Dinner with Zsa Zsa & George

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Not so long ago, it was briefly fashionable in certain circles to play a game where you are asked to name figures from history with whom you would like to dine. I always thought the premise was rather flawed; just because a person was an actor in great historical events, or famous, doesn’t of itself make them interesting company, and I am sure that they would quickly tire of being repetitively asked about the significant events in their lives. Others may not want to talk about it all; it took Nixon a long time to speak about Watergate, and I have little doubt that if I was able to meet him for dinner, he surely wouldn’t want to talk about it with me.

Mercifully, the fad didn’t last long, in my view mostly because of the mundane answers that many people gave when confronted with a challenge that required little more of them than to be interesting. Popular answers were Einstein, Darwin, Jesus and Shakespeare, and any Greek philosopher whose name can be learned from reading a quote-of-the-day calendar. It was for this reason that merely posing the question was enough to cause me to quit the room, and I otherwise generally declined to play.

Zsa Zsa Gabor.

For all of that, it is an interesting proposition; and it is with real sadness that I write about the passing of a person who, when forced, always featured in my answers: Zsa Zsa Gabor. To be precise, I always said Zsa Zsa during the time of her marriage to her third husband, George Sanders, between 1949 and 1954.

Zsa Zsa, who died earlier this week at age 99, was an ethnically European Magyar, a Catholic and a bisexual. Beautiful, voracious, charming and graceful, and possessed of that rare combination of intelligence, perception and economy of expression that makes an exceptional wit, Zsa Zsa was a socialite, an author, later an actor and, most of all, famous just because she was. Zsa Zsa reveled in her notoriety and was a high practitioner of the art of scandal; her conquests are reputed to have included Howard Hughes, Tyrone Power, Frank Sinatra, Mustafa Kamal, John F. Kennedy and, most impressively, Greta Garbo.

Zsa Zsa’s repertoire of witticisms is extraordinary. Among my favourites:

‘The only way to learn a language properly, in fact, is to marry a man of that nationality. You get what they call in Europe a “sleeping dictionary.” Of course, I have only been married five times, and I speak seven languages. I’m still trying to remember where I picked up the other two.’

Her observations of relationships are no less incisive:

‘… men love with their eyes; women love with their ears.’

Zsa Zsa married nine men, including Conrad Hilton. Setting an early pattern the marriage to Hilton lasted only from 1942 to 1946, although it did produce her only child, Francesa Hilton, who died in 2015.

George sanders eve photo
George Sanders, second from the left, pictured with Bette Davis, Karl Malden, Greer Garson, Humphrey Bogart and Ronald Colman, all clutching Oscars. Photo by classic film scans

Zsa Zsa married George Sanders in 1949. Sanders was an English actor most famous for the role of Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, for which he won an Academy Award. Sanders’ filmography is extensive; in early work he played the Saint, replacing Louis Hayward in the role, and he later suffered as a typecast villain, but also includes such notable gems as The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1945), ‘Rebecca’ (1940) and the role for which he won the Oscar. Sanders is less well known as an author, which is an immense shame, because as a writer he excelled, although his oeuvre as a writer is minuscule. Sanders’ most famous work is the autobiographical ‘Memoirs of a Professional Cad’ (1960), which is among the funniest and wittiest books that I have ever read – so good that I have returned to it throughout my life, because I know how much I will laugh, even with the knowledge of what is to come. I will not spoil the fun for those who seek out the book and its rich rewards, but here is a teaser:

‘I never really met Zsa Zsa. We collided in Bermuda, in Nassau, in Cuba, in Hollywood, and finally in Las Vegas where we also collided with a minister who put an end to all of this nonsense with a ring.’

True scintillating wit is as rare as it is exceptional, and when two exemplars of the art meet, and marry, then the place to be is at dinner with them. Sadly, Sanders took his own life in 1972. With the passing of Zsa Zsa Gabor, another of its greatest practitioners has left us.

Photo by classic film scans