by Rich McIlhenny
(Ed. Note: This story originally appeared in a 2010 edition of the Chestnut Hill Local.)
If you have lived in Chestnut Hill for the last few years or more, you know who he is. You probably have been wondering what happened to him. You also were probably wondering what his personal history was and why he walked the streets of Chestnut Hill every day, looking like a homeless person with his unkempt appearance and almost unbelievably long ponytail-like dreadlock. This is his story.
On June 12, 2009 a man named Jules Csatry passed away from emphysema at the age of 63. Barely anyone heard about it. There was no announcement in the papers. To most of us, Jules was known as the homeless guy with the one long dread lock or as he was called by some, “Unidread.”
The hundreds of times I saw him walking up and down Germantown Avenue or Mermaid Lane, I would always think to myself, “How did that guy end up like this?” or “Where does he sleep?” and “Where did he come from?” Last fall, I was introduced to his heartbroken and beautiful mother, Marguerite, by a long-time friend of my family’s and was asked to help sell her carriage house.
Jules Csatry was born in Hungary in 1946 to Marguerite and her husband, Zoltan Kiraly His grandparents on his father’s side were a very wealthy family — members of the nobility —owning a thousand acres of land outside Budapest, while his mother‘s family owned many apartment houses in the city. (This information comes from Marguerite, who did not want her age revealed.)
Jules’ father, Zoltan, was the ice skating champion for Hungary in the 1930s and became the coach of his younger brother Ede, who rose to fame by winning silver medals and one bronze at the World Championships, twice placing second behind the legendary Dick Button of the U.S. Ede also won a silver medal in pairs with Andrea Kekesy at the 1948 Winter Olympics
It was during this time that Hungary was occupied and controlled by Communists after World War II, and no one was allowed to leave the country, which was heavily guarded. The land and apartment houses Jules’ family owned were confiscated from them by the Communists, down to the last chair. The only people who were allowed to leave Hungary were those involved in international sporting competition. When Ede chose not to return to Hungary following the 1948 Olympics, it caused the first of many traumas in Jules’ life.
When Jules was not yet two years old, the Communists guard came in the middle of the night with machine guns and dragged away his father, Zoltan, another uncle and other relatives and put them in concentration camps, accusing them of spying for the U.S. Zoltan and his father were forced to work in asbestos mines, which eventually caused Zoltan’s death from lung cancer at the age of 42.
Marguerite was politically blacklisted and was unable to get a job or rations for food or heating and cooking fuel and was forced to turn Jules over to her aunt to take care of him. Marguerite lived without heat for several years and lived on cauliflower that was being sold as food for rabbits. A doctor friend, looking out for Marguerite, convinced her to give him custody of Jules a year later when Marguerite was down to 85 pounds and bedridden.
After five years, her marriage to Zoltan was annulled after she was told by authorities that he had disappeared, and Marguerite then married her second husband, Geza Sinkovics, who helped her regain custody of Jules from the doctor. (The doctor’s last name was Csatry, which Jules had adopted.)
In November of 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, when thousands of freedom-fighters were killed by Russian tanks, there was a man-made canal 50 feet wide and very deep, lining the border with Austria. It was lined with thousands of Russian soldiers and bloodhounds guarding it. Geza, two of his friends, Marguerite and 10-year-old Jules were part of a group of a dozen Hungarians trying to sneak across the border.
They were led by local farmers to a part of the canal that was supposed to be safe from the Russians. When they got to the banks, they made rafts from wood to float on, and got in, first children, then women and then men, trying to get to the other side. Russian soldiers started shooting over them, however, and after lying down on the ground, they were captured by soldiers.
Fortunately, someone in their group spoke Russian and gave one of the soldiers some rum. After drinking it, he became friendly and began showing the group photographs of his own family. “He even kissed me on the lips,” recalled Marguerite. “He then went and told the other two soldiers to go in another direction, and he led the refugees to a bridge that crossed over to Austria. On the other side, there were people from Finland, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden and other countries in their cars with their lights on waiting to drive the refugees to the safety of a nearby village.”
Sponsored by a Pennsylvania State Representative, John Pomoroy, the Sinkovics family relocated to the Philadelphia area. It was tough at first, speaking no English, but Geza was a structural engineer who eventually became renowned in his field, working on big projects throughout the country. Marguerite was an architectural interior designer who developed an award-winning line of metal furniture for Standard Pressed Steel.
The family lived in Elkins Park, and Jules attended Cheltenham High School where he would eventually graduate in 1964 at the age of 18. It was during this time that he and a girlfriend whom he dearly loved accepted a ride home from a friend one evening. Jules didn’t want the friend to feel like their chauffeur, sitting up front alone with the two of them in the back, so the three of them crammed into the front seat with Jules’ girlfriend in the middle. Soon they were in a horrific car crash which caused the girl to hit her head against a clock protruding from the dash board. She suffered a massive brain injury and died. Jules would never be the same again.
After graduation from Cheltemham High School, a heartbroken Jules went on to The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied painting and produced some beautiful pieces that are still on display in his mother’s Chestnut Hill home. In his third year there, another student, according to his mother, slipped LSD into his coffee, which Jules never recovered from. The first diagnosis was drug-induced psychosis, and eventually it became schizophrenia.
The family moved to Chestnut Hill in 1973 and renovated the carriage house that Marguerite lives in today. Geza had the first of five strokes, forcing Marguerite to quit her job to take care of him, and Geza eventually died on Thanksgiving Day, 2005.
During this time, Jules started hoarding things and roaming the streets of Chestnut Hill. He grew his hair and beard extremely long, and when Marguerite asked him to cut it, or if she would tried to help him clean his room, he would become very aggressive with her. “He was a grown man,” Marguerite told a Local editor last Saturday.”I could not force him to do things.”
She was beside herself, unable to help him. Someone started giving him cigarettes, and he became addicted. He would wander the streets, looking for cigarettes butts, because she would not let him smoke. “I was afraid Jules would die from smoking, as his father had from the asbestos,” said Marguerite. “I bought him a $400 leather coat, and he traded it for cigarettes. He smoked up to three packs a day. Eventually I stopped giving him money because whatever I would give him, he would trade for cigarettes or for money to buy them.
But I would pack him a lunch with something to drink, so he would not get dehydrated on his long walks. I struggled with trying to help him, but I know that other people thought I neglected him or did not care.”
At night Marguerite would make Jules dinner, which he would eat alone in a small efficiency next to her garage. He did not want to eat with anyone else or be photographed either. Marguerite tried to get a judge to force Jules to cut his braid, which was so heavy that it hurt his spine, but she was told the court could not do that since he was mentally ill.
One year ago, June 12, emphysema finally claimed the life of Jules Csatry. His ashes sit overlooking the garden of the carriage house that his mother still lives in. She cries daily over his death and the difficulties of his life. I asked if there was anything that she wanted everyone to know about Jules.
She replied, “I want everyone to know that Jules was once brilliant, with a great sense of humor. I talked philosophy with him and his friends, and we were very close. He was taken from me by the poisons of the time, which still claims lives of young people today. But he was given LSD unknowingly, causing him to lose his mind and for me to lose him three decades ago. The cigarettes finally claimed his life. I tried to take care of him and kept him out of the system. He was my baby, and I loved him with all of my heart.”
With no family left in her life, and Marguerite facing foreclosure of her home on Mermaid Lane, my wife and I have adopted Marguerite into our own family. She now calls me her son. Little did I know when I saw Jules walking the streets all of those years that not only would I find out his real story, but that one day I would be his “brother.” Rest in peace, Jules.
(According to a spokesman for Our Mother of Consolation Church, on the weekend of June 12-13, Jules will be remembered in the “Prayer of the Faithful” during all the Masses at Our Mother of Consolation parish. The Saturday Vigil will be at 5:30 p.m., and the Sunday Masses will be at 7:30, 9 and 11 a.m.)
Rich McIlhenny is a lifelong resident of Mt. Airy and a Realtor with Remax Services. He can be reached at email@example.com