The current saga between Zsa Zsa Gabor’s ninth husband, Frederic von Anhalt, and her only daughter, Constance Francesca Hilton, is as remarkable as it is mundane. It is the stuff of everyday life in courthouses all over the country when a loved one is incapacitated and family dramas break out into public viewing.
On the surface, it is the stuff of tabloids: formerly glamorous actress succumbs to old age as her latest husband battles for control of the assets with her only next of kin.
But, as Gabor comes closer to death, the sad story carries with it the strains of a Greek tragedy.
Hilton, the only child of Gabor and her second husband, the hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, says von Anhalt has banned her from seeing her mother—a charge that von Anhalt denies.
“She can go on Sundays when the doctor is there so there is no funny business,” said John Blanchette, a spokesman for Gabor and von Anhalt.
Gabor, 94, has suffered a slow and horrible march toward death that she surely never would have imagined. Always ultra-careful with her image, the world has seen garish pictures of Gabor in a hospice bed, her leg amputated after a gangrenous infection. Her slow demise has been covered in agonizing detail and has included such bizarre and sordid stories as von Anhalt wanting Gabor’s body to be preserved and displayed upon her death and Gabor wanting a surrogate to carry von Anhalt’s child.
Hilton maintains that von Anhalt, a self-described German prince—despite being the son of a policeman—nearly three decades Gabor’s junior, is behind the leaks and the reason for her mother’s undignified end.
Through his spokesman, von Anhalt, 67, says he can’t control the media frenzy and denies that he has a paid relationship with the tabloid TMZ. However, he is friendly with TMZ founder Harvey Levin and did agree to opening up the couple’s Bel Air mansion for public viewing on the new TMZ tour of celebrity homes, said Blanchette.
“The idea was that Frederic would come out and greet the people and give them water and lemonade,” said Blanchette noting that the mansion, which has been for sale and recently dropped in price to $16 million from $28 million, was once Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley’s home. “For that, he would be paid.”
Hilton says she last saw her mother two months ago. She says she spent a day last week trying unsuccessfully to convince doctors and staff at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center that she should be able to see her mother, who was apparently being kept in a room far from public access, according to Hilton’s spokesman, Edward Lozzi.
“They are on information lockdown,” said Lozzi. “Zsa Zsa [was] in under an assumed name.”
Lozzi added that she has also made trips to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services and the District Attorney to see if anyone can determine whether her mother is suffering.
And yet, despite all its lurid Hollywood sheen, this type of familial drama happens every day.
“This is a very common thing but it often happens to people who have modest means or when people are cut off by their families,” said Peter F. George, managing partner of Healthcare Litigation Support, which offers experts to attorneys within health-care litigation. “Family court sees more of these kinds of litigations than any other event. It is tough.”
Emotions often run high in cases of parents dying and children trying to gain access, said Laura Burchell-Henson, a nurse who often serves as an expert witness at health-care related trials.
“It happens all the time unfortunately,” she said. “Everybody and his brother shows up when someone is dying and there is conflict. That is why we have security guards at hospitals.”
Hilton says she would like a judge to order unconditional visitation rights for her to see her mother and an independent medical evaluation of Gabor, who she fears is not being cared for properly.
“We don’t know what is keeping her alive,” said Lozzi.
The reality, however, is that Hilton has little recourse because von Anhalt was made the executor in Gabor’s will, which was videotaped in 2005, said Blanchette. He is also Gabor’s legal guardian. Hilton is still in Gabor’s will but plays a minor role, said Blanchette.
“We all feel like a child should have an opportunity to say goodbye to a parent,” said George. “The problem is that when an individual achieves that status is how do you challenge it? She can certainly try but I don’t think there is a court in the country who will give her access to her mother.”
Indeed, Ronald Richards, Hilton’s attorney who represented her in a 2005 civil suit filed by von Anhalt and Gabor which was later dismissed, said there is little that can be done.
“I can’t force Frederic to let her see her mother. There is no right of visitation for children. He is her sole caretaker,” he said.
Unfortunately for Hilton, the imminent death of her mother brings full circle the sometimes terrible experience it has been to be the sole daughter of two self-consumed and wealthy parents. In her autobiography, One Lifetime Is Not Enough, Gabor said that Francesca Hilton was the product of being “raped” by her husband. When Conrad Hilton died in 1979, he left his daughter $100,000 and indicated that if she tried to contest it, she would lose it all, said Lozzi. She fought it and lost it all.
Hilton, who at one time exorcised her childhood demons by turning to comedy, said she is unable to laugh anymore. Today she is struggling financially.
“She is not sitting on a house in Mulholland Drive as a lady of leisure,” said Lozzi. “She does not have the assets to bring on major legal action.”
But most painful, said Lozzi, is the realization that her troubled mother’s legacy as a once fashionable, quick witted glamour girl, has been all but forgotten. All that is left are the tawdry images of an old woman in a hospital nightgown. Hilton feels there is little she can do but bide her time.
“She told me, ‘I am waiting for that dreaded call from an AP obituary reporter,’” said Lozzi.
The primal need to find resolution with one’s parents may elude Hilton entirely.
“Children look for closure—‘How did my mother die, was she in pain?’ That is hugely important to people. They need something that they can hang on to,” said George. “Being a child is the single most complicated and troublesome role that a human being plays in their life. Unfortunately for her, she was stuck with two completely horrible parents.”