She wanted to live forever, but with deal on home occupancy winding down, bedridden 99-year-old sex symbol would have faced extremely difficult choices to continue her care and comfort beyond the new year.
Zsa Zsa Gabor, last of the three famous sisters from Budapest, disappointed her husband and fans by dying today, not quite two months before what would have been her 100th birthday.
A lot of people assumed she was dead already. She’d spent most of the last 14 years in and out of hospitals, eventually retreating to her favorite bedroom in the Bel Air house she shared with ninth husband Frederic Prinz von Anhalt.
After she broke a hip in 2010, her health started to decline more dramatically, forcing the doctors to feed her through a tube and amputate a leg. Occasional reports surfaced that she wasn’t always in touch with her surroundings.
Needless to say, she hasn’t been working or even making a lot of public appearances. And for someone whose golden age was decades before the era of billion-dollar divorce settlements, the medical bills undoubtedly got expensive.
It’s a hard thing to admit, but I’d be surprised if the queen of postwar glamour wasn’t running dangerously low on cash, which makes her exit timing a little more grimly gracious than it would have been otherwise.
An impossible journey
Zsa Zsa first came to the Trust Advisor’s attention five years ago when estranged daughter Francesca Hilton publicly challenged stepfather von Anhalt’s control of the family finances.
Francesca died three years ago, leaving Zsa Zsa without blood heirs and von Anhalt with full authority over her money and medical decisions.
By that point, the beauty queen needed constant care. The Bel Air house served as a key source of income -- the now-72-year-old von Anhalt rents it out for the occasional event or movie shoot -- as well as a refuge from the rigors of an institutional environment.
However, the house had also been on the market for years, officially because Zsa Zsa didn’t want to deal with the maintenance but probably also because it was the last big asset that left to liquidate. Occasionally skirting foreclosure, it finally sold three years ago.
That timeline is significant because the terms of the $11 million sale gave Zsa Zsa another three years to vacate. Realistically speaking, she probably only had another 4-5 months left on the property.
To his credit, von Anhalt kept a sunny face on the situation at the time, promising friends and fans a 100th birthday party blowout on the grounds early in the summer followed by a final retreat back to Budapest, where she apparently wanted to be buried.
Those relatively optimistic plans might not have been realistic. I don’t know how fragile Zsa Zsa really was over the last few years or how easy a transatlantic flight would be for a woman in her condition.
Even then, setting up a house and care in Hungary from an entire continent away would have been a nightmare. Budapest isn’t his town. She left when Hitler came in -- seven decades ago now -- and the world has changed a little since.
In one respect, Zsa Zsa dying now lifts that burden from the husband who stuck with her the longest. Now instead of moving her when their tenure is up, he can clear the property and leave on his own.
Odds are good the house will simply be torn down despite its association with both Howard Hughes and Elvis Presley, so he won’t have to clean it up or even take all the furniture.
Of course any cash left over is his now. Despite Francesca’s complaints back in the day, he was the legal spouse to the end and is now the only close surviving heir.
Maybe he’s got a few million dollars to live out the rest of his days. I suspect he won’t be doing it in Budapest.
Before the money runs out
Despite the old-world allure of the Gabor name, Zsa Zsa really wasn’t all that different from a lot of your high-net-worth widows and multiply-married elderly clients.
She had a family history of high life expectancy, with mother Jolie living to be at least 100 if not a few years beyond the milestone. And she was surprisingly tough, surviving shocks and chronic conditions that regularly kill women 30 years her junior.
With a timeframe like that to work with, even a socialite has to either invest a lot of money extremely well, keep working as long as possible or admit the risk of outliving the assets.
Your clients already wrestle with that risk. It’s why so many Monte Carlo simulations run out at age 100 and not one minute early.
Zsa Zsa evidently invested a lot of her money in the Bel Air house, which isn’t really a mansion by modern standards. The house is probably crammed with jewelry and interesting tchotchkes worth a couple million dollars easy.
But beyond that, she wasn’t an entrepreneur like Eva, who actually left Zsa Zsa all her money two decades ago and was probably a big factor in keeping her older sister solvent so long.
There weren’t any big Zsa Zsa businesses, joint ventures or even endorsements. And since each billionaire husband stopped paying alimony the next time she tied the knot, that’s not exactly a sustainable career.
Playing yourself on TV once or twice a year isn’t really cash flow in today’s Hollywood, either. It’s a little precarious, and arguably Zsa Zsa almost cut it too close. Don’t let your clients worry about a similar fate.