Zsa Zsa Gabor, famed actress and socialite, dead at 99

Last Updated Dec 18, 2016 11:24 PM EST

Hungarian-born actress and socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor has died, her publicist tells CBS Los Angeles. She was 99. 

The middle and most famous of the sisters Gabor died Sunday of a heart attack at her Bel-Air home, her husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt, said.

Gabor faced failing health in recent years. In July 2010, von Anhalt told ET Online that she was having a feeding tube inserted so she could get the nutrients she needed. Gabor broke her hip earlier that month when she tumbled out of bed while watching television, trying to answer a telephone at her Bel-Air home.

In a statement, her former publicist Edward Lozzi confirmed her death and said she is “finally out of her misery.”

“For the past five years, Zsa Zsa has suffered chronic dementia, locked away in her mansion laying in a hospital bed being fed through tubes in her naval, not able to speak, see, write or hear. Nor knowing who she was or how famous she was,” he said. “...Zsa Zsa did not suffer fools well. That fact, along with her European post-war survival techniques inspired by her mother, Zsa Zsa Gabor was one tough cookie.”

Gabor was the only survivor of the trio of acting Gabor sisters. Her sister Eva died in 1995 and Magda in 1997. 

She has rarely been seen in public since she was partially paralyzed in a 2002 car accident. Gabor also suffered a stroke in 2005.

Gabor took her first husband when she was 20 in 1937. She attracted the attention of nine husbands including hotel magnate Conrad Hilton and Oscar winning actor George Sanders. 

Gabor had one child, Francesca Hilton, from her marriage to hotelier Conrad Hilton. (She would allege the child was conceived after Hilton raped her.) In later years, Gabor, von Anhalt and Francesca battled in court over family finances. Francesca Hilton died of an apparent stroke in 2015.

Her first seven marriages ended in divorce. Her marriage to her eighth husband, Mexican attorney Felipe de Alba, was annulled, reportedly because her previous marriage was not properly ended.

Sari Gabor -- Zsa Zsa is a family nickname -- was born in Budapest in 1917, according to a finishing school yearbook kept by a former classmate. Various references over the years have given other birth dates; Gabor usually avoided the subject. She was still in Hungary when she won a beauty contest and married and divorced a Turkish diplomat, Turhan Belge.

Gabor, sisters Eva and Magda, and their mother, Jolie, emigrated to America around World War II. Zsa Zsa gained notice when she became the wife of Hilton, whom she married in 1942 and by the following decade all the Gabors were celebrities.

In 1998, cultural historian Neal Gabler diagnosed her kind of celebrity as “The Zsa Zsa Factor.”

“When she first came to fame in the early 1950s, Zsa Zsa wasn’t an actress or a singer or a dancer or an entertainer of any sort,” he observed. “She was the beautiful wife of actor George Sanders who happened to appear on a quiz show dispensing offhanded advice to lovelorn viewers. By being herself she became such a success that she immediately landed movie roles.”

Her film career was, as The Film Encyclopedia notes, “mostly decorative.” Among Gabor’s more prominent credits: as dancer Jane Avril in John Huston’s Toulouse-Lautrec biopic, “Moulin Rouge,” 1952; and Orson Welles’ classic “Touch of Evil,” 1958. More recently, she appeared in the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series and in the “Naked Gun” spoofs. 

Her love life, meanwhile, rolled on, like a B-melodrama on a double-bill with Elizabeth Taylor’s A-list spectacular. 

In 1954, Gabor made headlines being seen with Dominican Republic playboy-diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa within weeks of his marriage to dime store heiress Barbara Hutton. Her 1958 romance with Rafael Trujillo Jr., son of the Dominican dictator, became a scandal in Congress. Ohio’s Rep. Wayne Hayes -- eventually caught in his own adulterous affairl -- cited the expensive gifts Gabor was allegedly receiving from the young man to argue that foreign aid for the island nation should be eliminated.

Gabor spent three days in the El Segundo jail in 1989 after she was found guilty in a well-publicized trial over slapping the face of a Beverly Hills police officer who stopped her for a traffic violation.  

When she was freed, she told reporters the jailers were kind but “at first I was petrified. They even took my makeup away.”

The great aunt of Paris Hilton and a spiritual matriarch to the Kardashians, Simpsons and other tabloid favorites, she was the original hall-of-mirrors celebrity, famous for being famous for being famous. Starting in the 1940s, Gabor rose from beauty queen to millionaire’s wife to minor television personality to minor film actress to major public character. With no special talent, no hit TV series such as her sister Eva’s “Green Acres,” Zsa Zsa nevertheless was a long-running hit just being Zsa Zsa -- her accent drenched in diamonds, her name synonymous with frivolity and camp as she winked and carried on about men, dahling, and the droll burdens of the idle rich.

She was like popcorn for the public and, for sociologists, the seeming fulfillment of the mindless future imagined in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” a creation made possible by mass, electronic media; her words and image transcribed and beamed into theaters and living rooms, on the Internet and the shelves of newsstands and supermarket checkout lines.

Her secret, in part, was being in on the joke, once saying about a 1956 TV role, “I play a fabulously rich woman who has just bought her fifth husband; she is very unhappy. I won’t tell you who it’s supposed to be.” Ever game for a laugh, Gabor spoofed her image in a videotaped segment on David Letterman’s “Late Show,” which had the two stars driving from one fast-food restaurant to another, sipping sodas and digging into burgers like they were slabs of wedding cake. 

Part of Mama Jolie’s advice to her daughters, as recounted in a 1953 Associated Press interview with Zsa Zsa, has a modern touch. She said she told them: “You must be independent and able to do for yourself. Then you do not have to marry a rich man, you can marry a poor one. And if it is wrong, you can go.”