Monday, August 16, 2010

My Zsa Zsa Moment - Ivan Kenessey's Wine Celler in Hotel Belmont 1981



I was saddened to learn that iconic Hungarian beauty ZsaZsa Gabor has asked for the last rites of the Catholic Church.

ZsaZsa and her sisters Eva and Magda took America by storm in the1950's and introduced the sobriquet 'Dah-Ling! ( Darling)' to public discourse.

The three Hungarian beauties sang , sort of, but were very easy on the eyes with robust physical constitutions that defied the assault of not just years but decades.

They were and remain eternal beauties.

Here in Chicago, another eternal beauty was Ivan Kenessey. Ivan Kenessey owned Kenessey's Wine Cellar in the Hotel Belmont at the corner of Belmont and Sheridan.
It was probably the last Hungarian restaurant in Chicago, though there remained some Mom and Pop operations in South Chicago along Exchange and 95th Street and few in Hegewisch. Kenessey's was magnificent - Veal Paprikash, Hungarian breaded schnitzels, pork loin topped with letcho ( a sweet pepper, onion, and sausage Hungarian bruchhetta, or salsa that was great on its own or larded onto Hungarian bread) and home made cheese spreads of every texture and range of spice. Kenessy's cheese spreads were gifts of the Holy Spirit. There was a wonderful imported beer selection as well. Ivan Kenessey was a beaut! Tall courtly, witty, generous, and the greatest host this side of Reilly's Daughter owner Boz O'Brien.

The Gabor sisters hit Kenesseys's hard every time they played the Drury Lane, Empire Room, Arie Crown Theatre, or Orchestra Hall. Victor Borge was also a frequent Kennessey guest.

My late wife Mary - then Mary Cleary -worked for Ivan. Mary and the two Oak Park Sisters Morrissey, Barb and Jaimie lived in an apartment run by Barry Management at Pine Grove and Belmont, from 1980-1982. Mary and I had been dating since 1978 and our Kismet-like meeting at Leo's Riverside Tap* on the mighty Kankakee River at Station Street. I fell madly in love and Mary tolerated my advances. Persistence pays off . . .well it worked out for me anyway.

Mary worked for Coldwell Banker in the Old Standard Oil Building and also for Ivan Kenessey. Mary was a superb waitress, which probably made her such a great Art teacher two years later. I was teaching and coaching at Bishop McNamara High School in Kankakee, Illinois. After my duties for the week, I would drive my 1967 Velveeta Cheese Box Yellow Plymouth Valiant to Chicago and scout out a free parking space near the apartment and pop over to the Hotel Belmont and wait for Mary's shift to end - usually about 11:00 PM on Friday's.

I always liked to get there early - if I am on time, I am fifteen minutes late - and shoot the breeze with Ivan, about Jane Byrne, Bobby Douglas and Joe Kapp as the greatest running quarterbacks, cooking, foreign beer, history, music, Georg Solti -a celebrated resident Magyar and Mary. On this Friday, Mary was absent. Mary cracked Ivan up. " Coach, Mary told me that she was hit by a car while riding her bike to work. I thought this strange as Mary lives one hundred yards from here, but? Her Mother called here and I told her that Mary had been hit riding her bike, 'That girl does not have a bike, Ivan. She was probably at a bar with her two pals.' Your girl is a delight!" Yep, a yarn-spinning, shift ditching, fun-drinks with the girls, delight. This time she was caught. Didn't seem to make no never mind to Ivan Kenessey.

In walks the ZsaZsa Gabor! Ivan glides to the beauty and gives her regally jewelled and manicured digits a courtly kiss on the knuckles and sweeps the beauty wearing a blue raincoat and scarf to a table in the corner and joins her. They sit like teenagers cooing over one another in a 1950's malt shop. After about ten minutes, Ivan waves me over. I knot up the tie that I am still wearing from a Friday's classes at Mac and brush off the crumbs attendant to my meal time ministrations and try to summon up a bon mot, witty acknowledgement, or courtly blessing - I got nothing. I make my way over to their table without knocking over chairs, coat racks, or guests and stand there grinning like the yokel I be. " ZsaZsa, this is my very good friend a high school teacher, Mr. Pat Hickey." At seventy something ZsaZsa Gabor was a riveting beauty with the skin and clear eyes of seventeen year old. I drank in the whole package, but managed to say, " Miss Gabor, it is a genuine pleasure to meet you and you are more beautiful than . . ." Her mouth opened in genuine embarrassment and I was treated with " Why thank you Dah-Ling!"

That was something. I bowed my way back to my table and waited for Mary to show up and tell Ivan about the trauma of the bike accident. Ivan never even hinted that he had caught his feckless waitress in the act of blowing off her shift. I had that pleasure. God Bless Ivan Kenessey!

God Bless you and welcome you, ZsaZsa!

* I tended bar at Leo's Riverside Tap a gorgeous Limestone building with a magnificent red-polished wooden bar, during the summer months. One evening at closing-time an enchanting tall red-head in an SIU Saluki T-shirt and chinos made her way to me - " Ow have two Jackencokes ena beer." Pulling myself to my fullest height, I cocked an eye-brow and rejoined "You're Shut off Ducky! Closing time in ten, anyway."

"Ducky!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. . .you . . ."

There followed a string of maledictions, threats, obscenities that won my heart forever!.

1 comment:

Linda said...

I'm related to Kathi Kenessey thru my father's mother, Anna Bozmanski. Your article makes me think that Ivan has passed away? Unfortunately, we did not keep in contact through the years. I most remember eating goulash, fried bread and breaded zucchini flowers. Memories I will never forget. Can you put me in touch with them? (or Zoltan or Hedwig, her sister and brother)? Thank you.
Linda Hirsekorn / linda.hirsekorn@gmail.com