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Dr Varga József via Wiki Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Unknown via Wiki Commons 
Dr Varga József via Wiki Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Unknown via Wiki Commons 

This Song's a Killer: The Strange Tale of "Gloomy Sunday"

Dr Varga József via Wiki Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Unknown via Wiki Commons 
Dr Varga József via Wiki Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0, Unknown via Wiki Commons 

In Vienna, a teenage girl drowned herself while clutching a piece of sheet music. In Budapest, a shopkeeper killed himself and left a note that quoted from the lyrics of the same song. In London, a woman overdosed while listening to a record of the song over and over.

The piece of music that connects all these deaths is the notorious “Gloomy Sunday.” Nicknamed the “Hungarian suicide song,” it has been linked to over one hundred suicides, including the one of the man who composed it.

Of course, this might all be an urban legend.

One thing’s for sure, though. “Gloomy Sunday’s” composer Rezso Seress did take his life, and the success of his greatest hit may have been a contributing factor.

Sad Songs Say So Much

In 1933, the Hungarian-born Seress (née Rudi Spitzer) was a 34-year-old struggling songwriter.

Some accounts have him living in Paris, others Budapest. The story goes that after his girlfriend left him, he was so depressed that he wrote the melody that became “Gloomy Sunday.” A minor-key ribbon of blue smoke, the tune was given an equally melancholy lyric - in Hungarian - by Seress’s friend, the poet Laszlo Javor. Some reports claim it was Javor’s girlfriend who left him, inspiring the song as a poem first. Others say that Seress wrote his own lyric, about war and apocalypse, then Javor later changed it to a heartbreak ballad.

Whatever the case, “Szomorú Vasárnap,” as it was titled, didn’t make much of a splash at first. But two years later, a recorded version by Pál Kálmar was connected to a rash of suicides in Hungary. The song was then allegedly banned. Short of learning Hungarian and trawling through Budapest newspapers from the 1930s, it is impossible to verify any of this (Hungary does historically have one of the higher suicide rates in the world - approximately 46 out of every 100,000 people take their own lives there every year).

But it certainly makes for a juicy story. And it did at the time, too, because music publishers from America and England soon came calling.

Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Sam M. Lewis and British theater lyricist Desmond Carter each wrote an English translation of the song. It was Lewis's version, recorded in 1936 by Hal Kemp and his Orchestra, that caught on.

Sam Lewis, best known for chirpy hits such as “I’m Gonna Sit Write Down And Write Myself A Letter,” stayed close to the bitter despair of the original. Here’s his second verse:

“Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all
My heart and I have decided to end it all
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad, I know
Let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go
Death is no dream, for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you.”

Lewis did make one concession to commerciality by tacking on a third verse that beamed a ray of light into the tune’s darkness. It began:

“Dreaming, I was only dreaming,
I wake and I find you asleep in the deep of my heart, dear.”

In 1941, Billie Holiday recorded the definitive version of “Gloomy Sunday.” Having the hard-living Lady Day associated with the song certainly upped the tragedy ante.

Despite conflicting reports, the song was never officially banned in the U.S., though it was in England. In the early ‘40s, the BBC deemed the song “too upsetting” for the public, then later said that only instrumental versions could be played on the radio.

In 1984, “Gloomy Sunday” was in the news again, by association, when Ozzy Osbourne was taken to court by the parents of a teen who shot himself while listening to the rocker’s song “Suicide Solution.” In 1999, a German film, Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod (Gloomy Sunday - A Song of Love and Death), told the story of a doomed love triangle and a song that triggered a chain of suicides. And in recent years, the song has been recorded by such artists as Elvis Costello, Sarah McLachlan and Heather Nova.

What Became of Rezso Seress?

During World War II, he was put in a labor camp by the Nazis, which he survived. After that, he worked in the theater and the circus, where he was a trapeze artist. He later returned to songwriting, though he never had another hit as big as “Gloomy Sunday.”

In fact, the story goes that when the song first became a success, Seress attempted to reconcile with the ex who inspired it. Shortly after, he heard that she had poisoned herself, and there was a copy of the sheet music of the song nearby (in other versions of the story, she left a note with just two words: "Gloomy Sunday"). Whether that’s true or not, Seress himself did commit suicide, in 1968, jumping from the window of a Budapest apartment building.

Seress once wrote of his conflicted emotions towards his morbid masterpiece: “I stand in the midst of this deadly success as an accused man. This fatal fame hurts me. I cried all of the disappointments of my heart into this song, and it seems that others with feelings like mine have found their own hurt in it.”

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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