LOS ANGELES (AP) — Zsa Zsa Gabor's celebrity was always more about winning attention than winning film roles. But now, the ailing 94-year-old diva's final fade is being upstaged by a real-life Hollywood soap opera featuring a family fractured by fame, fortune, deceit and just plain weirdness.
As the former socialite and actress lies motionless — unable to eat, barely able to communicate, hardly knowing where she is — tensions seethe between the two people closest to Gabor: Her husband of 25 years, Frederic Prinz von Anhalt, and her only daughter, Francesca Hilton.
Von Anhalt and Hilton are at odds on almost everything regarding Gabor. They fight over her will, each rewriting it without telling the other. They fight over her house: Von Anhalt sued Hilton in 2005 for refinancing the property, which she says she did to protect her mother's investments. Now, Hilton is disputing von Anhalt's right to sell the place.
They argue over her image: Hilton detests von Anhalt for publishing photos of Gabor in her hospital gown; he says it allows her fans to see that she's happy and not "half dead." They argue over visiting Gabor: Von Anhalt says that because Hilton is "crazy," she can only come when accompanied by a doctor. Hilton says she hasn't been allowed to see her mother in more than two months.
And the bizarre he-said, she-said battle continues, with von Anhalt talking openly to the press, Hilton typically hiding from the press, and the woman who pioneered the art of being famous for being famous lying helplessly in between.
Almost weekly, Von Anhalt alerts the media to another Zsa Zsa Gabor medical crisis: A broken hip, a leg amputated because of gangrene, the other leg nearly amputated, blood clots, infections, pneumonia. Last week, she underwent surgery to reposition her feeding tube. Since last summer, Gabor has been admitted to UCLA Medical Center nearly two dozen times.
Then there are von Anhalt's own news flashes: In 2007 he declared that he might be the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby after Smith died in Florida. A DNA test proved him wrong. Later that year, he called police to report he'd been mugged, and they found the 67-year-old naked in his Rolls Royce. Last year, von Anhalt briefly joined California's race for governor. He also says he's considering running for mayor of Los Angeles in 2013.
Von Anhalt, who claims to be a German prince, now says he wants to have a baby with an egg donor and a surrogate, because after his wife dies, "I will be very alone."
The prince also wants to ditch Gabor's sprawling Bel-Air mansion for $15 million and auction off her vast collection of antiques and designer clothing, sometimes plugging the planned sales around medical reports on his wife.
"My wife, even when she is at home, she doesn't know where she is," he says. "She doesn't know if she's in hospital or at home, so it doesn't make any sense to keep the house."
Hilton says von Anhalt has no right to sell the house. He claims he has power of attorney over Gabor's affairs and that the pre-nuptial agreement signed by the couple in 1986 shows the mansion belongs to Gabor alone.
Von Anhalt insists everything he does is in his wife's best interest and her care and well-being are his priorities. He says he is constantly by her side and is often the only person she trusts.
He met Gabor in 1984 while on vacation in Los Angeles from Germany. Then 40, he checked into the Beverly Hilton and went looking for a real Hollywood party. He found one at author Sidney Sheldon's gated estate.
"I didn't have an invitation, and I forced myself into it," he recalls.
He dressed in a royal uniform, rented a Rolls Royce convertible, paid two college students 100 bucks each to pose as his bodyguards and crashed the party. Inside, he was introduced as the Duke of Saxony and Gabor was immediately taken. Twenty-seven years his senior, she made him her lover. He came often from Germany to see her, and after two years, over a meeting with a press agent, it was determined they would be married on Aug. 14, 1986.
Von Anhalt told the story recently during a lengthy interview with The Associated Press at a popular Sunset Strip restaurant. Wearing a fitted shirt, Diesel jeans, and a diamond watch and wedding ring, he came with a publicist and chose a patio table right next to the sidewalk.
Francesca Hilton — whose father is hotel scion Conrad Hilton, Gabor's second husband — refused to meet with the AP for this story, saying she does not want to perpetuate von Anhalt's publicity. Instead, she sent her publicist, Edward Lozzi, who spoke carefully about Gabor and Hilton, both of whom he has known for more than 30 years. Halfway through the interview, Hilton called him on his cell and he convinced her to speak briefly to this reporter on the phone.
Hilton says she and her mother were always very close, talking on the phone "10 times a day." Gabor supported her various careers, as Hilton pursued photography, opened her own publicity firm and took the stage as a stand-up comic.
"He's the one who tried to separate us," Hilton says of von Anhalt. "I have no idea why he hates me."
One thing the two agree on is that their troubles began in 2002 after a car accident that left Gabor paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. She became dependent on von Anhalt's care, and he and Hilton began butting heads.
Hilton says through Lozzi that after the accident, von Anhalt started pushing her away and behaving oddly. Von Anhalt says Hilton is simply threatened by his relationship with Gabor.
"She knew my wife depends on me and that's dangerous," he says, adding that he thinks Hilton regards her mother as "(her) life insurance."
Lozzi says Hilton, 64, just wants to see her mother. She would also like independent confirmation that Gabor is receiving the care von Anhalt claims she is.
Von Anhalt has served as Gabor's primary caretaker and spokesman since she broke her hip last July. Gabor's publicist, John Blanchette, often refers press calls regarding his client directly to von Anhalt.
Von Anhalt says his persistence is what's keeping Gabor alive.
"If I would have followed doctors' orders, she would be gone already, because they ask me every day, 'How far do you want to go? What do you want to do? Don't you think 94 years old is a good age?'" he says. "I said, 'No. I want the maximum.'"
Hilton says that when she calls von Anhalt to inquire after her mother, he spews expletives at her and hangs up the phone.
"I don't know why he doesn't tell me when she's in the hospital so I could see her," she says. "It's truly not right. It's my mother. He doesn't own her."
Lozzi says Hilton learned through a reporter of Gabor's most recent hospitalization.
Longtime Hollywood publicist Michael Levine, who has represented Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson, says the drama surrounding Gabor in her final days is "a perfect storm of dysfunction."
"There are no good endings. This woman's entire life will be pockmarked by this episode," he says. "There used to be a stigma against doing things that were inappropriate or shameful. Today, there's no stigma. Anything goes. It's as if we're living reality television in real life in real time."