The Most Wives Club
The Gabors, Palm Springs’ first family of glamour, chronicled as never before.
Gobs of Gabors: Zsa Zsa, Magda, Jolie, and Eva adorn 1984 party at Le Vallauris.
Photo by Allen Cook.
REPRINTED FROM THE DECEMBER 1996 ISSUE OF PALM SPRINGS LIFE
The Gabors are to Palm Springs what fancy desserts are to a good meal: We could get by without them but they do add such a luscious finishing touch.
For Jolie Gabor and her three Hungarian pastries — Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eva — Palm Springs has been headquarters, either permanently or part-time, for almost 40 bewitching years. The desert has seen them through a few career moves, 22 husbands (counting George Sanders twice, since he married two of them), numerous headlines and countless ball gowns.
Matriarch Jolie Gabor, who molded her daughters early by promising them they would be "rich, famous and marry kings," was the first Gabor to move to the desert. With her third husband, the debonair Edmond DeSzigethy, Jolie bought a hillside home in Palm Springs in 1957. And the town was never the same again.
With the sweep of a duchess, Jolie opened a ritzy jewelry salon in downtown Palm Springs where other proprietors were still selling cowboy duds or date shakes. She served champagne to customers. Her husband, who managed the store, kissed the ladies' hands like a duke.
"Jolie was the world's best salesman," says Mitzi Mayer, who kept the books for her then and now, and has been Magda’s friend and business manager for a quarter century. "Mamie Eisenhower was a customer and Governor Pat Brown. Hairy Karl bought pieces from Jolie for his wife Debbie Reynolds."
Singer George Ailardice, who had sung at the DeSzigethy wedding on Long Island before moving here, recalls that "Ann Miller and the whole movie crowd came in." Arthur Hersh, who befriended the couple in the 1960s, remembers that Jolie did her best selling by socializing at the Palm Springs Racquet Club.
The salon, open only during the high season, was the western version of Jolie's Madison Avenue jewelry store in New York. The gutsy refugee had forged that business from pluck and credit after escaping the Nazi occupation and subsequent Russian Communist takeover of Hungary.
Men in the lives of the four Gabor women have always seemed eager to accommodate. It was one of Magda's early fiancées, a Portuguese ambassador, who had helped Jolie flee Budapest. It was Jolie's second husband, New York restaurant manager Peter Christman, who gave her U.S. citizenship. It was her first husband, business baron Vilmos Gabor, who gave her many precious jewels, including Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eva.
By the time Jolie and Edmond came to Palm Springs, the three girls were already, to quote legendary socialite Elsa Maxwell, "famous for being famous."
Magda had already racked up three marriages, three divorces. They were Poland's Count Jan de Bichovsky, Hollywood writer William Rankin and attorney Sidney Warren. It was Warren who helped straighten out her affairs after the Rankin divorce. ("It was nice to have a lawyer in the family," remembers Jolie.)
Zsa Zsa had scored as a sharp-tongued TV talk show guest and in decorative supporting roles in films. In a tie with Magda, the middle sister had married and divorced three men: Turkish ambassador Berhan Beige, hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, and movie star George Sanders.
Eva by then had appeared prettily in a string of motion pictures and had starred on Broadway. The youngest sister had kept up in the splice-and-slice count with three marriages and divorces as well: Swedish osteopath Dr. Eric Drimmer, real estate broker Charles Isaacs and plastic surgeon Dr. John Williams who, it is generally believed, redid all of the Gabor noses "on the house." (One wonders if Jolie welcomed even Magda’s lawyer husband as warmly.)
The enchanted hubbies gave what they could to the Gabor legend: A title, a visa, citizenship, diamonds, legal advice, cosmetic uplift.
"…nothing but nightclubs and svimming pools."
So Jolie Gabor's splash in the Palm Springs business and social whirl hardly came without name recognition. Her initial years in the desert also marked the first time all four of the fabled Gabors were married at once: Jolie to number three, her Edmond, the former Hungarian landowner and freedom fighter; the daughters each to number four: Magda to the love of her life, manufacturing kingpin Tony Gallucci; Zsa Zsa to businessman Herbert Hutner and Eva to stockbroker Dick Brown.
In all wedding photos, the respective brides are aglow. In newspaper divorce photos, they are dabbing eyes with respective lace handkerchiefs.
It was while Eva was Mrs. Brown, Bob Ski recalls, that she bought her first Palm Springs home on Manzanita. Eva, then riding the top of the Nielsen ratings as the star of TV's Green Acres, was tapped one year to light the Christmas tree at the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Ski, the overseer of her succession of Beverly Hills homes, was asked to drive Eva to the desert.
He was reluctant. "There's nothing there but sand and lizards." he told her.
"No, dahlink, there's nothing but nightclubs and svimming pools," she answered.
After Ski's third trip transporting Eva, he too was hooked on the desert and hasn't left since.
Magda was next to buy a Palm Springs home — in late 1969, after she was widowed by Gallucci. The house, atop a winding road, lets you know her signature color is red. There's a jaunty red powder room, a cozy red den, an unexpected red grandfather clock. For parties, invitations are red, napery is red and flowers are red, red, red.
Meanwhile, Zsa Zsa was occupied with, among other things, starring in Forty Carats on Broadway and marrying and divorcing social register Texan Joshua Cosden, Jr. She sashayed in and out of Palm Springs, houseguesting with either mama or a sister.
By the 1970s, Jolie had become the social grande dame of Palm Springs and her daughters were her shining satellites. No one ever caught the quartet with their glamour down. Always beautifully costumed, coiffed, manicured and jeweled, the Gabors trailed furs and feathers and $200-an-ounce fragrances. Amongst them, they owned enough pearls to reach from here to Budapest
The social season in Palm Springs without the Gabors would have been like an arboretum without its birds of paradise. Every season, a marathon of parties was given in Jolie's honor. There were ladies luncheons with guests in picture hats, or polished dinners, usually with a spirited accordion and a gypsy violin zinging and sobbing to please Jolie's Hungarian soul.
As a party reached its zenith, Jolie was usually persuaded to sing "Never On Sunday" which she performed with accented lyrics and lilting gestures. The crowds loved her and cheered as if Madonna had just sung "Material Girl" for the 10,000th time.
"Make me a party, dahlink," Jolie would say to a friend in that loving, coaxing tone. And the friends rallied. Jolie would even compose their guest lists, an obsession that hosts and hostesses allowed her. It was not a coincidence that these same hosts in turn would show up on other guest lists of parties given in her honor. As one society matron said. "Give Jolie one party and your social calendar is filled for the season."
It was not uncommon for the "social express" to change place cards around once she arrived. No one seemed to question it. Would you question an artist about the composition of his mosaic?
Business decisions, career decisions, man decisions.
Time marched on and so did the Gabors. Mostly down the aisle. Eva's filth nuptials were with industry bigwig Frank Jameson. Zsa Zsa caught the bouquet. "I love weddings," Jolie said.
Zsa Zsa merged with her sixth, inventor Jack Ryan, at the Las Vegas Hilton where the affair was catered courtesy of Conrad Hilton, husband number two. The subsequent divorce was not catered. She then married her divorce lawyer Michael O'Hara in the same Las Vegas chapel where she had exchanged vows with Ryan.
Magda, one spunky lady, kept up her part of the family tradition. Physically and verbally impaired by the sabotage of a severe stroke in 1966, she never-the-less keeps the allure going as if it were a sacred duty. She displayed the same grit as a member of the Hungarian Underground, helping POWs escape Nazi domination.
A born survivor, the keen brain unaffected, Magda communicates by facial expressions, gestures and by giving different values to the limited phrases in her vocabulary, which she uses effectively, "Believe me," for example, can have any number of meanings and you always get the drift depending on whether said with an emphatic nod or a merry smile, a shrug, or a soft shake of the head.
Her right arm dormant, Magda manages hairdos, makeup and false eyelashes with her left. Constantly animated, she would dance with her good arm on her partner's shoulder, her hand sparkling with diamonds and long glossy red nails. She's a Gabor.
Magda was semi-engaged to handsome actor Gary Moore, who was semi-retired in Palm Springs, when Zsa Zsa nominated a surprise candidate for Gabor wedlock. Seems her third husband, George Sanders, was bored and depressed. Magda was rich and alone. Zsa Zsa thought her ex and her sis should marry and mama voted yes. George and Magda concurred.
It was settled. The suave actor drove to the desert from Beverly Hills with red roses for his former sister-in-law. It was Friday afternoon. Jolie phoned physician Dr. George Kaplan, who met them at Desert Hospital for the couple's quickie blood test. Another call was made and a marrying judge would be waiting at the courthouse in Indio.
Only two details remained. They dropped by the hospital gift shop for a wedding ring but had to make-do with a pair of hoop earrings, one for the lady's experienced third finger. Oh and yes, Magda canceled her date that evening with fiancée Gary Moore.
Another Gabor marriage was on the highway. It stalled six weeks later. Magda still has custody of Sanders’ Oscar, which he earned as Best Supporting Actor when he was married to Zsa Zsa. It remains on display in Magda’s bar — her red bar.
Magda dated around for awhile, specializing in princely titles. Among her squires were Prince Alfonso de Bourbon and Prince Umberto de Poliolo, both with residual royal heritage from Spain. The former lived in La Jolla and the latter Operated his art emporium, Gallery de Poliolo, in Palm Springs.
Prince Alfonso proposed, but he lost by a decision when the four Gabor judges conferred. This is characteristic of the family mesh. They are famous for their unification on major matters: Business decisions, career decisions, man decisions.
Meanwhile, prominent Palm Springs artist John Morris, Magda's longtime escort and pal, was standing by. Magda and I had an arrangement," says Morris. "We would always be engaged in between her husbands and fiancées."
Author Norma Lee Browning recalls attending a lavish party at Magda’s home, tossed for the purpose of officially announcing her engagement to Count Somebody, who was on hand wearing extravagant manners and one diamond earring.
By midnight, the count had vanished and no announcement came," says Browning. "So we assumed the engagement was broken. But the gypsy fiddlers played, Jolie sang "Never On Sunday" and we all had a wonderful time."
Magda did then marry Hungarian businessman Tibor Heltai for a few years. Eva and husband Frank Jameson bought a home at Morningside Country Club in Rancho Mirage. Zsa Zsa, having divorced O’Hara, tried matrimonial waters again by marrying playboy Filipe de Alba at sea aboard a yacht off Puerta Vallarta. She calls it marriage number 7 1/2 because the rites were not performed far enough from the coastline to be legal.
As Eva's ten-year marriage to Jameson ended, all the daughters were single at once for the first time since puberty. Only mama and Edmond remained thick as goulash.
"Vigs" and "Wideos."
During the 1980s, as society editor of the local newspaper, this writer qualified as a certified Gabor watcher. The ladies would show up like fairy queens at this affair or that. All four Gabors in the same room was rather like four elaborate wedding cakes at one reception. One would do, but four certainly made the point.
"They belong in the Moulin Rouge era," says Ms. Mayer, referring to Toulouse-Lautrec's 19th century Paris with its cabaret gaiety, its grand displays, its silks and satins, its ripe cleavage.
In 1986 Jolie (and, by extension, her offspring) was chosen by chairman Allan Keller to be the honoree at the annual Americana Ball at the Hilton Riviera. Spotlight, downbeat, drum roll. Each entered the ballroom, strolling down the red carpet on the arm of her gentleman: Jolie with husband Edmond, Magda with intermittent fiancée John Morris, Zsa Zsa with escort Glenn Bohannan, and Eva with frequent companion Merv Griffin.
Griffin was also the master of ceremonies. At the mike, he spoke of these all-American girls honored at the Americana benefit. "They came here poor, without friends, and couldn't speak the language," he said. "Now they are successful, rich and famous. And they still can't speak the language."
And, "Eva is now in the hairpiece business and Zsa Zsa is in the cassette business. They are marketing "vigs" and "wideos."
He also quipped that Jolie swears Zsa Zsa's first words were "I do."
The ladies, comfortable with their legend, laughed merrily at such good-natured pokes. In much the same way, they were at ease discussing their plastic surgeries.
All four were renewed in one way or another by the same Palm Springs plastic surgeon, Dr. Borko Djordjevic, the handsome Yugoslavian who face lifted Eva, Magda (twice) and Jolie (who admitted to three previous such adventures under the knife elsewhere).
Djordjevic was proudly on hand when Jolie displayed his handiwork at a kind of coming-out party for her face. Later, Djordjevic trotted Magda about the social circuit like a loving cup, she wearing that twinkly smile on freshened features and swathed in a series of red designer gowns. The trade-off was obvious — advertising for the doc, gratuitous service for the Gabors.
By the time Eva got around to a Djordjevic lift, the two had been dating for some time. He proposed. It is said that the family had a summit meeting and decided she would remain just friends with the dashing Borko, still in his 30s. Eva, it seemed, was into doctors the way Magda and Zsa Zsa were into royals.
At one time, Eva's lovers were scattered around the desert like chips on a gaming table. Husband number five, Frank Jameson, and his new wife lived in Rancho Mirage. Likewise old boyfriend Frank Sinatra and his wife. Husband number three, Dr. John Williams, had a Palm Springs practice. Constant companion Merv Griffin had a ranch in La Quinta.
Almost-fiancée Djordjevic lived in his Palm Springs hilltop mansion. And Gary Morton, whom she dated briefly until she felt eclipsed by his passion for golf, lived at Thunderbird Country Club and on the golf course at Tamarisk. How reassuring to golf widows everywhere that it can happen even to a Gabor!
"Which Gabor is oldest? — Mother."
With the Gabors, surgeons had the basic clay of exquisite bone structure to sculpt — along with some dynamite genes that had been passed along. For years they remained in an ageless time bubble, looking like perpetual spring chickens.
Whenever conversation drooped at a Palm Springs party, you could always fall back on speculating about the true Gabor ages. They will not be pinned down and records in Hungary perished along with the government.
Even though Father Time has been extremely chivalrous, the Gabors have always been purposely vague, fibbing disarmingly about their ages with memory lapses and contradictions. They never cop-out on one another, either. We can deduce from historical facts and almanacs, but all we're fairly sure of is the sequence of their births.
"Which Gabor is oldest?" someone once asked Zsa Zsa. "Mother," came the answer.
Angie Switzer, Jolie's longtime best friend who converses with her in their native Hungarian, was in the Palm Springs Saks Fifth Avenue with Jolie when she fell on the escalator. The security guard who sent for a wheelchair and filled out the accident form asked Jolie her age. The prototypical Gabor fluttered her eyes from her fallen position. "You think I'm going to tell such a good-looking young man how old I am?"
Though known for family solidarity, they are also known for the candor about their private disputes.
Barbara Sinatra tells the story about the time Eva was at a fat farm working out in a lumpy sweat suit, half-awry, no makeup, huffing and puffing.
A passing workman recognized her Say, you're one of the Gabors," he said. "Which one?"
"Zsa Zsa," answered Eva.
But let any outsider say one negative word against another Gabor, says John Frederick, Magda's one time steady escort, "and they leap loyally to her defense."
The shock of Eva's death last year stunned dear ones and public alike because it was so sudden and because she was the youngest. Eva broke her hip in Mexico and was hurried to Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles. A respiratory infection developed and overcame the life of the vibrant beauty.
Entertainment and political nobility filled the pews for the funeral at Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Merv was there, of course, and Nancy Reagan, Lew and Edie Wasserman, Johnny Mathis, Suzanne Pleshette and other longtime chums. The services had been postponed for a few days so that Zsa Zsa, recovering from a minor surgery, could attend.
"Jergens lotion. 89 cents, dahlink."
Mama was always the undisputed queen bee of the Gabor honeys. Her family power, though not absolute, is potent. Her daughters had always competed for mama's favor and approval like little girls tap dancing before the pageant judge. "They (Zsa Zsa and Magda) still talk every day to Jolie, says a friend.
Despite their exhaustive dedication to splendor, the Gabors are also known around Palm Springs as parsimonious. "Let’s call it tight." says a prominent woman in the forefront of social fund-raisers. Through the years when the Gabors, in any combination, would light up a room at a charity event, often as not they were there gratis. They would convince a charity committee that a Gabor presence was good publicity. They bartered similarly for clothes, reasoning that on the Gabor backs the garments would bring glory to the merchant.
"Dahlink," Zsa Zsa once said to Palm Springs hairstylist Jim Wilcox, "if you do my hair free I'll send my important friends to you."
"Darling." Wilcox replied dryly, "all your important friends already come to me. And they pay."
Palm Springs hair Stylist Shawn Biern has coiffed all of the Gabor heads, often being sweet-talked into a discount. He adores Zsa Zsa, partly for her strong hair and partly for her saucy style.
One evening, leaving the salon after dark. Zsa Zsa asked Biern to walk her to her car. "I don't care if they rape me," she said, "but I don't want them to steal my new diamond."
Jolie confided to Zel Hersh, co-owner of Arthur’s Boutique where she shopped, that she used dime-store cosmetics. "Jergens lotion. 89 cents, dahlink."
When Zsa Zsa landed on the evening news for smacking a Beverly Hills policeman with her daintily manicured hand, she first hired Dale Gribow, an attorney with a Palm Springs practice, to represent her. She later switched to another lawyer willing to handle the case gratis, for the publicity alone. (She lost the case.)
Part of the Gabor cost fixation may be the conditioned reflex of beautiful women used to getting their way, and part could be the European nature to bargain and dicker. They have been known to spend their own cash on tasteful gifts and restaurant entertaining. As for those freebies. you can’t really blame a nice Hungarian girl for trying...
The braunschweiger hits the fan
If there's anything the Gabors love more than husbands or stones, both expensively cut, it’s animals. The four households always had dogs and or cats, loved ardently by their exotic mistresses. Zsa Zsa, an accomplished horsewoman, never "divorced" any of her Tennessee walkers.
One evening in 1986, I found myself in Zsa Zsa's living room in tony Bel Air, invited to her eighth wedding. Or ninth, if you count the illegal one on the boat.
I'd been driven there from Palm Springs with Magda. The house was filling with dressy guests for the international happening. The press swooped in like fish to a well-baited line. Part of the fuss was because she's Zsa Zsa. Part was owing to that impressive number eight. It wasn't a world record, but she was definitely a contender. And part of the commotion was over the questionable credentials of the bridegroom, Germany's Prince Frederic von Anhalt, Duke of Saxony.
Not in attendance were Eva and Jolie, both boycotting the wedding, supposedly because The National Enquirer had alleged the groom's royal title was suspicious, as was the prince’s rap sheet of fraud convictions in Germany. Zsa Zsa apparently had overridden the family veto.
The braunschweiger had hit the fan, but all was sugar and buttercups at the ceremony, held in the same house where Zsa Zsa had lived with several of her groom's predecessors. Another Gabor present was Zsa Zsa's daughter Francesca Hilton, directing traffic for reporters and TV network mobile units.
The betrothed couple stood before the Reverend John Gregory who began, "Love's pleasures are often fragile."
"Very often." interjected the bride, getting a chuckle from congregated guests.
After the vows, the reverend presented "His Highness Prince Frederic and Her Highness Princess Zsa Zsa." The princess aimed her bouquet into Francesca's arms. The customary round of hugging, cheek brushing, air kissing and congratulating followed, as well as a wedding cake the size of city hall.
Outside, shutters snapped and cameras rolled. In a quiet and tender moment, sisters Magda and Zsa Zsa embraced, murmuring privately.
Not quite so privately, Zsa Zsa observed (loudly enough for a Palm Springs columnist to hear) that Eva hadn't shown up simply because she was jealous. "I am sometimes jealous of her." She said, "but I'm smart enough not to show it."
A life of spun gold and violins.
The family soon accepted Prince Frederic, and Jolie continued as Palm Springs society's mother superior. "Maybe you wonder why always I go to so many parties," she said to me in a touching confidence. "You have many parties yet ahead. I, not so many."
But behind the ruffles, Jolie has the fortitude and endurance of the Danube. At 90-something, she canceled her fifth facelift in favor of her second hip-replacement surgery and came through like a battle tank. At the time, it was the three daughters who fell apart. They hovered at the hospital and kept vigil and fussed and emoted and fretted. Eisenhower Medical Center has never before or since seen anything like its occupation by a squad of frilly Gabors.
Jolie was still recovering from the operation when she learned that her tempestuous middle daughter was going to the pokey for cop-slapping. Two days after that, her beloved Edmond, husband of 31 years, passed away. Still she survives.
Her party appearances became less frequent. She sat more and waltzed less. Her friend Angie whispered in her ear the names of people who approached her for an embrace. As Jolie slipped past the age of 100 and beyond, she gradually disappeared from the social scene.
"It’s not because she is ill." reassures Angie. "but because she has pride. Her eyesight and hearing are going and she doesn't want people to see her as less than she was."
She retired a champion. Supermama was responsible for three creations in her own glittering image: one of style and ambition, of making fashion a religion and man trapping an art. She fought for a life of spun gold and violins. And won. She has enjoyed 19 sons-in-law and a trillion party invitations.
Now at 106, give or take. Jolie lives in her Palm Springs hilltop home in a wheelchair. Every day she pretties up in a lovely wrapper. Her hair is arranged, her finger nails and toenails polished. She wears jewelry, of course. And French cologne.
She has yet to be told that Eva is gone. "But she must sense it," says Mitzi Mayer, "because she has stopped asking about her."
Her other two children, now 80-ish, keep the Gabor magic going. Magda and her three Shih Tzus live among the collected treasures of her life: walls of memory photos, a panoramic view of Palm Springs. In her red wheelchair, she makes the parties, dressed to kill.
Zsa Zsa's marriage to her prince has been steadfast for 10 years. She's still doing cameos on television and in pictures, always playing Zsa Zsa. Who else?
Daughter Francesca Hilton was married two years ago to Joseph Piche in her mother’s marrying/living room. It was Francesca's first. A gaggle of Gabors was present, offering cheery wishes like a Hungarian rhapsody and posing photogenically.
The essence, the flavor, the spirit of the Gabor four — Too bad they couldn't bottle it.
10 Things We Bet You Didn’t Know About Those Glamorous Gabors
1. In 1941, Magda joined the Hungarian underground and helped thousands of soldiers escape Nazi threat. She also engaged in espionage and counter-espionage to help break the Nazi code at the request of the Portuguese Ambassador to Hungary, Dr. Carlos de Sampayo, with whom she was deeply in love.
2. Zsa Zsa was the only sister to have a child, Francesca Hilton.
3. Zsa Zsa was born on February 6 and Eva on February 11, two years apart; both Aquarians, and quite often mistaken for one another.
4. Magda's favorite color is red. She loves to wear it, uses it to decorate her house (she has a red grandfather clock), and often to decorate those infamous Gabor parties.
5. In 1947, Zsa Zsa was robbed of $750,000 in jewels from her New York penthouse.
6. Eva had a passion for collecting $100 bills, and swimming in the buff.
7. Actor George Sanders was married to both Zsa Zsa and Magda.
8. In 1989, after being charged with battery on a police officer, driving with an open container of alcohol and an invalid driver's license, Zsa Zsa ultimately had to pay $2,937.50 in fines and $10,000 in restitution to Beverly Hills.
9. Eva was Chairman of the Board of Eva Gabor International, the world's largest wig-maker.
10. A pillow in Zsa Zsa's living room is inscribed "Eat, drink, and remarry."
- By Rebecca Holmes