The white Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible was from Budget. The driver and bodyguard were two UCLA students, hired earlier that day at the Ralphs in Westwood for $100 apiece. It was October 1982 and Hans Robert Lichtenberg — who now called himself Prince Frederic von Anhalt, Duke of Saxony and Westphalia, Count of Ascania — was newly arrived in Los Angeles and ready to party.
His car pulled up to what his concierge at the Beverly Hilton had assured him was the soiree of the evening: a black-tie affair thrown by writer Sidney Sheldon at his Maison du Soleil estate in Holmby Hills. The Sinatras and the Douglases would be there; Rosemary Clooney, too.
But as he headed up the steps in a dark green dress uniform laden with epaulets and medals, he encountered a possible hitch — Sheldon’s wife, actress Jorja Curtright (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing), stood at the front door alongside her husband, welcoming invited guests, which he certainly was not.
“I wasn’t nervous,” von Anhalt recalls. “Either it works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, you go home.” He approached Curtright, mustering his most regal manner. “Your royal highness,” she said, “Nice to see you again!”
“She never saw me in her whole life!” says von Anhalt. “At that point, Sidney bowed.” The faux prince had found his perfect dominion: Hollywood.
The first guest to approach the then-39-year-old was Hungarian-born Zsa Zsa Gabor, then 65 and famous for her own carefully constructed persona. “We spoke German, about our love of Munich,” he says. Then he quickly fled the party, worried he’d be found out. “I said I had another engagement.” She asked where he was staying and the next day called for him to visit her Bel Air mansion. Four years later, he’d become her ninth husband.
The shameless couple were the original hateable duo, joyful villains of the tabloid press. For 20 years, they titillated the rag-reading masses with silly glamour and scandal — like Zsa Zsa’s infamous 1989 slap of a Beverly Hills cop — long before contemporary famous-for-being-famous couples like Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt monetized their own narratives through reality television and social media. It lasted until Gabor fell ill in the early 2000s, when the gossip grew darker about her alleged swindler husband and his egregious care.
A year and counting since Gabor died at age 99, von Anhalt, 74, is preparing their Bel Air mansion for a splashy April 14 estate auction of her belongings — from her extensive wardrobe of Chanel and Valentino to the Steinway piano her third husband, actor George Sanders, painted gold after he won best supporting actor for 1950’s All About Eve. Combing through her things, von Anhalt reflects on what he considers a well-lived life, albeit one built on a brazen history of chicanery. As what is likely to be his most public chapter comes to an end, von Anhalt is finally willing to come (mostly) clean about his singular journey, which he views with no small amount of pride.
Von Anhalt never told Gabor he hadn’t been invited to the Sheldons, he says, but he did soon inform her of his staged theatrics; he claims that she was delighted by his audacity. “She felt, if somebody can do that, he can do much, much more.”
Hans Robert Lichtenberg became Prince Frederic von Anhalt, Duke of Saxony and Westphalia, Count of Ascania in 1979, when the impoverished 81-year-old Princess Marie-Auguste von Anhalt, daughter-in-law to the final German kaiser, adopted him in exchange for a 2,000-mark monthly pension. (She died in 1981.)
The deal was arranged through Hans Hermann Weyer, a German broker of nobility titles who goes by the Count of Yorck and who at that point had recently been imprisoned in connection with the sale of a phony academic credential. Weyer calls the adoption “the most appalling” out of more than 500 he’s executed. He says Lichtenberg “came to my elegant office in a jogging suit” and that he “owned a gay sauna with connections to the red-light district.” But Weyer is most likely upset because he still hasn’t received most of his 200,000-mark fee. (“Screw him: He’s a crooked guy,” responds von Anhalt.) Von Anhalt isn’t coy about why he purchased his title. “I needed a door-opener,” he says. “It was a tool. This was a business decision — show business.”
Born in 1943 in the provincial western German village of Wallhausen to a strict bookkeeper mother and a distant police detective father, von Anhalt concedes that making Gabor his literal Jewish American Princess was, among other pleasures, “payback” against a father who who was physically abusive toward him.
Young Lichtenberg first saw his future at a wealthy cousin’s wedding when he was 12 years old. A professional cameraman had been hired to memorialize the event. While other family members abashedly retreated, Lichtenberg rushed forward, hogging the frame, entranced by the camera’s ability to turn him into entertainment, a person happily flattened into a mere personality. “I was the lead, next to the bride,” he says, still smiling at the moment. “They couldn’t get rid of me.” Notes his younger brother Rolf, a winemaker in the region: “He always tried to be the center of attention, and managed to.”
By his own account, von Anhalt went on to become a serial entrepreneur in Germany, owning and operating a disco, steakhouse and multiple saunas around Dortmund. By the 1970s, he says, he had settled into the tony embassy neighborhood of Munich, where he would engage in loan-sharking: “Once you have money, you have lots of broken-down people coming to you,” he explains. “Somebody wanted 50,000 [Deutsche marks] and you get 75,000 back. It was under the table: easy coming, easy going.”
A THR attempt to confirm his address found that a city phone directory from 1980-81 shows him residing in a less exclusive neighborhood, listing him as an “actor” — a characterization that rankles him. His talent, he says, is as an “entertainment personality,” and he explains the phone book entry by noting at that time he had a budding niche hosting live events at discos. “I have always been able to talk,” he says.
Meanwhile, German newspapers from that decade chronicle a series of court proceedings and reported convictions for assault, burglary, fraud and theft. One case involved an allegation by von Anhalt’s insurance company that he tried to get paid twice for losses from a fire at one of his saunas. In another, a 16-year-old boy testified in April 1982 that von Anhalt paid him to steal a white leather jacket, six crocodile belts, a walking cane and two shaving brushes from a department store. Von Anhalt says he’s guilty merely of purchasing the teenager’s fenced goods. Generally when confronted with evidence of his criminal record, he waves it away as long-ago misunderstandings.
With his newly purchased title, von Anhalt got into the nobility trade himself. He sold his name, via brief sham marriages and his own adoption of five adult sons, who paid him for the privilege. He also hawked dozens of knighthoods for between $50,000 and $100,000. All told, according to von Anhalt, he made more than $10 million.
In 1979, von Anhalt became a real head of state — just not for a real country. He was named Prince Regent of the Principality of Sealand, a micronation established by tax dodgers in 1967 on a World War II-era anti-aircraft platform off the coast of England. His princely duties mostly included selling diplomatic passports, of which he would take a cut. Von Anhalt insists this work was aboveboard, but nevertheless quit after Germany tightened financial regulations in 1983. “I didn’t want to get in trouble,” he explains. Today, the principality’s website offers its own titles for sale. A dukeship currently goes for $734.99.
These days, Von Anhalt complains of his ancestral name’s devaluation. One of his adopted sons, formerly known as Marcus Eberhardt, leveraged the title in service of expanding his German chain of brothels. “I didn’t like that but I couldn’t get out of [the deal] anymore,” he says.
“Everything happened in this room,” von Anhalt announces in the breakfast annex of his estate, piled high with yellowing copies of Hello!, Bild and other publications that covered his exploits with Gabor. As he lovingly flips through their tabloid journey, he conjures the day in 1986 when her entourage determined that the pair would soon be hitched. “The room was full of people — her lawyer, her manager. All of a sudden Phil Paladino, the press agent, came to me and said: ‘We’ve decided you’ll marry on the 14th of August.’ I thought, ‘That’s Hollywood.’ ”
Von Anhalt’s charm offensive had won over Gabor and her team. Still, her mother, Jolie, was a holdout. The morning of the wedding, Jolie’s housekeeper called from Palm Springs, explaining that Jolie had suffered a heart attack and Gabor was needed at the hospital. Her daughter shrugged and went on with the show. “By the afternoon, we received another call,” von Anhalt recalls, amused. “Everything was fine.”
He’d finally found his ideal life partner. Their marriage certificate lists the groom’s paper parents and the bride’s fictitious age. She’d lopped off 13 years.
Plenty of jet-setting ensued. In Manhattan, Gabor invariably protested over her suite at the Plaza Hotel. (“That’s when I met Trump,” who then owned the property, von Anhalt says; they became casual acquaintances, occasionally crossing paths in Palm Beach, Florida.) On red carpets across the world, she’d swan with him by her side, yet once inside, she’d wilt. (“The events were boring to her.”) There were more local pleasures, too, like washing their seven dogs, and early bird dinners at Nate ‘n Al — where they’d kibitz with such regulars as Milton Berle and Larry King.
Marriage meant abiding Gabor’s flaws, including her tendency to underscore her point in an argument by throwing plates, and cleaning up her messes. Rodeo Drive fashion boutique Giorgio “would send three dresses for Zsa Zsa to wear for an event. She’d select one and then on Monday they’d all go back: ‘Return it, I don’t like it!’ she’d say. The woman picking them up would say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s some makeup on this dress!’ I’d be left to argue.”
Most of her idiosyncrasies, however, he simply found endearing, like her awards-show balloting approach, based on appearance and camaraderie, not skill (perhaps unshocking from an actress whose most notable professional honor was a Special Golden Globe in 1958 for the since-discontinued distinction of Most Glamorous.)
Von Anhalt also consoled his wife over what remained for decades her greatest disappointment. She and sisters Eva and Magda (along with mom, the Kardashians of their day), had finally convinced their reluctant father to move to Los Angeles from Budapest (he and Jolie had previously separated), but when he discovered that she’d converted from Judaism to Catholicism to marry Conrad Hilton, he moved back. “She kept his cane,” he says. “It was by her bed when she died.”
Von Anhalt has far less affection toward his parents, who cut him off. A few years after his departure from Wallhausen, he returned to his home on Christmas Eve, only to have his mother turn him away at the door. “She said she didn’t want a fight with my father,” von Anhalt says. “I didn’t have enough money to go to a hotel. I slept on the street for a week. It was very cold.” His reaction to the incident was a passion for the holiday season.
In 1995, when von Anhalt and Gabor couldn’t travel on their annual trip to Europe, he surprised her with 30 tons of snow on their property. “She was crying,” he says, his eyes misting. “I said, ‘If we can’t go to the snow, the snow has to come to us.’ “
Another thing he understood about Gabor was the secret to staying in his wife’s favor. “Those other guys,” von Anhalt says of the eight husbands who preceded him, “when there was a fight, they’d leave. Then they’d try to apologize with a present. I didn’t do that. We always talked it out on the spot.” He adds, impishly: “She loved to fight. She wanted to show she’s the boss. I always knew to give in.”
The couple’s power dynamic inverted when Gabor’s health began its long decline after she was seriously injured in a 2002 car accident. Soon she’d become further impaired by a stroke. Von Anhalt portrays the 14-year stretch until her death at 99 as one of selfless around-the-clock spousal caregiving, an emotionally depleting journey unappreciated and misunderstood by all but perhaps the two nurses who helped care for her during daytime hours.
Aside from lunches at Caffe Roma in Beverly Hills and daily visits to his West Hollywood gym, he contends he was at his wife’s side, in a leather office chair beside the state-of-the-art hospital bed he’d installed in the massive master bedroom. There, day after day, even when she lost her ability to speak and could only signal with a point of her finger or a squeeze of his hand, they would watch hours of TMZ (“She still wanted to know the Hollywood gossip”) and Days of Our Lives (“So boring, but she loved it”).
The best entertainment of all, however, would forever be anything featuring Gabor, whether a film or talk show appearance. Von Anhalt, aware of her limited grasp of technology, enacted again and again what he felt to be one of his sweetest cons. He’d play a tape from her personal video archive and pretend he’d discovered it by flipping through channels: “‘Jesus! They’re still showing it!’ Lili. Moulin Rouge. Phil Donahue. She’d smile.”
Gabor’s sole child, Francesca Hilton, a troubled actress/photographer/comedienne whom her mother financially supported, was von Anhalt’s most persistent critic. She took any opportunity to lance him as a foolish liar. (When the Berlin Wall fell, she goosed him about whether the family could now tour his long-claimed East German castles, forcing him to concede he’d embellished.) She also relentlessly, openly challenged his sexuality, even working it into the stand-up routine she sometimes performed at The Comedy Store: “My mother, Zsa Zsa Gabor, always wanted to be a princess, so she married a queen.”
Von Anhalt has long had a reputation in West Hollywood for his purported cruising. “Ask any queen at his gym in those showers or at the ‘gay Starbucks’ on Santa Monica Boulevard,” says local interior designer Bobby Trendy, a von Anhalt acquaintance who still finds it laughable that von Anhalt once announced at a press conference that he might’ve sired the daughter of the late queer glamour icon Anna Nicole Smith, a close friend of Trendy’s. This wasn’t the first time von Anhalt appears to have attempted to burnish his hetero credentials by telling the press he’d impregnated a sex symbol: In 1986, he said he slept with Csilla Molnar, a former Miss Hungary, who died of a lidocaine overdose soon after winning the crown. Von Anhalt claimed it was because he refused to marry her. (He has no biological children but tells THR he intends to soon offer $1 million to a woman willing to produce his heir.)
While von Anhalt will offer an unsolicited anecdote about how Merv Griffin, then the constant companion of Eva Gabor, once made a fruitless pass at him when they were alone at the Hotel du Cap in Antibes (“He said, ‘It doesn’t cost anything to try!’ “) and will eagerly show off a pair of underwear Matt Damon gifted him from the 2013 HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra — which shot at the house while Zsa Zsa Gabor was confined in ill health down the hall — he refuses to directly engage on the subject.
“I never talk about my sexual life,” he says. “For 35 years, I’ve been going to that gym in West Hollywood. I get along with everybody. I do my stuff. I go to the sauna. Things happen. Who cares? I don’t.” Still, he adds pointedly of Gabor, “my wife was woman enough to know what her husband was doing and, believe me, she wouldn’t have accepted a gay guy in her bed.”
When her mother became frail, Hilton’s disapproval of von Anhalt grew over what she contended were Gabor’s missed mortgage payments, conspicuous isolation and unacceptable sedation. He chalks up the dissent to jealousy and insists that his actions, often viewed as self-serving stunts, were meant as upbeat and affirming. He points, for instance, to the headline-grabbing 25th anniversary billboard he paid $68,000 for on Sunset Boulevard, which featured Gabor in a tiara and him in House of Saxony finery. “Wasn’t that the best present you could give somebody who’s stuck in bed?” he plaintively asks. “I knew she loved billboards. I knew she’d see it on television. Then, there it is: ‘You’re back in the game.’ She never saw something like that. She giggled.” He shakes his head at his thoughtfulness being so unappreciated. “There was no reason to bad-mouth me for it.”
Hilton had other concerns, too, most notably that Gabor required a leg amputation as a result of an infection that’d grown from an inch to a foot in length due to, Hilton believed, negligence. “Who gets gangrene in Bel Air in the millennium, anyway?” says Ed Lozzi, Hilton’s then-publicist. A high-profile battle resulted in a court-appointed conservatorship of Gabor. Hilton died of a heart attack in 2015 at age 67, months after the legal saga ended. “It was brought on by total stress,” says Lozzi. “Francesca was a mess toward the end. I believe there’s nobody else more responsible for her death than [von Anhalt].”
Gabor would never know that her daughter predeceased her. “I didn’t want to upset my wife, because she loved Francesca,” says von Anhalt. “She would have gone out right away, exactly like [her friend] Debbie Reynolds,” who passed away a day after she learned of the death of her own daughter, Carrie Fisher. “When I heard about Debbie, I was almost in tears. I thought, ‘I did the right thing not telling Zsa Zsa.’ “
Hilton was hardly von Anhalt’s only critic. Richard Heard, a close pal of Gabor’s since the early 1980s who attested he regularly spoke to her several times a day, asserted in an affidavit that not only did von Anhalt misappropriate her finances but “Frederic disconnected or removed” Gabor’s private and household phone lines that “served as her only method of communication with her friends and the outside world.”
Heard’s affidavit, from Hilton’s conservatorship case, also recalls a scene from the mid-1990s, when Gabor was said to have finally been made aware of a decade-old New York Post article published on the eve of their wedding that referred to her husband as “king of the con men,” outlined his criminal record and questioned his lineage. By Heard’s recollection, Gabor cried when she read it, then confronted her husband “in a rage I had never seen before.”
Von Anhalt asserts that it’s absurd to suggest that the press-savvy Gabor, with her phalanx of Hollywood courtiers, wouldn’t have been made aware of the Post story at the time of publication. “We’d been together for several years before we were married,” he reasons. “She knew about everything: She read the papers. She got a thousand calls about me. I was bad-mouthed left and right. I remember once, she said into the phone: ‘Well, he didn’t kill anyone, did he?’ That was it! End of conversation.”
His body clock still on the caregiving night shift, von Anhalt remains nocturnal, walking the streets of Bel Air past midnight, planning his next act: a second quixotic run for California governor, following a 2010 bid, that was cut short by Gabor’s ill health. His Caffe Roma buddy and fellow emigre Arnold Schwarzenegger inspired him. A Trump fan, von Anhalt intends to run as an independent under the slogan “Make America Livable Again” on a staunchly pro-development platform that he expects will trickle down to the exploding homeless population.
Returning to the giant house in the small hours, he’ll head to his computer, scrolling through clips of his wife on YouTube. “If I watch one, I have to watch 10,” he says. “It holds me for hours. The time goes fast.” He’s looking forward to the slick new Century City condo tower he soon expects to downsize into after the “headache” of so many years in the Bel Air property (“I want to live with one key”). To that end, he’s putting hundreds of Gabor’s items up for auction, more than 400 at last count, many of which are on display in the home in preparation for visiting bidders. “I feel guilty that I’m giving away too much,” he says. “I still see [her possessions] each day when I go about the house. They taunt me.”
Mainly, though, he’s wrestling with what won’t be on offer, the “private stuff,” hundreds of videotapes (his wife on, say, safari with her sixth husband, Mattel executive Jack Ryan) and correspondence (a lustful letter from Richard Nixon). “I take my time [going through them], I do it slow,” he says. “I don’t know if I should throw it away, if I should keep it. I always put it back in the drawers. It’s awful.”
Some take a jaundiced view of the von Anhalt-Gabor union. “I think it was an arrangement of mutual convenience,” says James M. Pembroke, the former head of security for Gabor, who lived on her property when she began seeing von Anhalt. “She knew he was gay. Everyone around them knew it was a joke, that he wasn’t a prince. But she was also difficult and just happy, at that age, to find someone who would be with her, who she could use as a prop.”
Others interpret the same perceived truths with more sympathy. “I’ve often said that if my husband were to predecease me, I’d probably marry a wonderful gay friend who I could cuddle with, watch movies, talk and ‘you do your thing and I’ll do mine,’ ” reasons actress Ruta Lee, who visited Gabor regularly in her final years with mutual friend Alex Trebek. “I can’t help but think that was Zsa Zsa’s plot. She found a handsome man who adored her, and I think took extremely good care of her in the end.”
At their wedding, after they exchanged vows, Gabor addressed the couple’s detractors, perhaps some even in the room, in a speech: “I don’t give a damn and he doesn’t give a damn about what people say.”
Von Anhalt still doesn’t give a damn about what people say. “We really loved each other,” he says. “Yeah, we made noise. That’s what people do. It comes with the business.” He doesn’t specify whether he means the business of Hollywood or of marriage. Unambiguous is his appreciation for the country that enabled his particular brand of entrepreneurship. “Here you can blindfold with money, with looks, with power,” says von Anhalt. “People fall for it. In Europe, they hold you at a distance. In America, they give you a chance, they take you for what you are. There’s so much more bluff in America.”
This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.