20 December 2016

Zsa Zsa Gabor (1917-2016)

Last Sunday, Hungarian-born actress Zsa Zsa Gabor died of heart failure, aged 99. She sparkled brightly for over 60 years as a symbol of continental glamour and mystery. Her main period in the cinema was in the 1950s, with as a highlight Moulin Rouge (1952), but Gabor was better known for her nine marriages and countless personal appearances on talk shows and in gossip magazines.

Zsa Zsa Gabor in 3 Ring Circus (1954)
Vintage postcard, no. 2054. Photo: publicity still for 3 Ring Circus (Joseph Pevney, 1954).

Queen of Outer Space

Zsa Zsa Gabor was born Sári Gábor in 1917, in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Hungary). Her parents were Jolie Gabor (née Janszieka Tilleman, Countess de Szigethy) and Major Vilmos Gabor (a Hungarian officer, born Farkas Miklós Grün), both from Jewish families. They named her after Sári Fedák, who was at the time Hungary's most celebrated actress. Her siblings were socialite Magda Gabor and actress Eva Gabor.

Her mother was wealthy. Zsa Zsa studied at a Swiss boarding school in the 1930s. She was discovered by famous operatic Richard Tauber on a trip to Vienna in 1934. He invited her to sing the soubrette role in his new operetta, Der singende Traum (The Singing Dream), at the Theater an der Wien. After spending three months at the Vienna Acting Academy, Gabor made her stage debut.

In this period she was crowned Miss Hungary in 1936, according to Wikipedia. But this is an error. Marlene Pilaete of La Collectionneuse mails me: "Zsa Zsa Gabor took part in the Miss Hungary contest in 1933, not in 1936. The event took place in January 1933 and she finished second. Later, in her 1960 book My Story, she claimed that the jury had first chosen her as Miss Hungary but had demoted her to the second place when they learned that she was not yet sixteen years old. Personally, I’m cautious about her explanation and I’m wondering if Zsa Zsa, being upset about finishing at the second place, has not altered the truth a little bit. Let’s just stick to the facts: Zsa Zsa was placed second at the 1933 Miss Hungary contest, whatever the reason."

In 1937, she married her first husband, 35-year-old Turkish government official Burhan Asaf Belge. Eventually she followed her sister Eva to the USA. Zsa Zsa arrived in Hollywood in 1941 with a letter of introduction to Basil and Ouida Rathbone, who granted her admittance into the upper echelons of Hollywood society. In 1944, her mother escaped from Nazi-occupied Budapest, also settling in the USA. One evening at the nightclub Ciro’s, Zsa Zsa met Conrad Hilton and soon the radiant, beautiful blonde married the hotel magnate.

In the early 1950s, Zsa Zsa began to appear on television series. Her first film was at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the musical Lovely to Look At (Mervyn LeRoy, 1952), co-starring Kathryn Grayson and Red Skelton. She next played a supporting role in the comedy We're Not Married! (Edmund Goulding, 1952) at 20th Century Fox, with Ginger Rogers.

Her break into movies big time occurred next with her starring role as French can-can dancer Jane Avril in Moulin Rouge (John Huston, 1952), the fictional account of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (José Ferrer). In the following years, Zsa Zsa slipped back into supporting roles in films such as Lili (Charles Walters, 1953) and 3 Ring Circus (Joseph Pevney, 1954).

She also appeared in European films like the French comedy L'ennemi public n° 1/The Most Wanted Man (Henri Verneuil, 1953) opposite Fernandel. Her main period of film work was in the 1950s, with supporting roles in Death of a Scoundrel (Charles Martin, 1956) with third husband George Sanders and Yvonne De Carlo, the British crime drama The Man Who Wouldn't Talk (Herbert Wilcox, 1958) with Anna Neagle, and as a strip club owner in Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958). One of her few leading roles was in as the glamorous Venusian scientist Talleah in the cult camp classic Queen of Outer Space (Edward Bernds, 1958).

Zsa Zsa Gabor
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 28C, 1954. Photo: Paramount.

Zsa Zsa Gabor
Italian postcard by Casa Editr. Ballerini & Fratini, Firenze (B.F.F. Edit), no. 3123. Photo: Paramount.

Catty comments and juicy stories

By the 1960s, Zsa Zsa Gabor was appearing more as herself in Hollywood movies. She appeared to follow her own persona around, and cameo appearances were the order of the day in films such as Pepe (George Sidney, 1960) and Jack of Diamonds (Don Taylor, 1967). More interesting work she found on TV and in European productions like La contessa azzurra/The blue countess (Claudio Gora, 1960) with Amedeo Nazzari.

On TV she had two guest shots on Batman (1966-1968) as gold-digger Minerva, a villainess who stole people's minds with the help of her mineral spa. However, she shone brightest on talk shows or within tabloid gossip pages where she delivered catty comments and juicy stories about her many marriages and romances with famous figures such as Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Frank Sinatra and even Henry Kissinger.

This continued throughout the following decades. She was very memorable as herself in The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (David Zucker, 1991), in which she humorously pokes fun at an incident two years before. On 14 June 1989, she was convicted of slapping a police officer, Paul Kramer, during a traffic dispute, when she did not know her license tag was expired. She spent three days in jail and later had to do 120 hours of community services.

Such infamous incidents contributed to her becoming one of the most all-time recognisable of Hollywood celebrities in recent years, and sometimes ridiculed as a result. She was also memorable to British television viewers on The Ruby Wax Show (1997). In 2002, Gabor was reported to be in a coma in a Los Angeles hospital after a horrifying car accident. The 85-year-old star was injured when the car she was travelling in hit a utility pole in West Hollywood, California. The reports about her coma, eventually proved to be inaccurate.

Gabor had a daughter Francesca Hilton (1947-2015) with her second husband, hotel magnate Conrad Hilton. Since 1986, she is married to Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt. This ninth marriage awarded her the title Princess Von Anhalt, Duchess of Saxony. The legitimacy of this title is strongly questioned by many royal genealogists. Gabor also had a long-running feud with German-born actress Elke Sommer that began in 1984 when both appeared on Circus of the Stars and escalated into a multi-million dollar libel suit by 1993 when Gabor and her husband made disparaging remarks about the actress to several German publications. The jury ruled in favour of Sommer and the Anhalts were sentenced to pay $2 million. Zsa Zsa Gabor died on Sunday 18 December 2016 in Los Angeles. She was 99. Farewell, dahlink!

Zsa Zsa Gabor
Italian postcard by Rotalfoto, Milano, no. 274.

Zsa Zsa Gabor
Modern postcard by Moviestar. Photo: Gérard Décaux, Paris / Ufa.

Zsa Zsa Gabor’s nine marriages

Burhan Asaf Belge (1937–1941; divorced), a diplomat and important figure in the development of 20th-century Turkey.
Conrad Hilton (1942–1947; divorced), Hilton Hotel founder, whose son Nicky later married Elizabeth Taylor.
George Sanders (1949–1954; divorced), character actor, who later married Zsa Zsa’s sister Magda, just to spite his ex-wife (this marriage ended after six weeks).
Herbert Hutner (1962–1966; divorced), chairman of the board at Struthers Wells Corporation, New York City.
Joshua S. Cosden, Jr. (1966-1967; divorced), Texas oil tycoon.
Jack Ryan (1975-1976; divorced), millionaire inventor, credited with developing the Barbie Doll for Mattel, and the Sparrow III missile.
Michael O'Hara (1976–1983; divorced), her lawyer in her divorce from Jack Ryan.
Felipe de Alba (13 April 1983 – 14 April 1983; annulled), Mexican realtor and playboy, who allegedly stayed married to Gabor for all of one day.
Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt (1986 – present), German prince, who received his title from an adult adoption by Princess Marie-Auguste of Anhalt.
Zsa Zsa and her famous sisters have racked up a total of 18 divorces.

Trailer Moulin Rouge (1952). Source: -XYZT (YouTube).

Trailer Queen of Outer Space (1958). Source: captainbijou.com (YouTube).

Sources: Robert McFadden (The New York Times), Bobby Jarvis (IMDb), Marlene Pilaete (La Collectionneuse), TCM, Biography.com, Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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