Zsa-Zsa Gabor: Hollywood Legend dies at 99

James Oliver

The glamorous Hollywood icon has died at the age of 99. James Oliver reflects on the life and career of the Hungarian actress with a penchant for marrying millionaires—nine of them!

This year has had many casualties; we’ve lost some of the most notable and influential people of our age, some of them taken far too soon. It would, however, require a certain ingenuity to include Zsa-Zsa Gabor, whose death has just been announced, amongst them.

For a start, she was 99 (probably), a good innings in anyone’s book. Then there’s the issue of what she actually did. Now, notionally, she was an actress but not one of any great renown: it says something that her best-remembered on-screen role was as guest-villainess in an episode of Batman (Bat-fans will remember her as ‘Minerva’, who robbed the wealthy of first their secrets, then their jewels).



“I am a marvellous housekeeper,” she said. “Every time I leave a man I keep his house”



Off-screen was another matter. She was often dismissed as a ‘celebrity’, which is a little unfair: she raised celebrity to an art-form.

He life was documented in gossip columns (nine weddings, eight decrees absolute and innumerable dalliances) and on chat shows, presenting herself as almost operatically flamboyant: everyone was called “DAAAAAH-ling” in richly accented English. Even instinctive puritans couldn’t help but warm to her.

"I call everybody darling because I can't remember their names"

She was born in Budapest, although no one is exactly sure when: 1917 seems most likely but she was always determined to maintain her mystique. Her mother was Hungary’s premier socialite of the day, her father a jewellery dealer, a career that no doubt encouraged his daughter’s later interest in diamonds.

No, Zsa-Zsa wasn’t her real name: that was Sári, a name she deemed unsuitable for a life in the public eye. That career would begin—at least according to her—when she was discovered in Vienna by Opera singer/ composer Richard Tauber, who recruited her for a show.



“She raised celebrity to an art-form”



On a less elevated level, she was pronounced Miss Hungary in 1936. This would have led her to become an actress—she caught the eye of Anglo-Hungarian mogul Alexander Korda—but her family objected and so she married for the first time, a Turkish diplomat.

But she was not ready for domestication yet. They soon divorced and in 1942, she arrived in America (her family would later join her, via Portugal; as prominent Hungarian Jews they fled their homeland when the Nazis blitzed in).

Here, our heroine married for the second time, to hotel magnate Conrad Hilton. It produced her only child, a daughter called Constance, but it was not a happy marriage and divorce again followed.

She was not, though, destined to be single for long. In 1949, she married Hollywood actor George Sanders. The marriage lasted only five years (and their relationship was over before then) but it had upped her profile and now Hollywood were taking an interest.

She made a strong start—John Huston picked her to be the leading lady of his film Moulin Rouge, and she acquitted herself well. She followed it with substantial roles in The Story of Three Loves and Lili, but this would be the height of her acting career.

A notable cameo in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil aside, most of her films were unmemorable and she was relegated largely to television although, curiously, she did later appear in a film with Frankie Howerd, playing Mata Hari in Up the Front.

Instead, she carved out a new role as ‘Zsa-Zsa Gabor’, making herself as ubiquitous as possible. Even her difficulties were turned into opportunities: she was convicted in 1989 for slapping a police officer and happily replayed it for the opening credits of Naked Gun 2½.


“She always had an honesty that made her tremendously appealing”


And even though her private life was something of a mess—space forbids listing the full details of her various marriages—she dealt with it with a genuine wit: “I am a marvellous housekeeper,” she said. “Every time I leave a man I keep his house”.

She was, then, a forerunner of to-day’s ubiquitous celebrities, unapologetically interested in fame for its own sake. But she led an interesting life away from the flash-bulbs: during her life she was involved, variously, with H.G. Wells, Kamal Ataturk, George Bernard Shaw and General Trujillo. And she always had an honesty that made her tremendously appealing: she refused to apologise for who she was, even if she offended the prudes of Middle America.

R.I.P. Zsa-Zsa—the world is already a more boring place without you.