Simone: Picture this: we open on a white Rolls Royce, zipping down a Beverly Hills street on a hot afternoon.
Simone: Behind the wheel is a woman—platinum-blonde, and oh so glamorous.
Simone: But before long, the fuzz show up. A cop on a motorcycle signals to the woman to pull over. He asks if she knows her tags are expired and to see her license. The officer asks her to step out of her car.
Simone: For almost an hour, the impeccably-dressed woman waits on the pavement for the officer to run her tags. She’s baking in the hot California sun. Finally, she asks if she can leave, and the officer tells her:
VO: Eh, fuck off!
Simone: And so, she does!
Simone: She speeds off down Olympic Boulevard, the officer hot on her tail. They race two blocks down before she’s pulled over again. He tries to drag her out of her car. They struggle for a few moments. And then:
Simone: A slap! Our heroine cuts the officer clean across the face.
Simone: And moments later, he's slapping handcuffs on her wrists. She’s not going to get away with it, though she thought she would. After all, she is famous actress and socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor. And this isn’t a movie…it’s a story compiled from actual witness testimony.
[ARCHIVAL, Larry King: The cops got you because you had a plate that had expired.]
[ARCHIVAL, Zsa Zsa Gabor: No I slapped him to get loose, It was self defense.]
Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history, and tell you the story of how it shaped our world. I'm Simone Polanen.
Simone: Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Hungarian-American socialite and Hollywood star, went on trial for slapping that cop. On September 14, 1989—32 years ago this week—opening arguments began. And Zsa Zsa stepped into the role she was born to play…herself.
Simone: This week, we’re bringing you the true Hollywood drama of an aging star who used her questionable behavior to resurrect a stalling career, and set the stage for celebrity crime as public theater.
Simone: So...all rise! The People v. Zsa Zsa Gabor begins after the break!
[NEWS CLIP, Jerry Bowen: Zsa Zsa Gabor hasn't had this much airtime since she held down the center spot on Hollywood square.]
[NEWS CLIP, Gabor: I'm so upset.]
[NEWS CLIP, Bowen: But this is not your everyday TV show...what this is is American justice on display.]
Simone: On the morning of September 11, 1989, Hungarian-American actress Zsa Zsa Gabor stepped out of a Chevrolet station wagon and headed towards a Beverly Hills courthouse…
[ARCHIVAL, reporter: Are you happy with jury selection, Zsa Zsa?]
Simone: ...breezing through a throng of reporters and photographers. Her platinum blond locks were pinned into a gravity-defying updo. She wore oversized black sunglasses with her designer dress.
[ARCHIVAL, VO: On this first day of the trial, a simple yet business-like Donna Karan dress accentuates the black with a red silk corsage. Zsa Zsa is confident, jovial to say the least. telling reporters that she doesn't need the flood of publicity that has been generated since the arrest. This is an un-worried woman.]
Simone: Zsa Zsa had been arrested three months prior, for assaulting Beverly Hills Police Officer Paul Kramer. That wasn’t the only charge. Zsa Zsa was also accused of disobeying a police officer's orders, driving with expired tags and an expired licence, and having an open bottle of liquor in her car. The media had been documenting her every move since then—through her indictment to jury selection.
[ARCHIVAL, Reporter: Zsa Zsa, do you think they can find 12 people who can judge you?]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: (laughs) that’s a funny question.]
Simone: Standing next to her as she faced down the cameras was her entourage....
[ARCHIVAL, VO: Her attorney, William Grayson; various supporters; daughter, Francesca, Hilton; husband, Prince Frederick of Germany; and her hairdresser.]
Simone: So an aging movie star, a European prince, a Hilton heiress, and a hairdresser walk into a courtroom. There’s no punchline, that’s just a fact. This obviously wasn’t going to be a normal trial. It felt melodramatic....it felt very Zsa Zsa.
Stephen Silverman: Zsa Zsa was, from day one, always about self-promotion. So, you know, being discreet, wasn't part of her nature.
Simone: This is Stephen Silverman. At the time of Zsa Zsa’s trial, he’d just finished a decade-long run as a correspondent for the New York Post. Zsa Zsa had been a staple of his gossip column. One of the main characters, you might say.
Stephen: I mean, she would talk about her marriages and her divorces on television.
Stephen: She took no prisoners and it was all about herself, so sure, she would never run from a camera or a microphone. You know, they were her best friends.
Simone: From a young age, it seemed Zsa Zsa was destined for fame. She was born into a wealthy Jewish Hungarian family—the middle child to her sisters Magda and Eva. Their mother, a jewelry heiress, encouraged her daughters to climb the social ladder even higher.
Stephen: Zsa Zsa went back to an old sort of tradition of a courtesan. And the mother trained all three women to make themselves attractive to rich men.
Stephen: You know, it's the stuff of which French novels were written.
Simone: Zsa Zsa married the first of her nine husbands—a Turkish diplomat—when she was still a teenager. (Ew.) In 1936, she competed for Miss Hungary. And a few years later, in 1941, Zsa Zsa and her sisters immigrated to the United States.
Simone: They brought their glamour and their beauty with them, and immediately sought out the spotlight. Zsa Zsa headed for Hollywood, where she launched a film career. She appeared in over a dozen films mostly in the 1940s and 1950s. Most notably, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil and John Huston’s Moulin Rouge.
[ARCHIVAL, VO: In an exciting supporting role is gorgeous Zsa Zsa Gabor, as the glamorous Jane Avril of the Moulin Rouge.]
Simone: But at the time, what really made her famous were her appearances on the talk show circuit, where she was charming, over-the-top, and told wild stories about her fabulous life. Like she did on this appearance from the Tonight Show back in the 60s.
[THE TONIGHT SHOW, Host: Zsa Zsa was just starting to tell us about the recent hold-up.]
[THE TONIGHT SHOW, Gabor: He holds a gun at me and says, “Get up! This is a hold up!” I said, “Come back later, I'm sleeping.”]
Simone: And she was reliably entertaining as the center square on Hollywood Squares.
[HOLLYWOOD SQUARES, John Davidson: Zsa Zsa, which of the following places consumes the most Cheez Whiz?]
[HOLLYWOOD SQUARES, Gabor: What is a Cheez Whiz, though?]
[HOLLYWOOD SQUARES, Davidson: Oh, Zsa Zsa! Zsa Zsa!]
Simone: But by the 80s, Gabor’s star was fading…
Simone: ...that is, until her arrest in 1989.
Judge Charles Rubin: I heard about it on the news actually, before I got the case. And just another, in my respectful opinion, silly celebrity piece of news that you listen to and are somewhat entertained by.
Simone: That’s Judge Charles Rubin. He presided over the 1989 trial. He’s retired now, but he’d been a judge in Beverly Hills for a while by the time the Gabor case landed on his docket. He thought he knew what he was in for.
Judge Rubin: I've had a whole number of celebrities come through the court for various reasons, and so it didn't in any way impress me. I was somewhat amused. I thought that this is going to be just a routine case.
Simone: In a case like this, Judge Rubin says that most celebrities would have just opted to get it all over with quickly and quietly.
Judge Rubin: What would normally be a plea agreement, which she could have gotten very easily, or a very short trial—maybe two, three days—it turned into a two week debacle.
Simone: For those two weeks, the scene around the Beverly Hills courthouse looked more like a red carpet event...
[ARCHIVAL, Passerby: Go get ‘em, Zsa Zsa! Good for you!]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: Thank you, good morning!]
Judge Rubin: When I would come to the courthouse, there would be those vans of television trucks with their telescoping antennae stuck up in the air and with their monitors inside the truck, a number of people in there getting ready to broadcast the proceedings. There would be crowds of people outside having to keep behind it.
Judge Rubin: And it was just a circus.
Simone: To Zsa Zsa, it wasn’t a circus…it was the stage setting for the role of a lifetime.
Judge Rubin: She sort of felt that life was like the movies of that genre, from the forties and fifties, you know, where the heroine slaps the hero and then faints onto the sofa. That you could script whatever you want and you act the script and it's okay. So she scripted this trial in her own mind.
Simone: The Zsa Zsa show officially began when court was called to order on September 14th for opening statements.
[ARCHIVAL, Bailiff: Remain seated and come to order. Court is now in session with The Honorable Charles G. Rubin judge presiding.]
Simone: The Beverly Hills District Attorney's office prosecuted the case. The DA brought the man who was slapped, Officer Paul Kramer, to court with them. He of course arrived dressed in his full police uniform.
Simone: They laid out a straightforward case—Zsa Zsa assaulted an officer, plain and simple. Here’s the deputy district attorney, in his opening statements:
[ARCHIVAL, Ira Reiner: And as the evidence will show in this case, in one motion with a right hand, swung around and slapped him across the side of the face, bending his sunglasses, the impact turning his head.]
Simone: On the defense was Zsa Zsa and her lawyer, William Greyson. He actually admitted in his own opening statement that his client did indeed slap the police officer. He insisted it was self-defense, though. That Officer Kramer was excessively violent when he pulled Zsa Zsa out of the car. That’s why she slapped him.
Simone: The trial proceeded, with witnesses called on both sides. But let’s be real…everybody was here for Zsa Zsa’s testimony.
[ARCHIVAL, William Greyson: Ms. Gabor, if you want to take a drink, or…]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: No thank you, I don’t drink…]
[ARCHIVAL, Greyson: Oh, I meant a drink of water.]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: I know. (laughter)]
Simone: Zsa Zsa told her version of the story. The officer had been violent with her. It’s a little tough to hear this next clip, but Zsa Zsa says he put his hand inside of the window...
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: He put his hand inside of the windows…]
[ARCHIVAL, Greyson: He asked you to get out of the car?]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: Yes.]
[ARCHIVAL, Greyson: And you said “You’re hurting me.”]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: I said, “Officer, you’re hurting me.”]
[ARCHIVAL, Greyson: And he said, “I'll break your eff arm.”]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: Effing arm and your leg.]
Simone: I’ll break your quote “Effing arm and your leg” she says. And remember how Zsa Zsa fled the scene?
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: I said, “May I please go?” And he said, “Eff off.”]
Simone: That was just a misunderstanding over the definition of “fuck off.” She thought that meant she was free to go.
[ARCHIVAL, Greyson: So when you told him, when you asked him, may I go, do you know?]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: He said, “Eff off,” you know what that means.]
[ARCHIVAL, Greyson: I know what that means, Zsa Zsa.]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: Nobody ever talked to me like him in my life.]
Simone: She was also one to make...let’s call them, outlandish, statements. She said that Officer Kramer scared her more than the Nazi invasion of Hungary. She even described Kramer as “Hitler, Mousillini and Stalin all in one.”
Simone: And finally there was the climactic face-off...when Zsa Zsa’s lawyer asked the 5-foot-5 actress to stand beside the 6-foot-4 Kramer, and re-enact the slap.
[ARCHIVAL, Greyson: Can you stand facing Officer Kramer?]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: I’m afraid of him. (laughter) I am afraid of this man. I know his temper.]
[ARCHIVAL, Greyson: Officer Kramer, as gently as you can, please take Ms. Gabor’s right hand and place it on your face where she struck you.]
Simone: But the confrontation inside the courtroom wasn’t enough. Outside, she had to keep the drama going for the hordes of reporters who’d gathered to cover the trial.
[ARCHIVAL, Reporter: Was it strange standing next to him again?]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: It was petrifying to me.]
Simone: Did you catch that? Zsa Zsa says, “It was petrifying to me.”
[ARCHIVAL, Reporter: Zsa Zsa, are you happy with the line, the way it's going today?]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: I’m sick. I’m reliving the whole thing.]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: Right then, I don’t care if my lawyer hits me over the head. This man should be an actor because he's the biggest liar in the police department.]
Simone: And Judge Rubin says it wasn’t just reporters...the Zsa Zsa stans were out in force.
Judge Rubin: There would be demonstrators with placards. One of the ones that I remember called Zsa Zsa a “Hungarian freedom fighter” and accused me of attacking a Hungarian freedom fighter.
Simone: And they were even hawking t-shirts outside. Some with the words “Free Zsa Zsa” and some with “Hang Zsa Zsa.”
[ARCHIVAL, man: I’m selling t-shirts here. I'm selling t-shirts. You want to buy one too?]
Simone: And New York Post correspondent Stephen Silverman says, the folks watching at home couldn’t get enough.
Stephen: We weren't online yet. But we would know, you know, usually pick up the phone and call our best friends and “Quick, turn on channel whatever.” And we would watch it together and discuss it as it went along.
Stephen: It was a running commentary. The general tone was sarcastic. Like, can you believe this is going on? And the taxpayers are paying for this?
Simone: As the Zsa Zsa show neared its end, the jury began deliberation. So don’t touch that dial! The Zsa Zsa verdict is about to roll in, after the break.
Simone: Welcome back!
Simone: Before the break, we brought you inside the trial of The People v. Zsa Zsa Gabor. Over two weeks, both sides had presented their cases, with cameras following it all. And now, Zsa Zsa and the rest of the world waited as the twelve jurors deliberated.
Simone: After 14 hours, the verdict was in.
[ARCHIVAL, Tom Brokaw: Zsa Zsa Gabor, known mostly for being known, guilty of slapping a Beverly Hills policeman, guilty of driving with an expired license, guilty of driving with an open container of an alcoholic beverage. That was the verdict of a Beverly Hills jury late today in a trial that played out like a television sitcom.]
Simone: Guilty on three of four charges. She was acquitted on one count—not guilty of disobeying an officer by driving away from the scene. Guess that argument about what “fuck off” means really landed with the jury.
Simone: During the sentencing hearing a few weeks later, Judge Rubin did not mince words as to how he felt about the case.
[ARCHIVAL, Judge Rubin: Ms. Gabor in this case, not only slapped the face of officer Kramer out there on Olympic Boulevard, she turned around and slapped the face of every American by claiming that the United States os worse than communist Russia or Nazi Germany.]
Simone: Judge Rubin told me that Zsa Zsa did not exactly take her sentence seriously.
Judge Rubin: She did have to stay in a jail cell at night.
Judge Rubin: I made her do maybe 120 hours community service, which she violated.
Simone: Gabor served her time—3 days in jail. But as Stephen Silverman from the New York Post told me, she wasn’t done milking her criminal drama for the cameras.
Stephen: She didn't want to serve her time in jail. She refused to do her community service. What does Zsa Zsa do? She goes on tour. It makes perfect sense in a celebrity world.
Stephen: She got a major book deal out of it. And the book, you know, got attention. And I read some of the reviews of the book last night and they were, again, generous, but they just said how funny it was.
[ARCHIVAL, Larry King: Why the book now, Zsa Zsa? Why now an autobiography?]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: Oh, because darling I had to write it. I wrote it- I should tell my side of my story of my life. So many nonsense was said and written about me. So they should really know who I am.]
[ARCHIVAL, Clive James: Zsa Zsa, last time we talked, you'd been sentenced to prison for three days for slapping a cup. Did you actually go to prison?]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: I was three days in prison. I tell you, I don't advise anyone to go to prison.]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: If I would sue everybody who talks badly about me, I would be the richest woman in the world.]
[ARCHIVAL, Arsenio Hall: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I might owe you some money.]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: You talk bad about me?]
[ARCHIVAL, Arsenio Hall: I did a joke when you slapped the cop, but I mean, that's my job.]
[ARCHIVAL, Gabor: The judge said that I have to make a psychiatrist psychotic. I don't know how to say the name. Uh, they have to check up if I'm normal or insane.]
[ARCHIVAL, Joan Rivers: (laughter) That’s perfect, you’ll never go to jail, then!]
Stephen: It was, in a way, the best movie she ever made.
Simone: The country had fallen in love with Zsa Zsa Gabor all over again. And soon enough, Hollywood came knocking, too. In the early 1990s, she spoofed her infamous slap in several sitcoms and parody films.
Simone: She played herself on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air…
[THE FRESH PRINCE, Hillary: There is something that I am just dying to know.]
[THE FRESH PRINCE, Gabor: Yes, I did it. And he deserved to be slapped!]
Simone: And again, in The Beverly Hillbillies movie...
[THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, X: And some woman involved in a drive by slapping.]
[THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, X: So, uh, what happened?]
[THE BEVERLY HILLBILLES, Gabor: Actually, he slapped me.]
Simone: And again in the opening credits of Naked Gun Two and a Half.
[NAKED GUN TWO AND A HALF, Gabor: This happens every fucking time when I go shopping!]
Simone: In the end, even though Zsa Zsa lost in court, she’d won. Zsa Zsa Gabor certainly wasn’t the first celebrity to use her indiscretions as a way to garner media attention for herself. But this celebrity-crime-to-PR-pipeline she helped create is alive and well. The mug shots, the headlines, the outfits worn to court, the inevitable redemption arc…it’s practically become a formula.
Simone: Look at what happened with the college admissions scandal that rocked the media in 2019.
[ARCHIVAL, Reporter: Full House star, Lori Laughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli accused of paying half a million dollars to get their two daughters into USC.]
Simone: Some very wealthy people—including several Hollywood celebrities—paid enormous sums of money to falsify academic and athletic records to get their kids into college. One of the more high-profile celebrities that got caught was Lori Laughlin—she played Aunt Becky in the TV show Full House. While the scandal didn’t help resurrect Aunt Becky’s career, it did help propel her daughter, Olivia Jade, further into the spotlight.
Simone: Olivia Jade started out as YouTube famous, but the scandal made her famous famous.
Simone: If Zsa Zsa’s comeback tour stopped over at Larry King and Joan Rivers…Olivia Jade’s version was to visit Willow and Jada Pinkett-Smith—on their show Red Table Talk—where celebrities go to get vulnerable.
[RED TABLE TALK, Olivia Jade: You guys, my heart is racing out of my chest. I’m at the table. How's everybody?]
[RED TABLE TALK, Jada Pinkett-Smith: Everybody’s good, how are you feeling?]
[RED TABLE TALK, Jade: I'm nervous.]
Simone: And now, she’ll be joining the cast of Dancing with the Stars—alongside other celebs like Sporty Spice Mel C for the show’s 30th season.
[ARCHIVAL, Jade: I think when I first got the opportunity I definitely thought about it a little bit, like how would this look? And is this something I should be doing? But I also am a firm believer in second chances.]
Simone: I feel like once you get to the point of being as commercially relevant as a Spice Girl, you know your redemption arc is complete.
Simone: I can’t say for certain, but I’m not so sure that the world would have been so interested to tune into Olivia Jade had she not been the beneficiary of such a public criminal scandal.
Simone: The other way I’ve seen celebrities flip their crimes into PR is almost more concerning… it’s scandal as theater, scandal as source material, scandal as…content. In this case, you’re not asking to be redeemed from your crime…you’re asking to be watched because of it. My mind immediately goes to Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise. Entire seasons-long narratives have revolved around cast member’s crimes. Most recently, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has dedicated an entire season to Erika Girardi. She and her husband are wrapped up in several lawsuits for allegedly misusing money from a settlement fund for victims of a plane crash. Misusing it…by spending it on themselves.
[ARCHIVAL, Anchor: The news about Erika Girardi finally broke on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills last night. The ladies were shocked and confused after reading wild accusations about Erika and Tom in the LA Times. And the big question is: how much did Erika know?]
Simone: If all publicity is good publicity, then boy are these women getting good publicity. But my question is, even if the courts act as fairly as they can, how can you possibly deliver justice to someone whose bad behavior only makes them more famous?
Simone: To be clear, I’m asking this as someone who is fully bought into The Real Housewives, who was thoroughly entertained by Zsa Zsa Gabor’s story. I love to watch a rich white woman cry through the botox. I’d call it a guilty pleasure but I don’t feel guilty. I don’t know that it’s a harmless pleasure, though.
Simone: Because as long as there is a market for stories of the glamorous criminal…there’s an opportunity to spin bad behavior into gold. And why choose to be good…when you can be famous instead?
Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. This episode was produced by Kinsey Clarke. Next week we dive into the vividly-colored world of emojis…
Hannah: There’s an emoji for a one humped camel and an emoji for two humped camels. And you know, I’ve had to think about this, like how often in my life do I need to differentiate a bactrian from a dromedary?
Simone: The rest of our team is producer Sarah Craig. And Associate producer Julie Carli. Our intern is Laura Newcombe. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Andrea B. Scott, Maura Walz and Zac Stuart-Pontier. Fact checking by Jane Ackermann. Sound design and mixing by Matt Boll. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka. Special thanks to: Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey, Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat.
Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. Click the little bell next to the follow button to get notification of new episodes! And follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.
Stephen: The Gabors had a glamour and a class and it was genuine, and it was old world, and The Real Housewives? I'm sorry. They're just very common.