“I want a man with kindness and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?”
— Zsa Zsa Gabor
Lately, I have been thinking about Zsa Zsa, and it makes me sad. A few years ago, she crashed her car on Sunset, and she has been wheelchair-bound since. She had been a recluse for some time before that, depressed, not wanting to leave the house. She, who for so long relied on her looks, no longer wants to be seen in public.
In recent weeks, Zsa Zsa has been in the news — albeit marginally so. Prince Frederic von Anhalt, her ninth husband, to whom she has been married since 1986, was recently found naked in his Rolls-Royce, bound and gagged. He claimed that three women he had stopped to help near the Bel Air Country Club had robbed him. The police are investigating.
A few weeks before that, the prince was in the news, claiming that he was the biological father of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby and had been having a long-term affair with her. Not very nice to Zsa Zsa, particularly as the paternity suit did not go his way.
Two years ago, the prince and Zsa Zsa filed a lawsuit against her daughter, Francesca Hilton, charging, among other things, elder abuse, negligence and fraud, in a dispute over whether Francesca was entitled to certain monies relating to a Bel Air property. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Francesca is Zsa Zsa’s only child, the daughter of her marriage to Conrad Hilton, the hotel chain magnate. Paris Hilton is Conrad’s great-granddaughter.
One could characterize Zsa Zsa as the Paris of her day — someone famous for being famous, whose celebrity came more from her romantic entanglements, personal dramas and encounters with the police than from her professional accomplishments. However, to do so would ignore Zsa Zsa’s intelligence, wit, charm and style. She was not glam — she was glamorous.
Sari (Zsa Zsa) Gabor was born Feb. 6, 1917, in Budapest, the second of three daughters born to Vilmos Gabor and Janci Tilleman Gabor (known as Jolie). Magda was three years older, Eva two years younger.
Zsa Zsa and Eva were just a few years older than my mother, who knew them as girls whom she occasionally saw at the ice skating rink in Budapest. My mother used to say that she knew the Gabors so long ago, she knew them when they were Jewish. Zsa Zsa has acknowledged that her grandmother was Jewish — some sources say her father or his family converted to Catholicism — which was not uncommon for that generation of Hungarian Jews, who chose the religion more for the potential social advancement than as a question of faith.
And social advancement was very much Jolie’s plan. Her mantra to her daughters being: “You will be rich, famous and married to kings.”
During Zsa Zsa’s teens, Jolie tried to launch her career by entering her in beauty contests — first in Budapest, then in Vienna. Although Zsa Zsa did not win, she landed a role in a Richard Tauber operetta and received enough attention when she got home that she had several suitors. She married a much older Turkish diplomat who took her off to Ankara, where Zsa Zsa made a great impression on the Turks (she was rumored to have had an affair with Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic).
By 1939, Eva was in Hollywood, launching her acting career. Magda, who had married an impoverished Polish count, remained in Budapest. During World War II, Magda became active in resistance activities as a driver for the International Red Cross. An affair with the Portuguese consul gave her access to false papers, which saved the lives of many, including her parents.
Zsa Zsa arrived in Los Angeles in 1941 on what was to be the first stop in a nationwide scout for a new husband. However, shortly after arriving, she was spotted at Ciro’s by Hilton, a committed Catholic who had divorced his first wife but said he never intended to remarry.
Nevertheless, he fell under Zsa Zsa’s spell and married her. She claimed that she, too, married for love (and at a much later date on a television show she passed a lie detector test when asked about it).
Still, the marriage only lasted five years. Hilton reportedly was tortured by the guilt of not being able to take communion and thwarted in his attempts to teach his wife thrift. Zsa Zsa was disappointed by Hilton’s constant absences due to his business and the priority he placed on the hotels over her.
In 1946, at the time they began their highly public divorce proceedings, she was pregnant with their daughter, Francesca.
Shortly after Francesca’s birth, Zsa Zsa experienced a bout of mania, characterized by volatile behavior, irrational spending splurges (even by Gabor standards) and dark, paralyzing depressions that led Eva to hospitalize her. Zsa Zsa was given insulin shock treatments. Upon her recovery, she turned on Eva, saying there was nothing wrong with her.
Zsa Zsa found her next husband in a movie theater, when she saw George Sanders on screen (she was reputed to have watched him beat a woman in “The Moon and Sixpence” only to remark, “That’s the man for me!”). They were married in 1949. In 1951, Sanders won an Oscar for supporting actor for his role in “All About Eve.”
Around this time, Zsa Zsa’s own career was launched when she appeared on the television show “Bachelor’s Haven,” which allowed her to display her razor-sharp wit. When the host commented on her diamonds, Zsa Zsa retorted: “These? Darling, these are my working diamonds.”
She became a regular on the program, as well as on radio. Often she would respond to listeners’ questions. Here are some examples:
>From a letter she read: “I’m breaking my engagement to a very wealthy man. He gave me a beautiful home, a mink coat, diamonds, an expensive car and a stove. What shall I do?
Zsa Zsa’s advice: “You have to be fair, darling. Give back the stove.”
Or: “My husband is a traveling salesman, but I know he strays even when he’s at home. What should I do?”
Zsa Zsa’s advice: “Shoot him in the legs.”
Her sudden popularity led to her casting in “Lovely to Look At,” by Hungarian-born producer Joe Pasternak, and perhaps her best role as Jane Avril in “Moulin Rouge,” directed by John Huston. Film roles followed in such films as “Lilli” (1953) and “Touch of Evil” (1958).
Although Sanders was the great love of Zsa Zsa’s life, his interest in her waned — he was often away on location — so it was during that time that Zsa Zsa began an affair with legendary playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (she was the great love of his life). Scandal ensued as the couple’s folie a deux had them fighting, making up and breaking up. At one point, Zsa Zsa appeared at a press conference with a patch over her eye, saying Rubirosa was a coward who beat women.
In the end, Zsa Zsa reconciled with Sanders, and Rubirosa married heiress Barbara Hutton. Rubirosa’s marriage lasted all of 73 days. Sanders and Gabor divorced in 1954. However, Sanders was so enamored of the family and the family of him that in 1970, he married sister Magda (that one lasted six weeks).
What was the Gabors’ appeal? First of all, as pictures from the era attest, they were beautiful (and they worked at being beautiful — one of Hilton’s complaints was that it could take Zsa Zsa several hours to get ready to go out).
Zsa Zsa presented a new model of femininity to American audiences of the 1950s. She was the opposite of a bimbo, instead portraying herself as a worldly sophisticate not interested in traditional domestic life, a sexual being, a romantic and a pragmatist.
If Zsa Zsa could be characterized as a gold digger, the subtext to her image was that she was worth it. Zsa Zsa became a public character whom America enjoyed.
Eva was a more serious actress than her sister, appearing in such films as “A Royal Scandal” (1945), “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (1954) and “Don’t Go Near the Water” (1957), and she is known to countless generations of children as the voices of Duchess in the animated film, “The Aristocats” and Bianca in “The Rescuers.”
Nonetheless, Eva achieved her greatest fame in the 1960s CBS sitcom, “Green Acres,” playing Eddie Albert’s city-bred socialite wife, a role that, ironically, called on her to play a variation of Zsa Zsa, speaking in an exaggerated Hungarian accent (something she had worked to lose in her other roles). In the end, the Gabor girls created characters they could not escape.
For me, the Gabors were approximations of my mother and her friends — witty, attractive, entertaining women who got blonder every year, spoke in thick accents and loved jewelry (be it costume or real).
Several years ago, I tried to develop a movie about the Gabor girls — a story about these three ambitious, competitive women, their careers, their loves and their stage mother. As a framing device I thought to use the one occasion when all three sisters appeared on stage. In 1953, they performed at the Las Vegas Last Frontier Hotel in a show called, “The Gabors: This Is Our Life.” They appeared in beautiful sequined gowns, offered some witty lines and answered scripted questions. The show ran for only a few nights.
I never sold that project (or let’s just say I haven’t sold it yet), however, developing it led to one of my most memorable Hollywood moments: Lunch with Debbie Reynolds. What a trip, as they used to say.
Reynolds has been an actress since she was 13, and she is still (at that time she was almost 70) every inch an actress. She had been a good friend of the Gabors, particularly Eva, and was interested in playing Jolie, the mother.
Actually, she was interested in playing all the parts, and at lunch, she easily slipped into Hungarian-accented English and showcased the variety of Gabor accents she could do. Also, perhaps because Reynolds achieved fame playing innocent ingÃ©nues such as Tammy and the Singing Nun, she delights in shocking.
At one point, I mentioned Zsa Zsa’s appearance at the press conference wearing an eye patch because she claimed Rubi had given her a black eye. Reynolds didn’t buy it: “She probably got a black eye falling on his ‘rubirosa,'” (Reynolds didn’t really say “rubirosa,” — she used a word that, although funny, is inappropriate for a family-friendly newspaper.)
Over the last several decades, Zsa Zsa appeared in a wide variety of movies, from camp to trash, and in later years poked fun at herself but continued to be at her best as a talk show guest. Here are some more of her one-liners:
“Husbands are like fire. They go out when unattended.”
“I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.”
“I believe in large families: Every woman should have at least three husbands.”
“I wasn’t born, I was ordered from room service.”
Although famous, Zsa Zsa attained notoriety in 1989 when she went on trial for slapping a Beverly Hills police officer — it was not the first time she had behaved poorly -just the first time she crossed the line with an officer of the court. She received a sentence of three days in jail — and plenty of publicity.
Finally, it should be noted that the Gabors were all successful businesswomen. Magda at one point ran a thriving plumbing business for many years, Eva had a wig business, Zsa Zsa made personal appearances for the Marshall Field’s department store and even Mama Jolie had a successful costume jewelry store on Madison Avenue in New York.
The facts of their lives have been told often, by the Gabors themselves. Jolie published two books (the eponymous “Jolie Gabor” by gossip doyenne Cindy Adams and “Jolie Gabor’s Family Cookbook” by Ted and Jean Kaufman). Zsa Zsa wrote four (“Zsa Zsa Gabor: My Story Written for Me by Gerold Frank,” “How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man,” “It’s Simple Darling” and “One Lifetime Is Not Enough,” assisted by, edited by and put into proper English by Wendy Leigh). Eva wrote one (“Orchids and Salami: A Gay and Impudent Memoir”).
Others have tackled the subject in articles in newspapers and magazines, on television and in books. As recently as 2001, Anthony Tutu published his collection of Gabor artifacts in “Gaborabilia,” a tribute book written with Donald F. Reuter.
Nonetheless, and this is what makes me sad, it seems as though their time has passed.
Eva died in 1995, Mama Jolie in 1997 (she was 103), Magda a few weeks later the same year. This past February, Zsa Zsa turned 90.
Having outlived her sisters, perhaps Zsa Zsa is the last of the blonde-haired, bejeweled Hungarian Mohicans. In her Beverly Hills home, I trust that she feels she is not entirely alone or forgotten.
Perhaps there is some measure of pleasure for her in the fact that despite her current problems, she is still remembered for her beauty and her wit. She can, if she likes, consider this column a gift from a perfect stranger. But I will give Zsa Zsa the last word:
“I don’t accept gifts from perfect strangers — but then nobody’s perfect.”
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.