Peter Zwack has this recurring feeling that he's living in a movie.
Two weeks ago, Zwack renounced his hard-earned American citizenship. Today, in his new post as the Hungarian ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the United States, he's escorting Arpad Goncz, the president of Hungary, here to receive the James Madison Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In between, Zwack said, "I arrived at Dulles Airport with one wife, two children, three dogs, a myna bird and a parrot. We were greeted by the staff of the Hungarian Embassy." Zwack promptly sent back to Budapest 22 out of the 25-member staff. The parrot went into quarantine. Anne Marshall Zwack, his wife, found a new home for the embassy's "internationally vicious dog" and took down the "Caveat Canine" sign.
That night, the rest of the Zwack entourage worked until midnight "throwing out the socialist brown curtains and rearranging the furniture." The next day, in spite of jet lag, the Zwacks -- and the surviving diplomats -- began to repaint "the bunker," as they call the embassy chancery/residence overlooking Rock Creek Park. "We're whitewashing the past," said Gabor Szentivanyi, embassy counselor, with a liberated grin. "But we were too enthusiastic and painted out part of the sign," said Zwack.
How he got from there to here and back again is quite a collection of well-polished, twice-told tales, already with the air of family lore about them.
In 1987, after repeated entreaties from the "goulash communists" -- the democratically minded perestroika pioneers -- Zwack returned to Budapest, whence his family had fled during the 1948 communist takeover. He, with Underberg, a German investment company, bought back 50 percent of the family distillery that had been confiscated by the communists. (In a few months, they will have bought the rest from the Hungarian government.)
Zwack brought with him from exile the secret recipe for Unicum, the liqueur brewed by the family distillery since 1790. "When we left the country in the 1940s, the real formula was in the family's head. We left behind a false one, which wasn't as good."
Later his wife and their two children joined him in Budapest, bringing along four dogs, a cat, a myna bird, two guinea pigs and a horse, Anne Zwack relates. The children went, for a time, to the Hungarian public schools and Anne Zwack wrote travel and food stories about the country. But the children's school didn't work out there, so they and their mother moved to Italy, and Peter lived a split life between Florence and Budapest.
But he found the revolution in Hungary immensely exhilarating. Inevitably (he's a mesmerizing talker) Zwack became a part of the political upheaval -- a "pop hero" on television, he says, "showing Hungarians that capitalists aren't all fat men who smoke cigars and eat workers for breakfast." Zwack is notably thin and doesn't smoke, he likes to point out.
His television popularity brought him offers to run for parliament, president and several other jobs. When the foreign minister offered him the ambassadorship to the United States, it seemed a perfect job -- until he found he had to renounce his American citizenship to accept. "I was horrified," says Zwack. He finally agreed to become a Hungarian citizen again.
There was also some question about the position of his son, Peter Jr., an American Army captain. "The foreign minister asked if Peter Jr. is a spy. I said I wouldn't ask my son, and if I knew he was, I wouldn't tell the minister." The other Zwack children, seven in all, have kept their American citizenship.
At least 200 years ago, according to Zwack family legend, an early Zwack was court physician to the Imperial Court of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. He invented Unicum, a "digestive" herbal liqueur, which, according to embassy counselor Szentivanyi was all that fueled the Soviet-Hungarian astronaut tour of Hungary a few years ago. An enterprising member of the family set up a distillery 150 years ago and Unicum became, by Zwack testimony, Hungary's national drink. Its famous poster was of a drowning man "grinning with ghoulish glee" as the distinctive bulbous bottle of Unicum floated by. "It became a symbol of resistance to the Stalinist regime," Anne Zwack said. When the last Hungarian Communist president fell, a cartoon showed him as the drowning man.
The Zwack family, "predominantly Jewish merchant aristocrats" -- though Peter Zwack was born a Catholic -- was part of a group of Jewish intellectuals, artists and supporters of both who planted and tended the Austro-Hungarian blumenzeit (the blooming time) at the turn of the century and again between World War I and World War II.
Zwack likes to tell about his father, John, who before World War II wore only silk shirts and sent them to Switzerland to be cleaned. The senior Zwack subscribed to three opera seats so he'd have elbow room during the performances.
Those were the days when the family owned two castles, one near Budapest, the other in the south of Hungary; a town house, now the Turkish Embassy, on Castle Hill, the aristocratic section of the Hungarian capital; 12,000 acres of land; and the factory that produced Unicum liqueur, the never-empty bottle from which all this wealth flowed.
During World War II, the Zwacks were next-door neighbors of the Swedish Embassy. They played bridge with Raoul Wallenberg, who tried to save Budapest Jews from the Nazis. And they sheltered American flyers who were shot down over their southern estates.
Near the end of the war, the Unicum distillery was bombed, and barrels of its aged brandy were used to make pontoon bridges over the Danube. Zwack's father and uncle rebuilt the factory, and a year later it was confiscated -- without compensation -- by the communist government. Peter Zwack, on the advice of his tennis coach, left the country after, he says, refusing to "lose" to the Soviet opponents.
"I walked most of the way to Trieste, and went through the passes atop cars and trucks," he said. He arrived in Trieste with not even enough money to call a family friend, a banker. "When I did reach him, on New Year's Day, he said, 'I hope you brought your dinner jacket, we're entertaining the British fleet tonight.' " Zwack remembers it as a seated dinner for 80 with a footman behind each chair. He and a friend "slept all day so we wouldn't get hungry, and then we'd eat at the evening parties."
Zwack's mother, who had once been courted by a man who became a well-placed communist official, got a visa to leave the country. But his father had to get out by bribing inebriated Russians to allow him to sit under an barrel in the back of a truck.
Thanks to the American ambassador to Hungary, they received visas to the United States, though they spent some weeks in the Ellis Island dormitories.
"My father had some money in banks outside Hungary," said Zwack. "But he thought I had better go to work. I got a job selling vacuum cleaners in the Bronx -- but the first time I tried to demonstrate it, I couldn't make it work." Eventually, he was hired by National Distilleries. He married his first wife and they had five children.
Meanwhile, his father sued to keep the communists from exporting products, including 200 liqueurs and spirits,under the Zwack name from Hungary. After 25 years, the Zwacks won a precedent-setting case.
In the 1970s, after his divorce and the death of his father and uncle, Peter Zwack moved to Italy and managed the family's liqueur production there. He and Anne Marshall, a British writer, met in Italy at a dinner party and married in 1973. They remember their years in Florence, in a remodeled stable of a Renaissance villa "on a hill above the city, surrounded by cypresses, vines and olive trees," as very close to heaven.
The Hungarian Embassy has little resemblance to their Italian villa. Inside, the official residence is in an upheaval. "It'll look better when our lift van comes," said Anne Zwack. "But the government would only pay to ship 200 kilos." -- roughly 440 pounds.
But the Zwacks have already filled the embassy with big plans. "We want the United States to know Hungary for more than goulash, Gypsies and paprika," said Zwack.
Anne Zwack has already done something about that. They've hired Kalman Kala, the best chef in Hungary, they say, from Hotel Forum's Gundel Restaurant. How the chef's expectations of grandeur mesh with the embassy's representational allowance, said to be about the size of a paprika fleck, has yet to be seen.
Anne Zwack, once a Pucci model, plans to wear Hungarian designs -- both old and new. She's now pondering the momentous question of whether son Sandor, 16, and daughter Pinki, 14, should go to Wilson High School or a private school.
Peter Zwack has other serious matters to bring to American attention. "I was totally deflated, after living for two years in Budapest, working 24 hours a day to rebuild the economy after 40 years of communism, to arrive in the United States to find nothing at all in the newspapers about Hungary."
He intends to do something about that. He bubbles over with facts, theories and hopes for his country. But, he began by saying, "Hungary has no money." He pointed out that Hungary's siding with the United States in the Persian Gulf -- sending a plane to pick up hostages among other assistance -- has cost the country a huge amount of money. "Hungary had a surplus and was paying its debts, including interest, when we lost $1 billion in the drought," he said. Hungary was too proud to ask for help, "but we'd be glad to have some cooperation.
Zwack believes that Hungary is the "natural partner of the United States in dealing with the Soviets. It almost can't be done to invest in Russia. Yet where else is the U.S.A. going to trade? The best way is to let our country handle the U.S.A.'s Soviet investments. We have had to learn how to trade with them. And Hungary taught perestroika to Gorbachev."
Closer to home, Zwack has a plan to establish a trust in the United States separate from the embassy, to raise funds to further Hungarian interests -- redo the embassy, add to its representational budget, promote scholarships for Hungarian students in the United States and enlighten Americans on Hungarian art, literature and culture.
Zwack has some experience in this matter. When he was living in Chicago in 1956, he was a founder of First Aid for Hungary, along with former president Herbert Hoover, Washington notable William Blair and Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver.
The Zwacks have already established a beachhead in the Mittle Europa enclave in Forest Hills. With close neighbor and Czechoslovak Ambassador Rita Klimora (also an refugee in America who later returned to her native country), the U.S.-trained "instant diplomats," as he calls them, are revolutionizing how Washington views the newly liberated countries.
Certainly, it does sound as if Zwack is living in a movie. And everybody is hoping for the happy ending.