Mystery of the Gróf Tisza Istvan: Bela Lugosi Arrives in America by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

Gráf Tisza Istvan

The Gróf Tisza Istvan

Bela Lugosi first arrived in the United States on December 4, 1920, aboard the steamship Gróf Tisza Istvan (“Count Steven Tisza”). The ship sailed from Montefalcone, Italy. Lugosi, then 38 and listed in the ship’s manifest as “apprentice,” worked in the crew. Upon disembarking in New Orleans, he went to New York City. No later than March 1921, he was living at 109 West 93rd Street in Manhattan.

The manifest of the Gróf Tisza Istvan for the voyage is preserved in the U. S. National Archives. Also in the archives is Lugosi’s declaration of March 23, 1921 on Ellis Island in New York City. These terse documents, with shipping news published in New Orleans newspapers, are the hard evidence of Lugosi’s coming to America.

Lugosi rarely reminisced about his time on the Gróf Tisza Istvan. One brief comment occasionally appears in publicity releases for his 1930s and 1940s films:

“It was in December, in 1920 that I left Europe on a cargo-boat. The weather was appalling. In a very heavy sea and storm the cargo of the boat was in a slanting position, which resulted in a delay in our scheduled arrival to New Orleans before Christmas. You can imagine spending, unprepared, a Christmas Eve on a slanting, floating cargo boat. I locked myself in my cabin, and the rest is too personal to me to be given to the public.”

Lugosi embellishes the account, but not much. He left Europe in late October, not December, and spent Christmas Eve safely onshore, perhaps in New York. His ranking in the crew probably did not merit having his own cabin. For most of his life, he did have a touchy stomach; and the Gráf Tisza Istvan indeed was weeks late on a routine voyage. The weather, as Lugosi recalled, is the most likely reason.

In a 1941 interview for Modern Screen, Lugosi elaborated to Gladys Hall:

“Our cargo was steel plates. There was a very heavy storm at sea. Our ship turned over on its side and for three and a half weeks we were that way. Five weeks it took us to go from Trieste to New Orleans. Spend three and a half weeks turned sidewise upon a raging sea and the mind totters and heaves like the seas beneath.”

The Gróf Tisza Istvan arrived in New Orleans about 5 weeks after leaving Trieste, and about three and a half weeks after leaving Gibraltar and entering the open Atlantic. The cargo on arrival in the United States, as reported in the December 7, 1920 Times-Picayune, was not steel plate, but 12,250 boxes of lemons, 185 cases of grapes, 230 cases of preserves, 275 bags of almonds and 125 bags of fillet nuts. The produce was loaded in Palermo about a week after the Gráf Tisza Istvan left Trieste. Quite possibly, steel was loaded at Trieste, an industrial port, and unloaded at Palermo.

For each member of the crew, the ship’s manifest lists name, age, sex, race & nationality, height & weight, ability to read, date & place of signing on, and position in the ship’s company. Average height and weight of the crew are 5’7” and 152 pounds, typical of the time. The average age was 32. Lugosi, at 6’1”, was the tallest man onboard, and at age 38 was six years older than his Captain, Lodovico Szabo. Race of all 39 men aboard voyage is given as “European”, and nationality as “Italian”, though clearly many were not. Only three were illiterate, all of them part of the nine-man team of “firemen” who stoked coal into the engine furnaces.

Gráf Tisza Istvan Manifest

List or Manifest of Aliens Employed on the Vessel as Members of Crew

From the manifest, movements of the Gróf Tisza Istvan prior to the voyage can be discerned. Some of the crew were “old hands”— had been on the ship for months and years — but most positions saw high turnover. The ship’s homeport was Montefalcone, about 20 miles northwest along the coast from Trieste. Groups of men signed-on about every two weeks: around September 25, 1920 (when Captain Szabo took command), then around October 10 and again around October 25. Two weeks is not long enough for a round trip voyage to America, so the Gróf Tisza Istvan probably did charters in the Mediterranean. Lugosi joined the company at Montefalcone on Thursday, October 26. He and 24 year-old Natale Miandielo were the last crewmembers to board before leaving port.

The document in the National Archives is the “List or Manifest of Aliens Employed on the Vessel as Members of Crew” required of any vessel landing in a US port. Captain Szabo prepared the document in English, and sailed for Palermo to load the fruit, nuts and preserves.

The manifest lists Lugosi as apprentice (ie, “Appr.”). Ship’s crews are usually rather young. A 38 year-old apprentice in any field, especially at sea, is quite rare. Lugosi must have been rather persuasive to land the job.

The U.S. Consulate at Palermo notarized the crew manifest when the Gróf Tisza Istvan again set sail on November 3. The vessel stopped briefly at Gibraltar to take on two more crewmen, Romeo Fiume and Mario Leban, and again the local U. S. Consulate notarized the amended manifest. On November 9, the ship sailed into the Atlantic. Coming from land-locked Hungary, Lugosi had never seen an ocean before.

On November 13, The Times-Picayune estimated the Gróf Tisza Istvan arrival as November 22. On the 22nd, the ship was nowhere in sight, and thereafter day-by-day each update of shipping activity pushes the arrival back a day. The crew manifest includes no radio officer, and perhaps the ship had no way to communicate its delay to shore. On the night of December 4, twelve days overdue, the Gráf Tisza Istvan reached New Orleans. It had to wait a day for a berth on St. James Street. In addition to Lugosi, five men disembarked.

No more information can be squeezed from the manifest and shipping news, but they can be measured against the full-blooded account in Robert Cremer’s 1976 biography Lugosi – The Man Behind the Cape. Cremer pieces together the tale Lugosi himself allegedly told in private, and the recollections of a shipmate, Hugo Koepleneck. Both versions came to Cremer via Lugosi’s long-time friend, Willi Szittja.

A brief summary of the Cremer/Szittja/Koepleneck account is: Lugosi arrived in Trieste from Berlin in mid-October 1920. He hoped to hire on a ship bound for the United States. His only credentials were his time almost 20 years before as a riveter and machinist’s apprentice. Luigi Cozzi, the portmaster in charge of issuing seamen’s papers, saw through Lugosi’s claims of experience; but Cozzi was perhaps touched by the refugees’ plight. Lugosi never saw Cozzi again, but as with anyone that helped him, Lugosi never forgot his generosity. Lugosi got his papers, signed on the Gráf Tisza Istvan, and watched the iron beams loaded.


Lugosi’s only previous seafaring experience was portraying an accordion-playing sailor in Johann Hopkins III, which he made in Germany in 1920.

(Image courtesy of

That Lugosi is “apprentice” in the ship’s company implies that the job was more due to Cozzi’s kind heart than any shortage of men. Lugosi remembered his position as “assistant engineer.” No such position exists in ships’ companies, and the Gróf Tisza Istvan had a full complement of Chief, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Engineers. With a crew of 36 already onboard at Trieste, the ship was not undermanned. It did stop to take on two more men at Gibraltar, but that was probably a simple economy: they were not needed in the Mediterranean, but would be in the Atlantic.

Cremer’s tale becomes fantastic once the Gróf Tisza Istvan passes Gibraltar. After a few days developing sea legs, Lugosi regained his good spirits and a rather expansive mood. He regaled the crew with tales of his exploits in Hungary, and met with stony silence. In 1919 he had sided with the revolutionaries; the crew almost to a man were royalists. Lugosi might have gleaned a hint of their political leanings from the ship’s namesake. Count István Tisza, one time prime minister of Hungary and frequent target of assassination, died in the fourth attempt on his life on October 31, 1918 (during what is remembered as the “Chrysanthemum Revolution”). The same political upheaval that later drove Lugosi out of Hungary brought to trial Tisza’s killers, all Communist extremists. That trial was just beginning as the Gráf Tisza Istvan entered the open ocean.

The crew’s hostility against Lugosi — so goes Cremer’s account — grew until his very life was in danger. Even Captain Szabo gave his tacit approval of disposing of the “traitor”. Chief Engineer Koepleneck and 2nd Engineer Felix Hartman became Lugosi’s protectors, and literally hid him for weeks in the bowels of the ship. The thirst for Lugosi’s blood did not slacken through the weeks of the voyage, and he constantly changed his hiding place to evade capture. Koepleneck and Hartman smuggled him food when they could. When the Gróf Tisza Istvan at last arrived in New Orleans, an exhausted, starving Lugosi scrambled over the side, and was picked up by the harbor patrol.

Can this incredible story be true? If such hostility did indeed erupt onboard, it had to be after Gibraltar when Lugosi could no longer leave. All the men who left the ship in New Orleans, including Lugosi, have a simple “discharged” stamped above their names in the manifest. No indication of exceptional circumstances for Lugosi. An overriding concern of freighter captains is avoiding delays in entering or leaving ports, particularly those involving port and government authorities. Such delays are expensive, especially with a cargo of ripening fruit already two weeks late in the hold. Would Captain Szabo have encouraged a situation that could only invite inquiries? And why must Lugosi starve with a cargo of grapes, nuts and preserves to feast on?

Declaration, NYC, 1920

Lugosi’s declaration of March 23, 1921 on Ellis Island in New York City

The manifest does not suggest a crew of Hungarian royalists bemoaning the loss of their monarchy. Of the 39 men listed, 17 have Italian surnames; another 13 Italian first names. In the manifest, Koepleneck (spelled “Kaplanek”) is not the Chief Engineer, as related by Cremer and Szittja, but 2nd Officer, a far less senior position. There is no 2nd Engineer Felix Hartman, The closest to that name in the crew is Felice Vukosia, who as 1st Steward would have been most able to smuggle food. Did Kaplanek simply get some names wrong when he told his story to Szittja? Over the years, did Kaplanek shift his most colorful sea tale to his most famous shipmate, and also give himself a promotion? If not — if Kaplanek’s tale is true — could Lugosi have resisted telling his own version of this most incredible adventure? For sailors and actors alike, tall tales get taller over time.

On March 23, 1921 Lugosi reported to Immigration Services on Ellis Island off New York City, and completed an “Inspector’s Interrogation During Primary Alien Inspection,” paid by money order a “head tax,” and passed a physical examination permitting him to stay in America. Lugosi incorrectly states that the Gróf Tisza Istvan sailed from Trieste, about 20 miles along the coast from Montefalcone. Trieste is the larger port, and Lugosi perhaps received his seaman’s papers there. On the declaration, he lists his occupation as “sailor,” reports having $100 in cash, and answers all questions about nationality, race, language and country of birth as “Roumanian.” Lugosi had a legal claim to Rumanian citizenship, since his birthplace Lugoj became part of that country (and still is) after World War I. He himself may not have been sure of which country claimed him — in 1931, on becoming a naturalized American, Lugosi formally relinquished citizenship in both Hungary and Rumania.

With the March 23, 1921 declaration, Lugosi had completed all requirements for his arrival in the United States, and had before him a new life in the New World. In a year he would make his stage debut in English language, and in ten years would be world-famous as the screen’s Count Dracula.

Documents in the National Archives are accessible online, and search engines allow quickly finding. This essay used Ancestry.Com charges a membership subscription, but often free trial periods.

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To order a copy of Frank J. Dello Stritto’s critically acclaimed book, A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore – The Mythology & History of Classic Horror Films, Please contact him directly at:


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3 responses to “Mystery of the Gróf Tisza Istvan: Bela Lugosi Arrives in America by Frank J. Dello Stritto.

      • Wonderful article and very informative. I often think about what went through Bela’s mind a few years later when next he sailed on another ship: this one sailing to Hawaii to film the Charlie Chan film “The Black Camel.” He was a survivor; Long Live Lugosi!
        -Peter H. Brothers, author of “Devil Bat Diary – The Journal of Johnny Layton.”


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