Illona would be about 90. And with any luck, she’s reading this.
When we last heard from her — in March 1948 — she was 24, newly married and planning to live in a small Minnesota town.
She was also a Hungarian countess and jilted lover who wound up heartbroken in Minnesota.
Illona was not her real name, just another of the many wrinkles in her story that included “all the elements of a yarn that might easily become the best short story of the decade.”
So wrote Cedric Adams, then 46, a renowned Upper Midwest broadcaster, who moonlighted with an “In This Corner” column in the Minneapolis Star.
One Friday, a young woman walked into Adams’ office, “the most woeful human being I have ever encountered.” She asked, with a soft, pleasant accent, if she could close the door. As she proceeded to share her story, Adams realized that “there were reasons galore for her misery.”
He named her Illona to protect her identity. “A cultured young woman,” she told Adams she had spent three years in the ballet and was a college graduate. She was born in Vienna and lived in Hungary — where her father served as a minister to Austria before World War II. They lost everything in the war.
In the chaos that followed, Illona met a Minnesota soldier at a party in Salzburg, Austria. They quickly fell in love, meeting every night during his three-month hitch and taking long walks in the countryside. They became engaged and talked of their future together in America. Before he headed home, he promised to send for her — like thousands of GIs. But this time, it seemed sincere.
For two years, Illona told Adams, she hadn’t dated anyone as the separated sweethearts traded letters she would reread countless times. Then he sent money for airfare and secured a $500 bond required to bring over post-wartime brides. It took her seven months, and severe parental friction, but she finally received her visa and landed in Washington and flew on to Minnesota.
An immigrant Hungarian couple whom she knew from the old country offered to share a room and staged the reunion. They hadn’t seen each other in two years.
“She thought of their first embrace,” Adams wrote, “of what joy it would be to have him in her arms once more, to ruffle his eyebrows and pinch his chin and tweak his ears and squeeze his hands and listen to his voice.”
But the minute he walked in the door, she knew something was wrong. He hugged her coldly, let his arms drop to his side and said he’d married someone else three months earlier.
She yelled at him to leave and spent some sleepless nights before visiting Adams’ office. Her GI visa was only good for two more weeks. If she wasn’t married by then, she would be sent home.
But she refused to go back to Hungary, which was in the Russian zone after the war. Communist leaders, she said, were keeping lists of people who had fraternized with Americans.
So Adams got an idea. He would tell her story in his column and make a plea to his male military readers to marry the woman he named Illona. A leg-baring photo accompanied his column.
Adams described her as 5 feet 4, 120 pounds, “dresses conservatively, soft blue eyes, pretty teeth, a trim figure.” As for her wishes, Adams told his readers she was looking for a man of good character, between 25 and 45 — “I do not like extremely young boys.”
She preferred a city man. Military experience was required. She liked to cook and dance and was fond of children. She wanted “a man who enjoys the nice things in life.” Religion was not important. But timing was. She had two weeks.
With Adams jumping in as marriage broker, telegrams, letters with photos, phone calls, flowers, candy and cash poured in from 1,789 soldier-suitors back from World War II.
Illona picked a railroad locomotive engineer and they were married 67 years ago in St. Paul. Stories of the jilted countess finding a quick mate spread through the news wires across the country. The Associated Press story, which like Adams’ coverage withheld names, ended thusly: “They will live in a small Minnesota town.”
As quickly as her story snatched the public’s attention, Illona disappeared — as did her new train-driving husband.
I heard about Illona from a reader named John Zanmiller, one of many who have tipped me to intriguing historical quirks since this column began six months ago.
Zanmiller, the former mayor of West St. Paul, was helping a buddy clean out a house of a bachelor farmer uncle near Harmony, Minn.
“He had 40 years of old newspapers stacked up and I stumbled upon this story,” Zanmiller said, wondering how the story might play out amid today’s immigration debate.
Zanmiller hopes Illona is still out there. Fond of kids, did the jilted countess and the train engineer have children? Did she ever cross paths with the GI who swept her off her feet at that party in Salzburg?
He told her back then, as they mapped out a rosy future: “You’ll like my hometown. It’s what they call the Midwest.”
Anyone with credible information about Illona’s fate is welcome to e-mail the address below. It’s only been 67 years.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.