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Zsa Zsa: The Circus Returns To Hollywood

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These have been tough days for Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Having eluded several close calls with death, the one-time actress, Hungarian beauty queen and bon vivant remains bed-ridden in her ornate Bel Air mansion getting massages, sleeping and watching television -- a far cry from the time not that long ago when she was among the most recognizable celebrities on the planet.

It was hard not to think about her as I drove down Sunset Boulevard the other day and was struck by a billboard featuring a giant photo of Zsa Zsa and her ninth husband, Frederic Prinz von Anhalt, on their wedding day, nearly 25 years ago.

After all, there aren't many people in Hollywood who can brag about a 25-year marriage after eight divorces.

With Gabor having survived her 94th birthday and about to celebrate her anniversary in a lavish party this weekend, I began to muse about what makes Zsa Zsa... well Zsa Zsa.

She appeared in more than 40 feature films, including ones directed by such luminaries as Mervyn LeRoy, Vincent Minnelli and John Houston. But her most memorable roles were in B movies, including my personal favorite, "Queen of Outer Space." I'd be hard pressed to call her a movie star.

Her television career was even more prolific, her appearances having ranged from the sublime -- Playhouse 90 -- to the ridiculous -- Mr. Ed, which featured a talking horse. Zsa Zsa actually earned two Emmy nominations for her TV work. But I've never heard her described as a television star, either.

I decided to call an expert on fame and celebrity. USC professor Leo Braudy, author of The Frenzy of Renown, reminded me of the words of noted historian Daniel J. Boorstin: "A celebrity is a person known for his well-knownness."

"She's a prime example of a kind of emptiness of Hollywood fame," Braudy told me. "It's really more about your publicity, not what you accomplish."

But from my perspective, Zsa Zsa was a pioneer -- probably the first and biggest Hollywood celeb to become famous for being famous. In that sense, she blazed the path for many of today's bad girls of Hollywood, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton (great-niece by her marriage to Conrad Hilton) to name just two.

Like many of those who mirror her today, Zsa Zsa's romantic liaisons became a subject of huge public interest. Her 1983 union with Mexican attorney and actor Felipe de Alba, for one, dissolved after a single day when it was discovered she had failed to properly divorce number seven, Michael O'Hara. British actor George Sanders was married to both Zsa Zsa and her older sister, Magda, though at different times.

While Paris and Lindsay both had their run-ins with the law, Zsa Zsa was masterful in capitalizing on her troubles. "The Slap Heard 'Round the World" was how the media dubbed her confrontation with a towering motorcycle cop who had the audacity to stop Gabor's gleaming white Rolls Royce convertible for a traffic violation. The incident prompted a series of television appearances and film projects for Zsa Zsa.

John Blanchette, who has represented Gabor for 29 years (a relationship that has lasted longer than any of her marriages) said that Zsa Zsa's unique personality cemented her popularity. "There was just more substance there," Blanchette told me. "Henry Kissinger said she was the smartest woman he ever met."

In fact, Gabor had a classical upbringing. She studied at a Swiss boarding school and her first stage appearance was in an operetta staged in Vienna. Gabor's popularity in Hollywood coincided with a Post WWII fascination with Europe.

"It was like a replay of the comedies of the 30s, with European characters in a Fred Astaire movie,'' Braudy explained. "It gave her credibility as an exotic type."

These days, celebrity seems to come much easier . "They just need to have enough money and be in the right place at the right time," Braudy added. "The trick is staying power."

Zsa Zsa has plenty of that.

She survived a series of medical setbacks that could have ended her life a half dozen times in the last decade. It was almost a year ago that a priest administered last rites to her at her hospital bed. Among the problems: a stroke, a fall requiring hip replacement, blood clots, amputation of a leg above the knee, bleeding that left her in a coma -- from which she emerged only three months ago.

I asked her husband, a relentless promoter known around Hollywood simply as "the prince," what life is like for Zsa Zsa these days. He told me that though she is bed ridden, she is much more responsive today than when she returned from the hospital. She's comfortable, in no pain and takes only two pills daily.

"She watches TV and talks a little," he said. "I tell her stories, the good times we had in Paris. We talk about family and Hollywood and the Oscars. When it's a good subject she smiles. She gets it."

Mainly her husband sees his role as keeping Zsa Zsa (and not coincidentally himself) front and center in the world of Hollywood gossip. He never misses an opportunity to get public attention, which included the $68,000 he spent on the giant Sunset Strip billboard featuring Zsa Zsa in her Oscar del la Renta wedding dress and he in his princely uniform.

His antics have drawn withering criticism from Zsa Zsa's only daughter, Francesca Hilton, and some in the entertainment world. Howard Bragman, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Bragman) one of Hollywood's top celebrity publicists who is not above using a stunt or two to get publicity for his clients, told me he considers this latest move "grotesque."

"Seriously, folks, It shows such an addiction to fame and attention," Bragman told me. "And what's with the uniform? Prince of what? Did he buy it at the back of the Robb Report?" (In fact, the prince was born Hans Robert Lichtenberg) and received his title when he was adopted as an adult by Princess Marie-Auguste of Anhalt , daughter-in-law of German Emperor William II, in what was rumored to be a financially solid move for the princess.)

The prince said he's used to these barbs. "People attack me for a lot of things. I personally don't give a shit. I do what I have to do and what my wife wants me to do."

Zsa Zsa, he added, is bigger than life and it's his job to "blow everything up" to make sure she remains huge in the public's mind.

Sunday night's gala party will be yet another opportunity. There will be a large media tent stocked with a warm and cold buffet. About 80 notables are invited, including Angie Dickenson, Kirk Douglas, Valarie Harper, Hugh Heffner, Larry King, Magic Johnson, Will Smith, Phyllis Diller, Nancy Reagan and..wait for it....Beverly Hills Municipal Judge Charles Rubin, who handed out Zsa Zsa's 72-day jail sentence in the cop-slapping incident.

In December, l there will be a Beverly Hills auction of all Gabor's clothing and other items, including 10 fur coats and thousands of designer dresses. Yes, that will include the summer frock that her publicist calls the "slapper dress."

"All of Hollywood is a circus," the prince concluded. "That's why we're here. What my wife did was a circus, so I continue."

On this, the prince and I agree. What is Hollywood if not a huckster's paradise? And if Zsa Zsa is the ringmaster, I say bring in the clowns!