She is the unknown Hilton. The un-Paris, if you will. For Francesca Hilton, there are no red carpet poses performed before shouting paparazzi, no boutique line of Francesca fragrances, no nervous Chihuahua tucked in her arms.
That the 61-year-old didn't wind up as irretrievably scarred emotionally and psychologically as so many children of celebrities in Hollywood is considered a minor miracle by her friends, who ask, what must it have been like to be the only child of the late hotel magnate Conrad Hilton and Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Hungarian-born '50s glamour queen with the signature line, "Oh, dahlink"?
These days you can find Francesca at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. It's Friday night and a small crowd claps as the hefty comedienne, adjusting her eyes to the glare of the spotlight, launches into a self-deprecating joke.
"Good evening, " she begins. "I am the original Hilton heiress. I'm older, wiser, smarter -- and I'm damn wider."
As laughter ripples through the room, she riffs on her famous family lineage. "My mom is Zsa Zsa Gabor. Couple of you are going to know who that is. My father was Conrad Hilton. Some of you have our towels. Keep 'em! Keep anything you steal! Keep 'em!" Her next relative needs no introduction: "My niece is Paris Hilton. She called me the other day and said, 'Francesca, can you pick me up? I'm just too drunk to drive.' I said, 'Girl, I'd pick you up, but I'm too drunk to drive myself.' "
In a few minutes, she wraps up her stand-up act with another reference to Zsa Zsa. "My mother and I, we're the best of friends now that we're the same age."
Made for a memoir
Director Henry Jaglom, a friend of 30 years, who, at Jack Nicholson's suggestion, cast Francesca in a small role in his 1971 film "A Safe Place," adds: "She is, in her own way, a fighter to have survived with her own identity. She tried to have her own normal life and become her own normal person. To me, that's a bit of an accomplishment when you come from that background."
Former Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas has known her for 25 years. "The big key here is a lack of love on both parents' part," he says. "That is the key to everything, in my view. . . . It's a dark comedy, and Francesca is the first one to recognize this. I can't begin to chart the calamities, but I have to say, even though Francesca has experienced the depths of despair like many people do, she has an amazing capacity to see the absurdity of it all . . . and see the humor in that absurdity. And that is why she is still around to tell the story."
Hilton says she once had a summer job taking reservations at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. "They'd always ask your name so they could scream at you if it didn't work out," she recalls. "When I gave them my name they said, 'Surrrre.' I'd go, 'Listen, do you want to make a reservation?' "
She won't reveal all the details of her relationship with her late father, noting she is saving those for a planned memoir to be titled "Hotels, Diamonds & Me." "He was a businessman," she says dryly. "He was wonderful, but he was married to his business. . . . We'd spend Christmas together. We'd occasionally have lunches at L'Escoffier [the ritzy restaurant that for years graced the penthouse level of the Beverly Hilton] with my mom. He loved my mom. He couldn't pronounce Zsa Zsa, so he called her Georgia from time to time. That's the truth."
Her father, who died in 1979, left the bulk of his estate to set up the foundation that today bears his name. Francesca got $100,000. She contested the will but lost.
"There was a disinheritance clause," she says. "If you sue and you lose, you lose. One-hundred thousand [dollars] out of $200 million, that's why I sued." Still, she says, she is not bitter, noting, "You can't live in the past. That was his decision."
Hilton hasn't seen her mother in two years, although the two talk daily by phone. Gabor, confined to a wheelchair, rarely gets out of her Bel-Air mansion, and Hilton isn't allowed to visit unless either her stepfather, Frederic von Anhalt, or his attorney is present.
Gabor and Von Anhalt sued Hilton in 2005, claiming she had forged her mother's signature to take out a $2-million loan by using Gabor's $14-million home as collateral. Hilton, in turn, accused Von Anhalt of manipulating her mother to get into his wife's will. A Los Angeles judge dismissed the lawsuit after Gabor failed to show up for court hearings. Von Anhalt has vowed to refile the suit.
Among the famous
Constance Francesca Hilton is having lunch at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel when she spots aging record producer Phil Spector, out in public after a jury deadlocked over whether he had murdered actress Lana Clarkson.
"I'm Francesca," she calls to Spector, who looks vacant-eyed and shaky as he turns toward her. She tells him that she once went up to his old Beverly Hills house. "Remember, you had the big dogs?"
"Yes," Spector replies, unearthing the memory.
They chat amiably about mutual acquaintances. "I met him through Kris Kristofferson," Hilton says when Spector leaves. "He took me up to his house one time. I had a crush on Kris Kristofferson."
"Joan, you look fabulous," Hilton tells her.
"Thank you, Francesca," Collins purrs. "Nice to see you. How's your mom?"
"She's good. I'll give her your love."
Collins departs, and Hilton remarks: "My mother fixed her up with Trujillo" -- that's Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator -- "a long time ago."
In her autobiography, "One Lifetime Is Not Enough," Zsa Zsa wrote that she once clashed with Collins when the actress "accused Francesca of flirting with her husband, Ron Kass. Which was ridiculous because Francesca was much too young and even now doesn't really know how to flirt." Today, Francesca scoffs at the very idea she would have flirted with Collins' husband.
There are other eyebrow-raising entries in the book. Like actress Hedy Lamarr telling Francesca the facts of life when the girl was only 3 years old. Or Zsa Zsa's claim that Frank Sinatra banged on her locked bedroom door one night, yelling and refusing to leave. "Frank wouldn't take no for an answer and leave me alone," Gabor wrote, "and made so much noise that I was terrified that he would wake up Francesca."
But the most shocking revelation was Zsa Zsa's allegation that her daughter was the result of her mother's rape by Conrad Hilton.
When asked how her mother's claim made her feel, Francesca deflects the question with humor. "How would I know? I wasn't even there." Then she deadpans: "I know they had sex because here I am." She adds: "I asked my mom about this and she doesn't seem to remember."
Zsa Zsa had many rich and famous lovers. At one time, she was married to actor George Sanders, but he divorced her and married her sister, Magda. Sanders later committed suicide, claiming he was bored with life.
"My mother's boyfriends took me everywhere," Francesca recalls. "They tried to buy me things so I would tell my mother to marry them."
In earlier years, Hilton and her mother were inseparable. They loved to ride Tennessee walking horses, competing professionally and winning blue ribbons.
It seemed like a fairy-tale existence. Life magazine published a photo of Francesca's 11th birthday party, where children were dressed in evening gowns and tuxedos. Life's story said the "18 guests, dressed like well-bred miniatures of their movie-colony elders, showed up on a rainy evening at Miss Gabor's Bel Air home. They partook of ginger ale and grenadine cocktails, a dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes and danced till 10 o'clock. When the evening threatened to segregate into sexes, Francesca, a chip off the old block, murmured to the girls, 'Let's go in and meet the boys.' "
"My view is that Francesca was like a trophy child, an accessory," says film critic Thomas. "You've got the fancy house, you've got the fancy TV, you've got the decor and the fancy car. So you've got to have the fancy child to complete the picture."
"My mother would drag me around -- not drag me, but take me to different locations: Paris, Rome, you name it," Hilton recalls. "I was never really a kid because I'm the only child. Parents do the best they can, you know?"
At one time, there was no one in Hollywood more glamorous than the Gabor sisters. Hilton's publicist and longtime friend, Edward Lozzi, recalls how the Gabors -- Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eva -- would hold court every Friday at the old Bistro Gardens in Beverly Hills. "They were all coiffed up, all looking beautiful," he says.
It was their mother, Jolie Gabor, who coached her daughters to "go after big men and rich men and manipulate them," Thomas recalls. "She had a really grasping view on how you should handle men. I think of all of them, Zsa Zsa took it to heart the most."
But Zsa Zsa "went through many husbands, and that was probably difficult for Francesca," says Ronald Richards, her attorney.
Hilton never reached the heights of celebrity that her mother did, but over the years she has honed her skills as an actress and comedian in films, on TV and in the theater. Early film roles included parts in "Cleopatra Jones" and "Pterodactyl Woman From Beverly Hills"; her TV credits include the old detective series "Cannon."
Outside of show business, she worked in public relations and is skilled at photography. She has also focused on charitable work, helping out the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. "I think she spent a large part of her life trying to find her path," says the foundation's head, her nephew Steve Hilton.
In the fall, Francesca plans to travel to Africa to film a documentary to raise funds to assist World Vision in its ongoing efforts to drill water wells in rural villages.
Her name on a building
Hilton stands outside the Comedy Store and points out for a reporter her name, high on the front wall, alongside the names of comics who have performed there over the years.
"She turned her relationship with the Gabors into a comedy act," publicist Lozzi says. "How great is that? And . . . her mother hasn't threatened to kill her or write her out of the will over it. Her mother, I think, thinks it's pretty cool."
But attorney Richards sees the costs. "I've watched her comedy act," he says. "I think it's geared too much toward her mother's shadow. You can see she doesn't want to talk about her mother. She wants her own identity."
Hilton's analysis? "I'm just crazy," she says with a laugh over lunch. "I do stand-up comedy. I just think I don't take anything very seriously."