When it comes to Zsa Zsa and Eva, we should probably admit that we can’t always keep them straight. Born a couple of years apart, they tend to twin in our memory: the same flawed English, the same flawless complexions, the same suggestion of impure thoughts behind serene exteriors. Which one slapped the cop? Which one said, “New York is where I’d rather stay”? Which one married all those men — or at least more men than the other? Why, after so many years, should we even try to distinguish them?
Or, on the basis of Sam Staggs’s freewheeling “Finding Zsa Zsa,” should we be making larger distinctions? For, as it turns out, the two Gabor sisters are even more interesting for the clan that enfolded them — a fractious, tightknit brood of Hungarian Jewish women who imagined themselves somewhere else.
Start with Grandmama Franceska, a redoubtable businesswoman who catered to Budapest aspirations with strands of fake pearls dressed up with real diamond clips, an early “intertwining of true and false” that, as Staggs writes, “could have served as the Gabor coat of arms.” Her daughter Jolie inherited both a flair for costume jewelry and a sneaking suspicion that the man she married was beneath her.
Jolie’s eldest daughter, Magda, worked in the anti-Nazi underground and saw firsthand the ravages of the Holocaust. By then, youngest daughter Eva had already broken for America, riding the first of five marriages to 1939 Hollywood. Paramount dropped her into B-pictures (where her lovely Magyar face bears scant relation to the surgically refined Eva of later years). Of all the Gabors, she was the most interested in being an actress, scoring a Broadway hit in “The Happy Time” and acquitting herself more than honorably in A-list movies such as “Gigi.” Her fame was sealed, though, by an exercise in cornpone surrealism called “Green Acres,” through which she floated, in Staggs’s unimprovable phrase, “like Titania among the rustics.”
We come at last to middle daughter Sari, whose destiny was almost certainly assured the moment she claimed the nickname Zsa Zsa. A Miss Hungary finalist at 15, she was still a teenager when she inveigled a Turkish diplomat to the altar. (Later in life, she would claim that she was also Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s mistress.) When her husband went on a lecture tour of London, she followed, and Staggs’s greatest biographical coup may be the unearthed photo of kittenish young Zsa Zsa drawing the eye of both H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw.
But Zsa Zsa had ideas beyond being a muse. These included shedding Husband No. 1 and beating an eastward path to America. With her 21 suitcases, she traveled from Istanbul to Baghdad to Karachi, across the Pacific and through the Panama Canal. Within 10 months of landing in New York, she had bagged her second husband, the pious hotelier Conrad Hilton. “Whatever else could be said about Zsa Zsa,” wrote Husband No. 3, actor George Sanders, “she has a lot of guts.”
Equally, a sense of the moment. In 1951, while waiting for Sanders to return from location, she accepted a last-minute slot on a TV show peddling advice to the lovelorn. When asked about her jewelry, she answered, “Dahling, zese are just my vorking diamonds.” A star was born. Within a year, she was a glowing presence in “Moulin Rouge” and, in Staggs’s view, might have matured into a real actress if she hadn’t been seduced by playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (the suave diplomatic face of the brutal Dominican Republic regime). The two would never quite marry, but the headlines that encircled them made Zsa Zsa fatally unserious, and the rest of her career was a decline into self-parody. Her final years found her a mere invalid, tethered to and exploited by Husband No. 9, a bogus German prince whose lust for publicity may have exceeded hers.
Staggs is an invaluable film chronicler (“All About ‘All About Eve,’ ” “When Blanche Met Brando”) whose work has always toggled between the engrossing and the overwrought. In this case, his long friendship with Zsa Zsa’s late daughter Francesca seems to have exacerbated the divide, and his fractured time sequences, breathless prose and pugilistic opinions suggest he is either competing with or being absorbed by the Gabors themselves. (Although it’s hard to imagine that even Zsa Zsa would have likened her 1945 confinement at West Hills Sanitarium to “the sufferings of concentration camp victims,” as the author does.)
Staggs bridles in particular at those who would link the names Gabor and Kardashian, but didn’t the Gabor sisters stay famous because, in Staggs’s words, “they never stopped working at it”? (Eva made her last TV appearance a month before she died.) And didn’t Paris Hilton, as a little girl, splash in Zsa Zsa’s pool? Surely she absorbed more than chlorine.
Then again, when was the last time a Paris or a Kim or a Kylie made you laugh the way Zsa Zsa does when she says, “I believe in large families. Every girl should have at least three husbands,” or, “When I divorced Conrad Hilton, I got six thousand Gideon Bibles.” The Gabors saw their joke before anybody else did, and they laughed like the survivors they were.
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer whose most recent book is “Courting Mr. Lincoln.”
By Sam Staggs
Kensington. 448 pp. $26