The Hiltons: The True Story of an American Dynasty
By J. Randy Taraborrelli
Grand Central Publishing | 2014 | 541 pages
Reviewed by Fred Beauford
The Hiltons could just have easily been entitled, Conrad Hilton, Zsa Zsa Gabor and the Rise of Celebrity Culture. Although the book is a hefty 541 pages, the author, J. Randy Taraborrelli, is blessed with the deeply invasive skills of the gossip columnist; a journalistic world where it all hangs out, with little pity for the subject at hand; and Randy is also blessed with the equally prying, but far less flamboyant, more the detached intellectual’s Fly on the Wall, but someone still looking, unwelcomed, into dark, hidden corridors where well kept family secrets are closely held.
Randy makes great use of such a rare gift in this book, so it was hard to resist, and it held my interest for the entire time.
As any student of American journalism well knows, the Hiltons were one of the first A list celebrities that dominated the “society pages” in newspapers and magazines all across America during the 50s. The large regionals and big cities dailies especially feasted on the comings and goings of “society folks,” like the Hiltons in Los Angeles, and Babe Paley and Slim Keith in New York City.
If fact, it can be argued, from reading this book, that Conrad Hilton invented the A List; which his second wife, the brown-haired Hungarian-Jewish immigrant, Sari Gabor, who soon after arriving in America quickly became the blond, “ravishing” Zsa Zsa Gabor-- intelligent as she turned out to be, understood immediately.
During much of the 50s, the sophisticated, witty Zsa Zsa Gabor, now the ex Mrs. Conrad Hilton, was everywhere on the new medium of television. If Conrad did indeed help invent the A list, certainly Zsa Zsa had a large hand in inventing the moronic yakaty yak television talk shows.
As one early critic noted: “She (Gabor) can say nothing in an entertaining way better that anyone else.”
Conrad’s oldest son, the handsome, tragic, alcoholic, hot tempered, insecure “playboy” Nicky Hilton, who died at the young age of 49, was the Paris Hilton of his day, being followed by reporters everywhere.
No wonder. He famously used the press, and his great name (With perhaps the quiet blessings of his father, the shrewd Conrad Hilton?) and money, to bed folks like Elizabeth Taylor (who he married), Mamie Van Doren, Natalie Woods, and any other budding starlet the Hollywood studios set up for him so that they could possibly get publicity on the society pages for one of their new actress.
In fact, it also can be argued that Hilton’s decision early on, to relocate his growing corporation to Los Angeles, and not New York City, or the center of American commerce in the West, San Francisco, or stay in Texas-- was what made him so successful
For example, Conrad Hilton quickly understood the value of publicity (we call it “branding” today). Additionally, he turned out to be a master of the grand event when he lunched one of his hotels.
For me, Conrad living in a town like Los Angeles, with few real businesses, he had to have noticed, as astute as he was, how effective the Jewish moguls that ran the movie industry, used these two simple ideas to their greatest advantage.
Strangely enough, Randy, who is a life long native of Los Angeles, does not get into this in his book. It’s almost as if the Jewish moguls didn’t exist in Beverly Hills and Bel Air when Conrad lived there. They are strangely absent in the book.
But there is much, much more to Randy’s book. It is a wonderful lesson in the value of family, and having an optimistic personality; and more importantly, the power of a good, insightful idea and the ability to act on that idea.
Because of this, this is really Conrad Hilton’s book.
The more I read about the man who launched the Hilton brand, and became one of the richest men in America, I was truly amazed at what he was able to accomplished, and the fact that his family still thrives today.
Witness his great-granddaughter, Paris, and all the Hilton hotels spread over the world/.
This remarkable journey to undreamed of affluence and vast power, and deep connections that reached all the way to the White House, with Conrad becoming an occasional golfing partner with President Eisenhower, began in much more humble circumstances.
His father, August Halvorsen Hilton(Gus), an immigrant from Norway, started out as a small store owner in San Antonia, Texas. He soon had eight children. As each child came into the world, he would add another room to the then dilapidated structure they called home.
The family prospered, however, and in that part of Texas, where they had Gus’s store, he was soon known as “Colonel Hilton.”
But disaster soon struck. Writes Randy, “In 1907, the financial panic that came without warning hit the country and all but wiped out Gus Hilton’s finances. Gathering his family about him, Gus spelled out the dire situation and asked for suggestions. Casting his eyes to the floor, nineteen-year old Conrad announced, “We should open a hotel. Let’s take five or six of our ten rooms (of the house in which they lived) and make a hotel. This place needs a hotel.”’
The idea was a smashing success and word soon spread all the way to Chicago. According to the brainy Conrad Hilton, the word was “if you have to break up your sales trip, break it at San Antonio and try to get a room at Hilton’s. They serve the best meal in the West and they have a boy there who is crackerjack at making things comfortable for you.”
This attention to the needs of his guests, and the hard work of his entire family, is the keystone to Conrad Hilton’s great success. As he has pointed out, although he ran things, everyone chipped in, especially his mother who cooked all the meals: ”Travelers got cleanliness, comfort and a good table for their $2.50 a day, even though we served three bountiful meals. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for what those days taught me…and I’d give a million dollars for one of the suppers my mother served.”
This started Hilton down the road to first national, then international success, with the Hilton name becoming one of the most recognized in the world.
But Conrad Hilton paid a high personal toll for this great success. Although he was a great host and loved parties and love dancing, in which he exceled, he was also a very lonely man. His married to his first wife, Mary, produced three sons, but faltered.
The married to a greedy, self-centered narcissist like Zsa Zsa also didn’t last long, but did produced a daughter, which Conrad Hilton always suspected wasn’t his.
After that, he did not remarry until he was eighty-eight years old. For three decades, the only women that stayed overnight in his huge mansion in Bel Air were the help. He even would not let his daughter Francesca stay with him, when she once begged him that she had to get away from the ever-demanding Zsa Zsa. Or she would go crazy.
There is much to learn from reading The Hiltons. As I hinted at the beginning of this review, all the gossip is here, but also a brilliant blueprint of how to put together such a large enterprise.
The Harvard Business School should recommend this book to their students. They could learn much about the reality of business.