The Star Who Came to Jakarta
WEEKENDER | Sat, 10/23/2010 1:09 PM |
Actress Eva Bartok left Hollywood for a spiritual calling in Jakarta, her daughter, Deana, in tow. Forty years later, Deana has returned to the city.
By Bruce Emond
“I’m back in Jakarta and I don’t know why,” Deana Sinatra says with mock exasperation. The city she left in 1971 as a 14-year-old resembled a small town with big aspirations, with kampongs backing on to rice fields and Hotel Indonesia the main landmark of note.
Today’s sprawling capital is almost unrecognizable and, she says, “very stressful” compared with how it was during her four happy years here.
The only child of the late Hungarian-born actress Eva Bartok, Sinatra has lived in many places – her birthplace London, Jakarta, Los Angeles, Hawaii and Sydney, where she moved with her British husband and raised two sons. About 18 months ago, in her early 50s, divorced and with her sons in college, she gave up her job as a diversional therapist and relocated to Jakarta to teach.
“I have a very soft spot in my heart for this country,” says Sinatra, a tall, attractive blond with piercing blue eyes. “I felt that I had unfinished business here, not only having to do with Mum but the fact is I’ve always been comfortable here. There were things that motivated me to go out of Australia. I didn’t want to go back to America or Europe, but Indonesia.”
Looming large in her story – always the case for the scions of famous people – is Bartok, the stunning dark-haired beauty who appeared in a string of Hollywood and European movies during the 1950s and 1960s. Bartok survived scandal and near-death during her pregnancy with Deana to become one of the most prominent international ambassadors for Subud, the Indonesian-based spiritual movement.
On their travels, Bartok’s own forceful mother was always in tow. Curiously, in this company of women, three male figures retained a strong presence: Bartok’s father, who disappeared during World War II; Muhammad Subuh, the founder of Subud; and Frank Sinatra, the man Deana recognizes as her biological father but whom she never met.
Coming to Town
Deana Sinatra still remembers the day in London in 1967 when her mother proposed moving to the Wisma Subud compound in Jakarta.
“She told me that there would be no electricity or hot water, but there would be freedom.”
Then barely 10 years old, Sinatra was used to babysitters, chauffeurs and the high-walled existence of celebrity. It was lonely and protected, she says, and she was thrilled at the possibility of an escape.
They embarked on the long journey across continents, her mother still traveling like a film star with a heap of suitcases, her grandmother suffering not so silently. They arrived in Jakarta and were put in the only guest room available. The next afternoon, jetlagged, they went to meet Pak Subuh.
Pak Subuh had always been part of Deana’s life. At the same time Bartok discovered she was pregnant, she had learned she had a potentially life-threatening ovarian cyst. Doctors recommended surgery for its removal, which would have killed the fetus.
Bartok, then already involved in Subud, moved from Los Angeles to its compound at Coombe Springs outside London, where she awaited a visit from Pak Subuh. Following his instructions, she put off the surgery and the cyst miraculously disappeared. He also decided that the child would be called Donald if a boy, or Deana if a girl. Deana Grazia was born in October 1957.
“He was beautiful and warm,” she says of Pak Subuh. “There was light all around him when he walked into a room. He loved children, and he called me over and asked me in Indonesian how I liked Wisma Subud. He was so revered. His wife was fantastic, too, we became very close, and she loved Mum a lot.”
She calls Wisma Subud a “little island” of calm from which she would venture out to the sidewalk stalls along Jl. Fatmawati to buy ice cream. The transition to the tropics was sometimes daunting, Sinatra admits, describing the differences – curious smells, birds singing, house lizards scurrying across the walls – as “gobsmacking”.
While Deana attended Jakarta International School, her mother threw herself into Subud activities.
“I think she wanted to become a better person and let go of all the trappings of being a film star,” she says. “She always believed in a much higher power ... she came into this world with a spiritual thread.”
M. Omar Martinez, who has created an extensive online tribute to Eva Bartok, agrees.
“From the time she was a child she was questioning her place in the universe,” he says. “She was very intelligent and sensitive.”
The idyllic Jakarta interlude ended in 1971. Pak Subuh asked Bartok to spread Subud’s philosophy throughout the world. The family moved to Los Angeles, and later to Hawaii.
“My mother left here on a mission that was asked of her. And she never ended up coming back here to live.”
Perhaps, Deana Sinatra says, that is why she has come back. She has also returned to Subud after several years’ absence, adding that its way of living and viewing the world always remains part of its followers. The city is helping her tie up the loose ends of the past.
Meaning over Movies
Bartok’s spiritual quest led her to put aside her acting career, Martinez says from Los Angeles. Bartok had first gained international fame starring in The Crimson Pirate with Burt Lancaster (1952). Her Eastern European background made her a favorite to play World War II heroines and Cold War escapees in such films as Operation Amsterdam (1959) and Beyond the Curtain (1960).
Fluent in many languages, she continued to make movies in Italy and Germany in the 1960s; her last lead role was in the Israeli film Sabina in 1967, with Deana making her acting debut.
“I believe that her newfound connection with Subud made her less interested in pursuing her career. After all she had found in that movement what she had been looking for all of her life: the meaning of her existence,” says Martinez, drawing on Bartok’s 1959 autobiography Worth Living For.
Deana Sinatra, who also had a brief acting career, says her mother was a very good actress, although not great. Unlike her fellow Hungarians, the Gabor sisters, Bartok set out to lose her accent when speaking English by taking elocution lessons.
But she never looked back wistfully on her Hollywood years.
“She had realized the fakeness of it,” Sinatra says. “It was just a phase that she went through. But she did love the stage.”
Bartok’s search for meaning also stemmed from the losses that shadowed her life. Born Eva Ivanova Szoke in Budapest in 1927, she was the daughter of a prominent Jewish journalist father and Roman Catholic mother. World War II destroyed the family’s comfortable existence. Her beloved father continued to write articles critical of the Nazi regime; when Eva was barely a teenager, he disappeared forever.
To avoid her mother and herself being sent to a concentration camp, the 15-year-old Eva entered into a brief, loveless marriage with a local Nazi official. After the war, she drew on connections with Hungarian émigrés in London to leave her homeland and pursue her acting ambitions. She married the producer Alexander Paal in 1948, but they divorced three years later.
The void from losing both her father and her country remained. Many of her relationships were with much older men (including Paal and her fourth husband, the actor Curd Jurgens, who was 12 years her senior), as though seeking a replacement for her missing father.
“Men would fall in love with her beauty, and also her soul, but they could never really love her completely,” Deana Sinatra says.
She reflects on her mother’s personality, a mercurial, sometimes frustrating bundle of contrasts. She was not a homey person – she chose furnished apartments or hotels, and her disastrous, thankfully rare forays in the kitchen still make Sinatra chuckle.
While drama followed her in everyday life, she could laugh at herself and she was a loving mother: She read her daughter bedtime stories and they slept in the same bed.
“Of course, I didn’t see her the way other people saw her, as a film star,” Sinatra says. “She was just my mum to me. It was normal to me.”
Although Bartok loved her adopted homeland of Britain and believed in its values, Sinatra says, she also pined for her birthplace, which suffered more bloodshed during the 1956 Soviet invasion. Yet Bartok never returned. She died in August 1998, aged 71.
“The things she experienced made her a stronger person, because she questioned things more, about why things happened in her life,” Sinatra says. “And that’s how you grow as a person.”
Eva Bartok lived life on her own terms, eschewing convention. She dated an Indian prince when relationships between Asian men (even noble ones) and white women were frowned upon, and ignored friends who told her she was crazy to give up her career to move to the politically tumultuous Jakarta of the mid-1960s.
Bartok needed that self-belief during her controversial pregnancy with Deana, as she was already separated from Jurgens. Gossip columns kept tabs on Hollywood stars, who were then expected to toe the moral line.
Sinatra says Jurgens urged Bartok to identify him on her birth certificate to quiet the scandal, although she laughs that it reads “father unknown” next to the Austrian actor’s family name.
The document was just a formality (she met Jurgens only once in her life). She says her real father was Frank Sinatra: At 41, the legendary singer allegedly had an affair with 29-year-old Bartok when she was working with Hollywood “Rat Pack” member Dean Martin on the movie Ten Thousand Bedrooms.
Deana claims she knew who her father was instinctively. As a toddler, she rifled through her mother’s stacks of LPs and picked out a Sinatra album. “Daddy,” she says she pronounced to a dumbstruck Bartok.
As a restless teenager, then in Los Angeles, she pressed her mother to contact the singer. At an appointed time, he called; Deana, listening on the extension, heard him say he was busy but they would meet the following week. He never called again, and her mother let it rest. A few years later, a request for contact sent to Sinatra’s lawyer met the response that Sinatra was preoccupied with other responsibilities. Deana says her mother never said a bad word about Frank Sinatra.
And so it was just the women, Eva and Deana (her grandmother died in the late 1980s). Using her legal name, Deana made several Hollywood B films in 1983 and 1984, including one produced by Frank Sinatra Jr, the singer’s son. Her mother sometimes visited her during filming, once advising her about dealing with an ornery co-star before a love scene.
“She told me to have my morning coffee, and then to eat a clove of garlic,” she says.
Coming of Age
Deana was not interested in the all-consuming actor’s world. She wanted instead the settled family life she had never known as a child, away from her sometimes overbearing mother. In 1985 she married a fellow Subud member and they moved to Australia.
She admits her long-distance relationship with her mother was not always easy, with each dealing with her own problems and finding it difficult to connect emotionally in stilted conversations from halfway across the world.
Bartok, still active in Subud, worked in an art gallery toward the end of her life. “Oh, she could always turn on the charm, she could sell anything,” Deana says.
Her mother was unhappy when Deana went public about her parentage in a newspaper interview in the mid-1990s. “She wanted to know why I did it, and she also was worried for me for the possible repercussions. She didn’t call again for a few months.”
Despite the distance, Deana noticed her mother’s health and spirit gradually waning. But she was shocked by condolence messages left on her answering machine in May 1998, for the loss of her “father”; Frank Sinatra had died, aged 82.
“It was astounding,” she says of the outpouring of concern for her for a man she never met. “But the hope [of meeting him] died then.”
Three months later, Bartok had a stroke and was hospitalized in London.
Deana Sinatra, who had not seen her mother for three years, begged the doctors to keep her mother alive until she arrived from Australia, but a second massive stroke and heart attack took Bartok’s life as Deana was still trying to arrange her ticket. “I had told the doctor to whisper in her ear that I loved her,” she says, breaking down.
In London, she found that her mother had spent her last few years “living like a monk” in a dingy hotel room. She had got rid of all her possessions over the years, and everything she owned fit into three plastic bags. In one of them, Deana found Bartok’s birth certificate, the date of birth changed by hand to make her older and thus eligible to migrate to England. In another was a beautiful ring, a gift from the Marquess of Milford Haven, with whom she was close in the 1950s.
Materially, Bartok was poor – the press reported the onetime movie star died penniless and homeless – but at the funeral the pews were filled with friends and strangers. Sinatra saw how her mother had touched many lives with her kindness and films.
“People walked off the street, I think they had read about the service in the papers. There were tears streaming down their faces,” she says.
Sinatra says she realized she too was alone, except for her sons. “It’s tough becoming an orphan,” she says simply.
She subsequently changed her name by deed poll to Sinatra. It was easy to do, she adds, simply formalizing what she sees as her rightful parentage, “the other half of me”. She emphasizes that she has never sought a share of the Sinatra estate, only recognition. She shows a photo of her younger son next to one of Frank Sinatra; there is a striking resemblance in the color of their eyes and the shape of their lips.
Sinatra’s three children have never commented on her claims. But if they did address the issue?
“It would be wonderful, I would welcome it,” says Deana.
She also bears a strong resemblance to ol’ Blue Eyes in her own eyes and the shape of her face. But she is clearly her mother’s daughter, in the delights and disappointments they shared, and also the thoughts of what might have been.
The similarity is evident not only in her attractiveness but also in her willingness to make her own decisions and follow her heart, including back to Jakarta. Both Eva Bartok and Deana Sinatra have done things their way.