Before the Kardashians became famous for being famous, there were the Gabor sisters. Though the Hungarian-born Zsa Zsa and Eva were lured by the glamor of Hollywood, their sister, Magda, felt a higher calling. In any case, they lived a lavish life of distinction and opulence that appeared to be driven by another influence.
When you look back at the Gabor sisters’ story, there are many parallels that can be drawn between them and, arguably, their modern-day counterparts, the Kardashians. But Zsa Zsa, Eva and Magda shone in an entirely different era. In their time, the making of a celebrity was perhaps an art form in itself.
You see, the Gabors didn’t have the benefit of social media, the internet and countless TV channels to help raise their profiles. And although they had an advantage with their natural beauty, it wasn’t necessarily enough to elevate them to the lofty heights they aimed for. So the Hungarian sisters had to create a buzz that resonated far and wide.
While the Kardashians have had their fair share of marriages, the Gabors’ track record was staggering. Between them, the three sisters notched up 20 husbands, as well as several high-profile affairs. But for Zsa Zsa, marriage was something that merely filled a void. Besides, she’d been influenced into aiming for something far more ambitious.
Indeed, Zsa Zsa in particular had a desire to achieve one of the ultimate socialite statuses: that of a princess. But there was an external driving force that had influenced the Gabor sisters’ life since before they arrived in America. And it’s one that draws yet more parallels to the careers of the Kardashian sisters.
The Gabor sisters were born in Budapest, Hungary in the 1910s. Magda was the eldest, born on June 11, 1915, with Sari – better known as Zsa Zsa – following on February 6, 1917 and Eva on February 11, 1919. They were the daughters of Vilmos and Jolie Gabor, and their early life was an incredibly lavish one.
You see, Jolie Gabor was the daughter of a jeweler and stood to inherit her family’s business and fortune. Perhaps, then, it was the luxury of her own upbringing that drove her desire for life’s finest clothing, accessories and other accoutrements. But there was one thing that she craved above everything else: status.
Jolie married Vilmos Gabor under the belief that he held a high rank in the national army. He was actually born Vilmos Grün and adopted a new identity in order to advance his own social standing. In fact, he worked as a cook, and what Jolie believed to be his army uniform was a costume borrowed from a theater.
With that, Jolie and Vilmos divorced in 1941. But by that time the fantasist mom was already projecting her socialite desires onto their three daughters. You see, Jolie was an advocate of cosmetic surgery, perhaps to distance herself from a childhood in which she felt ugly. And she promoted elegance and style over traditional education for her daughters, too.
So instead of college or university, Jolie sent Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eva to finishing school. You see, it was their mom’s belief that languages and etiquette would get the girls further in life than math or science. According to news outlet the Daily Mail, she was once quoted as saying, “To use a checkbook they did not need geometry or algebra.”
But Jolie, or “Mamuska” as she was affectionately known, was tough on her daughters. For instance, she made the girls pay two cents to touch her face. What’s more, Jolie stirred up rivalry between them and encouraged their diva tendencies. Her ultimate challenge was for them to become a princess, and for that daughter, “Mamuska will love [her] most of all.”
Perhaps some vague parallels can be drawn with Kris Jenner here. For instance, she too married upwards to the high profile lawyer, Robert Kardashian, in 1978. And although the union ended 13 years later, their partnership nevertheless produced three girls, Kim, Kourtney and Khloé, as well as a son, Robert. In her next marriage, however, Kris took a more business-like role in the family.
Yes, Kris married athlete Bruce Jenner, where she also took on a manager role for her new husband’s career. This saw, amongst other things, the self-styled “mompreneur” manage Jenner’s initial racecar career and the Kardashian-Jenner TV franchises. And, like Jolie Gabor, she had a propensity for cosmetic enhancements.
However, the Gabor girls no doubt had the type of look that pleased their mother – doll-like complexions and a demure manner. But Magda was different. The eldest daughter had a world-weariness about her. Back in Hungary she’d worked in underground movements against Nazism, and saw the damage that the Holocaust had on her fellow Jews.
Nevertheless, a move to Los Angeles resulted in Magda dabbling in acting and becoming swept up in the trappings of fame. Indeed, a stroke in 1966 that left her right arm paralyzed didn’t hinder her slavish beauty rituals. Nor did it quench her desire for male company, eventually racking up six marriages. She even sniffed around princes, as per her mother’s fantasy.
But youngest daughter Eva was first on the hunt for fame in the United States. She moved to Hollywood in 1939 with her first husband, Eric Drimmer, a Swedish doctor who specialized in osteopathy. And she had a face the camera loved; as did Paramount who cast her in several B-movies.Unlike her sisters, Eva had a real passion for acting.
Even so, behind the scenes Eva’s personal life was the subject of a high level of scrutiny. For instance, beyond her charity work for the likes of City Of Hope, March Of Dimes and the Polio Fund, the actress eventually took five husbands. However, some speculate that her sexuality was questionable.
Indeed, some believe that Eva was in fact a lesbian. Not only is it claimed that she had an affair with actress Marlene Dietrich, but it’s alleged that a relationship with entertainer Merv Griffin was a sham to cover up his homosexuality. Even so, Eva’s love life was perhaps overshadowed by Zsa Zsa’s nine marriages.
You see, Zsa Zsa was considered a real beauty in her homeland, and at 15 she was a finalist in the Miss Hungary pageant. She caught the attention of Burhan Belge, and married the Turkish diplomat in 1937, perhaps seeing it as a step toward a coveted princess title. But, the union was relatively short lived.
Given that, Zsa Zsa followed her younger sister to the States in 1940. And she took an arduous journey across the Pacific from Istanbul via Baghdad and Karachi, and along the Panama Canal before arriving in New York with a convoy of 21 suitcases. Although Zsa Zsa found moderate success in acting, she realized that her path to fame and fortune lay elsewhere.
Certainly, less than a year after arriving stateside, Zsa Zsa met and married husband number two, Conrad Hilton. There were three decades between them in age, and the famous hotelier was astounded at how his new wife drained his fortune. And, with her life by that time playing out in the spotlight, the Hungarian’s antics didn’t go unnoticed.
For instance, when her then-husband’s Bel Air home burned down, Zsa Zsa consequently moved into his New York Plaza Hotel. There, her life turned into a non-stop party. She bought two unruly dogs who peed on the carpet, and she would cook with a pot on an open flame. Her love of luxurious jewelry was indulged at the upmarket Van Cleef & Arpels.
Furthermore, Zsa Zsa occasionally retired to Central Park to sleep as the dogs ran around chasing squirrels. Her behavior was fueled by the one thing that gave her more of a rush than shopping: an amphetamine and barbiturate addiction. Her request for a divorce from husband number two was granted on the condition she seek professional help.
Doctors concluded that Zsa Zsa’s mental health was not in good shape. She suffered from unexpected mood swings and had an unpredictable temper, all intensified by her coffee habit – she’d consume at least 20 cups a day. However, the trauma of the experimental electro-convulsive shock treatment she was prescribed left her as blighted as a war survivor.
Now, the girls’ mother arrived in New York in 1946. And within two years she opened two jewelry stores and found notoriety as the “Queen of Costume Jewelry.” The family’s profile was further boosted when Zsa Zsa announced she was pregnant at the same time as her divorce from her hotel mogul husband. Conrad gave her a relatively meagre $275,000 plus hotel stock compared to the $10 million settlement she’d requested.
But, famously, Zsa Zsa wasn’t done with marriage yet. You see, her next husband was actor George Sanders, who she claims she loved. And yet she couldn’t help but embarrass him by fooling around with other men. The most notable of these at the time was an international diplomat for the Dominican Republic, Porfirio Rubirosa.
However, more than a dignitary, Porfirio had a reputation with the ladies. In fact, he was deemed to be “the greatest lover of the century” on the basis of his manhood, according to the Daily Mail. Some say it’s on a par with “a large brown pepper mill, or even “Yul Brynner in a turtleneck.” Zsa Zsa, meanwhile, heaped her own praise on the Lothario.
“I was addicted to ‘Rubi’,” the Daily Mail quoted Zsa Zsa as saying. “He was in my blood and he possessed my soul. He was renowned for his machismo and above all for his sexual prowess.” The socialite was gratified in a way her then-husband George fell short of and, although Zsa Zsa truly loved him, he filed for divorce.
As George recalled, “Being married to Zsa Zsa was like living on the slope of a volcano.” Indeed, the actress’ antics were becoming infamous. And, although she had no intention of ditching her already languishing career for a life with Porfirio, her escapades were enough to keep the family in the headlines.
Indeed, Zsa Zsa’s allure and cunning were a hit for the tabloid press, with audiences lapping up her diva behavior. For starters, her way of addressing people as “dahling” with a dense Hungarian inflection was endearing. What’s more, she was capable of more spectacle in the real world than in any of her films.
For instance, beyond her famous romances, Zsa Zsa generated plentiful headlines. In one incident in the 1960s, she reportedly punched a Spanish cop. And a similar event followed in the 1980s when she slapped a policeman in Beverly Hills. What’s more, jail time didn’t tame her diva tendencies, since she apparently wouldn’t wash with anything but bottled Evian while she spent three days in custody for the latter episode.
Bob Thompson is Syracuse University’s resident pop culture expert. As he explained to news outlet NBC in December 2016, “Zsa Zsa Gabor proves that even before the internet, you could do the kind of things the Kardashians do today. She said things and behaved in a way that most of us could not get away with.”
Meanwhile, branding specialist Karen Post told NBC, “[Zsa Zsa] did all the same things that today’s celebrities that are in the same category are doing, except she didn’t have all the channels that they do. But it’s the same formula: she had lots of relationships, she had a good share of scandals and controversy, she was beautiful to look at.”
Notoriety, it seems, was enough to keep the Gabor name in the limelight. Even after Eva’s success in the TV series Green Acres, the three sisters’ major achievements came from racking up headlines more than acting jobs. Their mother, too, wasn’t immune to stirring up drama in her quest for a regal title.
Yes, Jolie came close to achieving her dream. Or at least so she thought. While on the prowl for a potential suitor in the nightclubs of New York, she came across Count de Szigethy. However, although the pair married, his title proved to be as genuine as that of Jolie’s first husband. She had become a sham Countess.
Details of the women’s lives have been documented in the book Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind The Legend, written by Sam Staggs. The revelations came from interviews with many of the sisters’ friends, as well as Zsa Zsa’s daughter, Francesca, a longtime friend of the author. What’s more, she believed her mother to be of unsound mind, suffering from bipolar disorder.
However, not even Jolie could steer Zsa Zsa away from her ninth and last marriage. Indeed, along came “Prince” Frederic von Anhalt, a.k.a. the Faux Prince of Bel Air. Despite a promise of the long-desired title of princess for Zsa Zsa, even her mom could see through his ruse. Nevertheless, she said, “I know he’s no good but he’s what I want.”
So Zsa Zsa wed her “prince” in 1986, a marriage that would last until her death in December 2016 aged 99. According to Staggs’ book, Frederic cut Zsa Zsa off from Francesca while her health declined. Francesca herself had slipped into an impoverished way of life, and she passed away almost two years before her mom.
As Staggs wrote, “When one is a faded star crashing into 70, is it wise to take on a 43-year-old German with a dodgy past, a questionable present and a blank future? Any title at all to fill the aching void created by that prodding mother who spurred [Zsa Zsa] toward fame and greatness; the mother whose own neurotic frustrations trapped her daughters, and Zsa Zsa most of all, in a twisting labyrinth of ambition.”
By all appearances, the Gabors set the blueprint for famous-for-being-famous celebrities like the Kardashians today. As Eva’s alleged lover Merv Griffin noted in his memoir, “All these years later, it’s hard to describe the phenomenon of the three glamorous Gabor girls and their ubiquitous mother. They burst onto the society pages and into the gossip columns so suddenly, and with such force, it was as if they’d been dropped out of the sky.”