Looking Back at the Intriguing Life of Actress and Socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor
By Elliott Smith
Photo: Getty Images
Long before the Kardashians captured the public's imagination, three sisters from Hungary established that you can become famous just for being famous, with only a dash of acting ability and a whole lot of personality. And with her mellifluous moniker, glittering glamour, multiple marriages and bawdy bon mots, Gabor fully embodied and embraced the role of Hollywood royalty.
All the "daahlings," décolletage and drama were carefully calculated, creating both an air of majesty and mystery that made Gabor irresistible to men, women and the gossip pages, catapulting her past sisters Magda and Eva to a level of fame that allowed her to draw headlines into her 90s.
"I'm a very serious person," Gabor said in a The New Yorker profile decades ago. "I couldn't have built up this idiotic image of myself all these years if I hadn't been serious."
Born in Hungary in 1917 as Sari Gabor (although she went out of her way to obfuscate her age whenever possible), she soon became Zsa Zsa, thanks to her struggles as a child to pronounce her name. Her mother, Jolie, channeled all her energy into making the three Gabor sisters -- Magda, the eldest, Zsa Zsa, and Eva, the youngest -- courtesans in the classical sense, teaching them how to act, dance, sing and play sports of the leisure class.
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"All these years later, it's hard to describe the phenomenon of the three glamorous Gabor girls and their ubiquitous mother," talk show host Merv Griffin wrote in his autobiography. "They burst onto the society pages and into the gossip columns so suddenly, and with such force, it was as if they'd been dropped out of the sky."
The training worked, as Gabor was named Miss Hungary in 1936. By the time she arrived in the United States in 1941, two years after sister Eva, she was already married and divorced, a pattern that would continue unabated for years. She quickly married legendary hotelier Conrad Hilton in 1942, a union that would last five tempestuous years and produce a daughter, Francesca, whom Gabor would say was a product of rape by Hilton.
While her younger sister's career began to blossom, it took until 1952 for Gabor to truly break through, thanks to her quick-witted turn on the game show Bachelor's Haven and a rare starring role in Moulin Rouge, helmed by legendary director John Huston. While Gabor continued working steadily throughout the 1950s and '60s, her parts were usually supporting roles in lightweight fare. Her biggest film credit was in 1958's Queen of Outer Space, where she played a scientist on a planet inhabited solely by women.
But Gabor had no problem remaining in the public eye due to her voracious appetite for men, her cavalier attitude about marriage and divorce, and the hilarious things she uttered, in her incomparable accent, about relationships.
"I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house," was one of the actress's classic zingers, and Gabor's love life was an open book, eagerly read by a conservative public not used to such candidness from its stars.
After divorcing Hilton in 1947, Gabor would marry notorious ladies' man George Sanders in 1949. After five years with Sanders, she moved on to Herbert Hutner. (Sanders would later marry Gabor’s elder sister, Magda.) She was divorced for six days before marrying Joshua Cosden, Jr. in 1966. She married two more times in the 1970s and had her eighth marriage, to Felipe de Alba, annulled after one day. Along the way, there were many more lovers and rumored dalliances with some of the biggest names at the time.
Of course, this was delicious fodder for the celebrity magazines and gossip pages, and Gabor was more than happy to comply with the coverage. As her movie career cooled, she became a TV talk show stalwart, appearing numerous times on The Tonight Show, The Merv Griffin Show and just about any other daytime or late-night gabber, even becoming a favorite guest on David Letterman's show in her later years.
She wrote two books, How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, and How to Get Rid of a Man and One Lifetime Is Not Enough, where she shared advice like, "The best way to attract a man immediately is to have a magnificent bosom and a half-size brain and let both of them show," and, "The truth is, you never really know a man until after you have divorced him."
In 1986, Gabor married her current husband, Frederic Prinz von Anhalt, whose German nobility was not acquired via lineage but purchase. Still, it made Gabor a princess in the loosest sense. In 1989, she would step into the spotlight once again, when she was arrested for slapping a Beverly Hills, California, police officer who had stopped her for a traffic violation. The ensuing court case was covered rabidly by the media, and Gabor savored the attention, if not the conviction, where she was forced to serve three days in jail.
"I can't believe that in a country as great as ours that a 6-foot-4 policeman can beat up a lady of 5-foot-4 and use dirty language as if she was a street walker. I think Russia can't be worse, or communist Hungary," she told the Los Angeles Times after the conviction.
Gabor enjoyed a brief career bump in the aftermath, appearing in The Naked Gun 2.5, The Beverly Hillbillies and A Very Brady Sequel, but her later years were marked by injury, controversy and tragedy.
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Eva died in 1995, and both Jolie and Magda died in 1997. Gabor was involved in a serious car accident in 2002 that left her partially paralyzed, suffered strokes in 2005 and 2007, and had her right leg amputated above the knee in 2011. She allegedly lost money via investments with Bernie Madoff in 2009, but it was never proven true, along with von Anhalt's claim that he was the father of Anna Nicole Smith's child. In 2015, Gabor's daughter died at 67 due to a stroke after years of squabbling with von Anhalt about her mother's money. And in 2016, two days before her 99th birthday, Gabor was rushed to the hospital for an emergency procedure to replace her feeding tube. Gabor died at home on Sunday, with her husband by her side.
Even though Gabor disappeared from the public eye in the last years of her life, her name and legacy live on via many of today's stars, who've built upon Gabor's template and become wildly famous simply by being their fabulous selves. "What is really important for a woman," she wrote, "even more than being beautiful or intelligent, is to be entertaining."