I first came across her name about six years ago, on YouTube. A gentleman called Stephen, a friend of Ms Jambor’s, had uploaded some of her recordings on the video-sharing website. I was stunned by the beauty and sensitivity of her playing, and fascinated by her life story – worthy of a Hollywood movie.
Born in Budapest in 1909, the half-Jewish daughter of a businessman and a piano teacher, Agi Jambor (pronounced: Yambor) made her debut with a symphony orchestra at the age of 12.
In the late 1920s, she studied with Edwin Fischer in Berlin, a thriving international city, where, amongst others, she met Albert Einstein through his mistress, Toni Mendel.
“She asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I said, ‘Einstein!’ On my birthday, I opened the door and there he was.”
They spent the evening playing Mozart sonatas.
“He was like a child, so endearing, except for the wrong notes – I don’t think he ever practised.”
In the early 1930s, at the height of her popularity, Jambor fled to Paris, where she chose to play the piano in a dance studio rather than on the concert stage.
In 1933 she married Imre Patai, a physicist and pianist. They had a baby boy, who died within two weeks of birth. A picture of the infant remained on her bedside table the rest of her life.
At the urging of her husband, in 1937, she entered the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw and won fifth prize.
When the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, she participated in the Resistance, often dressed as a prostitute in seductive clothes and heavy makeup, calling herself Maryushka. She had many dangerous escapes and was nearly killed in the bombings. She never returned to Germany.
“These were the same people who had produced Bach and Beethoven, Goethe and Schiller. I still don’t understand how a country with such culture could have killed so ruthlessly.”
The great Hungarian pianist and her husband moved to the US in 1947. Her husband died two years later from a heart attack brought on by exposure to coal gas from a faulty heating unit.
“It was a dark joke of life that he survived the war, German occupation and seven terms in prison, and he had to die in the US because of a broken heating system.”
Jambor established herself as a pianist in the US and performed in New York, Washington and with the Philadelphia Orchestra, receiving spectacular reviews. She also made 12 recordings for Capitol Records, but she turned down a national tour.
“If you do not sell your soul, it is difficult to make a career. You need to make a programme that interests an audience, even if you don’t like it. I did what I wanted to do, not what I had to.” … “I do not play for success; I play to bring life to the composer.“
In 1959, she met actor Claude Rains at a dinner party. He was taken with the fact that she had no idea who he was. They married that same year. Agi Jambor was his fifth wife. Through Rains, she met Bette Davis.
“She seemed like she was so rough-tough, but she liked me to play music for her.“
After her short-lived marriage to Rains, and a mysterious bout of encephalitis, Jambor turned her back on her career once again and became a recluse.
For many years she lived alone, semi debilitated, with her cats and hardly any human contact (at one point, apparently, she was so lonely that she would dial weather forecast just to hear a human voice) until, in 1987, the Baltimore psychiatrist and musician Joseph Stephens stumbled upon one of her recordings, tracked her down, and brought her back into the world of the living.
Just before her 80th birthday, he arranged for her to move – along with her two pianos and large library in five languages – to the Beethoven Apartments in Bolton Hill, Baltimore, where her life began again.
A highly accomplished harpsichordist, Stephens would walk over to her new apartment every day without fail and either listen to her play pieces she hadn’t played in decades, or play with her the orchestral parts of keyboard concertos, or music for two pianos. With the help of his partner, Lloyd Bowers, and of a large network of friends, he ensured Ms Jambor was almost never alone.
On the day she died, in 1997, Agi Jambor told her friend Joe Stephens that thanks to him, she’d been the happiest woman in the world during the last eight years of her life.
The video below is a recording of Agi Jambor's last recital at the home of Rob Fiscella in 1996. Her Alzheimer's disease was quite advanced. The person making the requests is Joe Stephens.