Zsa Zsa Gabor may have been more famous later in life for slapping a Beverly Hills policeman, but she was one of the first celebrities mostly famous for being famous setting the charge for today’s reality stars. She was also the great great aunt of Paris Hilton.
Zsa Zsa Gabor, the jet-setting Hungarian actress and socialite who helped invent a new kind of fame out of multiple marriages, conspicuous wealth and jaded wisdom about the glamorous life, died Sunday at her home, her husband said. She was 99.
The middle and most famous of the sisters Gabor died of a heart attack at her Los Angeles home, Frederic von Anhalt said.
Gabor had been hospitalized repeatedly since she broke her right hip in July 2010 after a fall at her home. She already had to use a wheelchair after being partly paralyzed in a 2002 car accident and suffering a stroke in 2005. Most of her right leg was amputated in January 2011 because of gangrene, and the left leg was also threatened. Her misfortunes were duly reported to the media by von Anhalt.
The great-aunt of Paris Hilton and a spiritual matriarch to the Kardashians, Simpsons and other tabloid favorites, she was the original hall-of-mirrors celebrity, famous for being famous for being famous. Starting in the 1940s, Gabor rose from beauty queen to millionaire’s wife to minor television personality to minor film actress to major public character. With no special talent, no hit TV series such as her sister Eva’s “Green Acres,” Zsa Zsa nevertheless was a long-running hit just being Zsa Zsa – her accent drenched in diamonds, her name synonymous with frivolity and camp as she winked and carried on about men, dahling, and the droll burdens of the idle rich.
She was like popcorn for the public and, for sociologists, the seeming fulfillment of the mindless future imagined in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” a creation made possible by mass, electronic media; her words and image transcribed and beamed into theaters and living rooms, on the Internet and the shelves of newsstands and supermarket checkout lines.
Her secret, in part, was being in on the joke, once saying about a 1956 TV role, “I play a fabulously rich woman who has just bought her fifth husband; she is very unhappy. I won’t tell you who it’s supposed to be.” Ever game for a laugh, Gabor spoofed her image in a videotaped segment on David Letterman’s “Late Show,” which had the two stars driving from one fast-food restaurant to another, sipping sodas and digging into burgers like they were slabs of wedding cake.
Amid all the trivia, she had a peripheral part in two big scandals of the early 21st century: the death of Anna Nicole Smith (von Anhalt claimed to have had an affair with her) and the alleged financial scam of Bernard Madoff (a lawyer said she might have lost $10 million through him). And she was in the spotlight for a dustup from the late 20th century: “The slap heard ’round the world.”
In June 1989, Gabor smacked Paul Kramer, a police officer, on a Beverly Hills street, after he pulled over her Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible for a traffic violation. She was convicted of misdemeanor battery on a police officer, driving without a driver’s license and having an open container of alcohol in the car. She served three days in jail, performed community service at a woman’s shelter and paid $13,000 in fines and restitution.
When she was freed, she told reporters the jailers were kind but “at first I was petrified. They even took my makeup away.”
Gabor kept up the act in the advice book “How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man,” and in the exercise video, “It’s Simple Darling,” in which she banters and stretches with a pair of muscular young trainers. Her memoir, “One Life Is Not Enough,” came out in 1991 and dished about everything from her virginity (gone at 15) to the endless men who came on to her (She would claim that William Paley of CBS promised Gabor her own show if only she would spend an afternoon with him.)
Gabor had one child, Francesca Hilton, from her marriage to hotelier Conrad Hilton. (She would allege the child was conceived after Hilton raped her.) In later years, Gabor, von Anhalt and Francesca battled in court over family finances. Francesca Hilton died of an apparent stroke in 2015.
You didn’t have to know exactly who she was to appreciate Zsa Zsa Gabor.
She belonged to a rare, hard-to-catalog vintage of celebrity, not only the great-aunt of Paris Hilton, but a true ancestor of Hilton’s jet-set flamboyance.
For such a flashy member of the leisure class, she did plenty, appearing in a number of films, including Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”; logging enough husbands to field a baseball team; and flaunting sex appeal, excess glamour and an exotic accent into her senior years.
But none of this fully accounts for the enduring recognition she enjoyed and cultivated. Maybe she just knew how to work it. Maybe it happened above and beyond her control. It certainly helped that she was in on the joke.
She was a symbol, from the 1950s on, of European style and flair, of material and romantic extravagance. She was rich in more ways than one. She was playful and outspoken. She was blessed with a ritzy, come-hither name: Zsaahhhh Zsaahhhh!
Some of the heavy lifting that helped sustain the Gabor brand was courtesy of Zsa Zsa’s lookalike sister Eva, who shared the Gabor pizazz. Eva’s star turn in the 1960s as a sitcom socialite on “Green Acres” has guaranteed her immortality in the pop-culture pantheon – and, by association, given Zsa Zsa status beyond her own accomplishments.
But Zsa Zsa could be funny, too.
In a TV commercial from 1963, a begowned, bejeweled Gabor extols the virtues of the Studebaker Lark, kittenishly calling this mid level compact “so nice, so chic.”
The car featured newfangled disc brakes, and in her fractured English, Gabor purrs to the audience, “My friend says I would be in jail from coast to coast if I wouldn’t have them.”
In 1989, she hit the brakes and had a celebrated brush with the law while driving not a Lark, but her own Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible. She slapped the face of a Beverly Hills police officer who had the effrontery to stop her for a traffic violation. The officer was rude; she testified at the trial where she was subsequently found guilty of assault.
Her arrest became just another sparkling career move. She spoofed the incident in “Naked Gun 2 1-2” and various other cameo appearances.
Dahling, the Zsa Zsa legend cannot die, even in a culture with short memories where attention seekers jostle for camera time. She lives on, unchallenged, in the cultural ether. Meanwhile, it’s not hard to imagine her in heaven right now, tricked out with wings and a Blackglama mink, advising St. Peter that the Pearly Gates clash with her diamonds.
Some of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Most Memorable Quotes:
Quotations from Zsa Zsa Gabor’s 1991 book “One Lifetime Is Not Enough.”
On life in Budapest: “The family led a life filled with grace and charm. There were vacations at our house on the shores of Lake Balaton, excursions in our Mercedes, parties glittering with beautiful women and dashing men, waltzing together under the flickering light of our crystal chandeliers.”
“As a teenager, I preferred the company of boys to girls, focusing always on the most indifferent male and flirting with him until he became my slave.”
On living in America: “It seemed to me that although I was still so young, I had already lived many lifetimes. Now I was in America, becoming American; dyeing my blond hair a rich American red; learning to drive a compact American car, and discovering that American men with money seemed to think that every girl in the world belonged to them.”
On marrying Conrad Hilton: “Conrad’s decision to change my name from Zsa Zsa to Georgia symbolized everything my marriage to him would eventually become. My Hungarian roots were to be
ripped out and my background ignored. … I soon discovered that my marriage to Conrad meant the end of my freedom. My own needs were completely ignored: I belonged to Conrad.”
On her first television appearance: “I couldn’t even go out on the streets of Los Angeles without being mobbed by crowds of fans. It had all happened so quickly – as everything in my life seems to happen.”
On her three-year marriage to businessman Herbert Hutner: “Herbert took away my will to work. With his kindness and generosity, he almost annihilated my drive. I have always been the kind of
woman who could never be satisfied by money – only excitement and achievement.”
“All in all – I love being married. I love the companionship; I love cooking for a man (simple things like chicken soup and my special Dracula’s goulash from Hungary), and spending all my time with a man. Of course, I love being in love – but it is marriage that really fulfills me. But not in every case.”
“I never really mind what people say about me – I am far too unconventional and far too dedicated to being true to myself to let other people’s disdain or nastiness upset me for long.”
On surviving: “All my life, I have been a positive thinker…I have always been able to survive by telling myself that no matter how bad things are, they will one day be better. And that out of every event – no matter how tragic – one can always find a way to survive and even, perhaps, to be a little bit happy.”
Movies Zsa Zsa Gabor Appeared In:
“Lovely to Look At,” 1952.
“Moulin Rouge,” 1952.
“The Story of Three Loves,” 1953.
“Three Ring Circus,” 1954.
“Death of a Scoundrel,” 1956.
“The Girl in the Kremlin,” 1957.
“Touch of Evil,” 1958.
“Queen of Outer Space,” 1958.
“Boys’ Night Out,” 1962.
“Picture Mommy Dead,” 1966.
“Arrivederci Baby,” 1966.
“Jack of Diamonds,” 1967.
“A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors,” 1987.