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In Hollywood, Zsa Zsa Gabor is considered one of the first celebrities who was famous for being famous. But a new biography about the late Hungarian-born socialite and her famous family, Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend by Sam Staggs, argues that there was more to Zsa Zsa than her numerous husbands, diamonds and sassy quips.
Staggs, a Hollywood biographer and family friend of the Gabor’s, delves into Zsa Zsa’s private life and gives an inside look at some of her most headline-worthy scandals, from the implosion of her marriage to hotelier Conrad Hilton, to her stint in a sanitarium. Married nine times and known for her self-deprecating humor (“I’m a great housekeeper,” she once said. “Every time I get a divorce, I keep the house.”), Zsa Zsa began captivating audiences as soon as she emigrated to the U.S. from war-ravaged Europe. She acted in films like Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil and the sci-fi flick Queen of Outer Space and became a fixture on TV talk shows. And her family members—sister Eva (who starred on Green Acres), sister Magda, and match-making mother Jolie— were equally compelling. (After years of health issues, Zsa Zsa died in December 2016 at the age of 99).
“Clichés about this legendary family seem indestructible. I hope, however, to have punctured two of the silliest. The first is that they were famous for being famous,” Staggs writes in the book, which was released on Tuesday. “On the contrary, the Gabors were famous because they worked at it, and because they worked at their careers, every hour and every day for close to a century.”
He continues: “The other outlandish notion is that they somehow foreshadowed the Kardashians and others of that ilk. This one is nourished by the those who know nothing of the Gabors and too much about the Ks, not one of whom has the sophistication, the poise, or the savoir faire of an Eva or a Zsa Zsa.”
(In a phone conversation with PEOPLE, Zsa Zsa’s last husband Prince Frederic von Anhalt denounced the book, calling it “bulls—”.)
Here are some of the most glitzy and heart-wrenching highlights from Finding Zsa Zsa.
The Gabors were terrorized during World War II
Born of Jewish ancestry, Zsa Zsa and her family experienced many hardships during World War II. Though Zsa Zsa and Eva were ensconced in the U.S., their family was living in Budapest when the Nazis invaded. Zsa Zsa had nightmares (“I saw every member of my family tortured,” she once explained) and feared what would happen to them, according to the book. In 1944, the sisters visited influential people in Washington, D.C., looking for “anyone who might offer a shred of hope,” Staggs writes. While their mother, father, and sister survived, other relatives weren’t so lucky. (Jolie and Magda eventually escaped to the U.S.) “According to Zsa Zsa, her grandmother refused to leave Hungary because so many of her relatives were there, and [her son Sebastian Tillemann] would not depart without her,” Staggs writes. “They were both shot to death.”
Zsa Zsa’s tumultuous marriage to Conrad Hilton
Hotel magnate Conrad Hilton married Zsa Zsa, who was 30 years his junior, in 1942, “against his better judgment,” Staggs explains. Though Conrad was drawn to her gaiety, they didn’t share the same bedroom and he kept his wife, a lover of the finer things, on a budget, according to the book. Zsa Zsa, for her part, struggled with depression while awaiting news about her family. Even as she reveled in spending sprees, she wavered in self-confidence because Hilton “had only two passions in life: his religion and Hilton hotels,” according to the book. After their divorce in 1947, Zsa Zsa gave birth to their daughter, Francesca Hilton. In her memoir, Zsa Zsa claimed that Conrad raped her, which resulted in the pregnancy.
In Finding Zsa Zsa, Staggs writes that Conrad didn’t believe Francesca was his daughter, though his name appeared on her birth certificate. The author, who knew Francesca, explains that Conrad’s distance forever affected her. When Conrad died in 1979, he left Francesca only $100,000 out of his estate, leaving the majority of his money to charity. He was worth about $200 million at the time, according to Forbes. (Francesca also had a contentious relationship with her mother that lasted right up until Francesca’s death, at age 67, in January 2015.)
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Zsa Zsa’s mental health struggles
In Finding Zsa Zsa, Staggs claims that the actress suffered from bipolar disorder. Her family sent her to a sanitarium, where the insulin shock treatments were akin to torture. “How shall I describe the nightmare of the next weeks, days and nights and horrors that might have been invented by Dante?” Zsa Zsa wrote in her memoir. “I lived in a world of strait jackets, insulin shock treatments, endless injections—and always the real, terrifying realization that though I saw what went on and I knew and heard and understood the enormity of what was happening, no one would ever listen to me. No one came to visit me: Not Conrad… not Eva… no one. I felt rejected, utterly abandoned.”
The actress told her ex-husband to marry her sister
Staggs’ book is rife with details about Zsa Zsa’s husbands and lovers (from a chaste romance with the president of Turkey and an affair with her director, to allegations of abusive boyfriends). But one of the most shocking stories of all is Zsa Zsa’s insistence that her third ex-husband, the actor George Saunders, marry her sister Magda. When Zsa Zsa heard that her ex-turned-roommate was looking for a wife, she thought of the perfect solution because she wanted to “keep George in the family,” Staggs writes. “Magda is rich. She is terribly lonely, and so are you,” Zsa Zsa reportedly told George, according to the book. “You need each other, you can help each other.” George became Magda’s fifth husband, but the marriage only lasted six weeks, according to Vanity Fair.
Zsa Zsa’s last husband and her final days
The author compares Zsa Zsa’s relationship with her last husband, Prince Frederic von Anhalt, who was 27 years her junior, to “a Danielle Steel novel or bad TV drama.” According to the book, Frederic alienated Zsa Zsa from her family, and took over control of her estate when she fell ill. Before her daughter’s death, Francesca and Frederic frequently battled over Zsa Zsa’s finances and care. In 2017, the late socialite’s will was revealed, and according to probate court documents obtained by PEOPLE, all of her assets were consolidated into a trust of which Frederic is the sole trustee.
Frederic pushed back against the book’s claims, telling PEOPLE that Zsa Zsa married him for “protection.” Zsa Zsa’s ninth husband said that he was the one who looked out for her health and best interests until her death. Frederic also said that Francesca never got along with her mother and referenced a 2005 lawsuit against her. (Frederic sued his stepdaughter on behalf of himself and Zsa Zsa, claiming she had forged her mother’s signature to take out a $2 million loan by using Zsa Zsa’s $14 million home as collateral, according to the Los Angeles Times. Francesca argued that she had her mother’s permission to take out the loan, with the understanding that the money would be used to refinance the mansion and save it from foreclosure, according to Forbes. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed after Zsa Zsa failed to show up to court.)
Frederic created another scandal in 2007, when he publicly claimed to have fathered Dannielynn Birkhead, the baby daughter of Anna Nicole Smith. DNA tests later proved his claim to be false.
“You know, the moment a man is bad I fall in love with him,” Zsa Zsa told PEOPLE in 1986. “I always marry bad men. It’s a sickness, my sickness. The more bad they tell me they are, the more I am attracted. That’s my tragedy.”
Finding Zsa Zsa is on sale now.