31/2 years for Mr. Karolyi's father, Viktor Karolyi, to be released from a political prison in Budapest.

It was a stark removal from the privilege the family had enjoyed just a few years earlier.

As a member of one of Hungary's most illustrious families, Mr. Karolyi grew up on a large estate, surrounded by acres of trees and lush fields. He and his siblings were attended to by a host of household staff, and were educated in the fine arts from an early age. Mrs. Person said they disliked being referred to by their full name and title, which set them uncomfortably apart from other children at school.

His sister, Sophie Karolyi Edwards, who lives in New Zealand, recalled that her brother could get along with anyone regardless of their social status, especially if they shared his interest in mechanics.

Against his parents' wishes, the count taught himself how to drive when he was 14 years old. While these clandestine sessions were initially met with dismay, the skill soon came to good use as World War II events in Hungary took a violent turn. It was by car, and through Mr. Karolyi's natural driving ability, that the family escaped advancing tanks.

"We heard what sounded like thunder," Mrs. Edwards said. It was the drum of heavy artillery fire from the Soviet army.

While in Austria with his mother and siblings, Mr. Karolyi worked as a delivery boy for the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which served the U.S. armed forces. He drove past a checkpoint every day, where his truck was inspected for contraband and smuggled passengers. Eventually, they let him through without stopping.

On one of his routes, Mr. Karolyi was approached by an 11-year-old boy, who came to him disheveled and in tears.

"My town was bombed and I can't find my parents," the boy said. "I have an aunt and uncle on the other side of the border." Mr. Karolyi hid the boy underneath a pile of newspapers, transporting him to the next town.

Starting over in Brazil

At age 21, he moved with his family to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he met his future wife, Josette Daly.

Before she became Mrs. Karolyi, Josette was the fashion editor for Ladies' Home Journal, and she was introduced to the young count through a mutual Hungarian friend. As it turned out, Josette had her own distinguished history: On her mother's side, she was a descendant of the noble Spanish family Ladron de Guevara.

Josette's mother was concerned that her daughter might marry someone who wasn't a "proper gentleman." While she was pleased after her first encounter with Mr. Karolyi, she made sure that he knew the repute of her own family.

"There was a joke among our relatives," said Mr. Karolyi's son, Stephen Karolyi, who now lives in Palm Beach, Florida. "They would ask, whose family is more illustrious?"

But as the Karolyis worked toward forging a new life, their lineage faded into the background.

"They left Hungary barely with their shirts on their back," Stephen Karolyi said. "They went from having the type of wealth that the Vanderbilts have to extreme poverty."

Having been forced to stop his formal schooling at age 15, Mr. Karolyi was tasked with teaching himself Portuguese. He became fluent in the language in five years; prior to that, he had been educated in English and French by private tutors.

Mr. Karolyi started making his living in Brazil by fixing television sets. One morning, he returned to his garage to find that he had been robbed of his entire inventory and store of equipment. He decided then that it was time for a change.

Through his brother-in-law, an investment banker at the time, Mr. Karolyi obtained a position as junior trainee at the Sao Paulo office of insurance brokerage company Johnson & Higgins. From there he rose in the ranks, moving to Marsh & McLennan, another insurance firm, and ultimately serving as its resident director in Europe.

His work with Marsh & McLennan took him to New York City in 1965, where he stayed for five years until relocating to Europe, based in Brussels.

Mr. Karolyi's professional successes allowed his family to live in relative comfort. They traveled to countries across Europe, making the acquaintance of other young notables.

A reminder of this social lifestyle used to sit in Mr. Karolyi's room in Canterbury Place: A black-and-white photo, framed, depicts him and his wife dressed to the nines. Mr. Karolyi is clad in tuxedo, and Mrs. Karolyi in evening gown. She is running down the steps toward him. They're late, and holding hands.

But these luxuries had no bearing on Mr. Karolyi's temperament, which those who knew him remember as genuinely kind.

"He was -- I have to say -- always a gentleman," said Michelle Strobel, the social work director at Canterbury Place. "He was a very humble guy. He didn't talk a lot about his history."

As Mr. Karolyi neared his last days, his room swelled with well-wishers. While Mr. Karolyi was not one for social activity in his old age, his fellow residents nonetheless admired his introspective nature, and sensed in him a "crazy spark and spirit," Mrs. Person said.

This spirit was an empathetic one, too, as he was known to look out for others at even his lowest points.

A few days before Mr. Karoyli's passing, his nurse, Mrs. Carben, came to check on him. She asked him if he was in any pain. He looked up at her and responded, "No, are you?"

But for a tense visit to Soviet-era Hungary in the summer of 1975, Mr. Karolyi did not return to his home country until the early 1990s, when he led the establishment of Marsh & McLennan in Hungary. The project not only marked the culmination of his career, but also followed immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain -- and with it, a dismantling of the forces which had displaced Mr. Karolyi.

The Pittsburgh generation

The connection was not lost on Mrs. Person, who considers herself a "new-age noble."

The count's daughter lives in a church-turned-condominium on the South Side. A framed family tree, outlined in ink, hangs in the bathroom. The diagram is topped with the Karolyi coat of arms, a blue and white crest flanked by golden lions. Somewhere on the tree is a link to Mary, Queen of Scots. The last entries are Mrs. Person's American-born children: Petra, Piper and Solon.

Mrs. Person said while she rarely discusses her noble lineage, her parents nevertheless instilled in her "an inbred sense of right or wrong" -- a "noblesse oblige."

"I take it all with an enormous drop of humor," she said. "It's not what defines me."

Formerly married to a native Pittsburgher, Mrs. Person has lived here for 19 years. After completing high school in England, she attended Lake Forest College in Illinois, and has been a resident of the United States ever since. She feels at home in the city, where she has found a richness of Eastern European nationalities. Croatian, Slavic and Hungarian flags hang from windows; festivals and bars celebrate the cultures year-round.

In her mind, Pittsburgh stands out among other American cities because of its residents' dedication to preserving their cultural heritage.

"A lot of people arrive in the United States wanting to forget their background," she said. "In Pittsburgh, especially in the South Side, you can still taste it -- the tough life that people here came from."

While she is one generation removed from the tumult of emigration, the ideal of the American dream is not lost on Mrs. Person, who inherited the title of countess at birth. She is taken by the stories of people who, like her father, left their homelands in search of something greater.

Perhaps for this reason, Mrs. Person doesn't believe that her story is unique.

"Everybody's got a heritage," she said. "They just don't know it."


Yanan Wang: ywang@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.

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