Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hotel magnate's story not so deep

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The cover of this gossipy family biography is misleading.

It features photos of luxury hotelier Conrad Hilton, his ex-wife Zsa Zsa Gabor, Conrad's son Nicky Hilton and his ex-wife Elizabeth Taylor, and Conrad's celeb party-girl great-granddaughter Paris Hilton.

While the other four are, to one degree or another, principal players in the Hilton family story, Paris isn't. She makes a brief appearance at book's end, but she's peripheral to what's gone before.

Los Angeles-based J. Randy Taraborrelli has written over a dozen books, mostly entertainment-biz biographies. Diana Ross, Cher, Madonna, Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra number among his previous subjects.

But this time round he's shifted focus to a business icon.

Though the book's titled The Hiltons, it is, in the main, the story of Conrad Hilton, founder of the Hilton hotel chain.

Taraborrelli does a credible job of tracing Hilton's rise. He went from owning a single, two-storey, seen-better-days red-brick hotel in Cisco, Texas, to the helm of a multi-billion-dollar international hotel chain.

His account is sometimes engrossing and Conrad Hilton's life is worth the telling.

But for all the good material, it's not a smooth narrative and often has a cobbled-together feel. Worse, Taraborrelli's given to cliché ("the very pinnacle of fame and success," "porcelain-white smile") and is too fond of adverbs.

There's also a dearth of analysis applied to his recitals of the essential facts of the Hilton clan and Hilton business ventures.

Sometimes Conrad Hilton's family's deference to him smacked of a cult.

There's a lot to admire about Conrad Hilton, but there are moments when his family -- especially his sons, Nicky, Barron and Eric -- fell prey to, or reacted against, the chronic hero worship accorded their father. Unfortunately, Taraborrelli only fleetingly explores this dysfunctionality.

Rich, handsome and alcoholic middle son Nicky Hilton's story is also compelling.

He wed or bedded a succession of Hollywood starlets -- Elizabeth Taylor, Mamie Van Doren, Natalie Wood -- but died at age 42 of a heart attack, generally conceded to have been linked to his chronic drug (seconal) and alcohol abuse.

However, the book's most fascinating, and periodically surfacing, undercurrent is the paternity of Hilton's only daughter, Francesca, by his marriage to Zsa Zsa Gabor.

To his dying day, Conrad Hilton believed Francesca wasn't his child. He maintained he and Zsa Zsa hadn't had sex for a year and a half before the girl's birth, a belief reflected in his will.

For all his billions, on his death in 1979 he left Francesca a bequest of only $100,000 (by way of comparison, his administrative assistant got $75,000), coupled with a provision that if she contested the will and lost, she'd get nothing.

She challenged the will in court, lost, and ended up with only legal bills to pay.

Taraborrelli's focus is personalities -- not surprising for a writer of bios of pop-culture celebrities.

The problem is, the portraits are rarely three-dimensional, so you just never quite connect with the characters, and therefore their life stories.


Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 G7


Updated on Saturday, April 5, 2014 at 8:28 AM CDT: Adds book jacket, tweaks formatting.

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