Zsa Zsa's Family Circus

The Hungarian drama queen’s failing health has returned her to the spotlight, but her own family can't agree on how much of it is just theatrics. Jacob Bernstein talks to insiders about the scene at her bedside (think throwing trays and flirting with hospital aides), whether she was actually a Madoff victim, and just who called the priest.

08.19.10 11:53 PM ET

Zsa Zsa Gabor’s whole life has been a circus, so perhaps it makes sense that even as she seems to be nearing death this week, absolutely no one around her can agree on precisely what is happening, or if she is in fact dying.

In one corner is her husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt of Germany, who seems practically to be drafting hourly press releases on the failing health of his wife. His very title is questionable. The son of a policeman, he acquired the “prince” thing in what many press reports said was a business transaction with a bankrupt member of the deposed nobility. And he has a remarkable history of telling stories to the press that don’t always turn out to be true.

Gallery: Zsa Zsa's Life and Times

In the other corner is Zsa Zsa’s daughter Francesca Hilton, claiming her mother's condition is not nearly so dire. Her credibility is somewhat undermined by the fact that Zsa Zsa sued her back in 2005. At the time, Zsa Zsa alleged Francesca conspired to take out a $3.75 million loan against her home and stole $2 million from her bank accounts, which she used to buy a home and invest in a “phantom company in New York.”

So what’s actually happening?

For sure, the 93-year-old actress spent the last few weeks in and out of the hospital.

First, she broke her hip, and after she was sent home, a blood clot landed her back at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

And for sure, a priest was called in to the hospital room to see her Sunday, indicating that all was not well.

Still, Edward Lozzi, a spokesman for Hilton, cautioned against running the obituaries before Zsa Zsa’s time actually came. “A priest definitely was over there,” he told me. “But he did not give last rites. He stopped in to say hello… Zsa Zsa asked for him.”

Moreover, this is a woman who once told Johnny Carson, “Zeese are just my vorking diamonds.” She is nothing if not the consummate drama queen.

Born Sári Gábor in Budapest, Zsa Zsa was the middle child of Vilmos Gabor, a soldier, and Jolie Gabor. The family appears to have been (at least partially) Jewish, and her younger sister Eva was the first to move to the U.S. in the '30s, as the Nazis ascended to power. Over the next few years, both Zsa Zsa and Magda followed her to America, and one often repeated story is that after Eva had her rhinoplasty, she took Zsa Zsa and Magda to the plastic surgeon for exactly the same nose as soon as they collected their luggage from baggage claim. (Jolie, who also came to America, was said to have gone directly for a nose reduction as well.)

In addition to possibly sharing the same surgically reduced proboscises, each of the Gabor sisters had a knack for hiring and firing men. Eva was married five times over the course of her lifetime. Magda got hitched six times. But it was Zsa Zsa who took the cake: Her current husband included, she made it to the altar nine times, and even told Johnny Carson (in that same episode), “I’m a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.”

The first guy to get his eviction notice was Burhan Asaf Belge, who served in the Turkish National Assembly and made it just four years with his fickle bride; second was hotelier Conrad Hilton, with whom Zsa Zsa had her only child. After that was the actor George Sanders, then executive Herbert Hutner, followed by Joshua Cosden Jr., the heir to an oil fortune, whom Zsa Zsa married after a six-week courtship. Following the dissolution of that marriage, 19 months later, Zsa Zsa took a break for eight years, married Barbie creator Jack Ryan, hired a lawyer named Michael O’Hara to divorce Ryan, exchanged rings with O’Hara, failed to divorce him before tying the knot with Felipe de Alba, a lawyer and former actor, and had that marriage annulled after just one day before ultimately settling down with the prince.

“Don’t compare her to Paris Hilton shaking her ass,” says Gabor’s husband. “My wife shakes a better ass.”

Zsa Zsa on The Dame Edna Experience in 1987

From time to time, Zsa Zsa worked too, but it wasn’t really what she was known for. Her biggest starring role was in Moulin Rouge in 1952, and she was practically the only thing in it that didn’t earn an Oscar nomination.

In fact, in Hollywood, Zsa Zsa has often been referred to as the Paris Hilton of her day, which makes some sense given the trouble she got herself into. In 1968, she made news for slapping a bellboy in London and was removed from an airplane headed to Mallorca because of an unpaid hotel bill. She was also fined $24 in a suburban magistrate’s court for using foul language with customs men in London, after it was discovered that she was trying to bring a dog into the country without permission. And, said longtime friend Nikki Haskell, Zsa Zsa has long had a sense of entitlement that was way ahead of her time. “She was really the first person who thought that everything should be given to her for free. Now, everything’s like that, but back then people actually owned their own clothes and fur and jewelry.”

One thing differentiating Zsa Zsa from the starlets of today is that she didn’t exactly have an itty-bitty waistline. She didn’t like to be reminded of this, so Haskell came up with a novel way to deal with this when they called in clothes for her. “She used to say she was a size six and she was really a size ten so I would go to the designers and tell them to put size six labels into the size ten clothes. Because, otherwise, she wouldn’t even try them on. I knew how to handle her.”

Still, in an interview with The Daily Beast a few weeks back, Zsa Zsa’s current husband took exception to the comparison between his wife and Paris Hilton. “My wife speaks seven languages. She’s very intelligent. She went to university. Don’t compare her to Paris Hilton walking around shaking her ass.” Plus, he added, “My wife shakes a better ass.”

Anhalt met Zsa Zsa in 1983 in Los Angeles and though he was about two decades younger than she, it was love at first celebrity sighting. “In the beginning,” he said, “I was very much impressed with Hollywood and all the stars. That’s normal. I met four presidents through her. We arrived at the White House and we didn’t even have to go through security. An hour later, I was sitting at a dinner table with Ronald Reagan. That is impressing. It was the biggest thing in my whole life.”

It also didn’t hurt that Zsa Zsa and her husband shared a gift for self-invention and an apparent disregard for the difference between good and bad publicity that only became more pronounced as the years went on.

In 1989, Zsa Zsa famously assaulted a police officer who stopped her in her car, then lampooned the episode in The Naked Gun 2 ½. She smacked the film’s star, Leslie Nielsen, who played a cop, across the face.

A year after her run-in with the real-life police officer’s cheekbone, Zsa Zsa took a verbal swing, this time at actress Elke Sommer. In an interview with a German magazine, Zsa Zsa alleged that Sommer was “broke, balding, and frequented sleazy bars.”

Sommer sued for libel and won a settlement that ran north of $1 million.

“If Zsa Zsa were young now,” said Haskell, “she’d probably have a reality show. It would be Home with the Gabors, instead of the Kardashians.”

But in recent years, it’s been Zsa Zsa’s frequent plus-one who’s upstaged her. Maybe this is due to a 2002 car accident that left Zsa Zsa in a wheelchair. Maybe it’s that she's finally showing her age. Whatever the case, Anhalt’s done quite a job generating tabloid buzz.

In September 2006, after the death of Anna Nicole Smith, Anhalt called a press conference where he said he was potentially the father Smith’s infant daughter. DNA tests later proved that not to be the case.

In July 2007, he claimed he’d been assaulted in his car at gunpoint by three women and handcuffed naked to the steering wheel. Yet, according to CNN, he was able to call the police from his cell phone and no handcuffs were discovered at the scene, though he was wandering around the car naked.

And a year and a half ago, when the Bernie Madoff scandal broke, Anhalt alleged that he and his wife lost somewhere in the ballpark of $10 million with the disgraced money manager.

Yet The Daily Beast could find neither Zsa Zsa or Anhalt on the master list of Madoff victims. (Asked about this, her daughter's spokesman expressed skepticism that Anhalt’s claim was anything other than a ploy for attention or an attempt to keep other creditors at bay. And indeed, there have been a few tax liens against Zsa Zsa and the prince in recent years.)

Given that not everything coming forth from his royal mouth appears to be true, one could be forgiven for wondering if Anhalt might be crying wolf vis a vis his wife’s imminent death.

A couple of weeks ago, when a PR man for Anhalt and Zsa Zsa was first issuing statements about Zsa Zsa’s failing health, Hilton told The Daily Beast that her mother was “doing better,” and added that she expected Zsa Zsa would be ready to go home shortly.

In the following days, that’s just where Zsa Zsa went.

Meanwhile, the timing of Zsa Zsa’s alleged passing grew suspicious. Earlier this year, Anhalt announced that he was running for governor, advocating taxes on Cuban cigars (to pay back the budget crisis) and legalized gay marriage. When he withdrew from the race at the beginning of August, he did not cite failure to garner support from the public (or even significant publicity) as the reason for his exit. Rather he said: “My wife’s health comes first.”

Might he have been using Zsa Zsa’s failing health as a face-save? “Everything you’re reading is coming through Frederic, and according to Frederic, she’s been on her deathbed for three weeks,” Lozzi said. “It’s not coming through doctors or physicians. Everything has to go through him, which is legal, but it hasn’t been totally accurate.”

Still, one thing Lozzi and her controversial hubby do appear to agree on is that she has remained thoroughly Zsa Zsa up until what may or may not be the end. In other words, Lozzi said, she has spent the last few weeks screaming at nearly everyone in sight.

“She’s throwing trays, she’s cranky and hollering, all of which is normal,” the PR man said on Sunday. “She’s also flirting with the young hospital aides, and even Frederic will back that up.”

Or maybe not. On Thursday, as reports indicated Zsa Zsa was “on the mend,” TMZ ran a story saying Anhalt had blacked out and collapsed. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the end, it was his health that failed, not hers?

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.