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Carola Szilvássy - Biography

Baroness Elemér Bornemissza, Carola Szilvássy was the most radiant figure of Transylvanian aristocratic society before the Second World War. As a member of one of the wealthiest families of the time, she was active in many areas of cultural life. Her captivating beauty was matched by her remarkable courage, persistence and intelligence.

Artistic personality
Carola Szilvássy was born in 1876, the daughter of Béla Szilvássy, one of the wealthiest landowners, and Antónia Wass, similarly of noble origins. Even in her early childhood she started to reinterpret social conventions, no doubt ruffling many feathers among the older members of the aristocracy. She followed age-old customs in a different way and gave an innovative twist to codes of conduct. She showed great taste in fashion, she was always one step ahead of the crowd and was capable of putting the spotlight on herself purely with her presence. In the first decade of the 20th century she tried her hand as actress and director, creating a memorable part in the lead role of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Contemporary critics wrote that her acting was thoughtful, emotionally involved and free of all excess. In 1913, she directed the film Apache Woman’s Love (Apacsnő szerelme) together with Elemér Hetényi.

“The baroness appears as a genuine and original personality. Yesterday, we were acquainted with such an artistic personality whose entire soul was captured and mastered by the spirit of the great poet. A person whose entire being became inseparable from that fictitious figure whose depiction she undertook.” (Az Újság. Kritika, from 1905)
In the second half of her life she conducted active public duties in numerous areas. She was exceptionally skilled in literature and the arts, and her opinion was extremely important for authors of the day. In addition to Hungarian, she spoke German, French, English and Italian. She openly called for women’s equality and declared herself an internationalist. She was a member of the Erdélyi Helikon group, deputy chair of the Transylvanian Stage Patrons’ Society, and an enthusiastic leader of the Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár) Reformed Guild of Women. She turned her acting skills to good use at gatherings and recitals of the Kemény Zsigmond Society. Author Miklós Bánffy modelled the character of Adrienne Milóth, heroine of Transylvanian Trilogy, on her.

Carola Szilvássy’s lifestyle also reflected modern thinking in that she always placed great stress on her appearance. Descriptions of the time say she had a magnificent, strong-muscled form, in addition to which she regularly played sports, toured, rode horses and enjoyed a healthy diet. Accordingly, she always managed to maintain a figure that belied her age.
“As much as she hated, so she equally passionately loved.” /J.K./
She was attracted both in art and in life to unique things and people. She came to know the famous author-politician Miklós Bánffy when she was still young. The two remarkable personalities quickly noticed each other. Although they both felt deeply for each other, they never married because Bánffy’s father refused to consider the match. In the end, Carola married Baron Elemér Bornemissza, although their life together did not last long. When their only son died of scarlet fever, they separated. From that time on Carola only ever wore black. Although they never divorced, the baron continued to support his wife’s public activities and social life. Miklós Bánffy took Aranka Várady, a celebrated actress, as a wife. He maintained a close friendship with Carola, a subject of much gossip among the members of aristocratic society.

“They made no secret of their fondness for each other, everyone knew this. It remained uncertain whether there was any affair between them. However, they bore their connection with heads held high and precisely because of this, their society acknowledged it.” (From the first volume of the Transylvanian Trilogy – They Were Counted [1934])
African expedition
In 1909, Carola and her cousin left for South Africa to locate the grave of their relative (cousin, respectively brother) Albert Wass, who was killed in the Second Boer War. Several senior members of the diplomatic corps warned them of the dangers of their expedition, yet still the two women remained steadfast in their goal of sprinkling the earth of Transylvania over the resting place of the young man who died a hero. They travelled by boat and horse and set off without any male escort. They concluded the mission successfully, as reported in many articles of the day.
The first woman in Hungary to fly
The pilot Louis Blériot, who arrived in Hungary in 1909, held a dramatic air display above a crowd numbering many thousands. This was the first time a plane had flown over Hungary. According to contemporary accounts, Carola asked her husband to persuade the pilot to take her up as well, and her husband immediately complied with the request. However, the idea was never seriously entertained by Blériot, therefore to dissuade her he asked the baron for an astronomical sum. Within half an hour, the baron had handed over the money to the astonished pilot, thus it was that Baroness Elemér Bornemissza, Carola Szilvássy was the first Hungarian woman to take a seat in a plane.

“The baron said that it was not his custom to carry around such a sum, but if Blériot could wait half an hour then he would send somebody to his bank. Blériot couldn’t believe it when half an hour later he received the requested sum. Thus it happened that my godmother became the first woman in the world to fly. At that time it was a huge step towards recognition of equal rights for women!” (Zoltán Óvári: From My Memoirs /Emlékeimből/. Kriterion. 2004)
She never cared for affected allures
In Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár), Carola was reckoned to be the centre of social life, and she was noticed wherever she went. She understood how to scandalize public opinion. One of her most talked about acts was when she took in a condemned murderer’s lover who was pregnant. After this the woman lived with and served Carola to the end of her life.
– She is not responsible for what her lover did, said Karola. She, too, has a right to a roof over her head, a warm room and her child. If she wants, she can stay with me for ever. (János Kemény: Cuckoo Fledglings /Kakukkfiókák/. Kriterion Publisher Bucharest, 1972)
War years
Carola undertook a great role in helping the sick and poor. In 1907, she enrolled to the medical faculty of Cluj-Napoca’s (Kolozsvár) Hungarian Royal József Ferencz University of Science in order to obtain a qualification. She completed her studies in three years and was authorized to travel to the front where she worked as an assistant nurse to surgeons and steadfastly tended the injured. Every day she made brief and insightful notes in her diary about what had happened. Her concise, laconic observations create a picture of the fate of nameless soldiers the baroness attended to with great compassion. During the Second World War, as the Romanians attacked she saved 150 orphaned infants from the fire and destruction of Sibiu (Nagyszeben).
Transylvania’s finest cuisine
All those lucky enough to have dined with the baroness always spoke in glowing terms of her knowledge of the art of cuisine. She was fully able to stand her ground as a housewife and she was an avid collector of the traditional and new recipes, and dining customs, of Transylvania’s aristocracy. The recipes came to light when sorting through the inheritance of Baron János Kemény. In 2009, literary historian Ildikó Marosi edited a book of these recipes. The author ensured that Carola’s original way of writing was preserved. Recipes include ones for rabbit and goose liver pate, horseradish and orange, lemon and sour cream tongue and even Richelieu turkey Transylvanian style. A curiosity of this cookbook is that the descriptions do not include accurate measurements of ingredients, thus leaving plenty of room for experimentation.
A bouquet of red roses
The baroness died at the age of 72, in 1948. According to some of those who attended the funeral, Miklós Bánffy left a bouquet of red roses on the grave in Cimitirul Central (Házsongárd) cemetery. We know little about her will, just that she left the diary she kept while at the front and her collection of recipes to János Kemény.
János Kemény, founder of the Erdélyi Helikon writers’ circle, thus remembers the godmother of his child in the novel Cuckoo Fledglings /Kakukkfiókák/.
“Even then Karola was one of those women who everybody had to take a stand on, either for or against her. From the start, her life was a series of battles. As a young girl she constantly scandalized grand old ladies and conservative gentlemen who were sticklers for etiquette. She passionately sought out those occasions when she could knock down those religiously preserved social rules of etiquette. If she wanted to chat with her male acquaintances, she couldn’t bear having a chaperone hovering around. She openly declared herself to be a believer in full equal rights for women and she enthused over the cause of the suffragettes. (…) Nobody dared to oppose her openly, yet she was scolded and derided all the more behind her back. She made no secret of the fact that she despised lukewarm people because she could only hate or love. She had a magnificent figure, a healthy, well proportioned, strong-muscled body, and unsettlingly glowing emerald eyes. (János Kemény: Cuckoo Fledglings /Kakukkfiókák/. Kriterion Publisher Bucharest 1972)
Baroness Elemér Bornemissza, Carola Szilvássy: Candid Notes of Cluj-Napoca (Kolozsvár) (Kendőzetlen feljegyzések Kolozsvárról)