Zsa Zsa Gabor, who has died at 99, isn’t really being remembered for her film roles, which were minor. Instead, she is being celebrated now for one major performance. Being Zsa Zsa Gabor. She created the role, and she lived it, playing it to perfection. This Hungarian woman – who lost her virginity at 15 to Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey – rose from beauty queen to actor, then became a TV personality and full-time celebrity.
In the staid 1940s and then 50s, Zsa Zsa, a green-eyed blonde, became a hugely entertaining presence, poured into extravagant gowns accessorised with diamonds, furs, tiny dogs and the exaggerated “Dahlink” she used to address everyone. It was her lifestyle rather than any talent that kept her in the public eye. Of course, people were interested in her nine marriages but it was actually her wit and cleverness that kept the show on the road.
Zsa Zsa was one of the first people to be famous for being famous, ushering in the new era of celebrity. To call her a proto-Kardashian though is to underestimate her charm, and her stamina. My mother and her friends loved Zsa Zsa because at a time when women were meant to be passive and grateful to be married at all, Zsa Zsa was always talking about marrying for money rather than romance: “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend and dogs are a man’s best friend. Now you know which sex has more sense”. She married nine times and divorced seven. “I’m a great housekeeper,” she quipped. “Every time I get a divorce, I keep the house.”
Her excessiveness was part of her “brand”. Flaunting conspicuous consumption, dripping with jewels, her image was that of a woman who knew how to get what she wanted. And before the 1960s and the sexual revolution, she was open about liking sex. Her lovers included Sean Connery and Frank Sinatra, and she claimed to have spurned the advances of John F Kennedy, Elvis Presley, John Huston and Henry Fonda. Greta Garbo once kissed her “straight on the mouth,” she said. “And I couldn’t help kissing back because she was so overwhelmingly strong and beautiful.” When asked how many husbands she had had, she used to say, “You mean other than my own?”
Although her actual husbands included the actor George Sanders and the hotelier Conrad Hilton, she lived in a world of self-parody, gossip and knowingness about the lifestyles of the rich and famous. She was adored rather than resented because she was always tipping us a wink.
Beneath the glamour, as with so many of these female stars, we now sense the power, control, and sheer stamina they needed to keep going. Zsa Zsa was a woman who could laugh at herself and her embodiment of that special kind of female camp; she was her own special creation. In her heyday, if she turned up at a premiere, she would get more attention than the stars of the film. She certainly knew how to work it, as they say, even proffering advice to other women in books that included How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man.
Gabor once described herself as unconventional and true to herself. Therein lay her fabulousness. She was arch about both love and money. She was acerbic, flamboyant, she kicked against tradition and sometimes won. Like many women of her generation she understood that femininity is always a performance and she performed it to the hilt. She was always winning, never a victim. As camp as Christmas, her seeming frivolity hid the sharpness and strength that made her name.
What a broad.