Remembering Zsa Zsa Gabor
As an early teenager I came to know Zsa-Zsa Gabor and her family rather well. Indeed, her sister, Eva, lived in our New York apartment for several months. Zsa Zsa became my father’s client, and later close friend, during her high profile divorce from the pre-Trump hotel magnate, Conrad Hilton. I retain a strong childhood memory of visiting Hilton in his office located on the ground floor of the famous Hotel Plaza, which of course he then owned, as one phase of seemingly friendly divorce negotiations. I recall Hilton as a patriarchal presence with a courtly manner that included an attentiveness to my presence, despite being an irrelevant child presence.
I mainly remember Zsa Zsa for her a radiant personality, her playful social style that was charmingly coquettish, reinforced by a sharp wit, personal warmth, and a total absence of malicious sentiments. In the summers to escape New York heat and humidity, I was sent off to a camp in Maine. Days prior to leaving the city, Zsa Zsa with comic verve gave me a cram course in Hungarian swear words, which I repeated to my friends on the train carrying a group of campers to their destination. To my embarrassment there was an elderly lady sitting nearby, who turned out to be Hungarian. She immediately confronted me, and complained about what she called ‘my obscenities’ after asking if I realized what I was saying. I explained that a Hungarian friend taught me these phrases the previous day as a kind of joke. She backed off, almost apologetically, and I never again spoke Hungarian in public!
Zsa-Zsa had one of those charismatic personalities that transcends the ordinary. She irrepressibly and unavoidably herself on all occasions, and was to simulate the behavior of others.. This may explain why she was such a mediocre actress, never able to escape from her own skin or persona. Eva was far more successful as an actress because she was able to put her personality to one side and credibly impersonate a character in a film or play. Magda, the third and oldest sister, was poised and low-key, almost withdrawn by comparison to Zsa Zsa, appearing comfortable with her lower profile, although she did later marry George Sanders, the debonair actor who had come to dinner in our NY apartment before he was divorced from Zsa Zsa. Eva who I knew best because we shared the same space for a fairly long period was lively, at times a lower energy reproduction of Zsa Zsa, and in this sense somewhat derivative, lacking Zsa Zsa’s charm, social creativity, and vivacious intelligence.
After my father’s death in 1956 I failed to make the effort to keep a connection except on two occasions. My first academic position was in Columbus, Ohio where I was teaching at the Ohio State University School of Law. For some reason, Zsa Zsa was in Columbus for a few days, if I recall correctly, because she was acting in a touring Broadway play. We had a quiet dinner together at a downtown restaurant talking as if old friends sharing thoughts on how best to live our lives. After all, Zsa Zsa was only 13 years older than I am, and so the generational gap was narrow enough to allow for a relaxed interaction and near fatal attraction. Zsa Zsa’s magnetism, treated superficially and dismissively in the media, rested as much on her enthusiastic embrace of life and others as much as it did on her looks and sensuality.
My last contact with Zsa Zsa oddly linked with my Turkish life of recent decades. I came to Turkey in 1991 as part of a small European fact finding delegation interested in understanding the Kurdish uprising and the Turkish response. We were hosted by a European NGO, Helsinki Citizens, during this trip, which included visiting the Kurdish regions in eastern Turkey, and our lead contact was Murat Belge, Zsa Zsa’s step son, one of Turkey’s most respected journalists and political commentators, as well as author of several highly praised historical travel books. It turns out that Murat’s father was the first husband of Zsa Zsa who spent some years in Ankara after leaving her Budapest home shortly after she had become ‘Miss Hungary’ at the age of sixteen. In Ankara, I recall going with Murat to the home of his aunt who had a series of pictures of Zsa Zsa as a young girl with his father as well as with Kemal Ataturk. I promised Murat on that evening to do my best to put him in touch with Zsa Zsa, and managed to do so, which I know was at the time important for Murat.
In remembering Zsa Zsa what stands out for me is that rare combination of decency, charm, love of life, and playful sensuality. The public appreciations of what her life meant treat her mainly as the John the Baptist of reality shows and such latter day wonders as the Kardashian Sisters. There is a truth in this, but such an appraisal misses the greater reality of her remarkable embodiment of a robust femininist spirit. Above all, Zsa Zsa managed to live and enjoy life on her own terms while bringing enduring pleasure to many others.