“My father was always in a hurry; he was forever irritated, absent, preoccupied with romantic affairs and coming up with new jokes, which he then ‘tested’ on us regardless of our mood. Always young at heart, he will remain so forever.” Zbigniew Lengren, the celebrated illustrator of “Przekrój” who would celebrate his 101st birthday this February, is remembered by his daughter, Katarzyna.
His parents met before World War I and went on dates to the Zachęta art gallery in Warsaw. My grandmother used to say that this was probably the reason for her son’s artistic talent. She did not have artistic talents herself, and she was also tone deaf – her singing was terrible. However, she was beautiful, with a beauty that reflected the times. She did everything with deliberation, keeping perfect order all around her. She was even able to discipline her genes, that is, to be born with the exact kind of beauty that was fashionable in her time – how typical of her! My father's father, Juliusz, was also extremely handsome, but he was far from disciplined in his life. Born in Poland to the Swedish Loenngren family (spelled with a double ‘n’), he spoke many languages, each with a comical Swedish accent. Well-educated and sophisticated, he received a commercial attaché job at Cedergren's telephone company on Zielna Street, on the top-floor of Warsaw’s first skyscraper. Juliusz was bright and intelligent. He sang and played the guitar, loved Viennese cabarets and beautiful women. Everything that was permanent tired him – even marriage.
One of the family photos was taken after their escape from Russia, which was overcome with revolution and civil war. Zbyszek [the diminutive form of Zbigniew – trans. note] is three years old here. He is a weepy, fearful mummy’s boy and is frightened of the photographer. It is probably because of this fear that his legs seem crooked; in reality, they weren’t. His high boots deserve a mention – his father Juliusz made them with his own hands, so that he could ruin his ‘fair white hands’ a little. This served to protect him from accidental execution in the street, where the ‘bourgeoisie’ were often identified by their hands.
After the evacuation of the entire Cedergren company to Sweden, the young family found themselves in Russia. Having had nothing to do with neither tsarist nor communist Russia, they settled in Tula, the city where the best samovars were manufactured and where my father was born. Following their return to Poland and subsequent divorce, my beautiful grandmother Lucyna settled in Toruń, where she married the rich and lethally handsome attorney, Mieczysław Monné. Mieczysław came from the family of the famous Wanda Monné (Artur Grottger’s fiancée). Perhaps this is why he didn’t loathe art and paid for his stepson’s private education without wincing too much.
A handsome, dyslexic officer
Apart from drawing and painting lessons, the pre-war upbringing of a young man from a good and modern home also included sports, at which Zbyszek excelled. So much so, that the rest of his schoolwork didn’t interest him much and he struggled to pass from one grade to the next. Perhaps he was tormented by the then unknown dyslexia that I also eventually inherited. But Zbyszek’s drawings were free from any errors. He loved precision, perspective, neatness and perfection. I would often watch him start all over again because of the slightest ink blotch, scratch or a wobbly line. He would continue doing this for as long as necessary until he finally decided that the work was perfect and therefore complete.
After his graduation everything looked picture-perfect. He was almost too handsome, even better looking than the film actor Bodo – this is what his sighing and swooning female friends like Jadwiga Smosarska used to say. His family was rich. His older sister Danusia got married and gave birth to a son, Leszek. Zbyszek passed the entry exams to study architecture and after completing two years in cadet academy he was ready to enter into adult life as a gorgeous young officer.
At that point, the idyll came to an end. His sister and her infant son died in a car accident. The black, shiny car sped along – as Toruń’s newspapers reported – “at the dizzying speed of 45 miles per hour”. Everyone except the driver was killed. There were no seatbelts, no car seats for children, and no one thought that a tired driver could fall asleep at the wheel. For Zbyszek, the outbreak of World War II did not change much. Nothing was the same as before the accident anyway.
Perhaps his sister’s death created a kind of protective umbrella over him – he simply had to survive for the sake of his mother, who would not endure the loss of another child. He knew this and really made an effort: as a horse artillery officer fighting in the Battle of Bzura (later, he called it the Battle of Bzdura – the Battle of Nonsense), escaping from a train headed to a prisoner-of-war Oflag camp, giving ‘intelligent answers’ during a Gestapo interrogation. Although he was a Polish citizen, his Nordic looks, charm and the Swedish nationality inherited from his father did help. He managed to survive.
Once, when asked by an Austrian publisher why he and his wife spoke such good German, Zbyszek answered (truthfully, rather than maliciously): “You know, in our generation, if someone did not speak German, they were already dead.”
When World War II came to an end, he decided to be done with mourning and war once and for all. He had a wife, a son Tomasz, and nothing else. This was not a problem; everyone lived that way. He started and finished his studies, but felt too experienced to pay attention to the lectures. Soon he began doing what he liked the most, which was drawing and playing tennis. With great care, he avoided anything that seemed too snobbish or too serious, or that required following rules and procedures, hierarchy and obedience.
He matured into being eternally immature at the exact time when the dictatorship of the proletariat emerged from the post-war chaos. That is, a purge enveloped in a red banner, punishing the intelligentsia for their education, manners, worldview, and the ‘unbearable lightness of being’ – the kind that anyone who wasn’t born with could never imitate.
Instead of joining the Party, Zbyszek assumed the persona of an intellectual-jester – one that doesn’t offend with harsh criticisms, because he focuses on mild, benign gags. He was a caricaturist that never ridiculed anyone; a good-humoured humourist. It is a pity that all of this kindness was reserved for his drawings. At home, he was a hothead: impatient and egocentric. He didn’t rule, but demanded; he didn’t give orders, but sulked; he didn’t explain, but was surprised if one of us failed to understand something.
In the summer he tormented us less, but from each October onwards we just wanted to shoot him. Years later, I came across a book with information about seasonal affective disorder. Most often, it is experienced by light-eyed Northern Europeans whose genes, instead of becoming immune, created certain mutations. To me, those are the ‘Lengren genes’. Slamming doors all winter, promising to ‘leave and never return’, insulting anyone and everyone for everything. Fortunately, around his birthday on 2nd February, this would pass. Then, he’d demand sympathy. We’d present him with a birthday cake and small, elegant sandwiches, which he liked because he could eat them while browsing the newspaper.
In those days, you would start with the back pages of a newspaper – the front was dedicated to the portraits and worship of the first secretaries, members of the Workers’ Party and photos of the USSR’s ‘Stakhanovite’ tractors. After each reading, to recover from stress, my father (who was really good at it) and I would draw on the newspaper. We’d add moustaches, beauty marks, and bowknots on the heads and noses, and black teeth on the smiles. This annoyed our mother because it meant that the newspaper could not be safely thrown away (someone else could have found it and reported us!). Instead, it had to be laboriously cut into pieces.
While still in Lublin (the first post-war, temporary capital of Poland) my father met the future editor of “Przekrój”. At the time, Zbyszek worked in the room where he, his young wife, and baby lived. Among the drying diapers he ran a makeshift office of the newly founded Union of Visual Artists, and his work consisted of distributing aid in the form of food stamps to artists and other intellectuals. Apparently, he distributed them well. From this point onwards, he was friends with Grodzieńska, Jurandot, Eile [Marian, founder and first editor-in-chief of “Przekrój” – ed. note], and other, older artists.
After returning to Toruń, he studied and worked at a dressmaking school, where he taught drawing (much to my mother's concern) to flirtatious teenage tailors. He practised sports. He felt fine and young, so young that he, ha, ha!, invented a cheerful old gentleman in an unfashionable outfit, with a bowler hat and umbrella. Apparently, the archetype was his secondary school history professor. And, ha, ha!, funnily enough, his first drawing was about spelling. It must have been that dyslexia.
Oh! If only he knew that eventually he would catch up with Filutek, grow old, and that young people, especially young women, would address him as “professor”... No! He couldn't picture that at all. This is why, when he eventually grew old, he wasn't prepared for it. What’s worse, he never agreed with his old age. He sighed with disgust, contemplating his wrinkles; he sighed with sadness, eyeing the tennis racket that was no longer ‘able to play.’
In contrast, Filutek did not age. Each week, younger generations would look at the last page of “Przekrój” to see what the playful old man had invented this time. After many years of solitude, Filutek found a dog on Christmas Eve that the readers chose to name Filuś. His name came from the verb filować, or ‘to stake out’. Forever a puppy, Filuś was spoiled and treated with love and respect by his master.
The author himself did like animals very much, but purely theoretically. In our cramped house there was always some kind of a pet (and not just the clichéd dog or a cat, but also birds, hedgehogs and squirrels). Our mother took care of this menagerie and us, their two children. Delicate Zofia, with a beauty reminiscent of the Caribbean. She was artistic, impractical, and still in love with her husband. Thanks to her, he could remain an eternal teenager for whom everything was always forgiven, in the vain hope that he would soon improve his behaviour.
Indeed, Zbyszek did improve, but only in his career and esteem.
The favourite of the Polish People’s Republic
This is what Stefan Kisielewski named him in his memoirs, commenting on their meeting in a café: “...visited by the always slim and tanned favourite of the Polish People’s Republic – young Lengren.” And all this was true. I think that Kisielewski was a little bit envious of Zbyszek’s sporty appearance, himself being a charming, intellectual fatty.
Lengren’s freedom was also enviable. The cartoonist didn’t have a boss or Party to worry about. Even his wife was a gentle creature. And his nonchalant attitude to money! He never asked how much he would get paid for his work, he didn’t like to talk about money, and he signed contracts with his eyes closed. Perhaps this is why Eile liked him so much?
Zbyszek did whatever he wanted, or rather whatever he liked doing. He was having a great time. He began to perform in theatres as an announcer; he drew live on the newly emergent television; he worked as a set designer, and created the Telemelek cabaret. Of course, he did not give up drawing. Apart from Filutek, he had a regular satirical drawing in the Świat weekly and published his own books for adults and children. He also scripted, illustrated and produced animations.
Despite the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, his drawings began to leak abroad. In East Germany, his work was published enthusiastically and often. When one of his drawings received a cash prize in Canada, it was unclear how to transfer the money – at that time, working with the West was rather uncommon.
The Polish People’s Republic (PRL) liked him and he liked it back, although he did not get involved in politics, and over the years understood less and less of what was truly going on. In his own way he was quite modest. Because he didn’t take much interest, he didn’t know much. And because he didn’t know much, he didn’t speak out.
What could such a seductive celebrity, satisfied with his own work, be envious of?
Money? Not at all. Despite his family’s frowns, he only earned the bare minimum. A flat? Back then everyone lived in two-bedroom flats, with the mandatory housekeeper who slept on a folding bed in the kitchen. A car? After his sister’s accident he didn’t want to drive and promised his mother that he would never buy one. Women? He had plenty (he preferred heavier, thick-legged blondes). Friends, acquaintances, and trips abroad? He certainly didn’t lack those. And yet, he was envious.
The first source of the unpleasant feeling of jealousy was Jeremi Przybora. They looked as if they could be brothers, except Przybora was musically gifted. Exactly! Zbyszek inherited a complete lack of musical talent from his beautiful mother, Lucyna. His singing was reluctant, out of tune and devoid of any charm. Oh, the ungrateful Muses! Why did you gift so many talents, but not this one? When the Kabaret Starszych Panów [Older Gentlemen Cabaret] was triumphing, Zbyszek sincerely admired Przybora, but immediately afterwards envied him in secret. He – Filutek, an Older Gentleman, but really a young man at heart… It could be him instead, on the screen, among the pretty actresses, crooning the Cabaret’s favourite: ‘A song is good for everything…’
To add to this, another Snow White appeared out of the blue in our house (and she was prettier than the beautiful, yet slightly balding queen). My brother Tomek was tall and unbelievably handsome; a beauty reminiscent of Southern Europeans, who bloom early and stunningly, soon put on weight and yet despite that, gracefully dance fiery flamenco. When Tomek was 16 years old, he was still slim with a shock of brown curls, and played every instrument he was allowed to lay his hands on. When he played the guitar, he sang. When he was not singing, he was telling jokes – effortlessly and with impeccable timing, so that everyone would be rolling on the floor laughing, admiring his acting talent.
Theoretically, all this should have pleased Zbyszek and filled him with fatherly pride. Unfortunately, in practice it meant that father and son would constantly get on each other’s nerves. But they loved each other. They loved each other like a badly-matched married couple that, despite constant quarrels, never think about divorce.
The orange crate sticker
My father was not a family man. He couldn’t tell apart his cousins, and burdened our mother with all the family-related matters. His relatives were ‘intelligentsia’ – the working intellectuals, liberal professions, writers and actors. We never went to Sunday lunch with them, but instead attended all the premieres of the Dudek Cabaret with the magical stage performer, Edward Dziewoński. Every year we opened and closed festivals, art exhibition openings and book fairs. We spent holidays at artists’ retreats, with a vast ‘family’ of talented, witty, cultured people. In short, crème de la crème. Spending time with them was the best schooling, although I admit, they did not always behave appropriately, especially when they ‘made merry’.
Back then, during those seemingly grey times, people craved and knew how to have fun, and the more intelligent they were, the better it worked out. Perfecting new anecdotes, playing literary games and executing laboriously prepared pranks were the most amusing. I remember one, directed at Kazimierz Rudzki, Zbyszek’s stage friend. It began with a sticker detached from a crate of oranges. Yes, sometimes a small number of sour oranges were brought to Poland around Christmas time. Of course, they disappeared immediately, leaving only the crates behind. The bright sticker captivated the keen eye of the artist. It was shiny, with a golden emblem and an inscription against the background of the setting sun: ‘PARAGUAY’. Underneath it, in smaller letters, a note (presumably in ‘Paraguayan’) informing of the first-rate quality of fresh oranges from that particular plantation.
Without hesitation, Zbyszek removed the sticker, ironed it out at home, glued it on to a piece of cardboard and – with skill acquired while forging documents during the war – added a handwritten text that looked just like a print: ‘The Embassy of Paraguay invites Mr Kazimierz Rudzki and his wife to a ball. Formal wear is requested’. Then he sent it by post to Rudzki’s address. At the agreed time, together with other friends, Zbyszek waited around the corner for the dressed up guests. Rudzki, in a pre-war tuxedo and with his wife in a fur, arrived by taxi, and proceeded to argue with the sleepy doorman, frantically waving the cardboard bearing an inscription in praise of oranges and shouting in all known languages: “Ball! Ambassador! Invitation!”
The prank ended, as per usual, at the Actors’ Club. There, due to a lack of champagne, the matter was toasted with vodka.
Others grew up, accumulating wealth and accolades along the way. Eryk Lipiński established the Museum of Caricature and became its director. Several artists applied for professorships, others moved from cramped flats into houses with gardens. They acquired cars, antiques and art collections, and often worked abroad. In various ways, they made use of their connections and acquaintances and secured their retirement and pensions. Lengren did not.
Once you stop moving forward, you’re done.
He was still well-known and liked. Gradually, however, invitations dried up, as did the publications. At one time, Filutek represented an unfashionable old gentleman. Eventually, the entire series turned unfashionable and outdated; unimportant. And each drawing became slighter and smaller in print.
After moving the editorial office to Warsaw, the then temporary editor of “Przekroj”, Piotr Najsztub, axed Filutek, sending a bouquet and printed letter via the florist to elderly Lengren explaining that the editors had had the honour to end their cooperation. Not half a banquet, not a single glass of champagne! And that’s all there was to it.
This must have upset the PRL’s favourite – a brilliant man about town, a one-time officer, seducer and sportsman. Perhaps it broke his heart (equipped with a pacemaker). Lengren passed away soon after Filutek. His epoch was over, just as everything has its end.
But since he could never endure sadness, mourning and even seriousness, his life now has a new punchline. With “Przekrój” revived, Filutek has returned to his place. The era of Lengren’s triumphs, the 1960s, is fashionable again, and is adored by young people.
Never matured, he will stay forever young, even though he was born a century ago.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel