When in the Michaelmas Term of 1911–12 Ferenc Békássy began his studies at King’s College, Cambridge, he was not long in earning the attention of John Maynard Keynes, a Fellow of the College. Keynes was bisexual, before World War I heavily engaging in homosexual affairs, for many years a lover of the painter Duncan Grant, and also having casual affairs with many others. It seems that his interest in young Békássy was at first rather platonic. He described him in his letters to Duncan Grant as “the Hun”1 but over time became a self-appointed mentor and friend of the younger man, eventually promoting his rapid election to the exclusive debating society known as “The Apostles”.2 Békássy, who came from a family of landed nobility in western Hungary, had impressed Keynes not just with his looks, but also his intelligence, and near-perfect English thanks to his education in Bedales School, Hampshire.
In January 1912 Ferenc Békássy was inaugurated into “The Apostles” together with the classicist scholar and linguist Gordon Luce. It was very unusual to have a person elected during the first year of his undergraduate studies, but clearly an exception was made in these cases. Rupert Brooke wryly commented on this in a letter to James Strachey: “I barely remember the Society (R.I.P.). But I must say electing those two is the maddest thing I ever heard of.”3 Strachey replied in a letter two days later giving circumstances of the inauguration of Békássy and Luce, remarking that “B. really seems admirable in every way – for practical purposes, too”,4 the second half of the sentence possibly an allusion to the Hungarian’s latent bisexual tendencies.
While it is possible that J. M. Keynes was “grooming” both Békássy and Luce as potential homosexual partners, it seems that this was followed up by an actual affair only with the latter in 1913.5 As for Békássy, it appears Keynes was so curious to get him to know better that as early as June 1912 he accepted an invitation to visit his family in Hungary in September of the same year. Ferenc gave instructions to Keynes in detailed letters how to get from Vienna to the family estate in Sennye, a train journey to the small town of Rábamolnári where a coach would be waiting for him.6
During his Austro-Hungarian excursion Keynes wrote altogether three letters, one to his father exclusively about financial matters and two to his mother describing his experiences on the Békássy estate. Apart from these Keynes also reported on his stay with the Békássys to his close friend Duncan Grant. His letters to Grant – from Sennye and Vienna – are dated 19 September and 5 October 1912 respectively, in both cases two days later than the letters to his mother, Florence Keynes. The four letters complement each other, the letters to his mother brief, informative and humorous, the ones to Grant more private, detailed and intimate.7
Keynes spent altogether two weeks in Hungary where on the whole he enjoyed himself and was able to do some work as well. It seems that he was impressed both by his hosts (members of the Hungarian elite of the day) and their knowledge of English, although – as it transpires from one of the letters – he resented the habit of his hosts, often switching conversations into a language he was not at all familiar with, i.e. Hungarian. As a “reward” for his seclusion in friendly but “remote” and semi-feudal Hungary, Keynes spent some days in Vienna exploring both the cultural diversity and the homosexual experiences offered by various individuals in the Imperial city.
JMK’s handwritten letter to his Mother from Kis-Sennye, Rum, [Hungary], 17 September 1912.8
Vas n.m. [county], Hungary
My dearest mother,
I arrived here safely yesterday after a very easy journey. This is a large ancient house, half like a castle, with a moat, built by the Templars in the 13th century, with a park about it. My room is haunted by a bishop and there is a chapel at the end of this passage. It seems like a lovely place – woods, a large rushing river and huge plain with eventual hills. And very remote. I was met by a carriage with the driver in blue uniform and gold braid, rather like a Hungarian band. The house is a curious mixture of span and comfort and primitiveness. There is great excitement over politics. Yesterday there was a meeting of the local diet presided by Mr Békássy, my host, at the capital of the county9 about 12 miles away and a vote of confidence in the government was passed amidst great excitement, followed by a dinner given by my hosts at their town house to sixty of the deputies. Today I put on my tail coat and we drove a few miles to pay a call on a neighbouring countess who had a lovely daughter and gave us a wonderful tea at which I never knew what anything was going to be until I’d put it in my mouth. I’ve not seen Mr Békássy as he is in Pest to-day on official business – a telephone message has just come through that there has been great disorder in the Hungarian Parliament. It is feared that the principal countess of the district won’t speak to us next Sunday when we go into Sombathely [sic!] for luncheon as her brother has been mishandled by the Gov[ernmen]t police. We, by the way, are of the Gov[ernmen]t party and hate the priests.
Excerpt from JMK’s handwritten letter to Duncan Grant, 19 September 1912. Keynes Correspondence, Vol. III, British Library MS Add. 57931, ff. 34.:
… The general feeling to me both of the house and the country is more like that of Tolstoy’s Russia than anything else – but on a much smaller scale.
Feri’s father I’ve not seen yet – he is away. His mother is very nice and extraordinarily intelligent. The family is 3 boys and 3 girls, all past, present or future Bedalians. There is the greatest excitement about politics. Yesterday we motored in to Sombathely [sic!], the capital of the county, to see the preparations for an Art Exhibition which is to open on Sunday for a fortnight. All the nobles of the county are sending in anything curious or beautiful that they have in their homes. Nothing of the kind has been done before, and this, apart from politics, is one of the chief topics.
… this seems extraordinarily remote from England. If you feel inclined to write a letter, send me one.
Yours affectionate JMK
I fortunately brought my black tail coat – not worn since the India Office. The day before yesterday I had to put it on as we drove five or six miles to pay a call on a neighbouring countess.
Handwritten letter from Vienna, Hotel Kaiserin Elizabeth (but address Cap. Cook).
Thursday October 3 1912
My dearest Mother,
I came here from Sennye on Tuesday – where I lived a very quiet life and did a good deal of work. Except on the day I left, the weather was never what it should have been, and there was a good deal of cold. The Békássys entertain me greatly, and I expect now uniforms and countesses at a tea party. It is astonishing how many Hungarians can talk some English.
Here in Vienna I find everything to my taste, except – again the weather, which after a good beginning has broken down completely – I sit now in a Café to watch the rain. But Vienna is the pleasantest European capital I’ve yet been in, – and so splendid a product of German civilisation, that I feel the horrors of Berlin redoubled in imagination and remembrance. I went last night to the opera to see Mozart’s Figaro – it was very well done. The night before in order not to put my German to too much of a test, I tried Fanny’s First Play.10 But it doesn’t do in German – many of the English jokes fall by necessity quite flat, and I thought it only moderately well acted. There is so much to see here that I shall probably stay until Monday.
Yours affectionate JMK
Excerpt from John Maynard Keynes’s handwritten letter to Duncan Grant, from Vienna. Keynes Correspondence, Vol. III, BL MS Add. 57931, ff. 35.:
Hotel Kaiserin Elisabeth, Wien, 5 October 1912
My dearest Duncan,
I came away from Sennye on Tuesday, and your letter has just reached me. I do hope you’ve managed to get something done for Grafton.11 Did you see Lucy12 again? I’ve heard no more of him, but I suppose he is dead and gone by now. I had a great deal of interesting experiences at Sennye, but there were moments of boredom. I was in the midst of endless Hungarian conversation of which I couldn’t understand one word, and after the novelty of the mise-en-scène had worn off I sometimes found it exasperating. It would often happen that a conversation would begin in English and German for my sake and then as soon as it was getting interesting they wouldn’t be ask [?] to help breaking into Hungarian, and I should not know what the upshot was.
No, I did not fall in love with anyone except slightly with Jani,13 Feri’s brother one year younger. He is a scientist, seldom speaks, and has no (theoretic) good looks. But his character is charming and, though completely unexpressive, very intelligent; and I got very fond of him. Anyhow, by last Tuesday I seemed to have seen what then was to be seen at Sennye and thought I’d like a whole week in Vienna… [which is] by far the pleasantest European capital to visit!…
1 John Maynard Keynes to Duncan Grant, British Library, MS Additional 57931, fol. 1 and 3, 5 and 23 January 1912.
2 He was also the first member of the Apostles not born in Great Britain. About the election see Keynes to Grant, MS Add. 57931, fol. 3.
3 Keith Hale (ed.) Friends and Apostles. The Correspondence of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey 1905–1914, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, 217.
4 Ibid., 219.
5 Ibid., 174.
6 The New Hungarian Quarterly, 79 (Autumn 1980), 166. The original letter is in the Keynes Collection of King’s College, Cambridge.
7 For permission to reproduce Keynes’s letters to his mother I thank the Archives of King’s College, Cambridge.
8 For the publication of JMK’s letters we would like to thank the Archives of King’s College, Cambridge.
10 A play by George Bernard Shaw.
11 Duncan Grant took part in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition organised by Roger Fry in the Grafton Galleries, Mayfair.
12 Gordon Harrington Luce, English scholar and linguist, a Cambridge friend of Keynes’s, from 1912 a Lecturer in English in Rangoon, Burma.
13 John Békássy, the only one of the Bedalian Békássys who stayed in England in 1914 and after a short period of internment during World War I married Rosamund Wedgwood. He became an aircraft engineer and lived at Bury St Edmunds, and was naturalised in 1933. Rosamund Wedgwood died in 1960, but John Békássy survived her, dying in 1983 in Cambridge.