We take the occasion of Zsa Zsa’s birthday to shed some light on the mysterious phenomenon of the Gabor Sisters. When I was a kid, Zsa Zsa (1917-2016) was the most enigmatic, extremely present in popular culture, though apparently not an actress or any other sort of person who actually does something (though I was wrong, as you will see). This was contrasted with her sister Eva (1919-1995), who had been on Green Acres. We had a vague sense that they were wealthy “socialites”, they wore jewels, they called everybody “dahlink”, and they had many husbands. And they turned up on The Merv Griffin Show all the time. But it was all very foggy. Who WERE they? Today we attempt to bring some clarity to the picture.
The template was set their mother Jolie Gabor (Janka Tilleman, 1896-1997). Born in Budapest, Jolie was the product of two families who were both in the jewelry business. Her husband, Vilmos Gabor, was a colonel in the Austria-Hungarian (later Hungarian) army. They married in 1914. Three daughters followed, Magda (1915-1997), Zsa Zsa, and Eva. In the 1930s, Jolie opened a series of popular high end shops in the Budapest area, selling jewelry, fine crystal and porcelain.
Zsa Zsa made a name for herself as early as 1934, when she sang in Richard Tauber’s operetta The Singing Dream in Vienna. In 1935, she married the first of her nine husbands, a Turkish intellectual named Burhan Asaf Belge. In 1936, she was crowned Miss Hungary. Magda, too, was an actress, early on. In 1937 she appeared in two films.
Meanwhile, in 1937 Eva married a doctor; she was the first to move to the United States, in 1939. The Gabors were Jews. Hungary was a right wing state with increasing ties to Germany. In 1940 Hungary officially joined the Axis. Zsa Zsa divorced Belge in 1941 and followed her sister to the U.S. She later co-wrote a fictionalized account of her flight called Every Man for Himself. In 1944, when the Nazis invaded Hungary (which was attempting to make a separate armistice with the Allied Powers), Magda and Jolie fled to neutral Portugal with the help of Carlos Sampaio Garrido, Portuguese ambassador to Hungary. (Jolie and Vilmos had divorced in 1939).
Jolie arrived in the U.S. in 1945, Magda the following year. Jolie established a costume jeweley business in New York, and at this stage the lavish Gabor women began to make American headlines. Amongst them, these four women were married a total of 23 times: Zsa Zsa nine, Magda six, Eva five, and Jolie three. The most interesting of the husbands included the actor George Sanders (who was married to both Zsa Zsa and Magda at various times), hotel magnate Conrad Hilton (married to Zsa Zsa), and screenwriter William M. Rankin (married to Magda). In their approach to life they were following a well worn path established by earlier American public figures like Peggy Hopkins Joyce and the Dolly Sisters (who, maybe not coincidentally, were also Hungarian).
As an actress Eva fared best, with nearly 100 Broadway, film and television credits to her name. Her first American film was Forced Landing (1941). Other notable pictures included A Royal Scandal (1945), The Mad Magician (1954), The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), Artists and Models (1955, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), the 1957 remake of My Man Godfrey, and Gigi (1958). From 1953 to 1954 she had her own television talk show The Eva Gabor Show. Her best known credit, as fish-out-of-water city girl Lisa Douglas on Green Acres, ran from 1965 to 1971. Some of her last work consisted of voiceovers in the Walt Disney animated features The Aristocats (1970), The Rescuers (1977), and The Rescuers Down Under (1990). Her very last credit was a 1994 episode of Burke’s Law.
Unbeknownst to me when I was a kid, Zsa Zsa also had a flourishing movie career; it was simply over before I was old enough to become aware of her in the 1970s. But in the previous two decades she had done a couple of dozen movies, including Lovely to Look At, We’re Not Married and Moulin Rouge (all 1952), The Story of Three Loves and Lili (both 1953), 3 Ring Circus (1954, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), Death of a Scoundrel (1956, with Sanders, whom she’d already divorced by then), The Girl in the Kremlin (1957), Touch of Evil (1958), Queen of Outer Space (1958), Pepe (1960), The Road to Honk Kong (1962, with Hope and Crosby), and Bert I. Gordon’s Picture Mommy Dead (1966). Later you tended to see her in gimmicky TV turns on things like Batman, Night Gallery, Supertrain and The Love Boat. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, she did several national tours of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. In 1970 she followed Eva onto the Broadway stage with Forty Carats, which she also toured with nationally. Both Eva and Zsa Zsa appeared together in touring productions of Arsenic and Old Lace, somehow playing the elderly Brewster Sisters with their Hungarian accents.
The Gabor sisters seemed dead set against procreation. Though there were three of them, and with all those husbands, only one child emerged, Zsa Zsa daughter, Francesa Hilton (1947-2015). In her autobiography Zsa Zsa claimed that Conrad Hilton raped her, and that scans, given that she divorced him the same year, he was widely known to be a bit of an ogre, and that there is NO OTHER Gabor child in that generation. Francesca appeared in a handful of films, as well, mostly in bit parts in better-forgotten films. Amazingly, Hilton died penniless. Raised with “great expectations” as the saying goes, it seems both the Hiltons and the Gabors expected each other to take care of her, so neither did. Expecting inheritances that never came, she never managed to earn her own nest egg, and, not blessed with the famous Gabor beauty, she appears to have been unable to marry into wealth either. She was virtually homeless at the time of her death. She predeceased Zsa Zsa by a year.
The Gabor women left the world in this order: Eva (1995), Jolie (1997), Magda (1997), Francesca (2015) and Zsa Zsa (2016). Zsa Zsa was less than two months away from her 100th birthday.