Wild Wooing Tactics of a Temperamental Adonis: Bela Lugosi and Ilona Von Montagh

Bela Lugosi’s second wife was the Hungarian actress Ilona Von Montagh. Born around 1899, by her teens she was giving acclaimed performances in the play Polish Blood at the Royal Theatre in Budapest. By 1916 she had entered the film world, appearing in two films that year. Despite her early success, she decided to travel to Berlin to study acting. Arriving in 1919, her thoughts of study were soon abandoned when a performance at the city’s Metropol Theatre led to her being offered the lead in the opera Königin der Luft (Queen of the Sky) at the Lessing Theatre. This was followed by further theatrical success and a role in the film Juck und Schlaw.

Ilona Von Montagh

Lugosi also arrived in Berlin in 1919, having fled Hungary following the fall of Béla Kun’s short-lived post-war Communist regime in April. As the former head of the National Union of Actors under Kun, Lugosi feared that he would fall victim to the counter-revolutionary “White Terror” that swept through Budapest.  He had left Hungary with his first wife, Ilona Szmik, who was fifteen years his junior. The couple first made their way to Vienna, where Lugosi revealed his intention to make a new life in America. Still deeply attached to her parents, Ilona was unwilling to follow him, and returned to Hungary alone. While consoling himself with an affair with Violetta Napierska, his co-star in three of his German films, Lugosi wrote to Ilona from Berlin, pleading for her to join him. In return, she pleaded for him to return to Budapest. When he refused, presumably still fearing for his life, she divorced him in July 1920.

Lugosi had an affair with the actress Violetta Napierska in Berlin before sailing for America

After the divorce Bela worked his passage from Trieste to America as a hand aboard the steamship Gróf Tisza Istvan, arriving in New Orleans in December 1920. He presented himself to immigration officials on Ellis Island on March 23 in 1921. By a complete coincidence, Ilona Von Montagh was also in New York, having arrived on January 6. She had sailed from Hamburgh at the invitation of the New York-based impresario Gustave Ambery. Born in Prague in 1844, Ambery had travelled to America at the age of 20 and quickly established himself as one of the most important figures in the German-American theatre, eventually building his own theatre, Amberg’s German Theatre, in 1888. Specialising in presenting European productions, Ambery premiered many Berlin and Viennese operettas, presented the great German performers of the day and produced the first American performance of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. By the time Von Montagh arrived in New York, he had long lost control of his theatre and had spent the previous fifteen years procuring plays he thought suitable for American audiences on behalf of legendary theatre owners and producers the Shuberts. In what production he intended to introduce her to New York audiences is unknown, but whatever plans he had were cut short by his death from heart disease at the age of 77 on May 23, 1921. He left behind debts totalling $35,558. Among his creditors was Ilona Von Montagh herself for her unpaid theatrical contract. 

Ilona’s name is misquoted in this article from the Evening Telegram, February 19, 1921

The Ambitious actress had not sat around idly waiting for Ambery to find a suitable vehicle for her. She had taken matters into her own hands. The February 19th, 1921, edition of The Evening Telegram announced that she would make her American debut in The Modern Hungarian Stage production of the comedy Almost Married at the Thirty-Ninth Street Theatre in New York on the following evening. Her co-star was Bela Lugosi. If Lugosi and Von Montagh had made each other’s acquaintance  in either Budapest or Berlin remains a mystery, but he cannot have failed to have been aware of her tremendous success in Berlin during his stay in the city. After Almost Married the pair worked together in a string of successful Hungarian-language plays either as co-stars or with Lugosi directing Von Montagh. Their close working relationship quickly led to romance and the couple married in September of 1921. The marriage began to falter as quickly as the romance had blossomed. Despite their continued theatrical success, Lugosi wanted his bride to retire from the stage and conform to his conception of what a good Hungarian wife should be. He later summed up those ideals in an interview. “The Hungarians believe that the man should take care of the woman. Her divine profession is motherhood.” Ilona, however, believed her “divine profession” was on the stage. The couple separated and apart from a brief reconciliation in 1922, the marriage was over. He later claimed that they were only together for fourteen days. According to her, it was two months. Either way, they were not divorced until February 13, 1925.

Prior to the divorce, Von Montagh told the story of their stormy relationship in a syndicated article which appeared in newspapers across America in December 1924. In the sensational piece, she recounted Lugosi’s bizarre attempts to win her back after their separation, which allegedly included everything from dognapping to tying her up on the top deck of  a bus. It is impossible to know how much of her account was true. Lugosi himself neither confirmed nor denied it, and failed to attend the divorce proceedings.

Lugosi divorce, from Ilona Von Montagh, Daily Register Gazette, January 5, 1925

Daily Register Gazette, January 5, 1925

Little is known of Von Montagh’s life after the divorce. Her once spectacular career fizzled out in America. On June 21, 1935, the former toast of Budapest and Berlin was caught shoplifting with her friend Irene Humphrey in B. Altman and Company’s New York department store. According to one report, the pair, who shared a penthouse apartment, claimed they had done it “on a bet with a college fellow,” to which store detective John Larkin replied, “Well you lost a bet.” The New York Times reported that Von Montagh claimed “she had completed writing a book and needed publicity.” The pair also found themselves being chased by a trust company for unpaid debts. Humphrey escaped their plight by getting married shortly afterwards. What became of Von Montagh remains a mystery. (Andi Brooks)

Despite her claims, Von Montagh was not a countess as reported in the The Evening News (North Tonawanda), June 21, 1935


The Hamilton Evening Journal, Dec. 27, 1924

Wild Wooing Tactics of a Temperamental Adonis

Bogus Whiskers, Fake ‘Phone Calls, Groans, Tears and Mad Love on a Bus-Top — Thus Does Pretty Ilona Describe Her Heartsick Husband’s Attentions to Herself.

Ever since crude but caressing cavemen socked their sweethearts with clubs and bounced boulders off their heads to prove that love is real, man has been trying to find some utterly novel sort of wooing.

Leave it to handsome Bela Lugosi to solve tho puzzle with high honors! Born in romantic Buda-Pesth; like moat Continentals, dark, dashing and debonair, young Lugosi, says his wife, has invented more heart-tactics, than highballs have created headaches.

Among his affectionate strategies—Mrs. Lugosi, known on the stage as the beautiful Ilona von Montagh, firmly asserts— are the following:

One dog-kidnaping, to an obbligate of wifely tears;

One overworked telephone, through which filtered sobs and pleas for a reconciliation (and the funny part of this was that not Bela, but mysterious deputies of his, always called up);

Innumerable personal appearances of alleged “newspaper reporters,” who didn’t know a “stick” from an agate-rule — also deputies;

One bogus set of whiskers, which startlingly enabled Hubby to masquerade as his own spokesman;

Two dainty ankles and ditto wrists, firmly tied on top of a Fifth Avenue bus;

AND —-

Two ribs, belonging to the loveliest English actress making her home in “the States,” cracked either by Bela’s excessive talent as a footlight lover, or by his private and pulsing emotions.

Was Lugosi’s alledged affair with Estelle Winwood as phoney as the story of him breaking her ribs in an onstage embrace during a performance of The Red Poppy?

Miss Estella Winwood, the British star and victim of the crushing biceps, says that the first-mentioned theory is “just a bally lot of tosh, you know,” with her best Mayfair accent. What Bela thinks is nobody’s business. At least, he refuses to be Interviewed on the subject.

Meanwhile, the sad side of the story is that, besides Miss Winwood’s ribs, something else has been  fractured. That is a heart, and it belongs to the magnetic Ilona. So deep proved the dent which Bela inflicted on the core of her affections that she demanded a divorce. Even now as she sits before the hearth in her dainty home on Riversidc Drive, New York.City, the only objects she can see in the flames arc phony  moustaches and maddening manacles, reflected from memory. But she cheers up when she thinks that very soon she will get her final decree—maybe.

How different all this is from the beginning of Ilona’s and Bela’s romance! Theirs was a spontaneous, fiery  match, in which love of their mutual art and for each other vied.

The details of their meeting, interest and infatuation were enough to furnish half a dozen novels. Fraulein von Montagh, born into one of the most aristocratic families in Buda-Pesth, had yearned since childhood for a stage career. Her relatives, true to form the world over, antagonized the idea.

But Ilona persisted, at the expense of her kin’s cold shoulders. She drudged around for a while in “bits” and then suddenly flashed into stardom in a spectacular flight over night. The vehicle which carried the dark-eyed beauty into heavens of applause, flowers and adulation was the “Florodora” of Central Europe, “The Girl from the Black Forest.” This show ran and ran, no rival ever getting within shooting distance of its record.

Fraulein von Montagh played it in Buda-Pesth, Dresden, Hanover, Vienna and Berlin, where her personal hit was such that she captured the town. Even the provinces resounded with her name, her charm and her good looks.

But the longest engagement must end some time, so what more natural than that she should seek fresh laurels in that most up-and-coming of countries, America? To New York she sailed, and then bad luck began to decorate her with all sorts of jinx-insignia.

 She, of course, made her bid for native favor in a revival of  “The Girl from the Black Forest.” But where Germanic audiences had been cooing, rapturous and manifold, those in the United States proved coy, chilly and scanty.

But there was one sliver of silver lining her dark cloud of despair. In the company playing “opposite” her was a dark and dashing leading man. Bela (for it was none other) cast one blazing eye upon tho Hungarian Venus, and fell for her with a thud which made the very chandeliers shake.

“Will you? Won’t you?” was his flaming plea. Ilona could and would. Rapid-fire engagement. Church. Marriage. Honeymoon. A prospect of bliss which seemed too good to be true. It was.

Bela wanted her to retire, she declares. They stuck it out together, however, for two months. And then Bela agreed, with a tear or two, that he would live elsewhere if his darling would only come home.

With Ilona reinstated and Bela a self-willed outcast, the real drama began. It started zippily enough. Mrs. Bela had a pet dog, to which she was as deeply devoted as to her art. One awful day Fleurette disappeared. Where had it gone? Its grieving owner taxed her husband with kidnapping the terrified animal.

No sooner had Ilona recovered from Fleurette’s vanishing than she began to act as an unwilling shock-absorber for other strange attentions. Weird voices informed her over the ‘phone at unearthly hours that she had better hurry up and mend her absent husband’s heart as soon as possible or else —-!

Ilona was even more perturbed when the New York press began to develop a strange interest in her private life. Not once but half a dozen times, reporters pled for interviews, and she politely admitted them. But they threw off all pretense of being news-gatherers, and candidly told her that they were emissaries from her desolate mate.

Shortly after this Ilona embarked for the theatre — alone. At the corner a strange man sprang out at her, uttering incoherent words and making peculiar gesticulations. The gist of his mumbled discourse was that Madame should, must, would take back Bela Lugosi.

Scared out of her senses, Ilona (who had not then seen Molnar’s “The Guardsman”), was about to yell for the police, when, to her astonishment, the stranger accomplished the equivalent of a quick nocturnal shave by feverishly snatching off his facial decorations. Bela—for it was he, she avers—renewed his demand. But Ilona departed in a huff and a taxi.

The end was not yet. A week later, while riding atop a bus, Ilona became aware that her ankles were chilly. Putting her hand down to find out why (the weather was clement) she was staggered to discover that they had been cunningly shackled. At that moment a set of grasping fingers threw another cord about her wrists and tied it, she says. One doesn’t scream on buses, so Ilona sat quiet while the owner of the fingers seated himself beside her and began the same old story Would she come back to him? Would she have mercy? But she wouldn’t. This time she was too much for her friendly enemy. With a wriggle of rage, she managed to do a Houdini and disappeared in the dark.

And Miss Winwood? Well, that was another story. It all occurred while she was starring in “The Red Poppy.” Bela was the man in the play who was supposed to grab the fair Estelle and playfully throttle her. Such a realist was the temperamental Adonis that one night he verged on roughness and pop! went two of Miss Winwood’s ribs

But no hard feelings. “It was the sort of thing that might happen to anyone,” explains Miss Winwood.

Miss Winwood went on tour in “Spring Cleaning.” Mrs. Lugosi went on tour with “Little Miss Bluebeard.” As for Bela Lugosi, HE went on tour in “The Werewolf.” He was cast as the butler, who jumped out at every girl he liked the looks of, and they DO say he gives a performance which would make Edwin Booth writhe in his grave with jealousy.