The job description on Gabor’s passport probably said “Actress.” But she was renowned for so much more
In her most famous movie, John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge, Zsa Zsa Gabor plays Jean Avril, a chanteuse who enjoys the favors of many men and the habit of lying about her age. “I have been 25 for four years,” she smilingly confides to her friend Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer), “and I shall stay there another four. Then I’ll be 27 for a while. I intend to grow old gracefully.” Gabor was 35 at the time, and for the better part of the next six decades she either grew old gracefully or simply ignored the process of degeneration, preserved in the aspic of chic middle age. She was well into her sunset years when a member of Phil Donahue’s TV audience asked how old she was, and Zsa Zsa snapped, “A woman who tells her age tells everything, and I won’t tell it.
Now that this Hungarian glamour girl has finally passed on, after 99 years, we can say it without assaulting a lady’s sensibilities. Zsa Zsa Gabor died Sunday, according to her publicist Edward Lozzi.
The job description on Gabor’s passport probably said “Actress.” But she was renowned for so much more: the ash-blond hair, the furs and the jewelry, the artfully maintained Hungarian accent, the slyly obvious double entendres, the eight or nine husbands (one marriage was annulled), the three days she served in jail in 1989 after slapping a Beverly Hills cop. Primarily, and almost first in her class, she was famous for being famous—the living embodiment and droll parody of American celebrity. How appropriate, then, that Gabor, through her marriage to hotelier Conrad Hilton, should be the ex-step-great-grandmother of madcap heiress Paris Hilton, a more recent example of the species.
She appeared fitfully in movies, and perennially on American television: one way or another, she spanned virtually the entire history of the medium, from a guest spot with Milton Berle in 1950, through countless talk shows and game shows, to recent Entertainment Tonight reports on her failing health. If she had a vocation, it was raconteuse: the guest on the late-night TV couch who spouted pithy wit, almost always about her very public private life. “I know nothing about sex, because I was always married,” she‚d say; or “Husbands are like fires: they go out when unattended”; or “It’s never as easy to keep your own spouse happy as it is to make someone else’s spouse happy.”
Gabor’s nearly 80 years in the public eye—she was named Miss Hungary of 1936—were less essential than ornamental, and her one significant statuette was a 1958 Golden Globe for Most Glamorous Actress. But why bother being an actress when she could be the Zsa Zsa Gabor?
That couldn’t have been as easy as she made it look. Any old Oscar-winning actress can retreat into her roles; Zsa Zsa lived hers—a full-time job. In the Zsa Zsa Gabor business, she was the creator, the product and the savvy marketer. On the other hand, she needn’t wait for suitable roles; she was this ever-available fiction she called herself. So she’d show up as the mystery guest on What’s My Line in the ’50s (where she had to answer questions in a Frenchy chirp because her voice was one of the world’s most recognizable), or in the ’70s on Laugh-In (“I always said that marriage should be 50-50 proposition — he should be at least 50 years old and have at least 50 million dollars”) or in the ’90s in the movie The Naked Gun 2-1/2, where she swats a police car’s flashing red beacon and stalks away, sputtering, “Ach! This happens every f—ing time when I go shopping.” Zsa Zsa Gabor: it was the punch line to the genial joke she made of her life.
Becoming Zsa Zsa
That life began on Feb. 6, 1917, in Budapest. Her mother Jolie, born Jancsi Tilleman to Jewish parents, had married Vilmos Gabor, a soldier. From this union came three daughters. Magdolna, or Magda, the Zeppo of the group, was first; her movie career seems to comprise exactly one Hungarian film in 1937. Sari—Zsa Zsa—was next, then baby sister Eva, who would eventually be the busiest Gabor actress: for six years she starred in the sitcom Green Acres. Eventually, Jolie was married three times, Eva five and Magda six (including to one of Zsa Zsa’s exes, actor George Sanders). The three women would die within two years of one another in 1995 and 1997. Eva was 76, Magda 78 and Jolie 100.
Discovered by Austrian tenor Richard Tauber, Zsa Zsa took a soubrette role in the operetta The Singing Dream before coming to the U.S. in the 1940s. With little acting experience but carloads of continental élan, she snagged frequent supporting roles in Hollywood movies. Many of them seemed the slightest creative variations on the lady known as Zsa.
The legend is fully formed in Gabor’s first scene in the 1952 comedy We’re Not Married!, which she made just before Moulin Rouge. Playing the pampered wife of oil tycoon Louis Calhern, she’s discovered sitting up in bed, extravagantly coiffed and dolled up in a frilly negligee and teardrop pearl earrings, with a breakfast tray on her lap and a French poodle at her side, munching on the toast and marmalade she’s fed it. Through an elaborate ruse, she frames her faithful husband on an adultery rap to get a divorce and relieve him of his cash, his stocks and his home. (“I am a marvelous housekeeper,” Zsa Zsa later famously said. “Every time I leave a man I keep his house.”) Calhern obediently agrees, until he gets a notice declaring that their marriage was invalid. He lets her read the letter and she, realizing her scheme has backfired, drops to the floor in a faint. The 18-minute skit could be a comic summary of her many marriages, and an inspiration for another of Zsa Zsa aphorism: “You never really know a man until you have divorced him.”
She had just a bit more screen time in Moulin Rouge, carelessly lip-synching to Georges Auric’s song “It’s April Again” (later Americanized into the hit single “Where Is Your Heart”) and looking nearly as fabulous as she thinks she does. Already she had her own couturier; the opening credits proclaim “Miss Gabor’s Costumes Designed and Executed by Schiaparelli.” And already Zsa Zsa’s dialogue sounds tailored for her, as if knowing that her many marriages (she was on her third at the time, to Sanders) will become a source of popular merriment. “What is wrong with me, Henri?” she poutingly asks Lautrec. “Other women find love and happiness. I find only disenchantment.” And the painter replies: “But you find it so often.”
In her next film, the musical drama Lili, Gabor was again the courtesan type who’s dismissive of her more ethereal rival (here, Leslie Caron). After that, her movie appearances became more furtive: bits in the Clyde Beatty Three Ring Circus, Sanders‚ Death of a Scoundrel and Orson Welles‚ Touch of Evil. Even in the ’50s now she was illustrious enough to play characters based on herself. She’d drop in, impart some womanly wisdom and split. In the 1962 comedy Boys’ Night Out, where her character is identified only as Boss‚ Girl Friend, she says, “Dahling, a girl can’t make a success on instincts alone.” Gabor had the instincts for show business but not the technique for genuine movie acting. Most of her performances were basically posing; every film was a photo shoot.
The picture she’ll be remembered for, pity, is the 1958 Queen from Outer Space, a low-budget fantasy without the naïve energy or idiot inspiration to be a camp classic. When American astronauts make the first trip to Venus, they discover a planet populated entirely by fabulous babes—an extraterrestrial Playboy Club. Zsa Zsa is not even the planet’s evil queen here (that’s Laurie Mitchell); she is Talleah, the handmaiden who helps the Earth dudes get back home. Coddled by the film’s costume designer, with a new cocktail dress or evening gown for every scene, Zsa Zsa was tortured by screenwriter Charles Beaumont, who handed her many lines that tested her Lady Dracula pronunciation: “Ve have no life here vithout love” and “It vas a terrible var. Ve fought vis veapons of great power.” Masochists can find the whole movie on YouTube.