She was not only famous for being famous: she was the prototype, the original model. Zsa Zsa Gabor possessed beauty, certainly, and enough Hungarian-accented wit to earn countless talk-show bookings. She was an actress, after a fashion, in some two dozen movies, and a legendary serial bride who believed that “you never really know a man until you have divorced him.” She could display the arrogance of privilege—in one instance, slapping a police officer during a traffic stop—and also, despite her obvious sexual experience, the wide-eyed guilelessness of a naïf. She was, above all, a personality. She made a career of being herself, even if that self was a construct. On Sunday afternoon, Gabor succumbed to heart failure at the age of 99.
Zsa Zsa was born Sári Gábor in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, to retired soldier Vilmos Gábor and his wife Jolie, a jeweler of Jewish descent. There was, famously, an older sister Magda and a younger sister Eva. Zsa Zsa’s birth date was most probably February 6, 1917, though she was known to fast-forward the year to as late as 1931. That would have made her an extraordinarily youthful Miss Hungary in 1936, and an extremely precocious first-time bride in 1937. The lucky man on that occasion was Turkish diplomat Burhan Belge, whom Zsa Zsa stayed married to until 1941, the same year she joined her sister Eva, who had started an acting career, in the United States. They were later joined by Magda and Jolie, who fled Europe in advance of the Nazis.
The movies didn’t take to Zsa Zsa for another decade. In the meantime, she busied herself collecting second and third husbands: hotel magnate Conrad Hilton and actor George Sanders, respectively. Zsa Zsa’s only child, Francesca Hilton, was born in 1947, after mother and father split. Later, Zsa Zsa claimed that her daughter was the product of rape by her husband; others noted that Francesca bore an uncanny resemblance to George Sanders, whom Zsa Zsa married in 1949. (In 1970, Sanders would also be briefly married to Magda Gabor.)
Though Zsa Zsa had performed as a singer in Vienna during the 1930s, her acting experience was limited when she entered movies. Her first year on screen, 1952, was arguably her best: she appeared in the musical Lovely To Look At, the comedy We’re Not Married!, and most prominently, John Huston’s Toulouse-Lautrec biography Moulin Rouge. Gabor was cast opposite Jose Ferrer as the painter’s famous model, dancer Jane Avril. Other films during the decade included Lili, The Story of Three Loves, The Girl in the Kremlin, and the immortal B extravaganza Queen of Outer Space (not in the title role, but as lovely rebel Talleah). She also had a one-line bit in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and made a number of guest appearances on television.
Perhaps her busy career kept Zsa Zsa out of the marriage pool during most of the 1950s, since after her 1954 divorce from Sanders she remained unwed for eight years. Not that there weren’t lovers, Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa chief among them, and rumored dalliances with everyone from John F. Kennedy to Richard Nixon. She married and divorced twice in the 1960s, and though the film offers petered out, she continued to do spots on sitcoms like Mr. Ed, Gilligan’s Island, and My Three Sons, often as herself. She also did a stint as guest villainess Minerva on the Batman TV series, and was a regular contestant on various game shows.
But it was the talk-show circuit which gave Zsa Zsa her most lasting fame. She did them all—Jack Paar, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, David Frost, Dinah Shore, and, of course Johnny Carson—with the goal of promoting not a film or other project, but rather the glamorous, sexy Zsa Zsa brand. She delivered memorable zingers on love (“To be loved is a strength. To love is a weakness”); on marriage (“A woman must marry for love, and keep on marrying until she finds it”); and on divorce (“I’m a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house”). It is that image of Zsa Zsa, posing on the talk show couch, addressing everyone as “dahlink,” (because, she said, she never could remember names), that is most firmly rooted. Even the apocryphal stories (it’s doubtful, for example, that she really asked Johnny Carson on camera if he would like to pet her pussy—i.e., the cat on her lap) have stuck.
After three more wed and discarded husbands, Zsa Zsa finally found what proved to be an enduring match in her final marriage, to Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt, in 1986. It was not a promising union: the “prince,” a former masseur who was a quarter-century younger than Zsa Zsa, had gained his title at age 36 through adoption by an aged German princess. “I know he’s no good,” she told People magazine at the time of the wedding. “The moment a man is bad I fall in love with him.” Nevertheless, she walked down the aisle a ninth time and was immediately dubbed Princess Zsa Zsa von Anhalt, Duchess of Saxony, Engern and Westphalia, Countess of Ascania.
And so she remained. Prinz von Anhalt is her lone survivor. Daughter Francesca died at age 67 in January 2015 following a stroke and heart attack; sister Eva died in 1995, and Zsa Zsa’s mother Jolie and sister Magda both died in 1997.
In later years, Zsa Zsa suffered a number of financial setbacks, losing money both in a libel suit brought by actress Elke Sommer and in the Bernie Madoff debacle. Her health declined after a debilitating car accident in 2002, with strokes, a broken hip, and even a leg amputation to follow. But she still managed to summon the energy for an interview with Vanity Fair in 2007, commenting on Paris Hilton, who was both Zsa Zsa’s step-great-granddaughter and her rightful heir in the field of irrepressible self-promotion. “I think she’s rather silly,” Zsa Zsa sniffed. “She does too many things for publicity.”
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