When her mother died, Pablo Casals wrote a charming letter in French, reminding her that "music is a wonderful consolation . . . but not modern music!"
She used to accompany James Joyce when he sang Schubert lieder for his family in their "very bourgeois" house in Paris where everyone spoke only Italian. She danced ballet in the same company as Joyce's daughter Lucia, and later, when Lucia entered a hospital with a nervous breakdown, the great writer corresponded with his daughter's friend.
"I have three of those letters," says Zdenka Podhajsky, who is in Washington on one of her trips to promote her fellow Czech artists and musicians. "Joyce translated them into Czech for me." Joyce, one recalls, was a Berlitz language instructor.
In the late '20s Podhajsky joined La Pantomime Futuriste, a ballet company riding the crest of the Futurist movement that had stood Europe on its ear a decade earlier. Founded by the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti, Futurism tried to shock. "We will destroy museums, libraries and fight against moralism, feminism and all utilitarian cowardice," an early manifesto shouted. "We will glorify war, the only true hygiene of the world . . ."
That was before World War I.
Once Tristan Tzara, the nihilist Romanian poet who founded Dadaism, came to a Futurist ballet, "Erotikon," featuring the dancer Maria Ricotti rolling about on black fur in a red dress. Tzara bellowed from the balcony, "Mais pourquoi seule? (But why alone?)"
"She wasn't a very good dancer," muses Podhajsky, "but she was connected to the Hennessy cognac fortune which was one of our backers, so they had to let her dance. Not everyone understood our work anyway. They threw a lot of tomatoes. Fortunately, no eggs."
She knew Marinetti, still an artistic force in the '20s, and Russolo and Balla and other painters who took off from the Cubist style to portray motion and simultaneity on their canvases. Paris was full of ferment in those days, and everybody knew everybody.
Podhajsky agreed to give dancing lessons to the painter Oskar Kokoschka and brought her gramophone to his flat, but he was sick. She came the next day and the next, but he was always sick, always with something different. Finally he told her that his genius was just too demanding to take on ballet.
He did, however, write her regularly, and eventually she arranged for him to paint Jan Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. The portrait hangs in Pittsburgh now.
Zdenka Podhajsky has been living in Vienna as an Austrian citizen for the past 18 years. A tireless traveler, she is an unofficial agent for composers like Bohuslav Martinu and Leos Janacek and other artists. She is also translating the memoirs of her father, the late Gen. Alois Podhajsky, one of the top Austrian generals of World War I.
In thin times she has sold some of her letters, but the memories stay. She danced with painter Raoul Dufy at Le Boeuf Sur le Toit, the famous Paris hangout for artists. Janacek sketched her as Kata Kabanova, heroine of one of his operas. She has a drawing that the architect Le Corbusier did for her on a napkin. She knew Janacek's translator, Max Brod, the literary executor of Franz Kafka, and she retranslated many of the operas.
"For a while I lived with two Greek girls in Paris. We were all about 20, and one of them was in love with an old man. I couldn't understand it. This old man kept coming around. He was 40. He was Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote 'Zorba the Greek.' She married him finally."
One night a knowledgeable friend took her to hear a young Czech composer's work, telling her, "You must applaud very hard; he will be famous some day." The composer was Martinu, one of the great Czech composers of the century. A friendship grew between the two of them. He was tall, so he papered the walls of her garret for her. She mended the holes in his pants.
"He used to play the piano when I gave ballet lessons. He got five francs for it. He was very timid."
Years later she would show tourists the church tower in Policka where Martinu was born, the son of a cobbler who doubled as a fire warden and so lived in a small apartment high up in the tower.
Podhajsky is accustomed to famous musicians. Her mother, a singer and later an actress, had a salon in Vienna. The daughter still has a fan autographed by Brahms, Mahler, Honegger and Mascagni.
She returned to Czechoslovakia after Paris, leaving the country legally in 1965 for Vienna a few years after her parents died. She has never married.
But that name . . . Wasn't there a Col. Alois Podhajsky who commanded the famous Lippizaner Spanish riding school in Vienna, rescued by General Patton in World War II?
"A cousin, a distant cousin," she says carelessly, as though people had brought it up too many times. Futurist ballet is pretty distant, at that, from horse ballet.