Bookworm: Family secrets and lies, heartbreak and horror

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend”

  • By Sam Staggs
  • c. 2019, Kensington
  • $26, $35 Canada; 448 pages

The scandal seems just too good to ignore.

One sister has a series of love affairs and a much-discussed pregnancy. Another sister’s relationships are shaky, while a third battles a secret past and Mama hovers over it all with her two-cents’ worth. The Kardashians?  Nooope. Read the new book “Finding Zsa Zsa” by Sam Staggs and take your thoughts back a few more decades.

Remember the Gabor Sisters?

While most people would recall Magda, Zsa Zsa, and Eva as being constantly swathed in furs and gems, that was only part of a story of conflicts to explain lives of construct, as Staggs shows. The truth, maybe, is that the sisters were not-so-rich at times. They were famously Hungarian, but also claimed Mongolian heritage, Gypsy forebears and Russian blood. They were Jewish, but probably Catholic.

“Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend” by Sam Staggs

As children, the girls were fiercely loved, raised to be resourceful and given lessons in the arts. The two eldest, Magda and Sári (later known as Zsa Zsa), were educated at private schools because their mother wanted them to have social skills and fluency in other languages. Though neither Magda nor Zsa Zsa had overly-fond memories of boarding school, being there had to have been of some relief since their parents fought constantly.

And so did the sisters, through the years. Zsa Zsa alone had nine marriages and one child. Her sisters were also serial brides, and one of them may have been bisexual. Not only did they fight with the men in their lives (battles sometimes facilitated by Jolie), but there was also fierce rivalry between them, often because of their careers.

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Relationships aside, the Gabors had other troubles. Zsa Zsa and Eva were in America when World War II broke out while the rest of the family was left in the path of the Nazis; Magda worked for the underground during the war and was in constant danger but rarely spoke of it, even years later. There were broken hearts and illnesses, fading opportunities, dementia and in the end, the family was ripped completely apart…

One thing’s for sure: “Finding Zsa Zsa” is a little too much.

It opens with author Sam Staggs’ opinion on the five most important days in the Gabors' lives, then jumps into a genealogy that feels as though it’s been put in a blender and poured on paper. Happily, the storytelling gets better and easier to grasp; once we’re into the raison d’être for the book, it’s readable, humorous, and even exciting, although it can occasionally feel tabloid-like and peripheral details sometimes upstage the show. Staggs also claims that Green Acres predicted the rise of Donald Trump, and he likens the show to Dadaism, both claims that may leave readers scratching their heads.

Still, this isn’t a terrible book; it’s just not for everyone. Its audience is likely patient and older, or obsessed with Old Hollywood, though even fans of Eva Gabor’s most famous role may be sometimes befuddled here. And yet, if you remember the sisters well, “Finding Zsa Zsa” may be just too good to ignore.

“The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue”

  • By John Glatt
  • c. 2019, St. Martin’s Press
  • $28.99, $38.50 Canada; 310 pages

Your neighbors’ door is always closed, firmly.

Being stick-to-themselves kind of people, they don’t chit-chat across lawns or stop by to borrow a tool, and they never wave when you see them. They’re hard to figure out but, as in “The Family Next Door” by John Glatt, you don’t know what happens behind closed doors.

“The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue” by John Glatt

When 17-year-old David Turpin met 10-year-old Louise Robinette, it was love at first sight: he “showered the shy girl with attention,” and they courted by holding hands in church. When she was 16 and he was 23, the pair ran away to Texas, got married and moved to California, hoping to start the big family that Louise always said she wanted.

Their first daughter was born in mid-1988 and by all accounts, Louise was overjoyed at becoming a mother. A son arrived in early 1992 and another child in late 1993. Fifteen months later, the eldest, Jennifer, started first grade and trouble began immediately: she was taunted by peers for “poor personal hygiene.” While she was enduring social agony at school, another baby arrived at home, and another, and another…

By early 2015, there were thirteen Turpin children. David and Louise – who’d insisted on being called “Father” and “Mother” – had moved the family several times, leaving homes in terrible states of filth with each move. The children were “homeschooled,” but they weren’t even taught the basics. When she was displeased, Mother would “pitch” them across the room, and fear kept them in line. If that didn’t work, they were starved and chained to their beds, often with no access to bathrooms, showers or the outdoors.

John Glatt, author of "The Family Next Door: The Heartbreaking Imprisonment of the Thirteen Turpin Siblings and Their Extraordinary Rescue”

And yet, curiously, pricey gifts were given for “good behavior,” including smartphones for the older children. In January 2018, those devices proved to be life-saving, as one of the Turpin girls worked a plan she’d concocted, borrowed a phone, crawled out a window, and called 911.

For the last 18 months, much about the Turpin case was shrouded in necessary secrecy, and who’d blame you for being curious? Nobody, so author John Glatt takes the lid off the whole sensational story, but alas, “The Family Next Door” leaves as many questions as it answers, and many threads are left hanging.

There’s also a lot of repetition here, specifically, explanations of something within the timeline and the same, often identical, words inside the trial account. New information then feels muddy, perhaps due to the sheer overload of it all. In other words, don’t be surprised if this book feels like too much, because it is.

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And yet, there are moments of this book that will astound you for their strength and grip you in total astonishment. The former will hit you in the heart while the latter will make you think of a train wreck: you can’t look, but you can’t not.

Super-sensitive readers, please pass on this book because it’s riveting but also very disturbing. For true-crime buffs, though, it’s a gigantic “yes," and “The Family Next Door” will have you in its clutches until its back cover is closed.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.