She was a fabulous personality! My mother called her, affectionately, a courtesan. I was awestruck by her performance as Jane Avril in “Moulin Rouge” – John Huston’s original version – and also by her role as the wife of Jean Pierre Aumont and the rival of Leslie Caron in that bizarre and wondrous “Lili,” in which she is both person and puppet.
In a gorgeous red gown and clickety-clackety high heels, she played the part of a superficial and vain beauty, but underneath that makeup and costume, her life tells quite a different tale.
It was in Bordeaux, France, in Lisbon, Portugal, and in New York City that I pieced together the story of Zsa Zsa Gabor. Yes, she did flirt with the Nazi guards in Budapest, Hungary ... but why? To protect her parents, who were about to be sent first to the ghetto and then to the gas chambers at Auschwitz – and she succeeded in disguising their identities, as both Gypsies and Jews, and saving their lives.
Her cynical surface hid her deeply vulnerable and desperate depths. This I believe. She was funny, and fake, and self-serving on radio and on film, but in life she was a fighter, using her guiles to save her world.
She married George Sanders – twice, I believe – and in between he married her sister. Magda, not Eva. His role as a cad likewise covered his melancholy intelligence.
I read an autobiography written by Zsa Zsa Gabor, but it was mostly about the clothing she wore, with a few scandalous “confessions.” And I have a friend here in town, the editor of a historical publication, who claims that he and his twin brother used to hitchhike to school in Los Angeles, California, our nation’s dream factory, and who stopped in a convertible to pick up the two boys? None other than Zsa Zsa, her magnificent self!
And so, there was a human being underneath the glamour and the humor. A person whose long life included the stuff of comedy, and tragedy, and the American dream at its very best. A soul in trouble with a smile and the gift of charm who survived a century of “change” and left behind a legacy of genuine beauty, hope and laughter.
In the words of my all-time favorite jokester, James Thurber, “Remember Laughter, you’ll need it even in the blessed isles of Ever After.”
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.