Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend
by Sam Staggs
Kensington, 389 pp., Hardcover, $26.00
Sam Staggs knows the Gabor family: Zsa Zsa, Eva, Magda, and Jolie, “Watching them was like eating peanuts—you couldn’t stop.” And Staggs knows his audience, which is why his latest biography, Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legends, is also like eating peanuts—delicious, addicting, and goes well with an ice-cold drink.
And Staggs knows his way around Hollywood. Around the lies too good to be true and the truth to wild to be believable. His previous books have tackled in-depth studies on movies (All About “All About Eve” and Close-Up on “Sunset Boulevard,” to name two), but Finding Zsa Zsa is his first tackling a dynasty—albeit a short-lived one. And with the Gabors, Staggs finds not just a collection of actors, socialites, and icons, but the seemingly endless intersections of Hollywood’s glitterati. Read enough of these types of books, and you get the feeling everyone knew everyone else. Maybe they did. After all, George Sanders did wed both Zsa Zsa and Magda Gabor.
Like all good biographies, Staggs situates Finding Zsa Zsa as a multi-generational story, this one stretching back to Budapest, Hungary in the early 20th century. There we learn how father Vilmos changed the family name from Grün to Gabor—“perhaps intend[ing] a coded message to the community he left. Since ‘Gabor’ in Hungarian means ‘Gabriel,’ the name of the archangel who appears in both Jewish and Christian scriptures, Vilmos’ subtext might have been, You see, we’re still one of you as well as one of them.”—a Miss Hungary beauty pageant, an often misreported event that might hold the skeleton key to Zsa Zsa’s ever vacillating age, and the marital environment Zsa Zsa and Eva grew-up in—“They were far happier after their divorce in 1940,” Staggs writes of parents Vilmos and Jolie Gabor.
But it’s the limelight years that comprise the majority of Staggs’ book. Of which, Staggs has a good deal of fun reporting and interpreting. In one chapter, Staggs presents Zsa Zsa’s marriage to actor George Sanders as an unscripted Noël Coward play. In the subsequent chapter, Staggs provides a backstage account of his play. There are marriages—too many to recount here—Hollywood productions big and small, from Zsa Zsa in Moulin Rouge and Queen of Outer Space to Eva in TV staple, Green Acres—and plenty of foreign dignitaries. All of which Staggs reports with excitement, a writer endlessly entertained by his subject, one he also happens to be tangentially related to. Staggs was a personal friend of Francesca Hilton, the only child of Zsa Zsa and Conrad Hilton.
This closeness probably accounts for Staggs’ many asides—“But Jolie, having seen husbands enter and exit;” “With every Gabor, facts are elusive and often reformatted to suit the occasion;” “Long before the term ‘dysfunctional family’ gained currency, the Gabors lived the prototype;” and, a personal favorite: “The fact is, however, that Zsa Zsa never looked really young. Always, even in her teen years, her face bore a wolfish expression, slightly mocking, even smug, as though she had not only tasted the forbidden fruit of Eden, but sliced it onto her breakfast cereal.”—give the prose bounce and the reader a good chuckle.
Sometimes, Staggs goes too far, particularly when he tries to compare the Gabors with current celebrities or explain how different the world was back then. These are either unnecessary—“The heavy breathing of ABC’s The Bachelor and its spinoffs was unthinkable of fifties TV;” or too specific—“Readers acquainted with today’s New York Post as the right-wing mouthpiece of Rupert Murdoch may be surprised to learn 1) that the paper’s editorial policies before 1976, when Murdoch acquired it, were to the left of the faint-hearted New York Times, and 2) that its publishers, editors, and reporters took seriously the jobs of journalism.” Not that I mind the dig at the Post, but using the above to introduce an article from 1958 roots the reader firmly in 2019. Will the Post have the same ownership and editorial policies in 2024? In 2039? Will there even be a New York Post?
But for the most part, Staggs sticks to his subject and entertains his readers. And like all good biographies, you leave Finding Zsa Zsa knowing a great deal more about the Gabors and anyone lucky enough to enter their sphere. And quite a lot of people entered the Gabor’s sphere.
Finding Zsa Zsa is available now in hardcover from Kensington Publishing Corp. It’s a great beach read for anyone still anticipating one last summer getaway.