RIP Zsa Zsa, You Lived a Long Life

I did a cable TV interview with the flamboyant Zsa Zsa Gabor in the early 1980s and was not surprised by her outspokenness, because she was actually an early champion of women’s rights and the right to speak one’s mind.

The most unforgettable thing about Zsa Zsa was her name. One might find it difficult to name one of her movies, but one could never forget her unique name. “Zsa Zsa” sounded like the words a baby would say as he was on the verge of actually speaking .

She was born in Budapest somewhere between 1917 and 1923 (depending on whether you asked her or checked actual birth records) and became Miss Hungary in 1936 somewhere between the ages of 13 and 19. She was also a fencing and Ping Pong champion as a youth. She spoke of her sisters Eva (“a little bitch”) and Magda (“the grand dame”), and said they were brought up believing they were members of the privileged class, based on their good looks and proper schooling at a Swiss boarding school. “My father was one of the richest men in Hungary,” she said. “He bought me a sable coat for my fifteenth birthday.” She allegedly achieved the title of Princess when she married her ninth husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt in 1986, but some dispute whether he really was who he said he was. But by that time, it didn¹t really matter. Zsa Zsa might be the original “famous for being famous” celebrity, the forerunner to Paris Hilton and the Kardashians.

She was a prima donna by background and proud of it.

She was also an unabashed gossip.

Her willingness to talk about her many marriages in her thick accent, calling everyone who spoke to her “dahlink,” made her a popular guest on talk shows. She found laughs zinging such one-liners as: “I was a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.” “I have never hated a man enough to give his diamonds back.” “The only place men want depth in a woman is in her décolletage.” “You never really know a man until you have divorced him.”

But with some of the men in her life, it wasn¹t all laughs, and she opened up in her 1991 autobiography, One Lifetime Is Not Enough, about how her daughter was conceived in 1947. Her husband, Carlton Hilton, raped her, she wrote.

It was her willingness to present herself as a woman who would never take a backseat to a man that made her a forerunner of women¹s rights. Like Mae West before her, she spoke her mind about what she liked, what she wanted, and how she always got her way. She boasted that she paid “all her own bills,” and said that she preferred to choose her men, not have them choose her. She may have seemed like a playful sex kitten, though she was anything but. “I like a man who knows how to talk to and treat a woman,” she said.

She didn¹t like the way director John Huston treated her on the set of Moulin Rouge, where she played the singer/dancer Jane Avril, but she was willing to take his abuse and stand her ground because she knew it was an important film for her career. She freely admitted that Huston “intimidated” her. Huston certainly could be intimidating, and he once threatened her, saying “If you go dead again on the end of a line, I¹ll shoot you!” Though she felt humiliated, when it was all over, she credited Huston for making her a “star.”

Marilyn Monroe also gave credit to John Huston for the attention she received in her first film, The Asphalt Jungle. Zsa Zsa didn¹t like Marilyn Monroe, probably because she knew that George Sanders, her third husband (from 1949-54) had “a big affair” with Marilyn. She also knew that Marilyn was a much more talented actress than she was. When I interviewed her, she tried to come off as a proper lady who hardly had sex with anyone she didn’t marry, though she did slip in that the greatest lover of them all was the Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, whom she never married, but bedded when George Sanders was cheating on her. “He was a lover,” she said. “He was oversexed. He had Barbara Hutton, Doris Duke. After Rubirosa, almost nobody was a good lover. But I didn¹t love him, I loved George, who was not a good lover.”

She talked about having an affair with John F. Kennedy when he was a senator, and about being on a plane sitting next to young Jacqueline Bouvier, who spoke about dating him. “She was not very elegant,” Zsa Zsa said. “I was a big star then. When the plane landed, Jack was there and when he saw me, he picked me up off the ground, and Jackie saw this. She never spoke to me again. And American men think European women are gold diggers. It’s American women who are gold diggers.”

But it was the way she spoke about Marilyn that exposed her jealous, gossip-driven nature. “She was a very dull girl,” Zsa Zsa said. “She thought if a man who takes her out for dinner didn’t sleep with her then something was wrong with her. Just look at her background, it’s all about family, and poor girl, she didn¹t have anything. When George was making All About Eve in San Francisco, we had a suite and Marilyn had a room next door. George said, “Let’s make a game of it. Let¹s see how many men are going to go into her room tonight.” I think it was four. That’s a terrible thing to say about somebody the whole country admired, but let¹s face it, that’s who she was. She was really a sex symbol, but not my taste. I’m sure she was gorgeous, but my taste was more distinguished, like Grace Kelly, who was a dear friend of mine. I was with her when she first met Prince Rainier. But she was very unhappy. It wasn’t a happy marriage.”

Marilyn Monroe died in 1962. Zsa Zsa was badmouthing her twenty years after her death. All I asked her was whether she ever knew Marilyn, and she didn¹t hold back. I thought it was revealing and, in the end, that’s what one wants from any interview.


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