Sep 10, 2019

Book Review--Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend

Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend
Sam Staggs
Kensington Books, 2019

It’s fair to say that the Gabor women never bored anyone. For decades, pop culture frothed with the escapades of sisters Zsa Zsa, Eva, and Magda and their mother Jolie. These Hungarian glamour gals escaped the horrors of World War II Europe to thrive, strive, and live big in the American public eye. In a new book, Sam Staggs explores the lives of these women who were occasionally misunderstood, but never ignored.

Zsa Zsa gets the bulk of the attention in the book, for the most part because she had the highest public profile, though the author’s long association with her daughter Francesca clearly had much to do with the level of detail available about her. Hers is also the most fascinating story, a chaotic mix of marriages, movies, television appearances, oft unseen good deeds, and questionable decisions. I was fascinated to learn more about her acting career; there were several films of hers that I'd never heard of, and which seem to have revealed a talent that wasn't developed.

A more serious and career-minded actress, Eva would have liked the attention her sister got, though perhaps not the notoriety. Her Hungarian accent always limited her career opportunities. This is not to say she didn’t make her mark in legitimate roles. She excelled in the classic TV program Greenacres (1965-1971) and made brief appearances in celebrated films like Gigi (1958) and as a voice actress in the Disney productions The Rescuers (1977) and The Aristocats (1970). Eva never attained the level of stardom she desired though, with high quality lead roles always elusive. Here her frustration is made clear.

These two women and their loving, but bumpy relationship dominate the story, while their more stable, sober-minded sister Magda and their flamboyant jewelry store owner mother Jolie are mentioned as much for their relationship to these two as for their own stories. Unlike her sisters, Magda was in Europe and served her country during World War II, an experience which colored the rest of her life. Jolie seems to have been less bothered by her turbulent wartime past, instead enjoying all the pleasures she could grab and edging herself into her daughters’ spotlight as much as possible. In a revealing early passage, Staggs writes that Jolie enjoyed watching her daughters fistfight when they were girls. She clearly loved her children, but her values were often not healthy for them.

As far as covering the more sensational aspects of Gabor life, the book delivers, though it also reveals the extent to which the family cared for others, including their fellow Hungarians during the occupation and their father, who they tried to keep safe and provide for throughout his struggles in Hungary. While they embraced the glitter of fame and wealth, they were more connected to their roots than public perception would have you think. Zsa Zsa in particular comes off as more complex, truly the person she revealed to the public, but also more caring than is often perceived, though often made less so by her passions for the wrong men.

I often found myself thrown by the differences in tone throughout the book, from objective third person narrative, to strongly worded opinion and with the format sometimes switching to conversations between author and various interviewees. I also found it unnecessary to share the troubles of Zsa Zsa’s daughter Francesca in such detail. Outlining the particulars of an unpleasant incident at a coffee shop in particular seemed an unnecessary humiliation for this troubled woman, who predeceased her mother after struggling with her shifty stepfather Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt for years to have access to her ailing parent. I felt it didn’t add any further clarity to what was already clearly a troubling story.

Overall, this is an engrossing read. These women led vibrant, turbulent lives and I was left with a better understanding about who they were and how their family dynamic, and public life molded them.

Many thanks to Kensington Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

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