Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Did You Know Budapest Had a Smile Club to Stop People from Killing Themselves in the 1930s?

“In the Smile School of Budapest, a woman looks at herself in the mirror with a grim bandage on her face.” Het Leven, 1937.

An epidemic of suicide sweeps through Budapest, and the city tries to stop it in an odd way: by creating a “Smile Club”, where people are taught to smile again. The initiative is covered in the 17 October 1937 issue of Sunday Times Perth:


Budapest, Saturday

Although a magnet for tourists from all over the world, Budapest has for several years been known to its own people as The City of Suicides.

Budapest suffered badly after the war and has received unpleasant publicity from the number of cases of self-destruction occurring every year within its boundaries. Some of them are alleged to have been inspired by the Budapest song, “Gloomy Sunday”, but, be that as it may, the suicide rate in Budapest is definitively very high.

The favorite method adopted by most Budapest melancholics is drowning, and patrol boats are stationed along the boundary near the bridges to rescue citizens who seek consolation in the dark waters of the Danube.

Now, however, a “Smile Club” has been inaugurated to counteract the suicide craze. It was originally began more as a joke by a Professor Jeno and a hypnotist named Binczo, but somehow it caught on. The organisers have now a regular school and guarantee to teach the Roosevelt smile, the Mona Lisa smile, the Clark Gable smile, the Dick Powell smile, the Loretta Young smile, and various other types, the rates varying according to the difficulties encountered.

Jeno says the methods employed at his school, aided by better business conditions in Budapest, are making smiling popular, and before long it is hoped that the name of Budapest will be change to the City of Smiles.”

“In the Smile School of Budapest, a woman looks at the smiling woman’s faces held in front of her. On the wall, two smiles and the picture of Mona Lisa.” Het Leven, 1937.

Gloomy Sunday, the popular 1933 hit of Rezső Seress was in fact propagated by the press as “the Suicide Song” or simply “the Killer Song” in more than a hundred languages all over the world, claiming that dozens, or even hundreds of people committed suicide because of it.

It is, however, probable that this was one of the largest, deliberately constructed hoaxes of the century. The lyricist, László Jávor, who was also the criminal reporter of the 8 O’Clock News, mentioned in his reports on seventeen consecutive suicides, that the scores of Gloomy Sunday were found next to the corpse. What is more, this same newspaper attacked the song as inherently inspiring suicide, and demanded it be banned. An unprecedented international press career started on the wake of these articles. All this at a time, when the song, with a privately published score, was not played at all, had no recording at all, and was unknown in Hungary, so much so that even the fashionable bar pianists did not know what it was when foreign guests asked them to play it. So it is very strange that in Budapest they had to guard against the epidemic caused by it.

But the news is also supported by another source. The Dutch tabloid Het Leven published in the same year, 1937 a series of five photos – the five illustrations of this post –, which show you how the clients are taught how to smile in the “Smile School of Budapest”.

“In the Smile School of Budapest, a white-robed teacher points on the smile of Mona Lisa with his pointer.” Het Leven, 1937.

“Outside of the Smile School of Budapest, six people wearing masques which forces smile on their faces. In the midst of them, the portrait of a laughing man.” Het Leven, 1937.

The laughing man is President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was an award-winning champion of smiling indeed, but how many people would recognize him in 1937 in Budapest, and how much it was appropriate to teach his smile there in that year. But it is clear that the Australian newspaper listed the same smile models who also figure here, as if they collected them from these photos.

“In the Smile School of Budapest, the clients watch the white-robed teacher pointing out the five phases of a smiling mouth.” Het Leven, 1937.

Budapest did not belong to the most important themes of Het Leven. In their photo archives from 1916 to 1941 we only encounter the city six times. It is therefore strange, that now they publish such a well-informed report from the Hungarian capital. The other five occasions also include one more City of Suicides topic, which surely excited their readers, when in 1937 they published an obviously staged photo series about a woman jumping from the second floor of a building in Budapest.

Het Leven, as is written in the introduction to their photo archive, was a tabloid, which was characterized as “hard news photography, paparazzi photographers, aggressive, penetrating and sensational style”, and they did not shrink from staged photos or open hoaxes in the interest of quelling the hunger for sensation of their readers. Is it possible that this time the same thing happened?

The key to the solution is probably a third site, not quoted by anybody, where the same pictures figure: in the archive of Het Leven’s American namesake, Life. On 6 September 1937 this magazine also published a short article on the Smile School in Budapest.


A joker in Budapest, Hungary lately evolved the “smile school” shown on these pages. The idea was to counteract the bad publicity Budapest has gotten from the number of suicides supposedly inspired by the Budapest song, Gloomy Sunday. The suicide rate in Budapest is actually very high. Patrol boats are stationed day and night along the Danube, near the Budapest bridges, to rescue citizens who try to do away with themselves by drowning.

The smile school is a hoax backed by “Prof.” Jenö and a hypnotist named Vincze. They claim to charge up to $500 for teaching the Roosevelt smile in six weeks. The Mona Lisa smile is more difficult but cheaper. Jenö now has 45 students. He says better business is enabling pupils to smile naturally.”

(via Poemas del río Wang)

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