Flaunting a diamonds-and-furs lifestyle and abetted by gossip columnists and tabloid headline writers, Zsa Zsa Gabor was the first to forge a career being famous for being famous.
LOS ANGELES — The best known of three glamorous sisters from Hungary, actress Zsa Zsa Gabor pioneered a modern version of celebrity — she was famous for being famous.
With the advent of television talk shows, Miss Gabor became a frequent guest as early as the 1950s, charming audiences with her fractured English and slightly risqué jokes about her reputation as an oft-married seductress fond of men and money.
“Husbands are like fires. They go out if unattended,” she would say.
Her nine marriages and reputation for shaving years off her age made her a pop-culture punch line. When entertainer Bob Hope joked, “You can calculate Zsa Zsa Gabor’s age by the rings on her fingers,” it only cemented her fame.
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Miss Gabor died Sunday of heart failure in her Bel Air mansion, according to her publicist, Edward Lozzi. She was 99.
The last surviving Gabor sister, she had been in declining health after being seriously injured in 2002 when the Rolls-Royce convertible in which she was riding, with her hairdresser at the wheel, jumped a curb on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood and struck a light pole. The accident left Miss Gabor partially paralyzed.
She had been in and out of the hospital since breaking her hip in 2010 and having most of her right leg amputated in early 2011 after developing an infection following hip-replacement surgery.
Although her personal life grabbed the headlines, Miss Gabor did build an acting career. One of her finest film roles came early in her career when she portrayed Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s model in 1952’s “Moulin Rouge.” In directing her, John Huston reportedly said: “Zsa Zsa, forget about acting. Just make love to the camera.”
Miss Gabor later told a biographer: “Now, I knew very little about acting but a great deal about making love. It worked.”
In 1958 she made an impression as a strip-club owner in the Orson Welles cult classic “Touch of Evil” and appeared in the campy “Queen of Outer Space,” one of her many more forgettable movies. She acted in at least 30 films.
By the 1970s, Miss Gabor had begun turning down the smaller parts that came her way but would occasionally appear on TV and in movies. She made appearances on talk shows, and on game shows as a panelist, into the 1990s.
To Miss Gabor, everyone was “dahlink,” an endearment that entered the vernacular of mid-20th century America. She was a celebrity of the old school who believed in glamour. She once said of today’s actresses, “When you see them in real life, they look like nothing.” Not so with Miss Gabor, who flaunted her jewels and furs.
She turned her celebrity into a commodity, mining her own reputation for one-liners. “I am a marvelous housekeeper. Every time I leave a man I keep his house,” she might say, or “There is nothing wrong with a woman encouraging a man’s advances, as long as they are in cash.”
The aristocratic, blond Miss Gabor was reportedly wooed by such rich and famous men as Prince Aly Khan, billionaire J. Paul Getty and actor Richard Burton, none of whom she married.
Shortly after arriving in the United States in 1942, she made her most notable marriage with second husband Conrad Hilton, the hotel magnate, who was more than twice her age.
The union lasted five years. The couple’s daughter, Francesca, was the only offspring of the Gabor sisters, who had at least 18 marriages among them. Older sister Magda, who stayed out of the limelight, had at least five husbands, while younger sister Eva had at least four. Eva made the biggest splash as an actress, co-starring in the CBS sitcom “Green Acres,” which debuted in 1965.
Life with his young wife, Hilton later wrote, was “a little like holding a Roman candle — beautiful, exciting, but you were never quite sure when it would go off. And it is surprisingly hard to live the Fourth of July every day.”
He added, “Glamour, I found, is expensive.”
For her part, Miss Gabor later said Hilton was the only husband she had married for money. In the divorce settlement she received $35,000 and $2,500 a month until she remarried. That union linked her by marriage to tabloid favorite Paris Hilton, Conrad’s great-granddaughter.
Miss Gabor’s next marriage, in 1949, was to actor George Sanders, whom she called her one true love. But Miss Gabor complained that the mercurial Sanders wanted to turn her into a “little hausfrau” and divorced him after five years. Sanders, who was later briefly married to Miss Gabor’s sister Magda, committed suicide in 1972.
Miss Gabor next married businessman Herbert Hutner, oilman Joshua Cosden, inventor Jack Ryan, attorney Michael O’Hara and Mexican businessman Felipe de Alba. The de Alba union was declared invalid after a day because Miss Gabor’s divorce from O’Hara wasn’t final.
In 1986, when Miss Gabor married Prince Frederic von Anhalt, a German immigrant who had brokered an adoption as an adult to gain a royal-sounding title, she told reporters he would be her last husband. She was true to her word.
When Francesca Hilton began performing a stand-up comedy routine in 2008 that riffed on her famous family lineage, Miss Gabor supported the move, according to her daughter. “My mother and I, we’re the best of friends now that we’re the same age,” Hilton, then 61, said in a joke referring to Miss Gabor that wrapped up the act. Hilton died in January 2014 of an apparent stroke. She was 67.
Medical bills and meager savings forced von Anhalt to list Miss Gabor’s mansion in 2011, he said. Two years later the home sold for $11 million in a court-approved deal that allowed the couple to continue living there for three more years.
An accomplished horsewoman, Miss Gabor rode in the Rose Parade and owned a horse ranch in Ventura County. She also wrote several autobiographies, including a 1970 volume, “How to Catch a Man, How to Keep a Man, How to Get Rid of a Man.”
“A girl must marry for love,” Miss Gabor once said, “and keep on marrying until she finds it.”
She is survived by her husband.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Tre’vell Anderson contributed to this report.