The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: The Rumpus Interview with Julian Rubinstein

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Ten years ago today, Attila Ambrus (a.k.a. the “Whiskey Robber”), arguably the worst pro-hockey goalie in history, hastily twisted together a makeshift rope out of computer cables and bedsheets and escaped out a fourth story window of the Budapest City Jail. The soft-spoken goalie known for being as much a gentleman as a bandit (he once handed flowers to bank tellers before robbing them) had heisted 29 banks, making off with the equivalent of half a million dollars. His artful dodge from the prison and his quiet, unique élan made him an instant cult hero to the Hungarians. But it wasn’t until Julian Rubinstein wrote about him that Ambrus’ story gained international interest. Rubinstein’s genre-bending nonfiction historo-crime novel, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber was published in 2004, and won Border’s 2004 “Original Voices” Nonfiction Book of the Year.

Much has happened in the 10 years since Attila made his jailbreak. He was recaptured and is now sitting in prison in Hungary. But his following continues to grow. You can buy “Free Attila Ambrus” t-shirts, USA Today wrote a piece about him for his 40th birthday two years ago, and the screenplay based on the book was named to Hollywood’s 2008 Black List of best unproduced scripts of the year. The producers are Warner Bros and Johnny Depp’s Infinitum Nihil, with Depp slated to play Attila. The physical likeness and style shared by Depp and the Whiskey Robber is uncanny:

Attila, in disguise, captured on bank surveillance camera, about to pull off his 29th and final bank robbery, October 18, 1999, Budapest.

Attila, in disguise, captured on bank surveillance camera, about to pull off his 29th and final bank robbery, October 18, 1999, Budapest.

Julian and I missed each other by only one day at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. We were both non-Hungarians writing about Hungarians, and there just aren’t that many people who know who the Grand Prince Árpád was—Julian was one of them. I was sorry to miss him. Luckily he agreed to answer a few questions for this, the tenth anniversary of Attila Ambrus’ great escape:

The Rumpus: Left behind in your mailbox at MacDowell was an invitation to the Hungarian Consulate.  Did you ever get it?

Julian Rubinstein: That’s funny. I did end up doing an event at the Hungarian Embassy in DC soon after that. The ambassador at the time, Andras Simonyi, was a great guy. He played guitar in a band, and when he contacted me, I was coordinating a kind of radio cabaret style performance recording of the book. He put me in touch with Tommy Ramone, who was born in Hungary, and whose real name is Tommy Erdelyi—literally Tommy Transylvania. I called Tommy, who mostly lives in upstate New York, and sent him the book. A few weeks later he agreed to come down to the city and be a voice in the audio production.

Rumpus: I remember reading about the making of that recording in The New York Times. As I recall, there was an incredible group of writers involved: Jonathan Ames, Gary Shteyngart, Arthur Phillips—and then Tommy Ramone!

Tommy Ramone, one of the Ramones, recording the audiobook in 2006.

Tommy Ramone, one of the Ramones, recording the audiobook in 2006.

Rubinstein: The funny thing was that even though he’s Hungarian, he just could not do a Hungarian accent. We had to do, like, 20 takes every time he had a line. But he was great.

Rumpus: That’s hilarious. And it must have been thrilling to meet Simonyi, and be embraced by the embassy. Did any other connections come from that event?

Rubinstein: The embassy event Simonyi planned had paired me up with the Hungarian historian John Lukasc, who’s a legend. The crowd was a funny mix of old-world Hungarian intellectuals, and a very young group of Hungarian ex-pats working in politics. Then we had this huge Hungarian feast with Hungarian wines and talked about Hungarian politics, which I loved because Attila’s story was so intertwined with politics that I’d become an expert in the Hungarian scene. But I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about what the Interior Minister did, et cetera. For instance, just yesterday Bela Kiraly died. He led the 1956 Hungarian uprising. I was sitting in a café when I read this and it choked me up. I thought, who could I tell this to?

Rumpus: Me! And it’s true; writing in depth about another culture can feel alienating sometimes. Now on the 10th anniversary, do you think the political gravitas of the Whiskey Robber’s story has changed?

Rubinstein: It’s interesting thinking about it all today, especially now on the 10th anniversary. The elements of the socio-political and economic reality that enabled Attila to become such a protest symbol are things that almost always exist. But they seem to be particularly prevalent today, even here in the U.S.: frustration and weariness over political corruption, cynicism and anger about the banking system, distrust of the media—these are common themes everywhere.

Rumpus: What struck me when I first read your book—and what affects me still—is less the iconic status of the Whiskey Robber than the personal relationship between you and this “gentleman bandit.” Did you know immediately that you would devote so much for your writing time to him?

Rubinstein: Well, I hoped I would because he was clearly the center of the story. But it took me almost a year to get permission to see him. The prison commander denied my request. The Justice Minister denied my appeal of that request. I finally was granted an interview by the judge who presided over Attila’s case. After that, Attila put me on his approved visitor list and over the next three years I traveled up to the prison in Satoraljaujhely to meet with him 12 times. He was a dream subject: complex and deeply flawed but inherently sympathetic. A tragic figure with a conscience.

Julian Rubinstein and Nina Davenport visiting Attila Ambrus in Satoraljaujhely prison, 2003.

Julian Rubinstein and Vera Ronai visiting Attila Ambrus in Satoraljaujhely prison, 2003.

Rumpus: Have you seen him since?  Do you keep in touch regularly?  I guess I’m thinking in the Capote/Perry Smith vein, how the nonfiction writer and subject’s relationship can change, disappear, evolve?

Rubinstein: It’s funny because I remember talking about this with Dan Futterman, who wrote the film Capote. There was certainly never any sexual tension with Attila and me—he did briefly get engaged to a fan when he was behind bars, but they broke up—but we’ve developed a real relationship. He once told me I was one of three people in the world he trusted, which may sound self-serving on his part, but he was an incredibly forthcoming person. I double and triple checked everything he told me. He had some quibbles with the book but overall said he really liked it. The last I saw him was about a year and a half ago: I had to be in Germany and I made a side trip to the prison with a documentary filmmaker, Nina Davenport. There’s a clip of the visit on YouTube, which I think gives a pretty good sense of Attila’s personality and of his life today:

At the end of that day, Attila ended up asking Nina out, which even I found pretty charming, even though I was dating her.

Rumpus: Does he know about the upcoming film?

Rubinstein: I don’t know how much he knows about the film—I’m even in the dark most of the time. He knows Johnny Depp bought it, and apparently they give him shit in the prison about it because it’s made the papers there. I pretty much vowed to be there at the prison gate the day he gets out. So I assume I’ll see him then, which will probably be in a couple years. He’s getting out early for good behavior.


Jessica Anthony's first novel, The Convalescent, has received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, and is a Barnes and Noble "Discover Great New Writers" pick for Fall 2009. Her fiction has also appeared in Best New American Voices, Best American Nonrequired Reading, McSweeney's, Mid-American Review, New American Writing and elsewhere. More from this author →