Ending an extended bedside watch that included a leg amputation, the death of her only child, and the shooting of an Oscar-winning film in her home while she slept, actress and socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor died on Sunday in Los Angeles. Gabor, 99, died of heart failure causes after suffering from various health issues over the last decade, including a stroke and dementia.
If anyone was born a century or so too soon it was Zsa Zsa, a Hungarian socialite who, though she starred in several films and TV shows, including Moulin Rouge (1952), Lili (1952), Orson Welles’s noir classic Touch of Evil (1958), and the 1960s Batman, reveled in the idea of celebrity-for-celebrity’s sake in a way that seemed shocking in her heyday of the 1940s and ’50s, but would have been right at home in the age selfies and Instagram. A woman who not only didn’t mind living life in front of a camera, but much preferred it, Gabor became famous for her over-the-top glamour; a series of mostly older, mostly wealthy husbands; and her Yogi Berra-like bon mots, delivered in her unmistakable Hungarian accent, that artfully sent up her public image and chosen lifestyle.
When asked how many husbands she had, her pat response was, “You mean other than my own?” On marriage, a favorite topic, she could be fatalistic. “A man is incomplete until he is married,” she said, “and then he is finished.” On assessing her own flaws, she was introspective. “If I only had a little humility, I’d be perfect,” she opined.
George Sanders, the late actor and All About Eve star known as husband three of nine in Zsa Zsa lore, viewed Gabor as one of a long line of powerful, fluttering seductresses. “Every age has its Madame Pompadour, its Lady Hamilton, its Queen of Sheba, its Cleopatra,” Sanders wrote in his book Memoirs of a Professional Cad. “I wouldn’t be surprised if history singles out Zsa Zsa as the 20th-century prototype of this exclusive coterie.”
The middle of three impossibly glamorous Gabor sisters that would each go on to make a mark on pop culture, the Budapest-born Zsa Zsa (originally Sári Gábor) claimed an almost supernatural ability to disarm men that apparently started when she was still an infant. “My father told me that if a woman bent over my crib I would cry,” she wrote in her tongue-and-cheek self-help book How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man. “But if it were a man, I would smile and laugh and go ‘coo-coo.’”
She married her first husband, the Turkish intellectual leader Burhan Belge, when she was just 15, shortly after she won the title of Miss Hungary only to be disqualified for being too young. (She claims the marriage was never consummated, according to her autobiography.) She emigrated to America, that marriage was annulled, and she and sisters Magda and Eva gravitated naturally to Hollywood, where she met hotelier Conrad Hilton one night at Ciro’s.
After a single dance, he offered her $20,000 to jet off to Miami, according to her book, One Lifetime Is Not Enough. She turned him down, but did ask him to marry her a couple of weeks later (Zsa Zsa rarely waited for the guy to propose). Never one to kiss and not tell, Zsa Zsa described Conrad Hilton, who was 62 to her 20 when they married in Santa Fe in 1942, as “a wonderful lover—virile, well-endowed, and masterful.”
Nonetheless, as that marriage petered out five years later, she took up with his son, Nicky Hilton, who was at the time fleeing his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, the screen legend with whom she shared lovers, a close friendship, and an obsession with diamonds. “Diamonds are a leitmotif in our family,” wrote Gabor, whose father once gave her a 10-carat sparkler with the caveat that she never marry a man who couldn’t better it.
According to her autobiography, her one child, Francesca Hilton, was the result of Gabor’s hotelier husband raping her one night at the Plaza Hotel. Francesca, who was left only $100,000 when Conrad died in 1979, died Jan. 5, 2015, of an apparent stroke. She had been warring bitterly with Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt (born Hans Georg Robert Lichtenberg), Gabor’s husband of 30 years and the trustee of Gabor’s estate, over the care of her mother. Francesca had not been allowed to speak with Gabor for several years prior to her death.
After Hilton, husbands came and went like so many sitcom guest stars. There was the actor (Sanders, who would later briefly marry her sister Magda), the investment banker (Herbert Hunter), the oilman (Joshua Cosden), the toy designer (Jack Ryan), the divorce attorney (Michael O’Hara), and the realtor-playboy (Count Filipe de Alba). Alba committed the cardinal sin for any Zsa Zsa paramour. “He bored me,” she said in 1982. “He’s a playboy and I’m a hard-working actress.”
Finally came her “prince”—though Frederic von Anhalt’s claim to actual royal lineage is iffy by most accounts. Her match in terms of colorful tale spinning, they met at a party in the early ’80s and had been partners ever since. “Everything I have, I have through my wife,” von Anhalt told The Scotsman in 2006. “She pushed me so hard it made me sick; dragged me around meeting four U.S. presidents, bought me everything that I wanted. Do you believe she didn’t know the kind of man she was marrying? My wife parted from eight men. Why I am still there? Because I am not like her other men.”
For most people who remember her heyday, when she graced the covers of countless fan magazines and served as a gleefully unpredictable TV guest star, it is easy to forget what a powerful and fearless path Gabor and her fabulous sisters cut through the staid Hollywood landscape. Yes, she was a famous wife and ex-wife, but her glamour always came from somewhere deeper.
“I always dress for myself,” Gabor, who prided herself in her collection of fur coats, wrote in her autobiography. “I change a lot during the day—sometimes as much as four times—but I always do it for me, not because I want to impress some man.”