NEW YORK — Once upon a time, there was an 11-year-old Hungarian girl, with blond curls and big dark eyes and a beautiful singing voice and a singer mother who taught her how to use it. She was discovered, as such girls often are, and toured as a child prodigy; and she had staying power, which such girls often do not. At 17 she landed a role in a hit show written by one of the biggest names in show business. A great opera conductor tried to secure her services, but so did the film studios, and she became a movie star — all the more starry after falling in love with her handsome leading man. They married; made films together; starred together on Broadway; were known as the Love Couple all over Europe. They had two children. They lived happily ever after.
Their castle is still there. On the grounds of a country club north of New York City, the stone house stands like a fortress of memory. Walk through the iron gate and up the steps and into the long living room, filled with chairs set at conversational, slightly informal angles, as if a party had recently been given there, among the tables laden with framed black-and-white photos. And there she is: the same delicate figure, the same big eyes, the same fluting, melodious voice. Sharply dressed in an elegant knit jacket, she makes her entrance. Her name is Marta Eggerth, she has lived in this house since 1958, and she is turning 100 years old on Tuesday.
You might not know her name: because we on this side of the pond are not well versed in Central European operetta, or because you’re too young and don’t remember her in a couple of Judy Garland films, including “For Me and My Gal,” that she made after she was signed by MGM and came to Hollywood to make her fortune. (That part didn’t quite pan out, not least because her big number in “For Me and My Gal” ended up on the cutting-room floor; the studio didn’t want to risk having their rising star Garland overshadowed.) If you’re an opera fan, you know the name of her husband, Jan Kiepura, the Polish tenor, who foreshadowed the Three Tenors with his voice, his charm, and his willingness to reach out to audiences in more popular forms, outside the temple of opera.
Most of her films are so heavily colored by the popular tastes of their time that they are largely forgotten: movies with titles such as the 1930s’ “The Blue From the Sky” or “My Heart Calls You,” light concoctions layered with sweet songs like a Viennese cake. (“A tinkling score, a diverting script, and a cast with a pleasant sense of farce,” said the New York Times of “The World’s in Love” in 1937, made with another tenor, Leo Slezak.) Eggerth doesn’t expect you to have heard of them. She doesn’t care much about them herself. At the time she made them, she was working too hard, subject to the grueling schedule of filming the same movie in two or three languages in the days before subtitles. And today, “I live in the present,” she says. If she wants to hear herself sing, she vocalizes.
Yes, she vocalizes, with a sound that’s retained its silvery freshness. And she occasionally performs. Since 2005, she’s given a number of one-woman shows at New York’s Cafe Sabarsky, a replica of a Viennese cafe that hosts an upscale series of unconventional cabaret evenings. The bookers knew they had a promising idea, since Eggerth is a great storyteller and a stage animal, but they were slightly nervous about booking a 95-year-old woman. Would she, they asked her son Marjan before her first appearance, be able to perform for as long as 45 minutes? Marjan, a pianist who has helped tend his mother’s career in recent years and worked with her to release a two-CD set of her singing on his own label, said he thought she could. In fact, she couldn’t. Forty-five minutes was too short. She gave them an hour and a half.