LOS ANGELES (AP) — Long before Paris Hilton first uttered a breathy “that’s hot,” or Kim Kardashian sashayed down a red carpet flashing her dangerous curves, there was Zsa Zsa. No last name needed.
Zsa Zsa Gabor pioneered the art of being famous simply for being famous, which generations of dubious starlets have emulated ever since. She was an open book, having crafted a career from multiple marriages, conspicuous wealth and lavish wisdom about the opposite sex and the good life. And yet there remained an air of exotic mystery, borne perhaps by the accent, the glamour, her coyness about her real age and her insistence on always appearing perfectly coifed.
If there was a real Zsa Zsa, the world never knew her. She was more of a sparkling, blonde idea.
The jet-setting Hungarian actress and tabloid queen died Sunday at her Los Angeles home after a heart attack, her husband, Fredric von Anhalt, said. She was 99.
“We tried everything, but her heart just stopped and that was it,” von Anhalt said. “Even the ambulance tried very hard to get her back, but there was no way.”
Gabor broke her right hip in July 2010 after falling out of bed while trying to get into a wheelchair at her home. She was hospitalized repeatedly after the fall, and most of her right leg was amputated in January because of gangrene. Gabor had been given several blood transfusions and was receiving nutrition through a feeding tube in the months prior to her death.
The sexpot of the 1950s and 1960s and middle Gabor sister had to use a wheelchair after being partially paralyzed in a 2002 car accident and suffering a stroke in 2005.
Afterward, she retreated from public view, in stark contrast to how she once loved to bask in the spotlight. She liked staying home and watching soap operas, game shows and old movies, von Anhalt told reporters outside their mansion after Gabor’s hip-replacement surgery in July 2010. She detested having her picture taken by the paparazzi while she was in her wheelchair.
“She wants people to remember her as she was years ago,” he said.
For more than a half-century, Gabor captivated the public, even though her film career was middling at best and she had no hit TV series such as her sister, Eva, the “Green Acres” star.
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.
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, California, 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 women’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 (“Massage me a little more, boy”). 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 was born into a world, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on the verge of collapse and at times carried on like a countess in exile, presiding over an imagined salon where women kept their age a secret and blonde was a most correct noun.
Sari Gabor — Zsa Zsa is a family nickname — was born in Budapest in 1917, according to a finishing school yearbook kept by a former classmate. Various references over the years have given other birth dates; Gabor usually avoided the subject. Hungary was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, dissolved after World War I. She was still in Hungary when she won a beauty contest and married and divorced a Turkish diplomat, Turhan Belge.
Gabor, sisters Eva and Magda, and their mother, Jolie, emigrated to America around World War II. Zsa Zsa gained notice when she became the wife of hotel millionaire Conrad Hilton, whom she married in 1942. (That made her Paris Hilton’s great-aunt.) By the early ’50s, all the Gabors were celebrities. (Eva died in 1995 at age 74. Mother Jolie died in April 1997 at age 97 and sister Magda died two months later at age 78).
In 1998, cultural historian Neal Gabler diagnosed her kind of celebrity as “The Zsa Zsa Factor.”
“When she first came to fame in the early 1950s, Zsa Zsa wasn’t an actress or a singer or a dancer or an entertainer of any sort,” he observed. “She was the beautiful wife of actor George Sanders who happened to appear on a quiz show dispensing offhanded advice to lovelorn viewers. By being herself she became such a success that she immediately landed movie roles.”
The TV quiz show was called “Bachelor’s Haven” and helped land Zsa Zsa on the cover of Life magazine in 1951.
One woman on “Bachelor’s Haven” complained that her husband “travels with other women.”
Zsa Zsa’s advice: “Shoot him in the legs.”
Her movie roles were, as The Film Encyclopedia notes, “mostly decorative.” Among Gabor’s more prominent credits: as dancer Jane Avril in John Huston’s Toulouse-Lautrec biopic, “Moulin Rouge,” 1952; “The Story of Three Loves,” 1953; “The Girl in the Kremlin,” 1957; and Orson Welles’ classic “Touch of Evil,” 1958. More recently, she appeared in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series and in the “Naked Gun” spoofs.
Her love life, meanwhile, rolled on, like a B-melodrama on a double-bill with Elizabeth Taylor’s A-list spectacular.
In 1954, Gabor made headlines being seen with Dominican Republic playboy-diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa within weeks of his marriage to dime store heiress Barbara Hutton.
“All my life it has been my fate to fall in love with men who don’t really like women,” she said in a 1956 AP interview. “I thought I would go to the other extreme with Rubi. But it just didn’t work.”
Her 1958 romance with Rafael Trujillo Jr., son of the Dominican dictator, became an affair in Congress. Ohio’s Rep. Wayne Hays — who eventually was caught in his own sex scandal — cited the expensive gifts Gabor was allegedly receiving from the young man to argue that foreign aid for the island nation should be eliminated.
She wed eight times — nine including a 1982 shipboard ceremony that was quickly annulled and may not have been legal. Other husbands included businessman Herbert L. Hutner and prolific inventor Jack Ryan, credited with designing everything from missiles to the Barbie doll.
She married her last husband, von Anhalt, in 1986, and he proved her equal in the publicity game. In 2007, shortly after Anna Nicole Smith died, he claimed to be the father of her infant daughter. A DNA test eventually proved him wrong. He later entered the California governor’s race as an independent in the primary in 2010 with a platform that included lifting the ban on Cuban cigars.