August 23, 2007
Zsa Zsa Gabor: Last of the Hungarian Mohicans
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?