Cover Story

They were weird and wicked times, no doubt about it. Years after his death, when strangers in suit coats kicked and grappled for the crumbs of his estate, they would say the old man lived his last days in a gross gush of profligacy. Ordering the servants about. Getting snockered every day on gin. Sleeping till noon and puking on the parquetry. Squandering money on lunatic investments. Ranting and raving about nothing at all. Communism. The death of aristocracy. Whatever. As much as a decade before his 1988 death in Miami, Count Tassilo Szechenyi was a nobleman by title only, a Hungarian thoroughbred gone utterly to seed, a wastrel, a rotter, a stumblebum.

"A tremendous pain in the ass? He was indeed," says 48-year-old J.D. "Mike" Phelps, the Count's closest friend and assistant during the Eighties. "He was not an easy person to have a relationship with. You could have a $100 tab at a restaurant, and he'd tip a dollar. When he turned his back, I'd leave a twenty, you follow me?

"He had this valet, Nicholas, who was there five days a week, 24 hours a day," Phelps recalls. "The Count had friends all over the world, so he would make international phone calls late at night, to different time zones overseas, with Nicholas waiting on him hand and foot. The Count would stay up late, three or four o'clock in the morning, then he'd sleep till ten or eleven, then the kid would fix his breakfast. And it had to be just right, or the Count would throw it on the floor. The kid would have to remake it and clean up the mess, too. Aside from his vodka, tonic, and grapefruit juice mixed together, he would have a two-minute egg, and white toast, just so on both sides. It had to be perfect.

"The Count in his declining years was five-foot-nine, maybe 120 pounds soaking wet," Phelps adds. "He smoked three to five packs of cigarettes a day and drank two to three quarts of vodka. He was a very hard drinker. He was an alcoholic. He almost turned me into an alcoholic. But aside from being an alcoholic, he was eccentric. It ran in the family. His uncle built the Szechenyi Bridge between Buda and Pest, then committed suicide when he discovered the workers had placed a set of giant ornamental lions facing the wrong way."

The best example of Count Szechenyi's eccentricity, friends suggest, was his response to the 1979 death of his third wife, the Countess Helene Balej Szechenyi. "The maid had prepared lunch, and the Countess was due back from her swim that she took every day at that hour," Phelps says, recalling the scene at the exclusive Surf Club Apartments at 9133 Collins Avenue. "The Count had not left the apartment. Two detectives from Metro homicide showed up to tell him his wife was dead. But he already knew because he saw the whole thing through the window from where he was sitting at the luncheon table - the body covered up, the rescue van, everything. He didn't think anything of it. The detectives came in and said, `I'm sorry to tell you your wife has died.' He said, `Well, would you gentlemen like to stay for lunch? It's already prepared. We don't want it to go to waste.' He hated waste. He had a lot of quirks like that."

Of course, this was only the exterior view of Tassilo Szechenyi (pronounced SAY-cheh-knee). The Count may have acted like a beast on occasion, but that was because of his exquisitely tortured soul. There was more to his personality and his final days in a Surf Club condo than the sad circumstantial merger of royal decadence and sunny subtropical seediness. Born in a castle in Budapest in 1912, and witness to a century of human tumult, Count Szechenyi's wealth had not consistently insulated him from life's hard knocks. And apart from being old and weather-beaten, the Count at the time of his death belonged to a painful and ever-more-exclusive club: a last generation of expatriate Eastern European royalty, the liver-spotted embodiments of a nearly vanished feudal system, haunted by their alienation from the late Twentieth Century.

"He had all the luxuries of a peaceful European upbringing under the Austro-Hungarian Empire," Phelps explains. "He had nannies and chauffeurs and footmen and limousines and private schools and horseback riding and polo training - everything."

Nephew of King Franz Josef I and purportedly fifth in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Count finished prep school in the decade following World War I. During his last year of university studies in Budapest, he announced his intention to become an aviator. Despite the protestations of his brother and father, both of them traditionalist cavalrymen, Szechenyi received his wings in 1935 and began a career as a test pilot, gunner, and bombardier in an age when those job titles were less than a generation old.