Ho­tel mag­nate’s story not so deep

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Dou­glas J. John­ston

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 exwife 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 cob­bled­to­gether 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.

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