Mery Zentay: Hungarian Violinist – Victim of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

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A 12-page high-resolution pdf taken from the Issue No. 1 of Liner Notes.

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A brave young woman in a new world, Mery Zentay was just 18 when she arrived in New York, an aspiring virtuoso determined to help her struggling family back home. She would never return. This is her story, told, for the very first time.

Mery Zentay was a fascinating and tragic figure. That a young woman, not yet 18, should have undertaken a journey to the United States in 1915, when travel was not even remotely as comfortable or convenient as it now, is remarkable in itself. That she came with no certain prospects, nor anyone to welcome her in New York City, is further testimony to her extraordinary courage and perseverance.

The musician’s life in early 20th Century America was supremely challenging, to say the least (and arguably remains so today!). Immeasurably more so for a woman musician. Mery Zentay would have been perfectly capable of playing in the New York Philharmonic (then known as the Philharmonic Society of New York), but this was not even possible. The NYPO would not hire its first woman player until harpist Stephanie Goldner (future wife of Eugene Ormandy) was taken on in 1922, 4 years after Mery Zentay’s death. Lest one feel encouraged by Goldner’s appointment, she would remain the NYPO’s only woman player for a decade.

This left Mery Zentay to an uncertain, itinerant, quite nearly impoverished life in the daunting metropolis of New York. And then came the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. As difficult as the Coronavirus Pandemic has been, and there has been real suffering and loss, it still pales beside the death and devastation wrought during the years 1918-1920. Upwards of 50 million people died worldwide. More frighteningly still, it was particularly deadly to those in the prime of life; in fact, Mery Zentay’s exact age group.

By the time of her death, her mother had returned to Hungary. She had no family with her at the end. Certainly she would have made friends by this time. And also lost friends. The exact circumstances of her final days remain unknown and lost to time. It must certainly have been a very lonely death.

This article – to my knowledge, the very first of any kind on Mery Zentay – attempts to encompass what is known about her short life. I have come across one reference to a possible engagement to one of Thomas Edison’s nephews, but have not been able to confirm this. As she recorded for Edison Records at their studio on the top floor of the Knickerbocker Building in New York City (79 Fifth Avenue and 16th Street), this is not outside the realm of possibility.

Quite possibly more information survives, locked away in an archive. Perhaps this article will help lead to a more complete picture of an extraordinary young woman, violinist Mary Zentay. She died on 3 October 1918, aged 21. This is her story.