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The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber
An Interview with Julian Rubinstein

by Catherine Petruccione

#81, 13 November 2006

Imagine going to live in a country where you don't speak the language, and most of the words look something like this: Satoraljaujhely.

In this very foreign country you are planning to embark upon years of painstaking research on the life and times of an outlaw folk hero in a tumultuous post-communist world - for your first book. Takes guts. Put guts together with great writing ability, a real nose for research, and a sense of the ironic, tragic, and humorous and you have a winner - Julian Rubinstein's Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts (Little Brown, New York/Boston, 2004).

Satoraljaujhely, by the way, is the maximum security prison on the Hungarian-Slovakian border where Attila Ambrus, aka "The Whiskey Robber," has been held since December 2000. He will be there for at least another five years.

In the meantime, thanks to Julian Rubinstein, his story has generated not only a critically acclaimed book but also a song, "The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber" (music and lyrics by Julian Rubinstein), a popular drink*, and possibly even a movie - Warner Brothers has purchased the rights.

When Rubinstein first heard the stories coming out of Hungary about Attila Ambrus, a destitute but dashing rogue who had politely robbed 29 banks and post offices, absconding with nearly a million dollars, he thought it was an interesting tale. When he learned that Ambrus had crossed the border from Transylvania into his homeland of Hungary on the bottom side of a train and had also tried his hand at pelt smuggling, Zamboni driving, goal-tending for the Hungarian URT ice hockey team, some grave digging, a daring prison escape, and a good share of gambling and womanizing on the side, he knew where he was going - and packed his bags.

The beauty of the book is this: While the hero of the story captivates us with his wacky disguises, his presentation of flowers to acquiescent bank tellers, and his shimmy down a rope made of sheets, the author is not just entertaining us with page-turning true details of Attila's cops-and-robber misadventures. He is illuminating the stark realities of life in a small country mired in chaos and corruption as it lurches toward democracy. Profoundly human struggles that many of us ignore when they occur in distant lands are brought to life in the pages of The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber.

Rubinstein is a multi-talented writer who has a knack for delving into important stories that are missed by others. While this is his first book, he has a history of award-winning stories and articles which have taken him to remote places to investigate unusual subjects and characters. Read his impressive biography here.

Here is my recent conversation with Julian Rubinstein:

BOOKTHINK: I just listened to the song you've recorded, "The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber." That is beautiful - really, really nice. Have you ever recorded music before?

RUBINSTEIN: I've played music for a long time, but I've never recorded music before. To me it's sort of - well, I like the song, but I consider it a piece of journalism in itself. I'm singing it from his (Attila's) point of view, and of course it's all based on my interviews with him.

BOOKTHINK: In the book you mention that when you first heard of the Whiskey Robber, you were sure hordes of journalists would be all over it. They didn't show up. Do you think this was because of the language and distance barrier or because you felt or saw something in this story that they failed to see? What really got to you about this story?

RUBINSTEIN: I don't know why other writers missed it because it was so obvious to me it was a great story, as a magazine story, which was what I originally set out to do. I thought for sure that when people heard about this guy who had escaped from prison after committing all these robberies and was a hockey goalie professionally, they would be on it. I was shocked to be the one to not only get there first, but to be the only one to cover it - at least in the States.

I don't know why this happened; maybe because it was during the summer, and it was far away. But when I got there and I was able to get a closer look at it, that's when it just stood out - I mean it was working on so many levels, because the characters were so incredible. I couldn't have made them up or thought of better characters - weirder, funnier, crazier, wackier people - and then on top of that it just so clearly told a bigger story of this whole era.

Once I saw those things, on top of the great narrative to start with, then I knew it was just about the best story I ever heard in my life. Every corner I turned, there was another unbelievable thing about it. It just kept getting better and better the more I looked at it.

BOOKTHINK: It had to take a lot of courage to go do it. You had to know there were going to be a lot of barriers.

RUBINSTEIN: Yeah, courage, and maybe stupidity. For one, the financial barrier was probably the biggest one because it cost me a huge amount of money.

BOOKTHINK: I was wondering about that. Did you just quit your job and move to Hungary?

RUBINSTEIN: I didn't have a job, in that I was a freelance writer. I got a book contract, but let's just say that I definitely went into debt to do it. I had to pay a lot of expenses, the biggest cost being interpreters. I didn't speak any Hungarian, and even by the end I could only say a few phrases. I thought maybe I'd learn, but it's a very difficult language and there was just no way I was going to have any chance of conducting any interviews in that language, unless it was ten years down the road.

BOOKTHINK: I can't even pronounce the name of the prison where he's being held.

RUBINSTEIN: I can now, but believe me, it took awhile. The pronunciation alone is something to get used to. And then I'd get the pronunciation down, so I'd say a few things there, and people would just assume I could speak the language. They were so surprised because people who weren't native to the area most often couldn't pronounce anything. Then they'd start talking to me, assuming I could speak Hungarian, and of course I couldn't.

BOOKTHINK: Aside from the language, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced while working on the story?

RUBINSTEIN: Like any story that's involving crime, or really, a lot of stories - there are always people who don't want to talk for some reason - people have their own motivations and they don't always want to help you. I certainly went through a lot of that. I mean, the police weren't very cooperative, not surprisingly, and in addition to that, I was dealing with trying to locate a lot of people who weren't easy to find. A lot of these characters were just scattered around. For instance, the hockey players - it's not like in the States where they are living large, are easy to pin down and have a PR person. I'd run into, "Oh, yeah, he lived here last year and he now he moved there." It was a lot of chasing down leads.

And the language barrier was huge because I went through all the court files, all the police files, thousands of documents, all the newspaper stories, all the TV footage. In the Supreme Court House, for example, I sat there with an interpreter on either side of me, digging through stuff, with each of them calling out bits of information to me and we had to go through more than 10,000 pages of material. Obviously I wasn't interested in 90% of it, but you don't know what you may be interested in until you get through all of it.

BOOKTHINK: Did you ever feel like giving up?

RUBINSTEIN: Probably. I'm sure I definitely had days. I can't think of one specific example, but I know there were days when it seemed like an impossible mountain to climb. I look back on it now and think how the hell did I do it?

BOOKTHINK: What was life in Hungary like when you were there?

RUBINSTEIN: It's hard to say because, if you look at it at a glance, you can visit there and think it's OK. The economy is a different thing there; things are a bit cheaper. But not as cheap as my publishers thought it was! Romania, for example, is worse off, and things were much cheaper there. But it's not that cheap to live in Hungary. It's not quite like New York City, but not that much different. My publisher thought the money would carry me a long way over there, but that wasn't the case.

People are doing their thing, they're going to work, trying to get by. It's certainly not Third World, but it's not like life in the United States.

BOOKTHINK: Is there a middle class similar to that in the U.S.?

RUBINSTEIN: Yes, there is, but more like lower middle class. Apartments are really old, really run down. If you've traveled anywhere in Eastern Europe, you've seen that. The people don't drive cars like they do in Western Europe or in America. They drive little cars.

BOOKTHINK: Where did you live there?

RUBINSTEIN: I lived in the second district, mostly, just across the Margit Bridge in Budapest. I had a little studio apartment - kind of a loft where the bed was sort of hovering above in a very old stone building with cracks, and you definitely felt that sometimes the whole staircase was going to crumble down. Very old Europe in feeling.

BOOKTHINK: How do you think the experience changed you?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, there's so many ways. Because it changed me personally for having done the book, and changed me as a writer, and then there's my views of the world - and I have more knowledge of people and different types of people. I'd traveled a decent amount before this project, but still this impacted me differently. And then there's getting to know this guy ...

BOOKTHINK: How did it change your view of the world?

RUBINSTEIN: Just seeing the ridiculousness of the corruptness and largesse of governments everywhere - this is like a case study of it all. It seems like it reinforced the ideas I had before I started the project.

BOOKTHINK: That's what reading the book did for me - it reinforced the things I thought might be true. Not that I'm totally na´ve about these problems either, but the book really opened my eyes to them.

RUBINSTEIN: It personalizes it.

BOOKTHINK: Yes. Somebody can tell you this stuff is going on, but until you can feel something, some empathy, for a human being who really exists and has actually lived it, it doesn't grab you in the gut.

RUBINSTEIN: Maybe I did my job the way I wanted to if you were able to experience it like I did, through reading what I wrote - which of course, is what I would hope. It's like you said - you kind of knew these things already, but then you really saw what was going on. It really did sort of deepen my empathy for people in general. That's something you have to have as a writer, it's pretty intrinsic to what I do, so I think I'm open to that, but yeah.

To me there were definite undertones of how the U.S. played a role, not in Attila's story directly, but basically in the way we go about helping other countries. Our involvement is always supposedly to benefit others, but the truth is, it's usually to benefit us - that's the catch. I think that's what happened there. There were aspects of our involvement economically in Eastern Europe that didn't really help very much that were supposed to be helping.

One of the things I found most surprising, that I didn't know or think about before, was that the disastrous start-and-stop, the mistakes and bungling of early capitalism in Eastern Europe, and the subsequent disenchantment with it, was due to what seemed inherent in capitalism. Some of the corruption and unethical behavior was caused by Eastern Europeans' view of what capitalism really was and resulted from their attempts to mimic our ways: "That's the way the U.S. does it, so what's the problem?"

Their idea of the U.S. seemed a pretty warped view of it, but then after thinking this through I actually realized it's kind of true. At first, it looked so ridiculous and corrupt, and it was. But Hungarians kept saying to me, "It's not so different in the U.S." and I would jump to our defense and say, "But it's not so bad as that!" But actually, you know what? It probably is that bad; we just sweep it under the rug. The people over there didn't even bother sweeping it under the rug. They didn't give a crap.

That lawyer who is mentioned in the story - there's only a little part about him near the end of the book, but in my personal life, it was a big thing because I had to deal with him - he was completely corrupt and had a real attitude. He was totally unabashed about his finagling, and there was this "wink, wink" kind of thing - like "I know this is how you do it over there." It was shocking, and it was as if he was imitating Johnny Cochran with the glitz and slick moves - whatever trick he could use, and no shame in that!

BOOKTHINK: Maybe they see us more clearly than we do.

RUBINSTEIN: Actually, I'm just thinking about this for the first time, in terms of describing it this way. But when my book came out over there it was the number one national best seller in Hungary, and one of the reviews was talking about "How is it possible that this guy could get the story, while no one here did?" and then it went on to say that sometimes it takes someone who is not from there to see the story. It's the same for them looking at us in the U.S. - we're here in it, and sometimes we don't have a clear perspective on it.

BOOKTHINK: That's eye-opening. That's what I love about this book. It's a great tale, and entertaining. But there's so much more going on at the heart of it.

RUBINSTEIN: That's what I meant when I said when I went to this story, and I saw what was there. This has so much to it, and if I can get at that, it's a much bigger story.

BOOKTHINK: It's a way of getting at it like nobody else would. A lot of people would never have their eyes opened to the essence of this book, if it weren't for the great story about a guy robbing banks that pulls them in.

RUBINSTEIN: That's the thing. I'm hoping that more people read it and understand the underlying story. There are a lot of non-fiction books that have come out about the fall of communism. But I'd like a lot more of the academic types to read this book. It's harder to read a dry discussion or analysis of the era. Obviously those types of books are valuable, but they are just not as likely to be read.

BOOKTHINK: Well, you can't identify with the problems of the people in those types of books as you can in this one. By the way, it actually was an academic who recommended this book to me. He couldn't put the book down.

RUBINSTEIN: How did he hear about it?

BOOKTHINK: Well, I think he initially picked it up because he's an avid hockey player. But he kept saying, "Hockey's just a tiny part of this book. It doesn't matter if you like hockey or not. You've got to read this book!"

RUBINSTEIN: It's funny. So many people have called the book different things. Some people picked up on the hockey angle. For me, of course it's not a sports book, but if someone wants to call it a sports book and put it in Sports Illustrated, that's been fine with me. Obviously I can see how it's a crime book, and it has been called a crime book, but it's hard to categorize it.

BOOKTHINK: The other thing I'm really interested in about you is this: I've read so much about ground-breaking articles you've written and all have been on such interesting subjects. How do you find these stories?

RUBINSTEIN: I don't know. I haven't been doing a lot of magazine work lately. But I find the stories in any way you can think of. That is one of the challenges as a writer - to find a good story. Hopefully, that's one thing I'm good at, having a nose for a good story.

It's going to be difficult to follow up a book like this. I really believe it's probably the best story I've ever heard in my life, and how can ever I beat that?

BOOKTHINK: I've thought about that. It must be a lot of pressure. I'm sure people are saying "Oooh, what's going to be next?"

RUBINSTEIN: That's probably why I'm working on a novel right now. I had a possible idea for a non-fiction book, but I'm not going to pursue that immediately. I consider myself a story-teller. I've written some fiction before - although I've never tried to publish fiction. But I have a distinct story that I want to tell. This one takes places in the United States, although partly in the Middle East, and it's a little bit in the future. It's fairly political, but I don't want to talk too much about it at this point. It could take awhile, but I'm well into it.

BOOKTHINK: Do you think life has improved in Hungary since the years covered in the book? I know there have been riots recently. What's going on over there?

RUBINSTEIN: I don't want to try to analyze it too much because I haven't been following the events there so closely since I left.

Basically, there's a lot of political maneuvering and real jousting just below the dangerous level. A lot of tumult in the government, and there's a real big rivalry between the right and the left there. It's a parliamentary system, but there's the Fidesz party or Young Democrats and the Socialists, the former communists - those are the two biggest parties, and one is left and one is slightly right. It's one of those scandals [EDITOR'S NOTE: a leaked recording of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitting his party had lied before April's general elections] that may or may not be a huge deal, but they were able to jump on it and mobilize demonstrations. I'm not sure what the latest is, whether or not they are going to be able to force the Prime Minister to resign. It's a political battle going on for power there.

In terms of how life has changed over there since the era covered by the book, it depends on when because the book goes through the early nineties and the end of the book is around 2002. It's probably more or less the same as the last few years of the book. I mean, things aren't so bad there. There's corruption, but there are places where it's worse. It's worse in Russia right now, that's for sure, and it's worse in Romania. There's corruption, there are big black markets there, and there's crime - but there's crime in the U.S. Violent crime is actually worse in the United States. Crime statistics are not good here.

BOOKTHINK: Getting back to Attila - the other thing that really struck me is how easy it can be to create criminals. Not only in the whole social structure of a country, but through bad parenting. That one phrase that stuck with Attila, uttered by his father - "You'll never amount to anything." - did irreparable damage. You start thinking about all the kids growing up in a world that's so shattered now as far as relationships. What do you think was the most crucial deficiency in Attila's life?

RUBINSTEIN: Probably a lack of love. He had a difficult childhood where he didn't really have anywhere to turn. Plus of course there was the poverty, and the national identity thing about being a Hungarian in Romania. But yeah, I think probably if he'd had a loving supportive family he would have been in a much different place.

BOOKTHINK: When he got the money, it didn't really solve his problems.

RUBINSTEIN: He had an addictive personality, for sure. He got addicted to the rush of it, and he knew it, and it became like a game to him. He was an athlete obviously, as well. It became like a sport. Not to mention that the hockey team wasn't winning many games. He had more success robbing banks.

BOOKTHINK: Why does a person like that become a hero? Did he fulfill some need for the people?

RUBINSTEIN: I think to a degree, like a TV show can help people get through a hard day. He wasn't actually directly helping people. But as a diversion, in the way that people like to cheer for their local football team or for someone who wins the lottery, it gives people some sense of relief or hope. And it was the telling of a collective joke on the government.

BOOKTHINK: The prison sentence seems really harsh.

RUBINSTEIN: It was definitely harsh. They made an example of him, that's for sure. The Supreme Court said, "He's not Robin Hood." They wanted to make sure he was not looked at as a hero; they didn't want his example followed. They wanted to make an example out of him. And that's what they did.

BOOKTHINK: Are you still in contact with him?

RUBINSTEIN: Yes.

BOOKTHINK: How do you think he's doing? In the book, there was concern at some points whether he would even survive being in prison.

RUBINSTEIN: That was definitely a real difficult time for him, especially early on - the first couple of years. I think he's doing decently. I get reports on him as frequently as once a month. He's doing alright, and he's getting through some years. He could possibly get out in five years - that is, if he's paroled, and I don't know if that will happen. He now has more privileges; he's actually already finished his high school diploma, and he's going to take some college level courses, which is being arranged - it's going to be the first time someone is doing that there.

He was into making pottery for a while; he's trying to keep busy. He does have a sort of amazing ability to control his mind when he needs to. He did that during robberies, he got through lots of hard things. I think he's gotten to a place where he can kind of deal on whatever level he can.

He was also really afraid that he would go crazy in there. I haven't seen him in over a year, but he wasn't crazy.

BOOKTHINK: I bet he could really sell that pottery.

RUBINSTEIN: He'll probably be able to make some money on his reputation. People have written in about donating - there's nothing I can do directly, but I put people in touch with people in Hungary who may or may not be able to help him. It's amazing, but hundreds and hundreds of people are interested in helping. He has a My Space page.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: You can listen to Rubinstein perform "The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber" here or by clicking the following link.]

It's hard to keep getting this updated, we were hoping to get it updated much more often. But it's difficult because you have to get him focused on the phone, and he has such short time to talk.

There's also a YouTube video that people put together from various clips.

There's definitely support for him out there. And that makes me really happy, because I hope that he'll have a brighter future.

BOOKTHINK: Do you think he'll stay in Hungary?

RUBINSTEIN: That's a good question - I really don't know. He could leave. But of course, he's worried if he'll be able to work because he's a convicted felon. It will probably depend on legal issues.

BOOKTHINK: Tell me what's happening with the movie.

RUBINSTEIN: If I could just say, I just don't know. I'm really not holding back from you, but there are just a number of complicated reasons why it's publicly better for me not to say right now. But I hope it happens.

BOOKTHINK: Well, I've heard rumors of Johnny Depp being up for the role, and I could sure picture that. If anybody could successfully pull it off, he could.

Before you go, could you tell me anything about the documentary about your father? I read a little about it on your website.

RUBINSTEIN: Yeah - I don't know how long before it will be done because it has to be totally on the back burner for me at this point. I honestly don't have the money to do much on it right now. Basically, he was a doctor and became a cancer patient. I filmed the last three years of his life. We had a pretty poor relationship before that, and I was sort of filming his death and it transformed that experience. I thought it was a movie about him, but it's inspirational because he survived ten years longer than he was supposed to live. It became a film about us and our relationship and pondering the biggest threshold in life.

I don't know if it will be feature length; I'm going to make it whatever length it should be. I have some parts of it edited, but it will be at least a year from now before the work is done.

BOOKTHINK: I really appreciate your taking the time to do this interview. You've done a great job on the book, the song and everything - I think you've opened people's hearts and eyes.

RUBINSTEIN: Thanks. I really appreciate it - it's great to hear people who have read it react to it in such a way.

And now for a toast to Attila. (He used to quaff a double shot or two in a conveniently located bar - usually just across the street - before robbing a bank). Personally, I found it helpful in preparing for this interview! The recipe is also in the back of the book.

*The Whiskey Robber Cocktail

Ingredients:

1-1/2 oz. of whiskey
1 oz. sour mix
3 dashes of bitters
Dry ginger ale
Orange slice

Crush orange into bottom of ice-filled Old Fashioned glass. In an ice-filled shaker, add Johnnie Walker Red, sour mix and bitters. Shake well, strain into ice filled glass, spritz with dry ginger ale.

Here's a photograph of Atilla's final bank heist captured on bank video - and no doubt Attila had just downed a Whiskey Robber Cocktail:

For more information about the book, including reviews, visit here.

And don't miss some of Rubinstein's award winning journalism.

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