Book Review: “Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend” (by Sam Staggs)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book for an honest review.

I’ve long had a fascination for the Gabors. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, given the extent to which they, like so many other glamour goddesses, have become gay icons. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I saw that there was an entire book devoted just to them. Delicious and decadent, Finding Zsa Zsa is a heartfelt examination of the lives of these women, which were at once both beautiful and tragic.

Though the book’s title privileges Zsa Zsa, and though the book does so to an extent, it also goes into a great deal of detail about the other sisters and, of course, the indomitable mother Jolie. In Staggs’s capable (if at times luxurious and self-indulgent) hands, they are brought to live in all of their contradictions. Though they have often been derided as being famous for being famous (and though there is some truth to that assessment) all four of the Gabors were some combination of sensible, extravagant, and talented, though there were times when one of those traits would overshadow the others. Indeed, Eva would be the most successful in terms of acting, while Zsa Zsa could have done so had she put in a little more effort. And Magda and Jolie, not known for their acting, were nevertheless hard-headed businesswomen.

As was the case with his previous books, Staggs has a style that is really all his own. Though he looks with contempt at the sorts of biographers who were a bit too credulous in their approach to the Gabors and their conscious construction of their own image, Staggs tends to do the opposite, assume that his own assumptions and understandings are ironclad. It’s not really a good thing when you find yourself wondering just how reliable a writer is when they make claims that are more than a little outlandish.

What’s more, Staggs has a tendency to let his rhetorical flights of fancy get away from him, and while this can sometimes be charming, it can also get a bit cloying at times (though, considering the fact that the book is about the Gabor, perhaps this is self-conscious, though I rather doubt it). As with his previous books, he tends to be a little too in love with his own cleverness. A nice rhetorical flourish is fine used judiciously, but there are times in the book when his own penchant for showing off becomes more of a distraction than anything else.

Yet for all of its gossipy seaminess and Staggs’ flights of rhetorical fancy, he does ably demonstrate the extent to which the lives of the Gabors, as glamourous and glitzy as they often were, were all also marred by tragedy. This ranges from Eva’s premature death as the result of a fall to Zsa Zsa’s ignominious last days under the thrall of her final husband to Francesca’s unfortunate descent into mental illness and homelessness. Staggs is right to remind us of the terrible toll that female stardom often takes on the women involved, and how American culture seems peculiarly unwilling (or unable) to provide these aging stars the type of support that they need in their later years.

It’s clear throughout the book that Staggs has a genuine fondness for his subjects. He seems to have a particular affection for Francesca, and a strong dislike (one might even go so far as to say disdain) for Zsa Zsa’s last husband and his fame-hunting antics (and possible abuse of his wife). Again, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does mean that Staggs makes no pretense of objectivity.

Furthermore, though I don’t always agree with his conclusions of his analysis, I have to admit that Staggs has a perceptive film critic buried inside him somewhere, and the parts of the book where he analyzes both Eva’s and Zsa Zsa’s performances in their various adventures are some of the most insightful (and thus, to me, enjoyable) parts of the book. He has a keen eye for the sort of detail that makes for a smart reading of a film, and I sometimes think that a focus on more of that and less on seaminess would have helped.

Overall, I very much enjoyed Finding Zsa Zsa, though I also would have liked to see more detail about each of the women. Still, for those who want to learn more about these glamourous women and their racy lives, one could do worse than Sam Staggs.

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