Love and Death on Longwood Avenue

On the stoop outside a small brick house on Longwood Avenue in Brookline sits a basket filled with a jug of milk, a carton of eggs, and a tub of cottage cheese, an unclaimed delivery just beginning to sour in the morning air. The rooms inside are a cluttered mess, papers and manila folders strewn over desks, a manual typewriter in a corner, boxes everywhere. A frail, old woman, still wearing her pajamas, lies face up on a bed, one foot hanging off the side, faint red bruises across her wrinkled neck. Upstairs, a man lies on a bedroom floor, surrounded by chair cushions. Sheets are pulled over his face, and his limbs are tangled in the cord from a nearby phone.

Only a few years ago, this had been the couple everyone in Boston wanted to be seated with at charity dinners, or next to at the symphony and ballet. He was the meticulous medical examiner known for his dry wit. She was the elegant owner of Café Budapest — a dining institution for 37 years, the Russian Tea Room of Boston — who always greeted her guests in a swirling white dress and long white gloves, an accessory that hid the green tattoo of the number A-16540 on her wrist from the time she'd spent in a Nazi concentration camp. With their thick Hungarian accents, even their most casual conversation seemed theatrical.

In a few moments, the stillness in their home will be shattered by the deliberate footsteps of the cop and firefighter who will discover their limp bodies, and by the whimpering of the couple's dog from behind a closet door. Yellow crime-scene tape will go up, clues will be tucked inside plastic evidence bags, and in their final autopsy report, officials will call the deaths of George Kury and his wife, Hedda Rev-Kury, a murder-suicide. If not for one important twist, this would be all there is to tell. But, you see, this is a love story.

They made a most unlikely couple. It was 1952, and Livia Hedwig Rev — her friends called her Hedda — was a striking 28-year-old blonde who eight years earlier had barely survived the concentration camp at Auschwitz by cooking with her mother and sister in the kitchen. (Of the 200 people in her extended family, only 10 survived.) One day, while she was in medical training at the University of Budapest Hospital, friends introduced her to a tall and handsome patient. George Kury was a soft-spoken Hungarian soldier studying to become a doctor, three years younger than she — and not Jewish. Theirs was a romance without lavish gifts, blossoming at a time when the streets of Budapest were clotted with poor people standing in line for hours to claim a few slices of bread. Under the postwar communist regime, nobody did anything or went anywhere without being watched. “The border had barbed wire,” remembers Judith Balogh, who attended medical school in Budapest with George Kury and now lives in Lincoln. “Leaving the city, you needed permission. Leaving the country was impossible.”

Unless you were willing to cheat death. In 1956, with Hungary exploding in revolution, Hedda, her sister, Edith, and their mother fled to Vienna, machine-gun fire bursting at their heels. George made his way to Yugoslavia, and for a few months didn't know if he would ever see Hedda again. When he finally arrived in Boston, a scar from a battle wound across his chest, he boarded a train for Woods Hole, where he was reunited with her, and where, only a few weeks later, they were married in the ocean breeze. Within a year Hedda was pregnant, and on July 28, 1958, she gave birth to their son, Charles Andrew.

For a pair of young doctors, Boston was the ideal city in which to launch careers, and the two of them, both pathologists, eventually moved to Brookline. He focused on forensics and eventually became a medical examiner on Cape Cod; she specialized in clinical pathology, opening labs in Brookline and in Peabody. On weekends they would head to the Cape with Charles to relax at the vacation home they'd bought in Falmouth, a happy couple living a world away from the tumult of their youths.

Just as Hedda and George were following their dreams, Hedda's sister Edith followed hers, opening a restaurant near Beth Israel Hospital with her mother as her partner. “All the medical residents got a discount if they went there for lunch,” says Dr. Lajos Koncz, who started a Hungarian cultural club that George and Hedda joined. “That's how this whole collaboration, the whole family affair, got started.”

Two years later, Edith was forced to move the restaurant — but she quickly found a new landlord. Roger Saunders, who owned the Copley Square Hotel and had become one of her regulars, offered his hotel's basement, the former home of the legendary Storyville jazz club. “She said to me four words,” Saunders recalls of Edith's first visit to the space: “Dahrlink, this is purfect.”

In her new location, Edith opened Café Budapest and created a stage for romance, where people came not just for the cold cherry soup or the velvety beef stroganoff, but for the entire experience. “It was like something out of a Bogart movie,” says John Boyajian, who supplied the restaurant with caviar, smoked salmon, and foie gras. Edith decorated with dark woods, red velvet chairs, and a handpainted espresso machine. She hired a violinist, and every night, in a sparkling white gown, she greeted her patrons as they descended the stairway. “She loved men,” Boyajian says. “She had a dignified, flirtatious way.” The restaurant did so well that after 10 years, Edith wrangled a sweetheart lease out of Saunders. The term was for life. And her sister would take over when she died.

During each shift, Edith slipped into her office for long drags on a cigarette. At the evening's end, when the last table had been cleared and the chandeliers dimmed, a chauffeur would drive her home in her white Cadillac with a replica of the Hungarian royal seal painted on the side. Edith had lost two husbands, and her mother died in 1965. She was living with Hedda and George, whose medical careers were thriving.

“I didn't know Hedda and George very well,” says Saunders, “because they didn't come to the restaurant too often.” That changed in 1988, when lung disease brought on by her three-pack-a-day habit confined Edith to a hospital. It was there, in her last days, that Edith took her younger sister's hand and made Hedda swear that, after she died, her restaurant would live on.

Unlike Edith, a born hostess, the more reserved Hedda had to grow into the role. Overnight, she went from reading medical charts to organizing seating charts. “She was a doctor. It was a big challenge for her,” says Jose Estrompa, the general manager at the Copley Square Hotel. Reluctant to give up her labs, Hedda juggled her medical practice and the restaurant, slipping out of her white coat and into her trademark white gloves each afternoon. It kept her from George, who rarely stopped by the restaurant, but he never complained; the restaurant conventions she took him to were a welcome change from the staid medical junkets they had attended for decades. Meantime, Café Budapest's seasoned staff helped ease Hedda's transition. Of course, she tried to do everything exactly as her sister had, right down to Edith's unorthodox practice of paying retail at her trusted seafood market.

Even the freshest fish, however, couldn't prevent a restaurant that once seemed regal and cosmopolitan from growing kitschy and stale, especially as the wave of new high-end continental eateries with their celebrity chefs swept over Boston. Couples would canoodle in its booths on Valentine's Day, but by the mid-1990s, Café Budapest was struggling. Hedda, desperate, started balancing the books with her own cash. A former general manager estimates that she poured $400,000 of the money she and George had saved into the fading institution. And when Saunders lined up buyers, Hedda turned them all down. “I think she felt that the Budapest could not be operated outside her family,” he says. “There was a loyalty to her sister that was beyond my comprehension. That's why she stayed in business even after the profit was not there.”

On the night of Saturday, October 14, 2000, Saunders summoned the staff to the hotel bar. “Everyone knew it was coming, but not then,” says Jawdat Hatoum, who worked at Café Budapest for 12 years. “The holidays were coming. We thought we would finish out the year.”

Saunders was brief. “This is the last night of Café Budapest,” he announced. The plan had been for Hedda to deliver that news, but she was too upset. She arrived late and never said a word.

For several months after Café Budapest closed, hotel employees would occasionally glimpse Hedda slipping downstairs to her shuttered restaurant. Nobody knew what she was doing, but when Saunders first showed the space to the men who would ultimately lease it and open the nightclub Saint, they were startled to find all the tables perfectly set, every knife, fork, and plate in place.

“It was haunted,” Saunders says. “Like it was ready for business that night.”

For Hedda, closing Budapest was like losing her sister a second time. Her health deteriorated, and she lost interest in socializing. Friends knew she had Parkinson's disease, but say that on the few occasions they did see her, she looked ashen and weak, as if something far worse had taken hold of her body. George told friends a stray cat had scratched her, and the resulting infection had left her bedridden.

“I didn't see the tremendous tremors,” says Steve Gallant, the couple's financial adviser for nearly 20 years. “I saw a down-and-out person. George was taking over paying the bills, and he hated doing that.”

George's job also had him depressed. His position in Pocasset had been cut, and he was being transferred to Boston, a move he was dreading because of the politics sure to come with it. “He was willing to work,” Gallant says, “but he wanted to spend time with Hedda.”

Shortly before 10:30 a.m. on Monday, March 31, Brookline police got a worried call from a friend of the Kurys who hadn't heard from them in a few days. Patrolman David Wagner drove to their house, walking beneath the towering shrubs and up the brick path to the front door. He had to step around a pile of mail along with the dairy delivery. He knocked on the door and waited. Nothing. He walked around back and knocked. Nothing. Out of options, he called for the fire department to shatter a front window. A few minutes later Wagner was following firefighter Pat Canney through the shards.

Inside, they saw Hedda lying on a bed. There was no sign of any struggle. “Brookline Fire Department,” Canney shouted. She didn't move. As he approached her, he saw some red bruises on her neck. Paramedics arrived in a few minutes, found no pulse, and determined that rigor mortis was already setting in, meaning she'd been dead for at least several hours. Then Wagner heard a dog bark. He followed the sound upstairs, where he discovered George's body on a bedroom floor, and the dog in the closet. In a nearby sitting room, the police found a note on a piece of lined yellow paper. “There was a note with some instructions he wanted carried out,” says Brookline Police Captain Thomas Keaveney. “It made references to how he had done something.” Asked about the tone of the note, Keaveney says, “You could say he was remorseful.” The police immediately reached out to the couple's son, still living in their Falmouth house. (Charles did not respond to requests to comment about his parents for this story.)

A Connecticut medical examiner was called in to perform the autopsies — so that George's colleagues would not have to work on the case — and determined in his final report last month, details of which were obtained by Boston magazine, that Hedda died of strangulation and George of a Valium overdose.

“Maybe he was terribly depressed after so many years,” Saunders speculates. “Maybe she was terribly depressed because she hadn't been able to carry out her sister's wishes. And maybe the two of them decided between them that they would both die. Maybe it wasn't a murder-suicide.” He pauses, choosing his words carefully. “Maybe it was two suicides. Makes more sense to me. Murder's a horrible word to associate with such a lovely, intelligent human being.”

Their will, which left the bulk of their estate to their son and Gallant, provided no clues. But Hedda left something else behind. A notorious pack rat, she'd been keeping notes of her memories and typing a memoir on a dusty old manual typewriter. She got only so far. Her last entry is for July 27, 1957. It was the date she and George had been married.