Life

Monday 19 August 2019

Zsa Zsa Gabor - Hungarian actress

Much-married Hungarian-born actress who dominated the headlines with her ready wit and eccentric public persona

High fliery: Actor George Sanders kisses his wife Zsa Zsa Gabor on her arrival at the Rome Ciampino Airport in 1953
High fliery: Actor George Sanders kisses his wife Zsa Zsa Gabor on her arrival at the Rome Ciampino Airport in 1953

Zsa Zsa GABOR, who died last Sunday aged 99, was usually described as an actress but was probably better known for her serial marriages, her preposterous Hungarian accent and her eccentric, even outrageous, behaviour.

For more than 60 years Zsa Zsa Gabor made a career of being herself, anticipating a path followed by many of today's "celebrities". With the help of her mother Jolie, and sisters Eva and Magda, she developed an ability to dominate the headlines, first in her native Hungary as a champion ping-pong player and beauty queen, and later in the United States as an actress and much-married society hostess. On the whole, her public persona was richly comic, and she probably gave her public much innocent amusement.

Her many marriages led her to view herself as something of an expert on the subject. Among the bon mots attributed to her were: "I am a marvellous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man I keep his house,"; "A girl must marry for love, and keep on marrying until she finds it,"; and "Husbands are like fires - they go out when unattended."

Zsa Zsa Gabor was as renowned for her violent temper as she was for her fluffy, bejewelled good looks. In 1989 she was jailed after attacking a policeman in Beverly Hills. "She tried to run me over," claimed the arresting officer. "She spat, slapped me and shouted 'You mother******! I'll have your job. I'm bringing the Reagans in on this'."

Originally ordered to see a psychiatrist and perform 100 hours of community service, she was sentenced to jail for failure to attend the community centre. "Well, she did come sometimes," one of the community workers admitted, "but she insisted that the drive to and from the centre counted as her sentence. She thought the biggest service she could do for the women at the centre was to teach them how to apply make-up."

After repeatedly failing to attend, she served 72 hours in the Beverly Hills jail, paying a supplement for a private room.

On an earlier occasion, in Spain, she had been charged with fraud, resisting arrest and using profane language after leaving a hotel without paying her bill. She was apprehended at the airport, where the Guardia Civil found in her luggage a number of stolen haute couture gowns, hotel towels and a Yorkshire terrier.

There were other incidents which reinforced her aura of eccentricity. On several occasions she was seen dressed in full hunting gear, riding her horse up and down Kensington High Street in London. She also suffered repeated memory lapses concerning her date of birth, eventually producing a forged birth certificate which claimed that she had been born in 1928. If correct, this would have made her 10 on the occasion of her first marriage.

Sari Gabor, the middle daughter of Jolie and Vilmos Gabor, was born in Budapest, but on which date is unclear. Some sources suggest it was February 6, 1919, but the year may well have been 1917. Her father, a retired cavalry major and owner of a jewellery business, was described by his daughter as "an exacting man". "He used to fire the groom if the horse's tail was not combed straight," she recalled. Zsa Zsa's mother, unhappily married and a frustrated actress, was determined that her daughters would succeed where she had failed.

When Zsa Zsa was 16 her mother lied about her daughter's age and entered her in the Miss Hungary beauty contest. Although both mother and daughter later claimed that Zsa Zsa won, she was disqualified as a late entrant, and Jolie was accused by the local press of having tried to bribe the judges.

Undeterred by the accusations, and convinced that the judges had shown a lack of discernment, Jolie pushed her plump daughter (dressed as a soldier) into a talent contest. Zsa Zsa came 12th out of 13 entrants. Jolie then dressed her as Cinderella and, uninvited, attended the ball held in honour of the winner. Jolie ordered Zsa Zsa to stand on one of the tables and sing during the prize-giving.

Richard Tauber, the opera singer, was among the guests. Impressed by Zsa Zsa's blonde good looks, he offered her a role in his new operetta, The Singing Dream. She was fired after two weeks for tripping on her entrance, and was reinstated only after her mother had bribed the producers. But during the three-month run of the operetta, Zsa Zsa Gabor became something of a celebrity, and made her screen debut in 1938 in an advertisement for apples.

Later that year, after The Singing Dream had ended, Zsa Zsa's father was determined to send her to a Swiss finishing school; but his daughter, unwilling to resume her studies, took the drastic step of eloping with a Turkish diplomat, Burhan Belge, and joining his harem in Ankara.

Although Zsa Zsa remained married to the 42-year-old Turk for more than two years, she maintained that the union was never consummated. "When he came to my bed," she remembered, "I always snatched up my little Scottie dog to kiss it. I knew a Muslim would never lie where a dog had been."

In 1941, at the end of a claimed affair with the ageing Ataturk, and under the pretext of attending her sister's wedding, she left Turkey. She embarked for America, taking with her a considerable number of gems from her husband's house in Ankara, as well as his diplomatic passport.

After living in New York for several weeks, Zsa Zsa Gabor met the hotel tycoon Conrad Hilton, with whom she fell in love at first sight. Despite the disparity in their ages (Hilton was 54, she was probably 18) she proposed on their first meeting, and they married three months later.

After only a year, however, Zsa Zsa Gabor was accusing her husband of "thinking more of his hotels than he does of his wife". For his part, Hilton was staggered by his wife's spending, and suggested she attempt to confine herself to $250 a month. "I couldn't believe he was serious," Zsa Zsa Gabor later remarked: "$250 was $50 dollars less each month than I was spending as a schoolgirl." In 1946, after five years living separate lives, she divorced him, and the following year gave birth to a daughter, Francesca, who, she insisted, was Hilton's child. During the last year of her marriage, she spent several weeks in a sanatorium recovering from a nervous breakdown. She admitted that she had become addicted to barbiturates and Benzedrine in 1944; by 1945 it had become apparent that she was suffering from paranoia, telling friends that the staff in a hotel had locked her in her room and claiming that people were trying to kill her. On the instructions of her sister, Eva, she was committed, and for six weeks remained in the asylum, where she was placed in a straitjacket and underwent daily shock treatment.

In 1947 Zsa Zsa Gabor met George Sanders at a party and married him the following year. Despite claiming that Sanders was the love of her life, her third marriage was no more successful than its predecessors; she claimed that she had found it hard to come to terms with Sanders's chronic hypochondria and what she described as "his stinginess".

Another problem, apparently, was Sanders's habit of identifying with whichever character he was currently playing on screen. "He thought he was 'The Falcon' at home, very rude," Zsa Zsa Gabor said. "After he was in The Moon and Sixpence he became cruel and selfish." Sanders's repeated recourse to his analyst and to an apartment he kept in Manhattan meant that, after 1952, he and his wife led virtually separate lives.

In 1951, during one of Sanders's many absences, Zsa Zsa Gabor was offered a single appearance as a guest panellist on Bachelor Haven, a television marriage advice programme. Her wit made her an instant success. When the host admired her jewels, she told him: "These are just my working diamonds," when a woman asked her advice on a recently broken engagement - claiming that she had received furs, diamonds, a car and a stove - Zsa Zsa Gabor observed: "Be fair, dahlink. Give back the stove."

After her first hour-long performance, Zsa Zsa Gabor received offers to appear in 10 films and more than 25 television programmes. She started work, without a screen test, on the MGM musical Lovely to Look At, which starred Red Skelton and Howard Keel.

She made one of her more memorable film appearances in 1952, as the femme fatale Jane Avril in Moulin Rouge. When, swathed in satin, she made her first entrance on a staircase the technical crew broke into spontaneous applause. Despite its later success, the film was not a happy experience for Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was continually humiliated on set by director, John Huston.

Sanders compounded his disagreeableness in his wife's eyes by doing a scripted sketch on the Tallulah Bankhead Radio Hour in which he complained at length about his wife's shortcomings. In a characteristic show of spirit, Gabor refused to appear on the show, making history as the first woman to walk out on Tallulah Bankhead. Sanders was so angry that he moved out of the marital home the following day.

Later that year Zsa Zsa Gabor began her much-publicised affair with Porfirio Rubirosa, the former son-in-law of Dominica's dictator, General Trujillo.

Their affair ended in 1954, after she was discovered tete-a-tete with Rubirosa by Sanders and two private detectives. Sanders - who had elected to wear an "elegant cat burglar" ensemble - climbed with one of the detectives up to a second-floor window. But they had underestimated the load-bearing strength of the frame, and both men crashed through the window pane while trying to take photographs, landing on the bed next to the canoodling couple. She divorced Sanders later that year.

During the 1950s Zsa Zsa Gabor remained single and concentrated on her film career. She never actually acted, maintaining that she had been employed to "be Zsa Zsa", but appeared in numerous films, including Lili (1953); 3 Ring Circus (1954); Death of a Scoundrel (1956); Girl in the Kremlin (1957); and Queen of Outer Space (1958).

In 1962 she married for the fourth time, this time the investor Herbert Hutner. They divorced four years later, Zsa Zsa Gabor dismissing her ex-husband as "too slow for me". She then married Joshua Cosden, only to divorce him after 12 months, saying: "He bored me interminably."

By the late 1960s Zsa Zsa Gabor had begun to display increasingly eccentric behaviour. In 1968 she slapped a bellboy at The Ritz in London after an argument over the hotel's towels. Some weeks later she was involved in another argument, this time at the Palacio hotel in Lisbon, where her personal cheque was refused by hotel staff. Reporters started to follow her around Europe and sent regular dispatches about her behaviour.

She moved to a hotel in Mallorca, where she ordered clothing and accessories worth $3,500 and persuaded the hotel to advance her $2,000 to pay the deposit. The following morning she left at dawn with all the clothes she had ordered packed into one small bag, but was apprehended as her aeroplane was on the runway preparing for take-off. She spent 48 hours in jail and insisted that she had been beaten by the Spanish police.

On her return to London Zsa Zsa Gabor spent increasing amounts on shopping expeditions. Her mother recalled: "She bought a house in five minutes and a truckload of antiques, including a mirror costing $22,000." Gabor began to appear regularly in full hunting dress, riding her horse around Harrods.

"She gave away a $1m necklace," Jolie said, "and ordered the entire contents of her Beverly Hills home to be flown to London." In December 1968 Zsa Zsa Gabor booked herself into the Priory clinic in Surrey, where she remained for a month undergoing treatment.

In 1975 she married for the sixth time. This union, which lasted only a year, was with Jack Ryan, the inventor of the Barbie Doll. She then married Michael O'Hara, the lawyer who had handled the divorce; this marriage survived for six years. She later claimed that she had married Felipe de Alba in 1982, although there was considerable controversy over whether the wedding had been legal.

Zsa Zsa Gabor later discovered that Alba had still been married to his previous wife when the ceremony took place. "He was good for nothing," she insisted. "He didn't even make a very good pet."

In 1986 she married for the last time. The optimist was Prince Frederic von Anhalt, a six-times married German policeman's son, formerly known as Bob Lichtenberg. In an unusual ceremony, the couple took their vows in Zsa Zsa Gabor's stable block. Her horse, Silver Fox, was best man. Their marriage lasted longer than any of Zsa Zsa Gabor's previous unions. "I know he is very bad," the actress said of her husband in 2012. "But, dahling, he is very nice to me. My only complaint is that he is a little schtiff."

She published several books, including Zsa Zsa's Complete Guide to Men (1969); How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man (1971); and One Lifetime is Not Enough (1991).

In November 2003 she attempted to sue her hairdresser for $108 million when he crashed her Rolls-Royce while they were on a shopping trip in Beverly Hills. She suffered multiple injuries and remained wheelchair-bound thereafter.

She is survived by Von Anhalt; her daughter, Francesca Hilton, predeceased her.

© Telegraph

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