Before Paris Hilton, there was her step-great grandmother: a ravishing beauty who married nine times and made a multi-million dollar fortune- as well as plenty of headlines – along the way.
In a sleek white Rolls-Royce, the elegantly dressed woman was driving through the palm fringed streets of Beverly Hills when she heard the wail of a police siren behind her and quickly pulled into the kerb. “Is there a problem, dahlink?” she cooed, as the traffic cop leant through the window. She handed him her drivers license and waited impatiently for a few moments, growing increasingly irritated, before abruptly slamming her foot on the accelerator and speeding away. Two blocks later, the startled police officer caught up with her and hauled her unceremoniously out of the car. “Vot are you doing?” screamed the woman. “Zeese is outrageous!” And then she slapped him.
Only Zsa Zsa Gabor could turn a simple drive into international news. The infamous cop slapping incident I June 1989 unleashed a media frenzy and put the irrepressible actress and socialite, then 7, firmly back in her most cherished position: centre stage. At her headline stealing trial, she wore black Valentino (She didn’t want to look “too fat” on camera) and her trademark diamonds, and had two hairstylists waiting nervously in the wings. At one point in the proceedings, the notorious self- publicist and step- great- grandmother of Paris Hilton evoked her self described “uniquely Hungarian talent for melodrama and self dramatisation”, and flounced out of the court in a huff. Then, after being sensationally sentenced to here days in prison, Gabor waved off the ignominy as “another good chapter for my book,”
Like her ubiquitous relative, Paris, Gabor was famous simply for being famous. With her drop- dead- gorgeous looks, larger than life personality and talent for self-promotion, she remained in the spotlight long after most of her peers.
Gabor first blazed into the world’s consciousness in the 50s when she appeared on US television and became an overnight star with her hilariously over-the-top quips, delivered in her inimitable Hungarian accent. “Oh zeese! Zeese are just my vorking diamonds,” was one of her legendary one-liners. The former beauty queen quickly became an entertainment institution, appearing on TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic. But although she had the requisite bombshell looks for Hollywood, her wooden acting meant she was forever relegated to Cameo roles. Her greatest talent was simply being Zsa Zsa. Gabor’s enchanting beauty meant she was irresistible to men and, as well as marrying nine- including millionaire hotelier Conrad Hilton and actor George Sanders- Gabor allegedly had affairs with everyone from Richard Burton and Sean Connery to Richard Nixon.
But Gabor was capricious and could be charming and coquettish one minute and demanding the next. She was also no stranger to sensationalism. Not only did Gabor claim that Frank Sinatra once forced himself on her, but she also maintains that her daughter Francesca, was the result of rape by her estranged husband, Hilton.
Gabor’s behavior often bordered on the bizarre. She was thrown off a plane for refusing to keep her dogs under control, and threw parties for her nine Shih tzus.
In her later years, she became an inveterate litigator, even suing the makers of Viagra (for supposedly making her ninth husband impotent) and her daughter (for allegedly trying to steal her money.)
But even though Gabor’s life often slipped into caricature, the incorrigible Hungarian somehow remained as endearing as she was enduring. She was well into her 70s when she released her hilariously camp fitness video, Zsa Zsa Gabor: It’s Simple Darling, in which the prenaturally smooth-skinned Gabor (despite appearances she claims to never have had a facelift) leans excitedly into the camera to share the secret of her youthful vitality.
“Its zimple, dahling” she gushed with classic ebullience. “Exercise, be beautiful, and have a fabulous love life.”
The Zsa Zsa Gabor story began on February 6, 1917, although typically, Gabor has judiciously edited her age throughout the years. The middle of two sisters, Eva and Magda, she grew up in an affluent area of Budapest with her parents, father Vilmos, a soldier, and gem dealer mother Jolie. (She was given her first diamond ring by her father, who told her never to accept anything smaller.) She was christened Sari, after opera primadonna Sari Fedak, but soon became known by Sari’s nickname, Zsa Zsa. Gabor’s mother had never fulfilled her ambitions to be an actress and was determined that her daughters would become stars. Life in the Gabor household was one of wealth and privilege and, at 13, Gabor was dispatched to Madame Subilia’s School for young ladies in Lausanne, Switzerland.
She was given her first diamond ring by her father, who told her never to accept anything smaller.
By her late teens, Gabor had grown into an undisputed beauty; her delicate features, blonde hair and curvaceous figure drew constant admiration. At 19, she received her big break. While in the audience at a concert with her mother one evening she was spotted by the famous tenor Richard Tauber, who was so overcome by the teenager’s beauty he offered her the lead in his operetta. The Singing Dream, in Vienna, Austria. In rehearsals however, the show’s producer was appalled and begged her: “Look, you can’t sing, you can’t dance, you can’t act – at least keep that pretty face of yours to the audience!” It was advice she never forgot.
The Viennese newspapers raved about the young unknown’s beauty and, flushed with her success, Gabor avoided a return to finishing school by marrying a dull but respectable Turkish diplomat named Burhan Belge, whom she met at a party. The couple lived in the Turkish capital, Ankara, where Gabor was feted at embassy parties and, in the first of many extramarital affairs, soon embarked on a passionate tryst with Turkish president Kemal Ataturk, then in his 50s.
Three years later and after telling Belge she was going back to Budapest to visit her family, she slipped out of the country to join her recently emigrated sister, in the US. In 1941 Gabor arrived on Los Angeles and moved in with Eva, who had by then fulfilled their mother’s dream and was an upcoming starlet with several movie roles.
With her blonde hair and sex-siren figure, the middle Gabor sister soon became a permanent fixture at Hollywood parties, and it was at one of these regular soirees that she was introduced to 61-year-old Conrad Hilton. After divorcing Belge (and claiming the pair never consummated their marriage), Gabor married Hilton in 1942, but the hotelier was so shocked by his new wife’s profligate spending, he banned her form using his credit card and kept her on a strict $250 a month allowance.
Five years later they divorced, but not before a depressed Gabor had spent seven weeks in a mental institution, conceived a daughter, Francesca, who was born in 1947, and had an affair with her 17-year-old stepson Nicky.
It was husband number three, the debonair Academy Award- winning actor George Sanders, who Gabor credits, indirectly, for her entire career. While Sanders was away in London filming, Gabor was roped in by his brother appear in anew TV pilot, which saw her give “agony aunt” advice in response to viewers’ letters. “In that half hour my career was handed to me on a silver platter,” Gabor once remarked of the show’s influence on her life.
Audiences couldn’t get enough of the shameless Hungarian’s witty repartee, and by the end o the 50s she was in such demand he once quipped that she’d become “Zsa Zsa, incorporated”.
Inundated with television and film work, not to mention nightclub engagements and lucrative advertising contracts, Gabor’s popularity saw her raking in a generous income. However, she spent her money as fast as she earned it, filling the closet of her home with designer gowns and furs, once trilling, “Elegance and fame are never cheap.”
"Zsa Zsa wants to be remembered in her prime," says her ninth husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt
She collected jewellery as avidly as she did men- often both simultaneously.
“I want a man who is kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?” she once joked. While still with Sanders, she had a longstanding affair with legendary playboy Porfirio Rubirosa who showered her with gifts from Bvlgari and Cartier. The ‘60s brought two more husbands: oil heir Joshua Cosden Jr and arts advisor Herbert Hutner, who proposed with a 23 carat diamond engagement ring.
By the mid ‘70s, gabor had upsized to a palatial new Bel Air home that was originally built by Howard Hughes and once owned by Elvis Presley, and which she decked out in Moulin Rouge style with red carpets and glamorous photos of herself covering the walls. There were also two other homes- a pad in Palm beach and a Californian ranch where she kept her white Arabian horse, Silver Fox.
Gabor lived like a queen and often acted like one too. She once held up an episode of a TV show for 45 minutes after breaking a fingernail, and could be antagonistically magisterial. “She demands to be treated like royalty,” said one Hollywood executive. “Zsa Zsa traumatised me. I escorted her to talk shows, and it was a nightmare. The day she had me up on a ladder fixing the air conditioning duct in her dressing room on The Merv Griffin Show is the day I decided to quit.”
Gabor also believed in her own hype. When she was dismissed as “vain” and “untalented” by the British comic Peter Cook on a US talk show, an outraged Gabor snapped back, “You cannot be very talented yourself otherwise you would recognise talent in others…” before storming out of the studio. Once, after a woman phoned into Larry King Live to declaim Gabor as a publicity-crazed has-been, Gabor screamed into the camera, “You jealous bitch!”
After dispensing with three more husbands – Jack Ryan who designed the Barbie doll; divorce lawyer Michael O’Hara; and Felipe de Alba, a lawyer she wed in “momentary craziness” aboard a yacht before leaving the boat (and the marriage) a day later- Gabor married the dubiously appointed Prince Frederic von Anhalt, on August 14, 1986. So far the longest lasting of her nine husbands, Gabor’s star struck beau allegedly bought, rather than inherited his princely title. But for the newly titled Princess Zsa Zsa it was a dream come true, and she posed regally in sash and tiara for portraits.
Gabor’s manic private life- including the cop slapping incident – ensured her fame never completely died, but, as she reached her 70s her behaviour became increasingly erratic. In 1993 she was sued for libelling Elke Sommer (after calling the German actress “washed up”) and in 2005, she and von Anhalt tried, unsuccessfully to sue Gabor’s daughter, claiming she had forged Gabor’s signature to procure money. Francesca countered that her ailing mother was the victim of “elder abuse” by von Anhalt, and that she had refinanced the house with her mother’s permission in order to protect her asset.
By then, Gabor had retreated from public life. A road accident in November 2002 had left her partially paralysed and ever since a stroke in 2005, she has rarely been seen outside her mansion. “Zsa Zsa wants to be remembered in her prime,” Says von Anhalt, himself an obsessive self- publicist (in 2007 he claimed to have fathered Anna Nicole Smith’s daughter, and also alleged he’d been tied naked to the steering wheel of his Rolls Royce by lesbian robbers).
“She wants people to remember her [as] she was years ago,” asserts von Anhalt, who reportedly feeds his wife caviar and buys her gossip magazines.
“She doesn’t want people to see her in a wheel chair. She doesn’t ever want to look at herself in a photo being pushed around,” he recently explained, before ending on a flourish. “She is Zsa Zsa Gabor for goodness sake!”