The Pasha and the Gypsy — Part VI [conclusion]

Originally posted by Gordon206 on 07/11/07

The death of Atatürk, says Zsa Zsa, marked the beginning of the end for her life in Ankara.  Burhan was distraught.  When she tried to express her sympathy, he turned his back and walked away.  Soon she lost another friend when, early in 1939, Sir Percy Loraine left Turkey and became ambassador to Fascist Italy.  For the Loraines, Rome was a far more important posting than Ankara.  Nobody expected the peace to last much longer, and the Foreign Office considered it vital to send someone of Loraine’s experience to deal with Mussolini.

For Zsa Zsa then, as so many times after, nothing became her marriage like the leaving of it.  The “union,” of course, had never existed.  She had stumbled upon a kindly but boring diplomat, she had teased him, and he had succumbed.  Now she was older.  As war enveloped Europe, Zsa Zsa realized once again that her life had to change.  And yet, it couldn’t happen overnight.  In coming decades Zsa Zsa would master the Art of the Lightning Divorce.  The first time, however, was harder.

Even in the aftermath of Atatürk’s death, the round of diplomatic and equestrian life went on.  Six months later, in May 1939, Zsa Zsa and Burhan traveled to London with a group of Turkish journalists, whose visit had been sponsored by the British Council.  Once again the world of glamour and celebrity opened to Zsa Zsa.  She had brought along her best Parisian clothes, and adorned with these she began to catch the eye of photographers.

Among others, she met Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden.  Burhan had been invited to lecture on modern Turkey, and at the end of the talk H.G. Wells emerged from the audience to congratulate him.  Wells arranged a luncheon for the Belges at the apartment of George Bernard Shaw, at which one of the literary greats (Zsa Zsa thinks it was Shaw) attempted a grab for her under the table.

Soon Eva Gabor arrived in town, accompanied by a tall, blonde, and very handsome Swedish doctor named Eric Drimmer.  Drimmer was a celebrity sawbones, numbering among his patients both Greta Garbo and Signe Hasso, a would-be Garbo of the time.  Eva had met the handsome Swede in Budapest and, despite Vilmos Gabor’s vehement opposition, immediately determined to marry him.  Now they were eloping to London.  In the absence of their father, Eva asked Zsa Zsa to give her away.  After the ceremony, a simple affair conducted in a Registry Office, Eva and her new husband took the boat train to Southampton, there to board a liner for New York.  The two made a gorgeous couple, and Zsa Zsa, left behind with Burhan as Eva set sail for America, almost melted with envy.

Back in Ankara, with what Sir Percy Loraine called its “blank, bleak, deadly monotony,” Zsa Zsa and Burhan drew steadily apart.  Zsa Zsa now escaped to her family as often as possible, and she passed almost the entire winter of 1939-40 with Jolie in Budapest and St. Moritz.  Burhan began to speak of having children, an idea that Jolie, still ambitious for her girls, argued against.  “I have no wife,” complained Burhan, with considerable justification. Through Burhan, who was assigned to accompany them, Zsa Zsa had met two Americans, Lawrence Copley Thaw and his wife Peggy, who had come to Turkey on assignment for the National Geographic. She found their freedom and freshness irresistibly attractive. With Eva now in America, Zsa Zsa too began to look west.

One can feel the vise closing in on Zsa Zsa during that year. In Ankara any exotic attraction had long since palled. Poland had fallen to the Nazis in 1939, and Greece was threatened as well. In France and Belgium, disaster followed disaster. And now Britain was under attack from the air and threatened by invasion. From America, meanwhile, the news from Eva was not good.  She was miserably unhappy with her husband. She longed for her family. If only Zsa Zsa could come for a visit, she pleaded, all would be well.

Say this for the Gabors: conventional they were not, nor was any significant artistic talent ever discerned in their ranks; still, if any family was held together by love, it was this one. In all the history of these beautiful, fame-hungry women, I am unaware of any allegations of backbiting, jealousy, or petty feuds among them. They were great friends. They loved each other. In times of trial, they stuck together. Their entire existence seems to have been devoted to being beautiful and enjoying life. For an epitaph, one could do a lot worse.

As 1940 passed into 1941, Zsa Zsa repeatedly implored Burhan to allow her to visit Eva in New York City. He refused. Burhan resented the Gabors and wanted a real wife. And who can blame him? For six years he had been living with this gorgeous blonde, and still they had not slept together.  Yes, she certainly made a charming ornament to be at his side during diplomatic functions, but he wanted something more. At last, at the beginning of 1941 Zsa Zsa persuaded Burhan to allow her a one-month visit in Budapest. She packed her bags and headed west.

By this time, Zsa Zsa was determined to leave her marriage and go to Eva in New York. The only question was, how?  The Atlantic was infested with submarines. Western Europe was under Nazi occupation. Her Turkish diplomatic passport remained valid, but Burhan was now well-known as an anti-Axis journalist. It seemed doubtful that the Germans would give her a visa to travel across the occupied zone to neutral Lisbon, where she could catch the Clipper to New York via the Azores. Still, she decided to give it a try.

A transit visa was not politically impossible.  Since 1920 Hungary had been ruled by the authoritarian regime of Admiral Miklosz Horthy de Nagybanya (1868-1957). Admiral Horthy, as he was known, ruled as regent in what was nominally a monarchy.  However, there was no king.  Since Hungary was landlocked, there was also no navy for the Admiral to command. (In World War I Horthy had commanded the fleet of Austria-Hungary when they still possessed the port of Trieste.) Still precariously independent, Hungary, along with Bulgaria and Romania, had allied itself with Nazi Germany in 1940. The Gabors, though anti-Nazi, remained well-acquainted with the diplomatic community in Budapest. Among them, says Zsa Zsa, was a secretary at the German Embassy whom she identifies as Baron Bloch. This Baron had always claimed that he was really a career diplomat, not a Nazi. Zsa Zsa decided that he offered the best chance.

At the Embassy, the Baron was extremely courteous.  She describes him as though he were Erich von Stroheim: stocky, blonde, barrel-chested, with blue eyes and the requisite sabre-cut on one cheek. (So many duelling scars among these people. Were they done, one wonders, by cosmetic surgeons during office visits?) But this visa, the Baron said, was a delicate matter.  He did not feel comfortable discussing it in his office.  Perhaps she would consent to have tea with him?

The next afternoon at Baron Bloch’s apartment, the farce played itself out. When Zsa Zsa arrived she found the Baron “in a blue smoking jacket with a white handkerchief smelling strongly of eau de Cologne.” Instead of tea, she was offered champagne on ice. “Only a German,” she thought, “would be so obvious.”  The predictable questions followed: why did she want the visa?  Did her husband approve of the journey?  Did she share her husband’s political views? (On the latter question Zsa Zsa played dumb.) The German said he would cable to Berlin requesting the visa, but if it was not approved she should not blame him. In other words, Zsa Zsa realized, there was no chance of getting the visa without paying a price that she did not want to pay. That price was fully implied in the billing and cooing, the protestations of undying lust which followed as young Mme. Belge was pursued about the room. Here and there, in and out of traps, she twisted and turned. At last, after an especially powerful lunge followed by a playful escape, Zsa Zsa grabbed her things and ran out the door.

It was now obvious: if she could not go west through continental Europe, she would have to go east over the same tracks she had just traveled.  This meant taking the train back through the Balkans to Turkey, then along the Syrian border through Nusaybin to Baghdad. From Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf, she could fly to Bombay, where she would look for a ship bound across the Pacific. In other words, to get to America Zsa Zsa would have to travel by land and sea most of the way around the world. And this through an Eastern Europe that daily became more dangerous, with the Nazis already in control of Romania, moving into Bulgaria, and threatening Greece, Yugoslavia, and Turkey. But she didn’t hesitate. Eva was waiting, and so was America.

Thus at the end of February 1941, Zsa Zsa returned to Ankara.  She may have arrived, but she did not alight. Riveted to the side of her railroad car was a sign that said “Baghdad Express.” Two British soldiers singing “Tipperary” sat in the compartment with her. Outside, the Ankara station was festooned with Union Jacks. A conductor told her the reason: Anthony Eden, Foreign Minister in the Churchill government, had arrived the night before. Here Zsa Zsa’s account matches the historical record exactly. At this, one of the most terrifying junctures of the war, Eden had arrived to consult with the Turkish government on the fate of Greece and Yugoslavia. The Turks, neutral but threatened by invasion, gave him a cordial reception.

To Zsa Zsa, no doubt, Ankara looked as bleak as ever on that day. Still, her emotions could not help but surge. Only a few miles away, half-way up Çankaya Hill, she had left a husband, a home, and closets filled with clothes. The Ankara Riding Club, home of Fatushka, her white Arabian mare, lay even nearer to the station. And where was Burhan at that moment? Was he thinking about her?  No. Probably he was re-introducing himself to Anthony Eden, preparing press communiqués, doing his job. There would be parties, of course, and receptions. If she wanted, Zsa Zsa could find a gown at home, go out, and see her friends again. But to do that, she had to get off the train.

Three months later, the S.S. President Grant, stuffed with refugee missionaries and one Hungarian bombshell, arrived in New York harbor after an epic trans-Pacific, trans-Panama, and trans-Carribean voyage from Bombay. Zsa Zsa and Eva fell into each other’s arms, babbling in Hungarian. It had taken nearly four months from Budapest, by way of Turkey, Baghdad, Basra, and Bombay, and Gypsy luck stayed with her to the end.

Almost immediately after Zsa Zsa passed through the Balkans, Germany attacked Yugoslavia. Hungary, bound by alliance to the Nazis, was forced to join in, and the Hungarian Prime Minister, Paul Teleki, committed suicide in disgrace. In Baghdad Zsa Zsa had been detained for a month by officials unwilling, even faced with her diplomatic passport, to admit that she could be traveling without her husband. Then, mere days after her departure for Basra, a group of pro-German Iraqi officers staged a coup, and Baghdad was under siege by the British until May. This indeed was luck. The good fortune promised by the Hand of Fatima had stayed with her. But besides the charm, through all this travail one precious, tangible object sustained Zsa Zsa: the Turkish diplomatic passport identifying her as Madame Belge. Without this gift from Burhan, she would have been lost.

As they tend to do, memories of the Old World faded quickly in America. New York was quickly exchanged for Los Angeles. One night an introduction from a friend brought her to the home of Basil Rathbone and his wife, where (as chance would have it) a party was in progress. Within minutes, Sari Gabor was in her element, conversing with some of the most famous people in America. In December 1941, the week that Pearl Harbor was attacked, a letter from Turkey arrived at Zsa Zsa’s rented Hollywood bungalow.  Burhan Belge, gentleman to the last, told her that she was free to go.  She could have a divorce.

And so it began. A mere four months later, Zsa Zsa Gabor and her newest lover, hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, were joined in matrimony. At the reception Zsa Zsa looked about in bewilderment. The place was filled with strangers, all roaring with laughter. The blustering Hilton, who disregarded the name “Zsa Zsa” and instead called her “Georgia,” wore a ten-gallon cowboy hat. But the diamond on Zsa Zsa’s finger: now that was gigantic.

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