Bruce Hutchison visits ZSA ZSA GABOR
On the prowl in movieland, for a new series for Maclean’s, this dignified historian started out by dropping in on a sex goddess. He departed neither sadder nor wiser, but it was one of the most memorable interviews since W. C. Fields met Mae West
HUTCHISON IN HOLLYWOOD: I'
How I got into the clutches of Miss Zsa Zsa Gabor (pronounced Gabour to rhyme with amour) I can’t rightly say. One thing led to another. This affair, let it be understood from the beginning, was innocent on both sides, highly intellectual, and pure to the point of horror. But it didn’t turn out as planned.
It had been planned as a scientific inquiry into a major North American phenomenon— an impartial analysis of Hollywood's primary commercial product, loosely called Sex Appeal, as pre-eminently represented by the Hungarian enchantress.
It turned out instead to be a rather ghastly joke. The joke, of course, was on me. Miss Gabor saw to that with her unequaled experience and a cunning which I can only call diabolical.
But I forgave her everything. She and her fellow practitioners are greatly misunderstood.
Having flown across the continent to interview a love goddess, I saw that a man had been sent on a boy’s errand the moment I entered her mansion outside Los Angeles. I was too old for this grim kind of work and much too naïve.
The mansion’s owner (as I learned too late) had been trained from girlhood as an expert fencer and had kept herself in athletic train-
ing. Now she stood at her doorway alert, taut,
She was dressed for combat, armored in martial crimson from head to foot. The long, shapeless housecoat revealed nothing but a nimbus of argent hair, an exquisite face of glazed ceramic and two tiny hands. They gripped an invisible rapier. Armed with nothing more than a pencil, a notebook and a simple, rustic faith, I faced a deadly duel.
Not that Miss Gabor was impolite or inhospitable. She was charming, overpowering, delicious. She squeezed my hand warmly, dazzled me by a smile that would keep the St. Lawrence ice-free all winter, laughed gaily in soft, metallic tinkle and expressed a deep admiration for my country, my profession and my mind. She
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Bruce Hutchison visits Zsa Zsa Gabor
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“‘To this siren who had deliberately scandalized the nation I was Just an elderly sitting duck”
didn’t even complain, though T had arrived a full hour late after losing myself in a maze of disjointed roads.
In short, she was obviously relieved to recognize me as a quaint, primitive type from the northern wilderness, an elderly sitting duck. For an international siren who had dismissed three rich husbands, was planning to acquire a fourth and had deliberately scandalized the nation of her adoption year in and year out, the thing was too easy.
The duellist took one look at her victim. sheathed her weapon and offered me a drink.
Wishing to keep my head clear for the work before me, I suggested coffee. That, she confessed, as she drew me into a bottomless chesterfield, would be difficult. She had just hired a new maid and “in Hollywood, you know, a new maid is equal to a nervous breakdown.”
However, coffee soon appeared from nowhere in a splendid silver pot. Miss Gabor’s tiny hand lifted the pot and, in a delicate, stylized gesture, as if .she were doing it on the stage, filled my cup. Two lumps of sugar and a special smile were added “for such a sweet gentleman.”
This ritual gave me a chance to look around the magnificent room filled with objets d’art, priceless bric-à-brac, an amorous French poodle, two minute, yapping Yorkshire terriers and Miss Gabor’s palace guard.
Taking no chances, she had stationed her press agent, a dour, protective person, in the background lest my questions prove difficult. She had summoned her personal autobiographer, Mr. Gerold Frank, a brilliant and likeable man, for intellectual support, I suppose. She had also provided a photographer, who crawled all over the floor exploding flash bulbs.
This defense in depth, as she must have realized at once, was quite unnecessary. When the photographer asked me to move closer to her on the chesterfield she patted my hand in reassurance. I was harmless. In fact, this diminutive creature, her head hardly reaching my shoulder, made me feel like a savage and talk like a scrambled egg. If the reader thinks that strange, he has not met Miss Gabor in her lonely, hilltop castle.
Nevertheless, I managed to outline the terms of reference. It had been agreed in advance with the press agent that the purpose of my mission would not be crudely stated in this chaste home. The phrase “sex appeal" would not rear its ugly head. Miss Gabor, as I had been warned, rarely gave interviews. Her personal life (though explored in the papers every day) was sacred and her real interests. 1 gathered, were in higher things like acting and painting. Still, if 1 would keep the conversation on that lofty level she would sec me. 1 promised her now that 1 would abide by these rules.
She nodded approval as I repeated the agreement with comic solemnity. You might have thought that we were assembled to negotiate nothing less than world peace. But my companion in this preposterous adventure was tired of it already.
James H. Richardson, the Los Angeles editor who is celebrated in novel, motion picture and California’s ripe legendary as “The Last of the Terrible Men,” had taken a dark view of my assignment from the start. Accustomed, since he left Winnipeg some forty years ago, to actresses, politicians, detectives, gangsters, murderers and phonies of all sorts, Richardson seemed little impressed by Hungary's best-known export and less by me.
Suddenly that great-hearted man sprang to my rescue and. standing with a look of dark menace over the chesterfield, announced that I was only a simple political reporter entirely uninterested in the lady’s private affairs and the stale clichés of her lovelife, that my sole object was to study Hollywood as a cultural centre and Miss Gabor as one of its essential exhibits.
I thought the opening speech excellent, if a trifle overdone. Our hostess evidently thought it incredible. She glanced at Richardson as if he were a dangerous lunatic and at me as if T were his helpless victim. No one, I guessed, had ever talked to her in this elevated fashion before. She kept smiling with her teeth but the gleam in her eye hardened perceptibly.
A doll wired for sound
At the conclusion of his address my friend laid down the virtuous formula on which he and I had agreed beforehand. Avoiding the forbidden word sex, he asked Miss Gabor to explain the mysteries of glamour, a more dignified word for the commercial product which is discussed and sold in Hollywood the way an economist discusses the national income or a broker sells shares of United States Steel.
While Miss Gabor was considering Richardson’s question I took the opportunity to observe the subject of the investigation more closely. She was not the person 1 had expected to see.
What, you may ask, had 1 expected? Again. I can’t rightly say. Perhaps a dumb, hot blonde with seductive perfume and rehearsed answers from an old script: or possibly a blue angel like the early Dietrich in fluffy garters; or maybe a Theda Bara in metal brassiere as remembered from my panting youth. In any case, I expected something ludicrous, the material of a little harmless parody and, with luck, even a morsel of information.
The Love Goddess, contemporary version, was nothing like that. For one thing, she didn't wear perfume or display her figure. For another, unlike most actresses, she was prettier in life than in motion pictures, much smarter and — despite he reputation —strangely chilling.
On the screen she might appear boisterous and ardent but in life Miss Gabor (though no one will believe it) made me think of a china figurine, or a doll of porcelain, skilfully articulated and wired for sound, or an old-fashioned miniature painted on a snuff box — a beautiful miniature, mind you, the work of a master, but painted and unreal.
Her hair floated in a cumulus cloud shot with streaks of silvery light, but
oddly dark at the roots. (If that platinum color was artificial an able metallurgist had done the job.) Her face was finely chiseled by nature and glazed by art in a flat, uniform buff color, except for the scarlet lips. The hazel eyes were darkly ringed with accurate draftsmanship. From their outer edges two coal-black lines had been penciled obliquely upward for at least three quarters of an inch and were worn candidly as a sailor wears tattoo marks. The general effect was wholly pleasing and artistic—just good, honest design intended to deceive no one.
Completing this shameless inventory. 1 noted that the high cheek bones and uptilted eyes gave the features a subtle Slavic or Asiatic cast, the remnant, 1 presume, of racial migrations into the Danube valley long ago.
Again no one will believe it. but the impact of this extraordinary person was coldly impersonal, as she no doubt desired. Other men no doubt have regarded her differently but I felt myself to be in the presence of a statue. The first siren of my acquaintance was as sexless as a knife and equally sharp.
Miss Gabor turned on me her luminous eyes and an air of puzzled inquiry almost believable.
“What is the question?” she asked.
“Glamour,” I said, secretly trembling lest 1 should forget myself and use a more common word. "How do you explain glamour?” She knew what 1 meant all right but she needed time to think out an answer as phony as my question.
Glamour, she began, by way of evasive action, came from childhood training among the best people, from manners taught in a fashionable home, from the right school and the right clothes. These things she had been taught in Budapest, in Vienna and at a finishing school in Switzerland.
“My mother and father,” she explained. “instructed me what to wear, how to talk, how to enter a room—you know, everything a girl needs to know. That’s glamour.”
All this, of course, had nothing whatever to do with the question as she was well aware. My expression must have indicated that I considered her remarks sheer nonsense and 1 could sec that she was irritated.
“If.” she said defiantly, “a woman has a pretty face and a good figure and a million dollars, that’s glamour enough for any man.”
I couldn't dispute her unequalled knowledge on that score but 1 shook my head, while gently ejecting one of the terriers from under the coffee table with my foot before it could eat the rest of my trousers.
Miss Gabor persisted in equivocation by citing an example of spurious glamour. A certain famous actress (whose name I was forbidden to use but who certainly has the primary Hollywood product in abundance) was a friend of hers, a dear dear friend, and so beautiful that everyone gasped as she entered a room.
“But when she opens her mouth,” said Miss Gabor, “it’s all ruined. She can’t talk. She didn’t go to the right school. The glamour — it just evaporates. Like that!”
“No, no, Zsa Zsa,” Frank, the autobiographer, objected. “That’s not what he means at all. He means the inner essence, the touch of communication, the — the —”
Even the man of letters couldn’t define what any of us meant when we were tongue-tied by our formula of respectability. Miss Gabor made a pretty pretense of not understanding Frank and started all over again.
“Garbo had it,” she said irrelevantly, "and so had Harlow, and Dietrich, and Monroe and Liz Taylor.”
“And you?” I ventured.
At that she shrugged modestly and repeated that she had been brought up well.
1 decided to infringe the formula and put the thing bluntly: “Why do men like you?”
Another tinkle and a good show of girlish confusion as she replied: "1 just don't know.”
That statement probably had the advantage of being true. At any rate, oui-
investigation was getting us nowhere. The love goddess, a perplexed oracle, perforce gave her answers in riddles.
While 1 squirmed on the chesterfield 1 saw out of the corner of my eye that Frank was also squirming, with sympathy, beside the vast picture window. Though acting here as Miss Gabor’s second. he wanted fair play, the strict code of duello.
Finally he interrupted the unequal contest to expostulate: “But Zsa. Zsa. you're not answering the question. He asks you to define glamour.”
"That’s it!” the Terrible Man grunted from the corner. "What's glamour?”
The fencer retreated neatly, with a dainty pout and an air of bewilderment nearly credible.
“1 can’t answer three of you at once!” she cried. “What is the question?"
1 went over it again, laboriously, clumsily, idiotically. Miss Gabor listened intently, a frown of deep reflection furrowing the lovely brow. The ceramic glaze took on a sharper glint. She nodded gravely as if she had never heard of the primary product and found it baffling.
Frank threw up his hands in despair.
“You see?” he said. “Yesterday I asked Zsa Zsa how I could ever get down in a book her distillation of champagne, quick silver and glistening Sheffield steel. ‘No,’ said Zsa Zsa, ‘not steel—platinum.’ Oh, well . . .”
The hair might be platinum but the look which Miss Gabor threw at her autobiographer was of the best Sheffield. Ignoring the interruption, she deftlyswitched the subject from female to male glamour on which. I assume, she is a recognized authority.
“There are thirty or forty perfectly wonderful, beautiful men in Hollywood,” she affirmed. “It makes you swoon just to look at them. But when they start to talk! Why, every last one of them only wants to buy a ranch and be a cowboy. If I had to spend a whole day with a man like that I’d blow my brains out for boredom. No, they haven’t any glamour.”
In England, though, things were a little better. Sometimes she had found the real thing there — “the young lord, perfectly dressed, perfectly mannered, with a castle in the country and race horses and, you understand, everything.”
Her face lighted up at these memories, but briefly. Alas, she sighed, these glamorous young nobles usually were yokels at heart, only interested in horses, hunting and crops. They soon bored her. Good heavens, how young men bored her!
That, I inferred, was why she sometimes befriended but never married them. Hence the list of eligible candidates for Miss Gabor’s tiny hand might appear to be extensive but was quite limited after all. A Turkish ambassador when she was sixteen, then the hotel tycoon, Conrad Hilton, then George Sanders, the actor and her “dream man”—these alone had qualified so far as husbands.
But the engagement finger of her left hand reminded me that there would shortly be a fourth. That finger was freighted with the biggest diamond I had ever seen. To avoid exaggeration I must state that, contrary to general report, it was not as big as a hen’s egg. It was only the size of a bantam's egg; that is, an unnaturally large, overgrown bantam.
The owner saw me gaping at this jewel. She caressed it fondly and raised one black eyebrow to acknowledge my astonishment, though in point of fact I was only wondering whether she could get her left glove on and how she managed to raise her arm under the weight of its cargo. (Her matching diamond earrings, half an inch in diameter, would have kept the average family in comfortable retirement.)
The ring gave Miss Gabor another chance to dodge my questions.
She forgot herself and violated the terms of reference to announce: “I’m engaged to a distinguished and wonderful gentleman. This is his ring. It’s a blue diamond. Or perhaps you didn’t notice?"
One might just as easily have ignored a searchlight in a dark sky.
“Can you imagine it?’’ she demanded with a convincing expression of distaste. “Some people actually say I'm marrying this distinguished and wonderful gentleman just for his diamond!”
“Outrageous!” 1 said but didn't ask the gentleman’s name. It lay outside the terms of reference.
“Or they say," she went on, "that I'm marrying him for his fine house! (A house equipped. 1 had been told, with an endless spiral pool enabling the residents to swim from room to room.) "What would I want with another house? Why would I ever give up this beautiful house that I love?”
“Ridiculous!” I heard my voice saying in a tone of disgust.
“Oh, God!” the Terrible Man gurgled from the corner. The press agent kept his professional glare of warning trained on me. Frank gazed bleakly out the window. The photographer exploded more flash bulbs. The three dogs yapped in chorus. Everybody seemed to have forgotten the primary product. Miss Gabor remembered only her blue diamond and the injustice of life.
Some people, she added, were even suggesting that she give the diamond back to its donor in proof of her integrity. Wasn’t that outrageous? I agreed that it was outrageous.
“Everything you see,” she exclaimed, “I paid for myself. Everything. I am a working woman. You understand?"
I said I understood and I did, too. A few trifling gifts of friendship from admirers surely did not breach her strict code. Some churlish fellow in Congress had lately enumerated the costly favors allegedly bestowed upon her by the son
of a Caribbean statesman and had uttered certain harsh comments on her habits, but that critic could never have seen the working woman. Otherwise he would have realized the simple truth—Miss Gabor had just been born with a genius of human affection, a great big loving heart.
Her friends, she assured me, understood her motives, but the American press didn't and scandalously misrepresented her.
“Yesterday.” she recalled, “my agent handed me a pile of newspaper clippings about so high (the tiny hands indicated the height of at least a foot) and they said Zsa Zsa is this, Zsa is that—nonsense! I read one or two items and threw the rest on the floor. I pay no attention to newspapers. I don’t need them. They need me.”
The boldness of my next question surprised me and brought a grunt of approval from Richardson: if she didn't care about the press why did it so annoy her?
“How would you like it,” she shot back in a flash of steel—no, platinum— “if you picked up a paper and read that you dressed as carefully to go to bed as when you got up in the morning, eh?”
I indicated that this nocturnal picture was indeed fascinating but not one that
a respectable old gent should entertain. What, I repeated firmly, about glamour? Didn’t it include the quality of intelligence?
“Oh. yes,” she agreed enthusiastically. “Intelligence, of course.”
The word launched Richardson to his feet like an inquisitor. If Miss Gabor conceded that intelligence was essential to glamour would she now answer some intelligent questions?
She would gladly. All right then, said the Terrible Man, let her talk about politics. Did she have intelligent views on government?
Certainly she had. She was extremely interested in government, she said, reproving Richardson with her hardest Sheffield stare. But no questions about Russia, please. Her father still lived in Hungary under the Russians.
Just as I thought she was dodging again, this curious woman uttered a penetrating comment on American civilization. The United States, she said, was in no danger of communism because it was too close to the Communist system already.
“How’s that again?” Richardson and I demanded together, and not too politely-
Her riposte was calm and, I thought, very shrewd. The American system, she said, had provided all the high living standards and everything else that the Communists only prqmised to deliver. They were merely imitating American life. So why change it? No need, therefore, to fear the Communists in America.
Did she believe in democracy? .She said she did, but I detected a notable lack of enthusiasm. On second thoughts, she loved the principle of aristocracy as she had known it in her Hungarian youth. It was only right that the most talented, educated and elegant people should have greater rewards than the others, wasn’t it?
So they did in America, I suggested, my eyes wandering about her lavish house. A few millionaires might enjoy certain privileges, she retorted, but that wasn't aristocracy, not the real thing.
Lest this sentiment be misunderstood by her public, she added rather hastily that aristocracy was dead everywhere. Too late to regret it now. Besides, she loved America. She was proud to be an American citizen. And Hollywood wasn’t America, of course. She seemed to loathe Hollywood while adoring all its inhabitants.
What of her art as an actress? Was she a pupil of the popular Russian school? Did she follow what is technically known as The Method, a theory of acting, so to speak, from the soul and now a subject of bitter controversy in Hollywood?
Oh, yes, she had studied The Method but it had nearly ruined her career.
“I’m Hungarian,” she said, “and we Hungarians have enough emotion inside us without any Method. Maybe it's all right for Anglo - Saxons, to stimulate them. It was just what Gregory Peck needed to let himself go. I needed the opposite, to restrain me. When I got the right teacher, a wonderful woman who understood me, everything went beautifully. But two whole years were wasted on that Method!”
Surely, I said, she must have her own private method of acting? Did she become, within herself, the character she was portraying?
“But, of course! I read the script once, just once, and I «7» that person—completely. Dramatic parts are so easy. It’s the comedy that’s so hard—to put over someone else’s jokes, I mean. In dramatic parts I can feel all the character’s
emotions. When an actor says, ‘I love yon,’ then t always know exactly how to react.”
I didn't doubt it. Miss Gabor read my unworthy thoughts. Her face wore an air of concentration on her art but the eyes laughed into mine and she tapped my hand again with the diamond finger as if to say “touché!” The duel wasn’t entirely one-sided. At any rate, 1 saw that under the brittle ceramic glaze she had an impish sense of humor. She could laugh at herself and she wouldn't make a fool of me—not quite—if I kept my place. 1 began to like her.
Moreover, I began to sympathize with her life of grinding labor. Why, 1 asked, did she work so hard in movies, television and night clubs?
"I have to,” she said simply, “because I like to live well. 1 must make money. I have my house to keep, my furniture, my Renoirs—you know.”
The fluttering hands swept the room of treasures, all paid for by her honorable toil. I muttered my appreciation and remembered, privately, that her toil included weekly television advice to ladies in favor of an electric razor for use in shaving their legs. No one could work harder than that.
What would happen, I inquired, if she ever found herself poor?
Poverty, she assured me gravely, had no terrors for her. “My parents gave me a good education. 1 could make a living in many ways, in any station of life— interior decorating, clothes designing— oh, many different things. For the last two weeks I’ve been skiing in an old sweater and a pair of slacks and 1 was perfectly happy.”
I believed her but judged from the blue Hash of the diamond that poverty was not exactly imminent.
1 also concluded that Miss Gabor lived in two worlds, one imaginary, the other intensely practical. The dream world of her youth, where charm was a household art and fascination a native handicraft, had long been dead in Europe and had never existed here, but she managed somehow to maintain the illusion of it like the remembered tunc of a Viennese waltz.
The talk, now completely out of hand as its subject intended, had turned to the forthcoming autobiography. The sensitive autobiographer, who had written "I'll Cry Tomorrow” and other best-selling confessions of movie stars, said the new book would be entitled "Zsa Zsa and Me. by Zsa Zsa Gabor, as told to Gerold Frank." The title was meant to indicate that there were two Miss Gabors, the public character known as Zsa Zsa and the unknown woman teasingly called Me.
"It's to be a book of your life?" I asked, deadpan.
"A part of my life!" Miss Gabor answered demurely. Her tantalizing smile suggested but did nothing to disclose the other part, the mysterious Me. She quickly amended the smile to say that she hated publicity, just hated it. Her evident sincerity and pain wrung my heart.
The newspapers, she repeated, never could understand her. Besides. "I'm always saying the most awful things when 1 shouldn't and the papers pick them up.
I don’t know why 1 do it."
For once a faint pink of embarrassment oozed across the buff glaze. Possibly to hide her confusion she picked up one of the two revolting Yorkshire terriers, a ball of fluff called Mr. McGoo. and pressed him to her bosom, kissed his nose and asked me if he were not beautiful.
I detested the beast on sight and said he was the most beautiful dog I had ever encountered. Its twin barked jealously. They were useful stage properties.
All this time the photographer had been stalking about the room and crouching on the floor to make his angle shots but they didn't satisfy him. Miss Gabor and I must stand together in the hall. We must march down the stairs, arm in arm, like bride and groom. It was dreadful but inescapable. I heard another groan from Richardson as we began this grisly promenade.
"Closer! Closer!” the cameraman insisted. and Miss Gabor snuggled up beside me like the reliable old trouper she is.
“Keep talking, keep smiling!” he said, and she talked and smiled up at me as if she actually enjoyed it. She might not be a great actress on the stage but she performed our crude farce like a Bernhardt.
Our ordeal over at last, she picked up a photograph in a silver frame. It showed a handsome woman in her late fifties, I estimated. This, she said, was her mother, the truly beautiful member of the family, whose three daughters owed all their beauty and charm to her.
I saw no resemblance and declared that the two generations were practically identical.
The mother owned a jewelry business in New York, Miss Gabor informed me, and was about to remarry, an event which delighted the daughter. The parents. 1 also learned, had christened Miss Gabor "Sari" after her godmother, the great Hungarian actress. Sari Fedak. but the child found it impossible to pronounce that name so instead called herself Zsa Zsa. Even as an infant she must have possessed a sure sense of box office. Her early inspiration had unwittingly supplied Hollywood with a proper noun for its primary product.
Then she showed me a photograph of her father, a stout, soldierly figure, who was divorced from the mother but had the daughter’s doting affection.
Finally she produced a photograph of her own daughter, a sprightly girl of twelve, whose father is Conrad Hilton. As was doubtless expected of me. I said it was impossible to believe that Miss Gabor had a daughter of this advanced age.
She slapped my hand to acknowledge the false compliment and admitted archly that she could have a child much older.
Of course 1 wanted to ask her own age but my courage didn’t go that far. The official biography handed to me by the press agent noted, in a masterpiece of ambiguity, that she had been born “on February 6.” I would place that date at something just short of forty years ago. Yet at the distance of a few feet Miss Gabor might be taken for under thirty.
It was only when we sat down again and resumed the weary duel that I observed at close range the minute lines, thinner than cobwebs, at the corners of her eyes where the glaze had begun to crack, invisible to any camera.
The discovery that even love goddesses are not immortal depressed me. To tell the truth, this whole affair had depressed me hideously, though not as much, I dare say, as it had depressed Miss Gabor, but her sportsmanship and professional code maintained the farce to the end. While it had produced by way of information exactly nothing, at least the primary product had never been mentioned by name. In Hollywood that must have been a record of some sort.
As 1 rose at dusk to take my leave Miss Gabor pressed my hand again and raised a black eyebrow in a look of understanding. She was telling me that I hadn’t been as silly as I appeared.
"This,” she asserted, appealing to
Frank for confirmation, "has been the most intelligent interview of mv whole life!”
Frank didn't seem unduly stirred. Richardson just yawned. As for me, I would have been insulted if 1 had thought that she expected me to believe her.
At the door the glaze was shattered momentarily by a last tinkle of sardonic laughter to reveal a flash of the Me behind the Zsa Zsa.
"When you write your piece.” she giggled, "I won’t mind if you pull my leg —just a leetle.”
That invitation was kindly meant but somewhat late. She had been pulling mine for the last two hours. And feeling suddenly decrepit, I staggered away from the potent distillation of champagne, quick silver and Sheffield steel — no, platinum.
As I looked back through the huge picture window l saw a relaxed duelist in the only natural, unstudied act of the afternoon. She was crouching beside her stone fireplace; the housewife’s tiny, practical hands were lighting a fire. The glaze had dissolved into an honest smile
of satisfaction after a good day's work.
Alas, her moment of relaxation was to be fleeting. Just as I completed this report the newspapers carried a shattering postscript from New York: “Zsa Zsa Gabor says her scheduled marriage to Hal Hayes, wealthy building contractor, is all off because she is not madly in love.”
1 he duelist’s rapier had struck again, unerringly at the heart. That news further depressed me. Miss Gabor's diamond will never look so well on any other hand, it;