(This interview ran in the Westchester Journal News in October 2004)
Whiskey-Sodden Robber Becomes Folk Hero
By Dylan Foley
In Budapest in January 1993, a charismatic young man drunk on whiskey robbed a post office wearing a bad wig and holding a laughably small gun. Thus began the legend of the Whiskey Robber, a post-communist Hungarian bandit and folk hero who committed 29 bank robberies over seven years.
Julian Rubinstein’s masterful book, “Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives and Broken Hearts,” chronicles the comic robberies of Attila Ambrus, a downtrodden ethnic Hungarian and atrocious professional hockey player from Transylvania, Romania. As Attila plays cat and mouse with incompetent police, Hungary takes its headlong tumble into the free market of the 1990s. With corruption and unemployment exploding, the Whiskey Robber becomes the media star of his own real-life soap opera.
“In the summer of 1999, when Attila made his escape from prison in Budapest, there was a short piece on him in Sports Illustrated,” says the 35-year-old Rubinstein in an interview from New York City, where he lives. “All I knew was ‘Hockey goalie. Bank robber. Folk hero.’ This was a great story.”
Rubinstein went to Budapest and wrote about the Whiskey Robber for Details Magazine, but then moved on to a book project. He spent three years researching, living and breathing the life of Attila Ambrus. He lived in Budapest and Transylvania for eight months to track down hundreds of people, including Romanian pelt smugglers, criminals and cops that Attila humiliated.
Rubinstein, who has worked as an investigative journalist for Rolling Stone and other magazines, is no stranger to hostile interview subjects. He’s covered motorcycle gangs, Indians in the Amazon, brothel owner Heidi Fleiss and John McEnroe.
“The biggest secret was persistence,” says Rubinstein. “That was essential. A few guys I wanted to talk to wouldn’t talk to me. Most of them did, some grudgingly, but I had to work it hard.”
“The Whiskey Robber” is a beautifully crafted tale, where Rubinstein succeeds in taking the story of a small-time criminal and turns in into a quirky, engrossing look at chaos of post-Cold War Hungary and the growing pains of capitalism. It is a wild ride with over-the-top gangsters, lovestruck bank tellers and cops, as readers follow Attila through his decline, fall and inevitable arrest.
In Rubinstein’s deft hands, Attila becomes a great tragicomic character, a reform school graduate crafted in the horrific poverty of Transylvania.
“To understand Attila, to get inside him, you had to know where he came from. That informs a lot about him,” says Rubinstein. “He came from a hopeless situation, but he was one of those guys who refused to give up. Attila literally took his life in his hands to get out of Romania by riding out underneath a train.
“He had incredible determination to be somebody and also an absolute need to belong somewhere.”
The bank robbing came from Attila’s sheer desperation in Budapest. “Attila was smuggling animal pelts, driving the (hockey team’s) Zamboni, digging graves and selling pens door to door,” says Rubinstein. “He couldn’t make a living. He was exhausted. He ended up in debt and needed money. The only way he could figure out getting it was to rob this quaint little post office near his house.”
Working most times with a hockey player accomplice, Attila carried out his robberies drunk. “He definitely needed the whiskey,” says Rubinstein. “It took a lot out of him to carry out the robberies. Attila was very careful in his planning. He knew that he had to be extra careful, because he was going to screw up a bunch of things in the end.”
Attila’s nemesis was police robbery chief Lajos Varju, an honorable but unskilled cop who learned most of what he knew of policing from old “Columbo” episodes. Lajos despairs that Budapest’s petty criminals operate openly in a park across from the police headquarters. The police never get respect.
As the Whiskey Robber, Attila was lionized by the press, who mocked the inept Budapest police. He gave roses to women tellers during robberies, and refused to use violence. Attila became the symbol of the collapse and lawlessness of Hungary.
“Attila was a guy who was shaped by times he lived in and then absolutely came to define those times,” says Rubinstein. “He was an unbelievable archetypical underdog with obvious charisma. Even through an interpreter, you could see he had this spark. I found him to be a thrilling character.”
Robbing banks took its toll of Attila. “Between the alcohol and living a double life, that pressure really weighed on him," he says. “He’s not a psychopath, but robbery had become somewhat of an addiction for Attila. Most importantly, it was the money. He wasted all of it, and at the end, it was the only way he knew how to get money quickly.”
The money Attila stole was pitiful by American standards. Over seven years and 29 robberies, he made $800,000, most of it split with accomplices.
Unlike many books today that run out of energy after the first several chapters, Rubinstein keeps the high energy, madcap comedy up throughout the book.
“I literally storyboarded the book,” says Rubinstein. “It worked on a lot of levels. It was a great character study, like a ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ ensemble story, there is the whole social and political commentary running through it. The driving story was the cops and robbers, interweaving the story of Attila and the cops. You know they are going to intersect, but you don’t know when and where.”
After three years of hard work on the book, Rubinstein has developed a tight bond with Attila, who was recaptured and imprisoned. Rubinstein still visits him in Attila’s escape-proof prison in the countryside of Hungary.
“I just saw him in prison a few weeks ago,” he says. “Attila is studying English and doing well. His biggest plan is to educate himself. He’s got a lot of time left, but he’s trying to figure out what to do when he gets out.
“Where he is now, it is too hard to escape,” says Rubinstein. “If he had a chance, I think he’d try to escape.”
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives and Broken Hearts by Julian Rubinstein (Little Brown, $24, 304 pp.)