Before There Were Kardashians, There Was Zsa Zsa


Long before the Kardashians, there were the Gabors. Before Paris Hilton, Ivanka Trump and other blondes with an air of effortless wealth and exaggerated glamour, there was Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Ms. Gabor, who died on Sunday, was a working actress who perfected the art of seeming idle. In that sense, she and her sisters anticipated the reality-show breed of semi-celebrities who are mostly famous for being famous. Ms. Gabor, who was married at least eight times and appeared in more than 60 films and television shows, never tried to pass as an actress perfecting her craft — her career consisted of preserving and polishing a Euro-courtesan persona.

And it was an act of alchemy — spinning gold out of a pretty face and an exotic Hungarian background. In almost every appearance, be it a cameo on “Gilligan’s Island,” “Batman” or “Hollywood Squares,” and toward the end of her career, a self-parodying star turn in “The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear,” Ms. Gabor expertly impersonated herself, swathed in chiffon, marabou feathers and diamonds, talking about her many husbands with her patented and paprika-spiced intonation of “Dahlink.”

“How many husbands have I had?” she would reply when asked. “You mean, apart from my own?”

She was a fixture on “The Merv Griffin Show” back when talk-show guests were invited merely because they were amusing. Nowadays, the business is more bluntly transactional — actors, politicians and athletes show up when they have a new project to promote. In the 1970s, Ms. Gabor, along with other regulars such as Charo, rarely had anything new to sell; they were pros at presenting their same old selves.

It was at times hard to distinguish Zsa Zsa from her sister Eva, who had the same small, whittled features, coquettish voice and cotton-candy bouffant. They inhabited the same kinds of roles. Both sisters played naughty foils to Leslie Caron in 1950s musicals — it was Eva who played Gaston’s flighty mistress in “Gigi;” Zsa Zsa was cast as the flighty magician’s assistant in “Lili.”

Photo

Ms. Gabor in her native Budapest, circa 1940.

Credit
Laszlo Varkonyi/European Pressphoto Agency

In later years, Eva became famous as the bubbleheaded millionaire’s wife in “Green Acres.” Yet Zsa Zsa was even better known as a bubbleheaded millionaire’s ex-wife on talk shows, on game shows and, in 1989, in a Los Angeles courtroom, where she was convicted of battery after slapping a police officer who pulled her over for an expired registration sticker on her Rolls-Royce. Even there, she was a trailblazer for today’s celebrity scofflaws like Lindsay Lohan. But Ms. Gabor didn’t milk her three-day jail sentence for sympathy and a redemption tour; in public, at least, she played it for laughs.

It didn’t really matter which sister was which. The Gabors were a brand, established by their canny and ambitious mother, Jolie, who died in 1997. The eldest sister, Magda, had six husbands (including George Sanders, who was also one of Zsa Zsa’s exes). She too romped in Hollywood and European cafe society, but Magda had a more limited acting career — she mainly played herself on “The Colgate Comedy Hour” and in a 1991 documentary, “The People vs. Zsa Zsa Gabor.”

But all the Gabor women were disciplined paragons of self-indulgence.

Deep into old age, Ms. Gabor would no more drop her Champagne-and-caviar insouciance than consider going out in public without the full masquerade of makeup, false eyelashes, wigs and jewelry.

Today’s, celebrities hawk sunglasses, clothing lines and housewares, but the Gabors were early masters of self-merchandising. Jolie sold costume jewelry and Eva a line of wigs. Zsa Zsa marketed her husband-hunting skills.

There, too, she was a pioneer, publishing her 1970 primer, “How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man,” decades ahead of self-help books with wordy titles like “All the Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right” and, for the more career-minded, “Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success.”

For most of her life, Zsa Zsa Gabor seemed like a throwback to an Anita Loos-era of gold diggers and sugar daddies, an antiquated age when European roués gave themselves titles and divorcées were seen as daring and slightly dangerous.

Actually, Ms. Gabor was the first reality show star and way ahead of her time.

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