Vera Blinken is one of the lucky ones. She was still a child when Germany invaded her hometown of Budapest in 1944. Over the course of a few years, her family lost almost everything, including Vera’s father. As Hungary steadily crumbled under first German then Soviet control, Vera’s mother chose to make a daring escape to the West, where she could offer a better and safer life for her daughter.
Their journey to freedom is not the typical immigrant story, however. Once in Venice, Vera and her mother await the arrival of Vera’s glamorous Aunt Manci from New York. Manci’s rescue mission isn’t immediate, of course; “she had delayed her trip because her summer wardrobe was not ready.” With such a beginning, it’s no surprise that Vera grows up hobnobbing with Gabors and Lauders, or that she starts college wearing Pierre Cardin.
After graduating from Vassar with a degree in art history and from New York School of Interior Design with a graduate degree, Vera easily obtained a job with the prestigious architectural firm of Edward Durell Stone. “At a cocktail party, an architect approached me because he liked the way I tied my scarf around the handle of my Hermes Kelly bag,” Vera tells us.
When Vera married investment banker Donald Blinken in 1975, the story could have been stamped ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ In fact, they did, but the tale is far from over. Blinken breezes through all of this back story in the first 30 pages of Vera and the Ambassador, and merely sets the stage for the book’s real focus – life among the rich, famous, and politically powerful.
In 1988, the Blinkens met the Clintons. By the time Bill Clinton became president, the idea of campaigning for appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary was already firmly planted in the Blinkens’ consciousness. As in all other areas, this ambition appears to be destined; after a relatively minor series of glitches, the Blinkens find themselves back in Vera’s home country as official representatives of her adopted country.
In alternating sections, the Blinkens describe the highlights of their years in the U.S. Embassy in Hungary. For Vera, this seems to be a whirl of decorating and entertaining punctuated by the occasional dilemma. While hosting Hillary Clinton and Hungary’s President Goncz, Vera recalls “Suddenly, disaster struck. As refreshments were being served, I was talking with my hands and knocked over a glass of orange juice, spilling most of it on my beige skirt.” There is no time for her to change, and photographers are waiting outside. Horrors! The suspense is quickly resolved when President Goncz’s wife cleans the skirt with water.
Donald Blinken’s sections in Vera and the Ambassador deal with bureaucratic maneuvering in the same amiable and shallow fashion. He chronicles dozens of encounters with various pleasant, gracious, or helpful dignitaries, and frequently repeats his and Vera’s delight at being able to serve both the U.S. and Hungary.
While the events described here are interesting enough, the whole book reads like a diary that was always intended for public consumption. The Blinkens have contributed to a number of worthy endeavors by serving as board members for a range of organizations. Vera spearheaded the creation of PRIMAVERA, a mobile breast cancer screening program in Europe. Their appreciation for all they have is evident, and they are certainly paying it forward; sadly, their social calendars take precedence over substance in this book. Vera and the Ambassador is an enjoyable and easy glance at life in the glass bubble. Readers seeking in-depth coverage of the daily challenges faced by ordinary Hungarians and immigrants will have to look elsewhere.