The Hiltons: The True Story of an American Dynasty

Image of The Hiltons: The True Story of an American Dynasty
Release Date: 
April 1, 2014
Grand Central Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“Indeed, Hollywood looms large in the pages of The Hiltons, as the Hilton family tended to woo and marry movie stars . . .”

Seldom is such a generic title so misleading. 

And yet, it rather goes without saying that the average reader today picking up a biography entitled The Hiltons will expect to spend a good many chapters recounting the questionable exploits of a certain socialite named Paris.

Truth is, however, that Paris Hilton’s name does not get mentioned until page 423 of the family biography, and even then it is in the context of a joke told by Francesca Hilton at the Comedy Store out on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles when she was trying out her stand up routine:

“My niece is Paris Hilton.  She called me one day and said, ‘Francesca, can you pick me up? I’m too drunk to drive.’ I said, ‘Girl, I’d pick you up, but I’m too drunk to drive myself.’”

That sorry excuse for a punch line aside, Paris rates only one small chapter of the book in which the reader learns that she is really and truly kind and respectful to her grandfather Barron Hilton—honest.  And that she never made any money from her sex tape, 1 Night in Paris, which was released without her permission by an ex-boyfriend. And that, sex tape aside, she has more in common with her great-grandfather, family founder Conrad Hilton—he of the Hilton Hotel chain—than do any of the other present-day members of the Hilton clan, especially in her ability to spin gold from nearly any other substance.

That’s all you get to know about Paris in The Hiltons and very likely all you need to know.

Instead, in writing what he subtitles The True Story of an American Dynasty, author J. Randy Taraborrelli instead concentrates on the first and second generation of the Hiltons—the Depression era and prewar exploits of Conrad and the postwar antics of his sons Nicky and Barron—giving short shrift to the two generations of the family who have marched past us since. Indeed, the third generation, in which Barron’s son Richard Howard Hilton and his wife Kathy (sister to Kyle and Kim Richards of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fame) together produce daughters Paris and Nicky, among others, hardly garners a mention.

But then again there are so many Hiltons and the repetition of the same names over the generations is fierce.

Luckily the book comes equipped with a page of “begats,” a chart lovingly arranged to allow the reader to instantly come to terms with the various marriages, offspring, births, and deaths within the Hilton family—which comes in particularly handy when there turns out to be more than one Conrad III, several Barrons, and Nickys of various genders along the way.

The Hiltons is very much the story of the man who founded the franchise, Conrad Hilton, a man who had he not erupted from the American gene pool all on his own would have had to have been invented in the pages of popular fiction. He could of have been the ultimate creation of Edna Ferber and done for hotels what Giant did for oil wells.

That he existed at all seems unlikely—a pauper who, through grit, guile, and unbelievable determination single-handedly created one of the world’s largest and best-known hotel chains and a man who became a billionaire in his lifetime, the golf buddy of presidents, and a hell of a dancer (as testified to by his frequent companion, Hollywood hoofer Ann Miller).

Indeed, Hollywood looms large in the pages of The Hiltons, as the Hilton family tended to woo and marry movie stars, most notoriously perhaps with Hilton scion Nicky, Hollywood handsome himself, married the very young (so very young that he was her first husband) Elizabeth Taylor, for what proved to be a brief, combustible period of time fueled by alcohol, drugs, and family violence.

But the heart of the book, and, indeed, arguably the love of Conrad’s life, is a woman who became a Hilton by marriage only briefly and yet stayed for the rest of the mogul’s life because Conrad always insisted that she was “family,” Zsa Zsa Gabor, whose presence in this heavy tome lifts it to a feather weight. 

Author Taraborrelli wisely allows Gabor to invade the work early on—on page one, in fact—even though Hilton was in his mid-50s when he married her.

Nevertheless, there she is, page one, sentence one, talking to her attorney on the telephone and promising him that “Conrad Hilton is rolling over in his grave right now.”

Hilton’s underground rotations were caused by the depositions that Gabor was giving in the local courthouse, in which her daughter (with Conrad?—the question looms large throughout the text) Francesca Hilton (she of the bad Paris Hilton joke at the Comedy Store on Sunset Strip) was attempting to break Conrad Hilton’s will and claim what she felt was a larger and fairer portion of her father’s estate.

This lawsuit in 1979 was only one of many that arose from the union between Hilton and Gabor (and indeed among many members of the family over the years, especially when wills were read), a marriage that lasted from 1942 until 1946, but, for all intents and purposes ended in 1944 as the better part of the last two years was comprised of one of the more dramatic divorces in Hollywood history.

Which makes the circumstances of Francesca’s birth all the more strange. 

Francesca was born in March of 1947, six months after the divorce between her parents became final. About this, Taraborrelli writes:

“That Zsa Zsa did not divulge the fact of her pregnancy at the divorce hearing back in September raised more than a few eyebrows. She would later claim that she knew she was expecting, but decided not to mention it because ‘the judge didn’t ask me.’ Of the fact that she listed her age as 21 on the birth certificate, what can on say? She was Zsa Zsa Gabor, after all.  (And she was also 30.) She also listed her occupation as ‘house wife,’ which is perhaps as much of a surprise as the entry of her age.”

In her 1979 deposition, after Hilton had died, Gabor insisted that she and her estranged husband had had a moment of reconciliation in the Plaza Hotel during July 1946. She would later also insist that Hilton had raped her, resulting in her pregnancy.

Certainly, the relationship between the fiery Hungarian actress and raconteuse and the billionaire businessman was a complex, even an unfathomable one, but Taraborrelli captures it wonderfully well, and what could have been a great lump of a biography is instead filled with enough strange and wonderful anecdotes, and tales of love, greed, and horrid excess to fill a stack full of Jackie Collins novels.

And there is this, presented as a coda of sorts, in which Zsa Zsa, still present at family dinners long after the divorce, steals the spotlight (as, let’s face it, she does throughout the whole of the book—she gets all the good lines) from Conrad who was standing at the head of the table and offering a toast.

Acknowledged by Conrad, who turned the table over to her, she spoke:

“’You know in Hungary,’ she began, ‘at the end of the meal, someone always toasts the host in appreciation of his hospitality. And that someone tonight shall be . . . me,’ she announced grandly while gazing at Conrad. ‘So, to our host, I would like to say’—she paused for dramatic affect before continuing—‘you have driven each and every one of us at this table mad at one time or another, and . . .’ They all waited with apprehension for what was coming next because, after all this was Zsa Zsa Gabor speaking.’ . . . and we love you for it,’ she concluded, much to the relief of all.  ‘We really do.’ Then, with a dazzling smile, she added, ‘In America, you say “good health.” But in Hungary, we say “Egeszsegere!” Now,’ she continued with a flourish of her hand, ‘unfortunately, Americans tend to mispronounce this beautiful Hungarian word. And when they do mispronounce it, the toast they end up saying means, in Hungarian, “Here’s to your ass.”’ At that, everyone at the table roared with laughter. ‘Luckily,’ Zsa Zsa concluded, ‘I am not an American,’ She raised her glass. ‘So, as a proud Hungarian, I would like to say to all of you, my dah-lings . . . Egeszsegere!’”

Such was, author Tarraborrelli testifies, the world of the Hiltons, their family, their marriages, and their toasts.