Anne Marshall Zwack’s husband recorded his love affairs in 5,000 little black diaries – inspiring her to take up her pen too. Elizabeth Grice reports
Arturo, the family donkey, has wandered over to the table in the garden, set under a canopy of wisteria, and is starting to eat the seagrass placemats. One of several frantic dogs, an oily little dachshund, approaches the Telegraph photographer and slyly nips his left leg. The mistress of the house, resplendent in a coral kaftan and matching espadrilles, hasn’t noticed either of these incidents because she’s busy adjusting her gondolier’s straw boater, swathed with orange muslin.
“I do think writers should wear hats, don’t you?” she calls across the campo, in the penetrating tones of a well-bred Englishwoman.
We are in Tuscany and rows of vines stretch away down the hill under a blue sky. It is probably raining in England. A bottle of Hungarian white and three glasses have appeared. What’s a nip on the shin among friends?
Anne Marshall Zwack is an old girl of Cheltenham Ladies’ College who overthrew convention to become a model, live la dolce vita and marry an eccentric Hungarian “aristocrat”. Wisely, she doesn’t subscribe to the expatriate guild of women writers who hymn their Tuscan idyll amid the lusty olive groves. Her novel, The Diplomatic Corpse, is a romp of wifely revenge, drawing on her brief experience as an ambassador’s wife and inspired by her elderly husband’s lifelong habit of recording his expenses, diet, business dealings and extramarital encounters in small pocketbooks.
“Something unwritten has simply never happened for him,” she says. “If he loses a diary he is distraught because it means that he has lost a week of his life.”
In the novel Maggie, wife of the British ambassador to Vienna, discovers her husband’s diaries after he has dropped dead from a heart attack in the arms of a Viennese beauty. Between the tedious diplomatic meetings, these explosive little notebooks reveal that he has had a mistress in every posting – sexual satisfaction being denoted by the number of asterisks. With their lugubrious Hungarian
Tchauffeur as accomplice, the furious widow embarks on a grand tour of European capitals, exacting custom-made revenge on her smooth, silver-haired husband’s paramours.
While we are waiting for the inspiration of this tale, The Hungarian Husband, to turn up, Zwack fills in the domestic background. They met on a blind date in Milan when she was a much-travelled 26-year-old translator and typist and he was 44, with a failed marriage and five children behind him.
“It was not your fairy-tale romance,” she says. “His mother proposed to me. She asked: ‘Would you like to marry my son?’ I said: ‘Yes.’ She replied: ‘Then we’ll arrange it.’ He found himself up against a fait accompli. I think he was terrified, after his first marriage went wrong. She felt he had to be chivvied into it.” They went on a prenuptial honeymoon to Paris.
Zwack discovered that her reluctant suitor had been keeping diaries since boyhood. Mostly, he wrote in English, but “the Casanova chapters” were always in Hungarian. When his American first wife was seeking a divorce, she had them translated. “She discovered that all the juicy bits were in Hungarian,” says Wife Two cheerfully. “This rather put the nail in his coffin.” From then on, he had to use the tradesmen’s entrance to their Manhattan apartment.
“After that, he became more circumspect. I did once have my suspicions about an Austrian amour. I must say, the times I looked over his shoulder the diaries seemed so incredibly boring that I was never in the least bit tempted to read them, but I noticed that he uses little ticks, like the logo for Nike training shoes. My British ambassador uses asterisks.”
This is quite a warm-up act. “He is the archetypal Hungarian who enters the revolving doors behind you and comes out in front,” she goes on. “Peter is so incredibly convincing that even if I were suspicious he would dispel it in a moment and if he were caught in flagrante he would have a perfectly plausible explanation.” Really? “You don’t know him.” here is a crunch of tyres on the dusty track. A huge black Audi gas-guzzler, with no discernible driver behind the smoky glass, pulls up in front of the beautiful, crumbling old house and a very small man in smart slacks climbs out. He has a Russian poet’s shock of straight brown hair, parted in the middle, but his face is the face of an 80-year-old Hungarian. The press release for Zwack’s book glamorises him as a “Hungarian aristocrat and exile”.
“He is from the merchant aristocracy,” she explains. “Like the Agnellis here, or the Guinnesses. Through his mother’s line they have a small title, something like a baronet.” It was not his title, big or small, that interested her.
“I suppose he really rather swept me off my feet. He was so different from anyone I had ever met. Most men have lapsed into platitudes by their fourth sentence. Peter has never uttered a platitude in his life. I was ready to settle down. I had been wandering for so long. Age was never an issue. He is so youthful, even now at 80, in his ways of thinking. And he keeps himself physically in much better shape than I do. He runs, he jogs, he bicycles, he swims…”
Peter Zwack is a charming man with a colourful background but you sense his Casanova chapters are a thing of the past. He was, after all, keeping his diary as the bombs fell on Budapest at the end of the Second World War. For centuries, his family had made the famous herb-based bitter liqueur Unicum. When they fled Communist rule in 1948, settling in Ellis Island, New York, they took the liqueur’s secret recipe with them and hid it in a safe-deposit box. Zwack renounced his American citizenship to become the first non-Communist Hungarian ambassador to the United States in 1991, despite having no previous diplomatic experience. It was a short-lived posting. The Zwacks were popular on the diplomatic social circuit, less so with civil servants. Peter Zwack was recalled after only seven months, having publicly criticised his Hungarian government boss.
“Some of it was my fault,” says his wife loyally. “I started behaving like a Western ambassador’s wife but under Communism wives were supposed to be invisible. The embassy was full of Communist apparatchiks. They thought I was terribly managing, you see. They didn’t like it that I was constantly quoted in the papers. We had this incredibly good food, cooked by a chef we brought from Hungary, and they accused us of turning the embassy into a restaurant. They had no idea about PR. That is what we were good at. Nobody pretended we would be good civil servants. Peter was charming people, making speeches and getting people to visit and to invest in Hungary and they just didn’t understand that. They complained his reports were not written in bureaucratic Hungarian. There was a lot of jealousy. It wasn’t a very nice story.”
Happily, though, it furnished her with insider material for The Diplomatic Corpse, in which she exposes the longueurs and pettiness of life lived under the glare of a thousand chandeliers.
“I tell you, I was very impressed by ambassadors until I became an ambassador’s wife,” she says. “It’s a very boring job. You always have to put on an act and if you don’t you’re letting the side down.” Still, when in Washington, she met five American presidents and sat next to Bill Clinton at dinner. “My impression was, first, that he was very intelligent and second, that he was definitely a lech. He has bedroom eyes.”
Anne Zwack has been on the run from convention since birth. By Steps in a Land Rover) during the last gasp of la dolce vita, to Milan, and finally to Budapest with The Hungarian Husband. They have two children, Izabella, 31, a wine producer (known as “The Beautiful Daughter”), and Sandor, 29. Peter Zwack bought back the expropriated family liquor business, the first Hungarian capitalist to do so, and together they revived it.
When Anne was 60 last year, she says their friend, Princess Michael of Kent (who is half Hungarian), offered three pieces of advice for any woman reaching 60: get a personal trainer, get a lover and do your pelvic floor exercises. Anne Zwack didn’t know she had a pelvic floor. As for the lover, it sounds as though The Hungarian Husband is safe. “I would feel terribly guilty. Imagine leading a double life. I don’t see how people do it. If you really love somebody, that would be impossible. To me, it’s the ultimate betrayal.”
As we are about to leave the house and retire to the local trattoria for lunch, Peter Zwack can be seen at the window, scribbling his secrets.
“I am now on book 5,351,” he says. “I write every day; my expenses, who I meet, my innermost thoughts. It is bad for my memory because I rely on it. If I lose it, I go crazy, I go nuts. It’s like losing life.” The diaries are heaped up in his attic. He keeps a catalogue of their contents.
“Now he is 80,” says his wife, “he is concerned about their fate. Maggie, in my book, finds peace by burning her husband’s diaries on a bonfire. Peter was aghast at the idea. If the record of his life were to be destroyed, he would simply never have existed. So we have decided to bury them in the garden in Tuscany.”
“In an airtight casket,” he insists. “They should never be allowed to rot!” accident, she was born in Lichfield because that is where her mother, in labour, ended up after driving from Birmingham to find a hospital bed.
She endured the regimental discipline of boarding at Cheltenham (“We were always marching places”) and the even harsher regime of the Belgian Convent in Ireland – “a school for the gormless aristocracy of all nations”. Her mother had converted to Roman Catholicism after seeing a vision of the Virgin at Montmartre, and dragged Anne, aged 11, into the Church in her wake.
“I really got into it. I think I was flagellating myself and wearing hair shirts. I loved all the plaster saints with crimson nostrils and the feeling of exultation. Sex was never mentioned. We were given books written by worthy curés about how you had to keep yourself pure until you were married.”
After school, she went to Florence to learn Italian, escape suburban Cambridge and to begin a life less pure. There, she modelled for the Pucci fashion house before moving on to Paris, to Rome (where she drove down the Spanish
The Diplomatic Corpse’ by Anne Marshall Zwack (John Murray) is available for £11.99 plus £1.25 p&p. To order, call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.
Embassy wife: Anne Marshall Zwack, above, and below, with Peter, a former Hungarian ambassador to the US. The Zwacks were popular on the diplomatic social circuit, less so with civil servants