The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who was Zsa Zsa Gabor? She paved the way for Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump, dahhling.

She was known for her expensive and glamorous taste, many marriages and iconic way of addressing people as "dah-ling." (Video: Video: Reuters / Photo: AFP)
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Zsa Zsa Gabor lived many celebrity lifetimes in one. She sang opera, won beauty pageants, waged feuds, suffered strokes, raised horses, “wrote” books, made exercise videos, lost limbs, slipped into comas, awoke from comas, sued and was sued, dated Kissinger, danced with Tito, bedded Ataturk, assumed the mantle of princess and duchess, punched a Spanish cop in the 1960s, slapped a Beverly Hills cop in the 1980s, allegedly used Evian to bathe during her three days in jail, bought Elvis’s hilltop mansion in Bel Air, guest-starred on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and was RUSHED TO THE HOSPITAL! more times in the past 20 years than any other resident of Los Angeles County.

Zsa Zsa is finally dead, two months shy of 100 years old, and so vaat, dahling? She’s been dying for years now. No one under 25 knows her name, no one under 40 can articulate why she was a big deal, and no one under 60 thinks of her as anything but a has-been.

But what had she been? A fetching Hungarian who immigrated to Hollywood, became a hot blonde, married a millionaire, made a couple movies — and then stayed famous by looking and acting famous.

Sound familiar? Yes, but she did it first and best, and that’s the “so what”: Zsa Zsa Gabor rouge’d a trail for the career-free celebrity. She was, simply, an invention of herself.

Without Zsa Zsa the road would’ve been rockier for women like Anita Ekberg, Twiggy, Ivana Trump, Anna Nicole Smith, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton (Zsa Zsa’s second husband’s great granddaughter), and most of the Real Housewives — as well as men, too, like the next president of the United States. Without Zsa Zsa, who married nine times, the romantic reputations of more “respectable” celebrities (Liz, Liza, Larry) would have borne greater strain. For professional socialites, she raised the bar by lowering it. She worked hard at appearing not to work. She made classiness tacky, and tackiness classy, in a way that Donald Trump has done for 30 years. Zsa Zsa was the midpoint between Grace Kelly and Liberace.

Obituary: Zsa Zsa Gabor, high-living actress of outrageous wit, dies at 99

Death and dying, for Zsa Zsa, would have to be done in the spotlight too. Her most recent visible trip to the hospital was earlier this year, after having difficulty breathing, according to TMZ. “She is fighting right now and she wants to move on,” her husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt, told Entertainment Tonight in February. “She wants to live.” But on Sunday, at her Bel Air mansion, she succumbed. And now we’re left to puzzle about her legacy, if there is one, just as we puzzled about her purpose, as if she needed one. Here’s a telling paragraph from a 1988 profile by The Washington Post’s Henry Allen:

If Zsa Zsa hadn’t invented herself, would she have existed anyway? A known blond. One tough lady. The blond that gentlemen prefer. D-a-a-a-ahhling. She would have made a great goddess if only there’d been a third Conan the Barbarian movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger could have made burnt offerings to her. She’s not on the Elvis level of American mythology, of course — nobody ever calls the local TV station to say that Zsa Zsa Gabor’s face just appeared on his pancake. But she represents something big enough that she can get brought in by the Washington International Horse Show this week to ride her horse around the ring seven or eight times, wave to the crowd and leave.

What did she represent? The American dream, or a version of it (or a perversion of it). Her prosperous parents pushed the three Gabor sisters to remain upwardly mobile, and the ceiling in Hungary was only so high. So Zsa Zsa followed younger sister Eva to Hollywood, acted for Orson Welles and John Huston and Vincente Minnelli, and inked herself onto the tabloid of our minds. Zsa Zsa was the original material girl, slung with pearls, dripping with diamonds, wrapped in mink, bristling with black feathers.

She objectified men, reduced them to musculature, turned them to punchlines.

“I am a marvelous housekeeper,” she was oft-quoted. “Every time I leave a man, I keep his house.”

And yet one of her put-downs to women was “You’ll never get a man,” as if being a wife — or becoming a wife over and over again — was a woman’s ultimate achievement.

“If she didn’t have a husband, she had a lover, because that’s the only way a Gabor knows she’s alive,” gossip columnist Cindy Adams told Vanity Fair in 2007, adding that the Gabor sisters “lived with no reality” and “would lie about everything.” Decades before reality TV, Twitter and Instagram, they were their own products, their own brands.

Among the trophy husbands mounted on Zsa Zsa’s wall: a Turkish diplomat, a Texas oil man, a German prince, a hotel magnate, an Oscar-winning actor. Richard Nixon once set her up with Henry Kissinger, she wrote in her memoir “One Lifetime Is Not Enough,” but clothes never came off. Imagine, though, the accented flirtation.

“Vut do you vunna do?”

“I dunno, dahling, vaatever you vaant.”

Said James Baker to Ronald Reagan after he was seated next to Zsa Zsa at a state dinner in 1982: “I owe you one.”

“There is no bigger aphrodisiac than power,” she said in 1987 to David Letterman, who introduced her as “one of the all-time great talk-show guests” and “the only woman I know named Zsa Zsa.” That was a perfect way to describe her. Zsa Zsa just was. And what she was was fabulous.

She attended the 1988 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City and was photographed with the Trumps. During a break from her 1989 trial for various misdemeanors, including that cop-slapping business, she told reporters: “I am a horsewoman. I am a princess. I am Zsa Zsa.”

She was Zsa Zsa in jail. She was Zsa Zsa in her Rolls Royce with expired tags. She was Zsa Zsa for Geraldo and Oprah. She was Zsa Zsa in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3.”

She was Zsa Zsa for a public that tired of Zsa Zsa.

“We don’t care to hear about you,” said a young woman in Phil Donahue’s audience soon after her arrest. “You know, she’s giving us blondes a bad name.”

“You’re too beautiful to be so goddamn jealousss,” Zsa Zsa retorted, sibilantly, perfuming criticism with a compliment. “You’ll never make it, my dear, if you’re that jealousss.”

In Zsa Zsa’s eyes, we are all trying to make it — trying to live effortlessly within gossip columns, in front of paparazzi, on late-night television:

Letterman’s gimmick here was contrast: A glamorous woman with a beguiling accent pounding In-N-Out burgers as a dweeby comic peppered her with innuendo. But she was self-aware enough to be in on the joke. Her cackle was proof.

She remained Zsa Zsa in her 90s, decrepit and bedridden and missing a leg from infection, holding a glass of champagne to toast her ninth and final husband’s birthday in 2011. Yes, she had a résumé. She appeared in several dozen movies and TV programs. She played herself in 14 of them. What more do you need to know? Zsa Zsa was Zsa Zsa, and that was more than enough.

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