Baron László Hengelmüller von Hengervár, Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to Washington

In the 19th century the Hungarian Kingdom was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so Hungary had no separate representation in Washington DC.   Foreign affairs were handled in Vienna.  I was surprised to learn that the longest serving US Ambassador of Austria-Hungary was actually a Hungarian nobleman who, not surprisingly, did not speak Hungarian. His birth name was Baron Hengervári László Hengelmüller; he was known in the US as Ladislaus Freiherr Hengelmüller von Hengervár.

The Baron was born in 1845 in Pest, Hungary to a German-speaking family.  His father Mihály was a court official.  László soon became an influential bureaucrat himself, especially after his marriage to the wealthy Polish widow of a prominent landowner in Austrian Poland who was the daughter of Count Alfred Dunin-Borkowski, the Austrian Minister to Dresden.

Hengelmüller arrived in Washington DC in 1894 and took over the post from Ernst Schmitt von Tavera.   He was not even 50 and already had a distinguished diplomatic career as Ambassador in Serbia and Brazil.  He remained US ambassador for almost 20 years!  Finally, he retired in 1913 and returned to Europe.

After his departure Austria-Hungary named Constantin Theodor Dumba as ambassador, who held the post just two short years before he was expelled by President Wilson.  The charge was espionage.

Baron Hengelmüller proved to be a skilled diplomat with a good sense of humor.  In 1905 newspapers printed a story, the so called “Hengelmüller-Washington incident.”   Booker T. Washington and the Baron had been visiting President Roosevelt at about the same time. The Baron left first and accidentally took Washington’s overcoat instead of his own. When the Baron reached into the pocket, he pulled out a rabbit’s foot, actually “the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit.”

Booker T. Washington was born a slave and became a leader of the African-American community and also an influential advisor to US Presidents.  Newspapers joked that the Ambassador “made off with Booker T. Washington’s coat at the White House, but he’d have a bad time trying to fill his shoes.”

One of the Baron’s nephews was the Polish Count Alfred von Niezychowski who served with the German Imperial Navy on the ship Kronprinz Wilhelm.  After the enemy cruiser was captured by the Americans in WWI, Niezychowski first became a POW and later a celebrated writer and politician in the United States.

In 1910 the Ambassador accompanied his friend President Teddy Roosevelt on his visit to Budapest. The Baron, along with his wife and daughter arranged Roosevelt’s highly appreciated visit to the Budapest Museum of Agriculture and gave a lavish dinner in the Hungarian capital.

Hengelmüller died in 1917 and was buried in Abbazia (today Opatija, Croatia) in the Volosko cemetery.

György Lázár

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