August 23, 2007
Zsa Zsa Gabor: Last of the Hungarian Mohicans
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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 ingénues 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.