During the time when Pest and Buda were united, and Budapest was quickly becoming a metropolis, many thought that this development would bring about moral danger as well, represented by prostitutes, whose life was glorious but gory at the same time.
Szeretlek Magyarország writes that a lot of people were sceptical about the new world that the unified capital city, Budapest (you can find the story of this union here) was becoming. Even though the city was lit up with the prospect of economic and cultural growth, there were grim figures lurking in the shadows: prostitutes.
The police have tried to create some kind of order to exert some control over prostitution after several failed attempts to put an end to it. Various methods were introduced, mostly focusing on covering everyone and registering prostitutes or anyone who was selling their own or someone else’s body.
It was not only prostitutes running their business on the streets that were registered but brothels, meeting places at private apartments and even the private rooms of coffee houses, too.
Women had to go under a medical examination, and if they were found healthy, they could get a license, so their activities would become legal. The police had two serious reasons to introduce this measure: one was to curb the spreading of sexually transmitted diseases, and the other to tax such women and institutions.
However, practice failed theory. A lot of people involved in prostitution either did not want to or could not apply for a license (in the latter case, the most common reason was that their employer did not allow the given woman enough personal freedom). If women without a license were found out, they were deported outside the city, but the case was much harder when it came to the ‘employers’.
Prostitutes usually had a male escort, nicknamed ‘apache’, who were hired to protect them from aggressive clients or anyone meaning harm, but in reality, it was the apache who beat up his ‘protégé’.
Pimps represented the greatest danger to prostitutes since they usually forced women to join brothels, often turning to violence and rape. It was customary for pimps to sell women abroad, for example to Belgrade, Warsaw, Saint Petersburg or Moscow.
Women who worked at music halls or coffee shops were well-known, some are still remembered by their names, thanks to a journalist, Kornél Tábori. He wrote that there was a woman named Dundi (Chubby, loosely translated), whose brother was a cab boy, thus a lift was always provided for her and her client – or sometimes they simply used the cab.
There was a woman only known as the ‘Japanese woman’ who came to Hungary from Vienna but had an Asian mother. She was shy and quiet, though very expensive. Another woman mentioned by Tábori is the ‘Latin woman’ who was a much livelier and sociable person, speaking six languages, as her former occupation was of a governess.
At the same time, there were those who turned to this profession willingly in the hopes of making a living.
Some of them succeeded, like Róza Pilisy or Elza Mágnás.
Róza Pilisy was a good friend of one of the greatest Hungarian prose writers, Gyula Krúdy – the writer actually nicknamed her the ‘Rose of Pest’. Róza started off as a flower girl, but she soon realised that a lot of men would pay to spend time with her in private, so she decided to exploit this. Eventually, she managed to gather enough money to open her own brothel.
Her life-long friendship with Krúdy had a great impact on her: she hosted reading events at her brothel and even tried her hand at writing novels.
Elza Mágnás is, as Szeretlek Magyarország writes, still known today in Hungary, sadly, for her tragic death, a murder which sparked great sensation at the time and is still recalled today – a film was made recently based on this story. After her ascension to fame and wealth, she was murdered by her housekeeper, Rózsi Kóbori, and the housekeeper’s unemployed lover. They threw her body in a trunk into the Danube.
Mágnás in Hungarian means ‘lord’ or ‘magnate’, and she got this nickname for becoming the lover of a well-to-do furniture contractor, quickly rising to a higher social rank from a scullery maid. She was envied by a lot of people for her luck, and her position as the mistress of a wealthy man got her labelled as a prostitute, even though she only sold her body to one man. Such kept women lived in apartments paid for by their lovers, had a day job, and only differed from married women in that they went out in the evenings.
featured image: on the left: Patrícia Kovács as Elza Mágnás, on the right: Laura Döbrösi as Kató Szebeni, her maid, from the 2015 film, Demimonde / imdb.com