There have been very few persons who have been instantly recognizable by just their first name. Zsa Zsa Gabor was one of those few. Before Paris Hilton (her grand-niece), before the Kardashians, before any of the many other celebrity wannabes who are famous just for being famous, there was Zsa Zsa. Her modest talent as an actress was far exceeded by her celebrity, her flamboyant and extravagant lifestyle, her outsize personality and, yes, her many marriages and extra-marital affairs. She was the original; she patented the concept. And, she managed to accomplish it before the age of the internet, twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Sari Gabor was born on February 6, 1917 in Budapest, Hungary, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Both of her parents were of Jewish ancestry. “Zsa Zsa,” a name of old Hungarian and Hebrew origin meaning “lily: God is my oath,” was likely a pet nickname bestowed upon her by her family, and it “stuck.” Most would agree that the unusual and glamorous moniker fit her perfectly.
She was first cousin, by marriage to California Congressman Tom Lantos. She was the middle of three sisters. Eva and Magda later became lesser-known celebrities in their own right. Even though Eva had the more successful acting career (for example, a role in the hit tv show, Green Acres,) Zsa Zsa’s fame and celebrity far out-shown hers.
Zsa Zsa was discovered in 1934 by operatic tenor Richard Tauber, and she made her debut in his operetta, The Singing Dream. In 1936 she entered the contest for Miss Hungary, and (no surprise) she won. Shortly thereafter, she and her family emigrated (or, maybe, fled) to the US ahead of the Nazis’ occupation during WWII.
Zsa Zsa’s acting career can probably be best described as pedestrian. Her looks and glamor yielded her many forgettable roles in many forgettable films over some 40 years, but unless one is a film buff specializing in old films, the only one you likely have heard of is Moulin Rouge (1952). John Huston, who directed her in that film, described her, perhaps, somewhat charitably, as a “credible” actress.
She was, however, in great demand on tv, either as a talk show or variety show guest, appearing frequently with luminaries such as Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Milton Berle, and Howard Stern. She would appear “dressed to the nines,” in a tight, revealing dress “drenched” in jewelry, wink to the camera and carry on in her self-deprecating manner with her Hungarian accent, calling everyone “dahling.” Fans ate it up! In addition, she was a popular foil on some of the Dean Martin Roasts and on game shows, such as Hollywood Squares. People would tune in to watch her and anticipate that she would say or do something outrageous.
Somehow, she found the time to write books. She gave sage love advice in “How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man.” Also, she penned a salacious tell-all book about her life story entitled “One Life Is Not Enough.”
She was married nine times, most famously to Conrad Hilton. One was annulled, and seven ended in divorce. Those many marriages only produced one child, Francesca Hilton, whom Zsa Zsa claimed was conceived as the result of Conrad’s raping her. Describing her marital experiences, she once quipped: “I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.” Once, when asked “how many husbands have you had,” she retorted “you mean other than my own?”
In her later years, Zsa Zsa experienced some controversy and ill health. In 1989 she was incarcerated for slapping a police officer during a routine traffic stop, aka “the slap heard ’round the world.” She served three days in jail and paid a fine. She is reputed to have been victimized by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme to the tune of $10 million. In 2002 she was seriously injured in a car accident and became bound to a wheelchair. She suffered two strokes in 2005 and 2007, and in 2010 she had a hip replacement to repair a fractured hip. Again, in 2010 she was seriously ill enough to be given last rites. In 2011 her right leg was amputated to save her life from a serious infection. Finally, she had been on life support for the last five years. So, although Zsa Zsa lived to the ripe old age of 99, she had a diminished quality of life for the last 14 years.
The genius of Zsa Zsa was that she got the joke and embraced it. She knew she had limited talent. What she did have were her looks, her figure, her glamor, and her flamboyance, and she played them for all they were worth. Like I said, she became famous for being famous. I don’t mean that as a “knock,” rather, a knack.