Even in nightclubs accustomed to celebrities, the arrival of the Gabor sisters, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eva Gabor and Magda Gabor had heads turning. Dripping in diamonds, furs and satin, the three glamorous women made a spectacular entrance. “They became famous because they worked at it, day and night,” biographer Sam Staggs once revealed. “They never stopped.”
The many-times-married sisters — who had 19 husbands between them — may have looked like they led charmed lives, but they knew pain and sacrifice too. “They were funny, ambitious, wealthy women, but they suffered,” says Staggs, author of Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend. Magda was a “Holocaust survivor,” he once noted, while Eva tragically lost a true love, and wise-cracking Zsa Zsa battled with bipolar disorder.
When they were growing up in Budapest, their social-climbing mother, Jolie Gabor, had big plans for her girls. “She wanted to be an actress, but she didn’t have the looks or the talent,” Staggs revealed. Zsa Zsa, who like her sisters had been tutored in poise and grace, entered the Miss Hungary beauty pageant at 15. She lost the competition, but throughout her life, Zsa Zsa would always claim that she had won!
When Hitler invaded Hungary in 1944, Zsa Zsa and Eva were living outside the country. Although the Gabors had converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1928, eldest sister Magda and their parents were arrested. “Magda had been involved in the anti-Nazi underground,” said Staggs. “Fortunately, she also was the lover of the Portuguese ambassador. He pulled strings and got them released.”
By the time the family reunited in California, Zsa Zsa had wed hotel magnate Conrad Hilton. “Zsa Zsa saw dollar signs, but Conrad was a bit of a tightwad,” said Staggs about their difficult union. “She also suffered from bipolarism.” Institutionalized against her will in 1945, Zsa Zsa would continue to endure mood swings that may have contributed to her diva behavior. In 1989, she was arrested for slapping a motorcycle cop who’d pulled over her Rolls-Royce. “He should’ve apologized and kissed my hand,” she once said. “That’s what a European gentleman would’ve done.”
Eva met just such a man, famed German director Ernst Lubitsch, on the set of 1945’s Royal Scandal. Despite a 27-year age gap, they began a four-year affair that may have been the greatest love of her life. Eva was there when he died of a heart attack. “I miss the man,” Eva once confessed.
Of the three sisters, Eva, who costarred on TV’s Green Acres, wanted to be an actress the most — but Hollywood never took her seriously. “She said, ‘If I had been born British I could have done Shakespeare, but the accent always hindered me,'” said Staggs.
Despite their troubles, the Gabors endured. “All my life, I have been a positive thinker,” Zsa Zsa, who was the last sister to pass away in 2016, once said. “I’ve always been able to survive by telling myself that no matter how tragic, one can always find a way to survive and even, perhaps, to be a little bit happy.”
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