This year has continued its grisly and merciless death march straight to the end, claiming yet another seeming indestructible victim: Zsa Zsa Gabor, the socialite, media personality, convict, and sometimes actress who delighted the world with her talk show witticisms and colorful personal life died Sunday in Los Angeles of heart failure after years of ill health. She is survived by her eighth or ninth or possibly tenth husband, Frederic Prinz von Anhalt, which is a mesmerizing sentence to write. A globe-trotting, diamond bedecked Hungarian adventuress who flitted from husband to husband and love affair to love affair (and the infamous stint she served in prison in 1990 for imperiously slapping a cop with her glove during a routine traffic stop), her like will never be seen again.
It’s impossible to open an obituary of Zsa Zsa Gabor with the customary chronological accounting of her life, since it’s impossible to know precisely when that life began. The conventional wisdom is that she was “probably 99,” although some who knew her well, including the ur-gossip columnist Cindy Adams, believe her to have been much much older, well over a hundred. She was born in Budapest, the middle daughter—her sisters, Magda and Green Acres star Eva, were colorful characters in their own right—of a well-to-do Jewish couple, although the Gabors Jewishness, like everything else about them, could fluctuate according to need. According to Adams, who wrote an biography of family, Jolie, the Gabor matriarch, once explained away a bejeweled crucifix being sported by Eva on her wedding day thus: “Eva’s new, soon-to-be-husband hates the Jews, so in the book you make us Catholic.”
Zsa Zsa’s romantic adventures began early. In her memoir, One Lifetime Is Not Enough (which is very possibly my favorite book of all time; its title cribbed, appropriately enough, from a lesser Jacqueline Susann novel), she describes her early marriage, in 1937 at age 15 (ahem) to a much older Turkish politician, although she claims to have lost her virginity that same year to the legendary Ataturk himself after a kind of Arabian Nights treasure hunt involving an emerald the size of a pigeon’s egg and a ride on a flawless white stallion. This ended, as such treasure hunts tend to do, I guess, in his private seraglio, where the Father of the Turks was waiting with his linen shirt unbuttoned to the navel.
When war broke out, the Jewish and ever resourceful Gabors wisely hotfooted it out of Europe, where the newly divorced Zsa Zsa, now “17” in 1942 (Are you keeping count yet? Don’t.) married the 55-year-old hotel magnate Conrad Hilton (who, according to her, was no fan of the Jews, given his Nazi sympathies). They would have the only child born to any of the Gabors, her daughter Francesca, in 1947. Then came more marriages, including her most passionate, to the actor George Saunders, and countless scandals and affairs, most infamously with Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, who was married to Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton at the time. When the volatile Rubirosa blackened her eye in a jealous rage, Zsa Zsa, ever mindful of publicity, gave a press conference in a diamond encrusted eye patch, declaring herself blissfully happy because “a woman who has never been hit by a man has never been loved,” and therefore succeeded in her goal of needling Hutton.
Through it all, she kept up an endless string of television and talk show appearances, always at the ready with witticisms of worthy of Oscar Wilde: “I never hated a man enough to give him his diamonds back.” “I am a marvelous housekeeper: every time I get divorced, I keep the house.” “I just want a man who is kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?” Her glittering life was one of a gloriously retrograde femininity, like something out of a Danielle Steel novel—dependent, certainly, on a parade of wealthy men but somehow never at their mercy.
Zsa Zsa Gabor survived some of the most terrible events of the 20th century. And yet, she somehow made it all look like a giant party. What better way to live than that?