Morris Cukor - Indefatigable Hungarian-American Activist
Hungarian immigration to the United States began in earnest in the 1870s and continued unabated until the start of World War I. Although the newcomers settled in various parts of the country, they tended to prefer large urban areas, especially New York City. By the 1890s the Hungarian population of the Big Apple was around 60,000. Most of the people congregated in Manhattan's Lower East Side, more specifically along Second Avenue between 4th and 14th Streets, although there was a steady trickle to Yorkville in the Upper East Side. Hungarian restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, and sundry shops along with a vast array of social, political, educational, religious, musical, sports and community organizations flourished in their neighborhoods. The Café Boulevard, at 10th Street and Second Avenue, was a favorite spot for Hungarian as well as American revelers. Several Hungarian-language newspapers boasted widespread circulation. Many Hungarians enjoyed recognition far beyond the confines of the ethnic community; for example, Rafael Joseffy and Edouard Remenyi were world-class musicians while Dr. Arpad Gerster had the unanimous approbation of the medical profession as an outstanding surgeon and teacher.
A number of diverse individuals emerged as community leaders. Perhaps no single person devoted so much time to so many Hungarian-American activities for so long as Morris Cukor. From 1890 to 1950, an incredible span of six decades, he was a prominent figure at virtually every significant Hungarian-American gathering. It would be no exaggeration to say that Cukor's life mirrors the history of New York City's Hungarians during these years. A lawyer by profession, he also handled an assortment of interesting and publicized cases during his long career and was deeply involved in municipal politics.
Today Morris Cukor is remembered not so much for his extensive achievements but merely as the supportive and generous uncle of George Cukor, one of the great Hollywood movie directors.
George Cukor's brilliant cinematic career is recounted in thousands of newspaper and magazine articles as well as in dozens of books. Regarded one of the founding fathers of the Golden Age of Hollywood and a "literary director" for his screen adaptation of classic novels, he made more than fifty pictures during his career which spanned a half century, all of them reflecting his meticulous craftsmanship. In his cornucopia of great films - i.e. films most admired by critics and loved by audiences - are Little Women (1933), The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Star Is Born (1954), Let's Make Love (1960), and My Fair Lady (1964). Incidentally, one of the very first movies he directed was The Virtuous Sin, based on the play The General by distinguished Hungarian author Lajos Zilahy . (Cukor didn't like ) The list of stars who have appeared in his films reads like Who Was Who in Hollywood: Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, James Mason, Gene Kelly, William Holden, Jack Lemon - to name but a handful. In 1982 he received the Golden Lion Award for life achievement in films at the Venice Film Festival.
When Morris Cukor was born in 1869 the American Civil War had ended but four years earlier; the Compromise establishing the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was entering its second year; Lajos Kossuth, the leader of the 1848-49 War of Liberation and the "Nation's Guest" when he visited the United States in 1851-52, was living in exile in Turin, Italy; and very few of the marvelous inventions we enjoy today have made their appearance. During his lifetime the world underwent two global wars; endured the enormous catastrophe of the Great Depression; the United States evolved into a major force in international affairs; and innovations in medicine, transportation, communications, and sundry other fields significantly altered the daily lives of people.
Born at Kálló, Cukor received his early education in his native town before coming to the United States in 1884 with his parents, his brother Victor and two sisters. Morris was the youngest of the siblings. The entire family settled in New York City. Morris was an intelligent, hard working youth, very much the pride of the family. He studied law at New York University, graduating with honors. He was admitted to the bar while still enrolled in school on February 13, 1890.
His practice, which was very eclectic in its scope, was soon on a very sound basis and he purchased a comfortable, well-appointed brownstone on 68th Street near Lexington Avenue in the Upper East Side neighborhood. It was to be his home for many years. Victor's family lived close by, but in a far more modest house. Although Victor earned a respectable income, it was Uncle Morris, a bachelor until late in life, recalled George Cukor years later "who provided the cushion of comfort in their lives." According to one of George's biographers, one of his early memories was that "there was always much entertaining of "hyphenated" groups and organizations at his Uncle Morris's house. [...] He felt certain that his beloved uncle would have risen as far as the U.S. Supreme Court if only he had integrated himself into the broader community." Much of Cukor's legal work concerned Hungarian banks and corporations doing business with their American counterparts; he acted as receiver, referee, and arbitrator.
Succumbing to the ravages of old age, Kossuth passed away peacefully in early 1894. Hungarians throughout the world, as well as other admirers of the great patriot, immediately sprang into action to pay their last respects and honor his memory. In New York City the presidents of different Hungarian societies held a meeting on March 25th at Liberty Hall, on East Houston Street, and formed a special committee - the Kossuth Memorial Committee - to arrange for and conduct a memorial service. Cukor was elected unanimously as secretary. The committee members decided that a parade from the Hungarian quarter to City Hall, complete with musical bands, would constitute the highlight of the occasion.
Many older Americans harbored fond recollections of his visit to America. One of these admirers, by the name of Charles Kelly, wrote to the Magyar Egylet [Hungarian Association]: "Why would it not be a good thing to invite any of the New York National Guard who may be now alive and who turned out to receive Louis Kossuth on that cold and sleety December on his arrival in New York? At that time I belonged to Company C of the Ninth regiment, and our company was stationed opposite the Bowery Theatre. I am now close to seventy years, but would be only too happy to turn out in honor if the old fellows who are alive could be got together." Among others seeking representation in the parade was the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood. The Brotherhood veterans, said their spokesman, "are in hearty sympathy with the life and career of Kossuth."
With Cukor as the spokesman, the Committee called on Mayor Thomas Gilroy on the 26th, informing him of their plans. The Mayor assured them that the Stars and Stripes, along with the Hungarian flag, will be placed at half mast on April 4th, the day of the procession, and that he would review the parade from the steps of City Hall and have the Columbian Liberty Bell to be tolled 92 times, the number of years Kossuth had lived.
When Acting Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. reneged on the Mayor's promise and decided against flying the US flag at half mast on the designated day, Cukor fired off an angry letter to the New York Herald in which he said: "We do not ask that the Hungarian flag should be raised, but we do urge that the Stars and Stripes, [...] should now be placed at half mast as a last tribute to the greatness and sacred memory of the man who was then the beloved guest of this glorious Republic."
Despite an incessant downpour of rain, an enormous throng witnessed the ceremonies on the appointed day. According to official estimates, marchers and spectators numbered more than 50,000. Led by the grand marshal, who was closely followed by 50 Hungarians on horseback, the procession, which included members from an array of Hungarian-American groups as well as representatives from ten Italian societies, three Polish associations and several American organizations, commenced on 13th Street and Second Avenue and meandered to City Hall Park. As promised, Mayor Gilroy and municipal officials lined the steps of City Hall to review the march. The national, the New York State and municipal flags were displayed on the building at half mast. Nearby Cooper Union was jammed to capacity for the memorial exercises later that evening.
One of the speakers was Cukor; besides addressing the assemblage, he read letters of regret from President Grover Cleveland and a number of other local and national political figures. Also making speeches were Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts and noted author and editor Parke Godwin, both of whom had met Kossuth during his American tour and remained ardent admirers. "When the famous exile gave me his hand in parting," recalled Senator Hoar," I felt it was the most illustrious hand I had ever touched." Godwin likened Kossuth's death to "the fall of a mighty oak." Frederic R. Coudert, the renowned layer, and Chauncey M. Depew, layer, politician, railroad executive and a much sought orator and after-dinner speaker, also delivered splendid eulogies. Kossuth, declared Depew, has "become immortal in the cause of liberty."
Because Cukor also served as counsel to the Austro-Hungarian legation, he became a fixture at related social events. One of these occurred on the evening of April 24, 1896, when he, along with a multitude of prominent persons, attended a complimentary banquet for Theodore A. Havemeyer upon his retirement as Consul-General of the Dual Monarchy, a post he held for 25 years. Incidentally, the American press often failed to grasp the political structure of the Dual Monarchy and in response to errors, misconceptions and false claims printed that Cukor took it upon himself to provide explanations and corrections which often appeared on the pages of the New York newspapers.
Music lovers throughout the world were shocked and saddened when Edouard Remenyi, the incomparable violin virtuoso, collapses and died during a performance in San Francisco in 1898. A number of Hungarian societies in New York joined forces to arrange for his remains to be shipped back to New York City. Upon arrival, the body lay in state at the lodge room of the Yorkville Hungarian Society, 304 East 78th Street. Father Francis Denes of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, then located on the Lower East Side, conducted the appropriate religious ceremonies.
On the following day, Remenyi's remains were taken to the Lenox Lyceum, a spacious music hall on Madison Avenue near 59th Street, escorted by a huge procession led by the band of the Musical Mutual Protective Union. Morris Cukor was among the notables who made an address to the vast assemblage. Reviewing the triumphs of Remenyi, he said: "We have not only lost an artist, a musician, we have lost a man. Countrymen, we have lost a patriot who swayed man by his genius and his music. [...] As a musician, he knew no school, he knew no master - but one - inspiration. [...] Farewell, dear Remenyi! We loved you living. We love you dead." After the funeral services the body was taken to Evergreen Cemetery. Among the pallbearers, besides Cukor, were Rafael Joseffy, John Philip Sousa, the author of "The Star and Stripes Forever," and Thomas A. Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park.
More than 40,000 Hungarians took part in the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the landing of Kossuth in New York City. The festivities began at 10:30 A.M. on December 7, with the presentation of an address to Mayor Robert Van Wyck. It was delivered by Cukor, acting as chairman of a committee in behalf of a host of Hungarian-American groups. Later that evening the leading participants gathered at the Lenox Lyceum. Cukor was among those who spoke but the principal orator of the occasion was the venerable Daniel Sickles - rightly dubbed "Sickles the Incredible" by one of his biographers - who was a rising young politician when Kossuth arrived in New York and delivered the address of welcome on behalf of the Democratic Party. Sickles, whose admiration for Kossuth did not diminish with the passing of so many years. Many prominent Americans sent congratulatory notes. Ex-President Grover Cleveland wrote: "His countrymen and all American citizens who properly appreciate and love liberty, do well when they honor this apostle of manhood rights," while famed writer Mark Twain said: "You are not wrong in divining that I hold the great name Lajos Kossuth in honor and reverence."
Cukor served as Secretary of the Reception Committee upon the arrival of Jozsef Zseni at the head of a delegation from Hungary in August 1902. They brought a beautifully embroidered Hungarian flag as a present to the Hungarians of America and the chief objective of their mission was to strengthen the ties between the émigrés and those residing in the old country. The flag was formally presented to various Hungarian-American societies at the Grand Central Palace, Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street. Around 10,000 persons witnessed the ceremony. Cukor was one of the principal speakers and according to the New York Times, he made "a long and interesting address on the history of the flag and incidents related to its presentation." His discourse was "a temperate and carefully considered effort and was well received."
A frequent and esteemed guest of Hungarian clubs in the 1890s and early 1900s was Teddy Roosevelt. In 1903 the citizens of several nationalities residing in the Lower East Side gave a lavish dinner to Roosevelt (by that time the country's President) in Liberty Hall at Norfolk and Houston Streets. President William Howard Taft was accorded the same honor at the Café Boulevard in 1910. Decades later Cukor recalled that Taft participated with great gusto as he "tucked his napkin into his vest and dived into his favorite "bograch goulash." Perhaps it should be noted that Taft was blessed with a healthy appetite and was the heftiest president of the United States.
Unfortunately not all gatherings had festive themes. On June 1, 1903 the Jefferson Club held a special meeting and adopted resolutions condemning the Kishinoff massacre in Russia and made a donation for the relied of the sufferers. Several distinguished public figures attended, among them Cukor.
Hungarians living not only in the old country but throughout the world became incensed when the Hapsburg government enacted policies deemed detrimental to the interests of Hungary. Mass meetings were held in numerous communities throughout the United States. The rally in New York City, attended by some 5,000 people in New York City, took place at the Grand Central Palace on March 11. According to the New York Times reporter covering the event, the multitude exhibited "enthusiasm and to spare." Several prominent figures, among them Cukor, spoke to the audience. He addressed the meeting first in Hungarian and then spoke in English: "The people of Hungary are fighting for the very principles embodied in the American Constitution, the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Cukor was followed by a fiery denunciation delivered by the Reverend Laszlo Perenyi, pastor of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Stephen of Hungary, prompting the crowd to chant: "Down with the Hapsburgs!"
While commercial matters occupied most of Cukor's time professionally, he handled a number of noteworthy and highly publicized civil and criminal cases involving Hungarians in the first decade of the 20th century.
Hungarian nobleman Count Laszlo Szechenyi, fiancé and later husband of socialite Gladys Vanderbilt, great-granddaughter of Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, the founder of the family fortune, became a client of Cukor after he was involved in a spirited and unpleasant encounter with a newspaper photographer. Confrontation between pesky photographers and the celebrities they hounded is by no means a phenomenon of our times; it has a long if not entirely distinguished tradition.
The incident started when the photographer, a man by the name of Edward J. Reily, was passing by the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue and 58th Street and noticed a number of prominent individuals congregating about, including Count Szechenyi and Miss Vanderbilt. Perceiving an opportunity for snapping some newsworthy photos, he began to set up his camera on the other side of the street. Taking a picture in those days was a far more cumbersome endeavor than it is today. While he was fiddling with his equipment, the Count noticed him and resenting the intrusion on his privacy crossed the street and whacked his across the hand with his cane. Then for good measure he bashed him on the head with the aforementioned cane. Neither of the blows succeeded in scaring the photographer. On the contrary, it merely aroused his ire over the unprovoked attack. Pouncing on the Count, he delivered two punches to the nobleman's jaw. Like the photographer, Szechenyi absorbed the blows. As they were about to continue their slugfest, a mounted policeman and Alfred Vanderbilt intervened. Despite Vanderbilt's efforts to mediate, Reily insisted on pressing assault charges against the Count.
Needless to say, the local papers feasted on the incident. That which party was right or wrong didn't matter; the salacious details of the events, magnified to whet the public's curiosity even more, ensured a boost in circulation.
The complex, convoluted and messy divorce proceedings pitting Hungarian-born driving master Aurel Batonyi against his wife, Frances, the daughter of a wealthy financier, in 1909 had Cukor representing the husband. Actually, he was but one of a platoon of lawyers involved in the seemingly endless suits and countersuits. When big money is at stake, lawyers are sure to lurk around.
The case was not only a boon to the legal profession; it was a gossip monger's dream. It had all the ingredients to titillate the public. Known as "the beautiful Fanny Work" in her youth, Frances was the spoiled daughter of Frank Work who rose from poverty to riches through hard work (!) as a protégé of "Commodore" Vanderbilt. Much to her father's chagrin, Frances, when but 20 years old in 1880, married James Boothby Burke-Roche, a young Irish nobleman. Frank Work never hid his dislike for Burke-Roche, referring to him as "a man who had never worked, never had earned a living." Three children were born to Frances and her husband, two sons and a daughter. However, their marriage quickly soured and she returned to the United States where she obtained a divorce in the state of Delaware. While valid in the United States, it was not recognized in Britain or by Burke-Roche.
Resuming her position in New York high society, Frances became interested in horses. Thanks to Batonyi's tutelage, who was acknowledged to be one of the most skilled horseman in the city, she became the first woman in society to appear in Central Park driving a four-in-hand. Despite assiduous investigation by the press, Batonyi's background remained rather murky and mysterious. According to the few facts unearthed, he was born in Budapest, came to the United States around 1890, quickly rose to the pinnacle of his profession, and was reputedly well-off due to an inheritance from a rich relative. One newspaper article referred derisively to Batonyi as a man "whose chief claim to distinction seemed to lie in the fact that he had a special skill in the management of horses." Frances and Batonyi were married in August 1905. Frank Work was flabbergasted at again gaining a dubious foreigner as a son-in-law. He was not alone in his aversion. Cynthia, Frances's daughter, a great beauty herself and recently married, also spoke out in no uncertain terms against her step-dad.
Given Frances's unstable and frivolous nature and Batonyi's predilection for womanizing, not to mention their endless squabbles over money, the marriage unraveled. In the deposition draw up by her legal team, Batonyi was accused of a host of transgressions, including improper conduct with no less than five women. A long parade of cab drivers, doormen, elevator boys, maids and sundry other witnesses testified to buttress the allegations concerning Batonyi's extramarital affairs.
Their divorce was finalized in October 1909. However, matters did not end here; as a matter fact, they continued with various ramifications for years. Frank Work died in March 1911 at the ripe old age of 92, leaving his substantial fortune primarily to his grandchildren. His profound dislike of Burke-Roche and Batonyi did not end with his death; his will contained a number of strict provisions barring both ex-husbands from benefiting financially or in any other way from his estate.
In the fall of 1910, as attorney for the Austro-Hungarian General Consul, Cukor brought a suit on behalf of the town of Erzsébetfalva, near Budapest, against the community's former treasurer who had absconded with the town funds and was arrested in New York, thanks to the persistence and ingenuity of the Dual Monarchy's police. Unfortunately there wasn't much to recover because the perpetrator was thoroughly fleeced shortly after his arrival by con artists preying on greenhorn immigrants.
In July of 1914 Cukor, hitherto a bachelor, took as his wife Miss Cora Geraldine Woodruff. The marriage took place in Graz, Austria. After a brief honeymoon, they returned to New York City. Their union occurred as major historical events were unfolding. A few days before, on June 28th, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off World War I. In many ways the conflict was inevitable; it was the culmination of the political maneuverings of the Great Powers during the previous decade and the series of wars which accompanied these pursuits.
True to its professed policy of non-intervention, the United States held aloof. But as the war in Europe dragged on, American sympathy shifted to the Allied cause. Long before the United States formally entered the war, people originating the countries of the Central Powers came under suspicion as potential traitors and enemy agents as war hysteria started to gather momentum.
Cukor was one of the principal organizers of mass meetings of Hungarians in January 1916 to protest and denounce "the unpatriotic attempts to divide and classify American citizens according to racial origin." Another objective of the rallies was "to demonstrate to all the world that the American citizen of Hungarian origin is and always has been peaceful, loyal and law abiding." In April 1917 the Hungarian National Democratic Club adopted a resolution declaring loyalty to the US government and offering its services in whatever capacity needed. The special organization committee formed was headed by Count Rudolf Festetics; Cukor was one of the fifty committee members. When the Attorney General threatened to intern the pastors of Hungarian Reform Churches as enemy aliens. Cukor went to Washington, DC, with a delegation of ministers and obtained the personal assurance of President Woodrow Wilson that no such action would be implemented and none was.
Certain national groups objected to Hungarians wearing native costumes in the 4th of July festivities in 1918. Therefore, the Mayor's Committee on National Defense, in charge of the parade, decided to have everyone, except members of the armed forces, march in ordinary civilian garb. It was a compromise decision, concluded after long and acrimonious wrangling. Cukor was the chief spokesman for the Hungarian side.
The war years were very busy ones for Cukor. In addition to defending the rights of Hungarian-Americans, he served as a legal adviser of the US Selective Service System and was an associate member of the city's draft board. From 1918 to 1921 he was president of the Municipal Civil Service Commission.
When the conflict, proclaimed as "the war to end all wars," was over, the propaganda machine of the Allies trumpeted that the peace treaties would be enacted of the basis of justice and reason; there would be no resorting to excesses or revenge. What actually transpired was the complete opposite. The overriding interest of the Western powers was territorial aggrandizement at the expense of the defeated nation. Satisfying the claims of their client states and the imposition of massive reparation payments were also high on their agenda. Revealing the pettiness of the victors was their exclusion of the losers from the upcoming Olympic Games.
To refute the accusations upon the civil service record of Governor Alfred Smith at the annual convention of the New York State Civil Service Association in 1923, Cukor wrote a letter to the New York Times, published on September 5, which read in part: "the Governor [...] preached and practiced the absolutely fair and impartial administration of civil service laws and regulations, [...] giving the public as well as the employees a square deal, without fear or favor. [...] attack upon Governor Smith's civil service record is as unjust as it is in bad grace."
Cukor was the principal figure in arranging an
exhibition of the painting "The Tower of Babel" in the spring of 1925.
The remarkable picture, the masterpiece of Flemish artist Tobias
Verhaegt, had been lost for centuries until discovered in Hungary by
Marton Porkay, an art expert.
The driving force behind the erection of the statue was Geza Berko, editor, publisher and owner of Hungarian-language newspapers. The money was raised by appealing to the Hungarians of the United States and the response was most gratifying. Appropriately, Geza Berko was president of the Kossuth Monument Committee. Sadly, he died shortly after the groundbreaking. His role and duties in the undertaking were assumed by his widow.
Thousands of Hungarians attended the groundbreaking and several prominent politicians made speeches. Senator Royal S. Copeland praised Kossuth as "one of history's most famous crusaders for equal rights among men," while Congressman Fiorello H. LaGuardia (later one of the city's most beloved and respected mayors) declared that the United States made a mistake when it failed to give material support to Kossuth's cause.
Unfortunately the ceremonies were marred by the intrusion of an obnoxious gang of Communists and fellow travelers undoubtedly acting in accordance with directives from the Comintern. Hugo Gellert, a rather well-known artist, led the troublemakers. Since a disturbance was expected, more than 40 policemen along with private detectives and members of the bomb squad were present.
A few days before the unveiling of the statue a delegation of more than 500 Hungarians arrived aboard the liner Olympic. They were officially greeted by Mayor Jimmy Walker and a slew of other notable public figures, among them Cukor, Chairman of the Kossuth Committee of Arrangements, and Count Laszlo Szechenyi, now Hungarian minister at Washington, DC. The ensuing ceremonies were broadcast, by WNYC, the municipal radio station.
Some 25,000 people attended the unveiling of the statue on March 15, 1928. The ceremony was preceded by a parade which began on 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. A platoon of mounted police led the marchers to Riverside Drive. Cukor paid tribute to America, to Mayor Walker, and to Kossuth, whose spirit, he said, represented the spirit of America. Mrs. Berko presented the statue to the city while the formal unveiling was performed by her daughter, Miss Irene Berko. Accepting the statue in behalf of the city, Mayor Walker said: "New York is more honorable, more dignified and more distinguished the world over with this monument of Kossuth than it was before the monument was erected." Count Szechenyi thanked Mayor Walker and the city for providing the beautiful site for the statue and declared that Hungarians would never forget how Americans, through the American Relief Administration and the American Red Cross, had come to the aid of Hungary's poor "after war, revolution, communism, foreign invasion, and the loss of two-third of our country."
On this occasion, the Communists didn't organize any spontaneous demonstrations; they and their sympathizers expressed their displeasure by dropping leaflets - packed with the usual gibberish and vacuous slogans - from an airplane. Later that evening, they held a meeting at the Central Opera House, Third Avenue and 76th Street. Hugo Gellert spoke as did John Dos Passos. On a happier note, the famous novelist and social historian soon realized the folly and evils of Communism and completely disengaged himself from this gutter ideology.
Cukor was the toastmaster at the 25th anniversary celebration of the founding of the New York Hungarian Young Men's Circle and Singing Society. Held in Turn Hall, Lexington Avenue and 85th Street on October 20, 1929, the occasion attracted more than 600 individuals.
Incidents of police brutality, alleged and otherwise, are no stranger to the news media nowadays and neither were they in Cukor's era. Of course law enforcement was guided by a different set of rules in those bygone times In 1930 Cukor was the lawyer for Michael Sanislo, a janitor, involved in a brutality suit against Patrolman James A. Orr. According to the victim, the patrolman, when called to his residence to quell a domestic dispute, hammered him with his fists, nightstick and butt of his revolver. The injuries inflicted were so severe that Sanislo's left eye was beyond repair and had to be removed. Orr admitted that he had beaten Sanislo, but insisted that it was "in the line of duty."
Several hundred Hungarian-Americans led by Cukor as chairman of a special reception committee along with Mayor Walker greeted Captain Sandor Magyar, navigator and co-pilot of the plane "Justice for Hungary," at City Hall on November 13, 1931. Cukor praised the courage of the flier in the service of his country and the noble objectives of his mission.
The Depression ushered in years of economic hardship for the overwhelming majority of the population and the Hungarians of America shared in the misery of their neighbors. The difficult times stimulated the rise of demagoguery, and the emergence of political extremists - much like in Europe - who appeared to offer solutions to all the problems besetting society. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his implementation of far-reaching and radical policies installed a profound sense of hope and confidence throughout the country.
Writing to President Roosevelt on October 5, 1935, Reverend Joseph Matuskovits of the First Hungarian Baptist Church, 225 East 80th Street, congratulated him on the passing of the Social Security Law, suggested a number of measures to alleviate the plight of the poor and the unemployed, and lamented on the proliferation and attraction of Communist, Nazi and Fascist propaganda among residents of the neighborhood. When President Roosevelt was criticized by some political opponents for his programs in 1936, Cukor sprang to his defense; in a letter published in the New York Times, October 3, he declared: "Millions of American people will still vividly recall the dark picture of 1932 and early 1933, [...] It was not until March 4, 1933, that Franklin Delano Roosevelt [...] took the nation around the corner, and sat it once more on the straight, broad and sunlit avenue of courage, hope and faith."
When World War II began in September 1939, the United States - as at the outbreak of World War I - assumed a non-belligerent stance. Sandwiched between Germany and the Soviet Union, Hungary like other smaller nations in eastern Europe, faced a precarious and bleak future.
To celebrate the 90th anniversary of the arrival of Kossuth in New York City, the American Hungarian Reformed Federation organized a grand festivity at the Central Opera House, 205 East 67th Street, on November 15, 1941. Cukor gave the opening address and he was followed by several other prominent Hungarian-Americans. More than 2,000 people attended the event.
Shortly afterwards, on December 7, a huge Japanese strike force attacked Pearl Harbor. This "Day of Infamy" propelled the United States to join the Allies against the Axis countries.
Like during World War I, Hungarian-Americans behaved in an exemplary fashion toward their adopted homeland. Cukor served as chairman of the Hungarian section of one of the war bond campaigns. His committee raised $2 million in a matter of days. He requested President Roosevelt to name a ship after Kossuth as a token of recognition to Hungarian-Americans. The President acquiesced and a ship, launched at the Bethlehem Fairfield shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland, was so christened by Cukor's wife in December 1943. On March 19, 1944, in the shadow of Kossuth's statue on Riverside Drive, Cukor, as chairman of the Hungarian American Committee, presided over the ceremonies whereby twenty hospital service planes were presented to the US Army, purchased with funds raised from war bonds sold to Hungarian-Americans.
The horrors of World War II and the sufferings of the people are thoroughly documented. However, for the majority of the people of eastern Europe the true suffering started after the end of the war as the Western democracies allowed and encouraged the Red Army to "liberate" their lands. Trailing behind the invaders was an assortment of sycophantic Communists ready to form puppet governments in complete subservience to Stalin and his henchmen. The Iron Curtain became a symbol of the times along with the Berlin Wall and the Cold War dominated international politics until recent times.
Despite his age but true to his convictions, Cukor continued to fight for the disadvantaged and the oppressed. He served as counsel to the American Hungarian Relief, Inc. after World War II. This organization was dedicated to raising money in order to alleviate the post-war suffering of civilians, especially children, many of whom have been orphaned. Cukor also appeared on the Voice of America to Hungary. Recollecting that particular occasion, he said: "Do you think I wasted radio time denouncing the Communists and calling the present rulers names? Not a bit. The Hungarian people know their Government officials better than I." Rather, he emphasized: "I told them about America, as I, a native Hungarian, had found it."
In 1950 Cukor marked his 60th year at the bar. "I may no be the best lawyer I know in New York," he told jokingly to the New York Times reporter who interviewed him on the occasion, "but I certainly have been at it the longest."
When Kossuth visited the United States, he
joined the Masons in Cincinnati, Ohio. To commemorate the 100th
anniversary of this event, a Masonic program was held on March 2, 1952
in Riverside Park, near the statue of Kossuth. State Grand Master
Richard A. Rowlands was the main speaker; Cukor, as the representative
of the Grand Lodge of Hungary, gave a speech entitled "Kossuth, the
Mason." This was his last public appearance.
There is no shortage of books, movies and TV programs about New York and New Yorkers. One of the classic films is director Jules Dassin's Naked City, made in 1948 and shot entirely on location. It was followed by a long-running TV show of the same name. The Dassin movie and each TV episode ended with a panoramic view of New York which grew bigger and bigger as the camera spiraled ever upward while a stentorian voice intoned the unforgettable lines: "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." Had there been a TV show devoted to the life and career of Morris Cukor the appropriate ending would have been: "There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of the most inspiring."