Mária Szepes was born Magdolna Scherbach in Budapest, then part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire, to a theatrical Hungarian family. She became an actress and worked in films from 1916 to 1933, mostly under the name Magda Papir. In 1931, she married Béla Szepes and accompanied him to Berlin, where they lived until nearly the end of World War II. While in Berlin, she studied literature, art history, and biology. Back in Hungary, she worked as a journalist, screenwriter, and author. Her first novel A Vörös Oroszlán (The Red Lion, 1946), written under the stress of the siege of Budapest during the final days of the war, became a worldwide bestseller despite being banned by the Communist authorities. Many years later, it was translated into German by Gottfried Feidel and adapted for the stage.