The thing that makes my interview with Zsa Zsa Gabor so unforgettable has nothing to do with her exotic personal profile. It has everything to do with her association with one of the world’s grande dames—African American singer, dancer, activist, Josephine Baker.
My drive to Ms Gabor’s home, up the winding road past the huge Bel Air iron gates had the look, smell, and feel of privilege. Along the way, my film crew and I passed the house used to shoot the exteriors for The Beverly Hillbillies. Not only did I love that show back in the day, it was the spark that made me want to move to California.
At the entrance to Zsa Zsa’s grand estate were beautiful floor to ceiling French double doors propped open for our arrival. Inside, everything was ornate, massive, beautiful. The marble floors were spotless; the fine art, impressive—like being in a museum. In fact, I expected classical music to fill the space. Instead, Hall and Oates’ You’re a Rich Girl blaring on her sound system shook the walls. I guess there was some symmetry to that.
Ms. Gabor had agreed to be interviewed for the TV special I was writing and producing about Josephine Baker. Her staff greeted us; gave instructions as to where we were to set up our gear; then left. I was sure they explained to her exactly why I wanted to do the interview. Wrong!
“So, what is it dear that you want to talk to me about?” Ms. Gabor asked after we’d moved past the small talk. Rather than provide a long backstory, I dove right in. “Josephine Baker and her “rainbow tribe” of adopted children were about to be evicted from her French castle,” I stated. “You helped her when no one else in America would—you saved her life and dignity. Tell me about that and why you did what you did.”
She froze. Looked away, stunned. Her peaches and cream skin turned ashen. We sat silent for what felt like minutes, but likely only seconds. Then, “Dahling, how did you find that out?” she probed. “No one was to know.” Few did. It was 1983, Pre-Internet, Lexis Nexis and every other news database. I did my research the old-fashioned way. Since I couldn’t go directly to the source (Josephine died eight years earlier), I went to the next best thing—Josephine’s manager, and confidant, Stephen Papich. Once I tracked him down in Los Angeles, we became fast friends. “Come to my home,” he insisted. “I’ll share stories, show you Josephine’s scrapbooks, heirlooms, clothes, and all sorts of personal things she left for me. I’ll play her music, and prepare you her favorite dishes.”
I had an incredible time. I even got to sit at Josephine Baker’s player piano. Stephen and I developed such a strong bond thatthat one day he gifted me a stack of Josephine’s original recordings including her never-before-released final performance at the Bobino Music Hall, which he recorded himself.
It was Stephen who suggested that I interview Zsa Zsa for my documentary. “Josephine would like that,” he insisted.
Zsa Zsa had only met Josephine one time before her life-saving donation. She was moved by Josephine’s story of adopting children of all races. It broke her heart to hear from Stephen that Josephine and the children were facing eviction, so she contributed twenty thousand dollars to save her home and dignity.
She went on to give me a great interview about her admiration for Josephine. She thanked me for providing her an outlet to speak about something she never spoke about publicly in full detail.
LESSON LEARNED: If you can’t get the story from the original source, dig deep until you find the next best source. In this case, it was Zsa Zsa, who brought a rich perspective to an already dramatic story.
*Look for more of my interview with Zsa Zsa, plus other stories with notables that I’m compiling for my book, AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED? For updates, subscribe to my RSS feed or visit: www.shirleyneal.com.