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Pianist Knew Einstein, Bette Davis, but She's Most in Tune With Bach : Music: Agi Jambor, 85, still makes beautiful music. But with life's joy and tragedy have come no fame--because she doggedly eluded it.

March 27, 1994|SANDRA SKOWRON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BALTIMORE — For pianist Agi Jambor, life has been an odyssey that rests on a softly fading chord.

A celebrated interpreter of Bach, she graced stages in Europe and America. She knew Albert Einstein and Bette Davis. She survived two world wars, the deaths of her first husband and her only child, a brief marriage to actor Claude Rains and a devastating illness that temporarily wiped out her memory and her ability to play.

Now, at 85, she has diabetes, moves a bit gingerly and suffers frustrating lapses in memory. But her hands have not betrayed her. Nor has her sense of humor.

But from the joy and tragedy have come no fame, no stardom--not because it eluded her, but because Agi Jambor doggedly avoided it.

"If you do not sell your soul, it is difficult to make a career," she said, in her rich Hungarian accent. "You need to make a program that interests an audience, even if you don't like it.

"I did what I wanted to do, not what I had to."

Jambor moved to Baltimore about five years ago at the coaxing of Dr. Joseph Stephens, a local psychiatrist and pianist, who had tracked her down at her home in Radnor, Pa.

Stephens, who met Agi Jambor when she was a faculty member of The Peabody Conservatory of Music here, looked her up after listening to one of her Bach recordings. He found her living like a recluse in an old house with no sidewalks.

He persuaded her to sell the house and move to Baltimore where she still had friends, and he could look in on her every day. She lives in an apartment around the corner from his home.

With Stephens accompanying on a second piano, Jambor played her first public concert in 15 years in March, 1993. They played a second concert in October.

Born in Budapest to a businessman and piano teacher, Agi Jambor (pronounced AH-ghee YAHM-bore) gave her first concert at 12. At 17, she went to study in Berlin, where she lived from 1926 to 1931.

In the late 1920s, a mutual friend, Toni Mendel, arranged for her to play with physicist Albert Einstein as a birthday gift. The scientist, an amateur violinist, broke the ice by telling jokes,

"He had a lisp," she recalled. "He could not say his Ss. It gave him a childlike quality. He was an excellent musician, but he did not have enough time to practice."

In 1933, she married physicist Imre Patai. Four years later, he persuaded her to enter the Fryderyk Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.

"He said if I lose, he would give me a string of pearls," she said.

She won one of the prizes and got the pearls too.

She and Patai were living in Holland when the Germans invaded. They fled to Hungary. Although both are said to have Jewish backgrounds, Jambor won't discuss it. "It's nobody's business," she said.

Hungary had allied itself with Germany before the war, but when it sought to break the alliance in 1944, the Germans occupied the country.

The Patais joined a partisan movement run by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who isolated Vitamin C.

"My assignment was to interview people," she said. "I had to determine who the real Nazis were."

They purchased forged papers that identified her as a prostitute and Patai as her pimp. Once, the Nazis mistook her pocket metronome for a bomb.

The couple had a son in 1943, who died shortly after birth. After the war, they went to Sweden and from there to the United States, where Patai was offered a post at George Washington University.

He died in 1949 from a heart attack brought on by exposure to coal gas from a faulty heating unit.

"It was a black joke of life that he survived the war, and German occupation and seven terms in prison, and he had to die in this country because of a broken heating system," she said.

Her reputation as a pianist did not follow her to the United States, but through luck and connections she established herself.

Concerts in Baltimore, Washington, New York and Philadelphia followed, but she turned down a national tour, preferring to play where and when she liked.

"I do not play for success; I play to bring life to the composer," she said.

Agi Jambor got an introduction to Eugene Ormandy, then conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, from Bruno Walter, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic.

By 1953 she gave the first of many appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra. She headed a project to establish a music school in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for the children of atomic scientists, which closed in the mid-1960s. She also joined the Peabody faculty.

Concerned that the Peabody had no pension program at the time, she joined the faculty at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1957.

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 Nov. 4 of that year. He was 69, she was 50. Agi Jambor was his fifth wife.

Through Rains, she met his sometime co-star, Bette Davis, whom Jambor remembers as highly educated and professional.

"She seemed like she was so rough-tough, but she liked me to play music for her," Jambor said.

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