BOOK REVIEW: ‘House of Hilton’


It’s tempting to dismiss Jerry Oppenheimer’s new biography of the Hilton family as vacuous tabloid trash, as not a few readers already have. That’s reasonably so, since in many ways, trash is exactly what the book tries to be. The gaudy dust jacket is designed to look like a National Enquirer cover, complete with cut-rate paparazzi snaps and sleazy teasers (“Old School Naughtiness,” “Celebrity Hanky-Panky,” “Wealth and Excess”). There’s the dripping fascination with everything bedroom, including the habits and endowments of Paris’ aunts, uncles, grandparents and even great-grandparents, and the usual gabby obsessions with wedding rings, divorce settlements, and any Hilton contact, no matter how incidental, with anyone who ever got a screen credit.

It’s also true that Oppenheimer’s so-called inside sources tend to be the kinds of estranged childhood friends, estranged ex-spouses, estranged children of ex-spouses, and spouses of estranged ex-spouses who, taken together, might not be expected to paint a flattering portrait of those who alienated them. For these axe-grinders, revenge is dish served cold. The Hilton women especially are variously portrayed as gold diggers, lunatics, pigs and “very mean,” “very bizarre” people.

Still, beneath the cheap voyeurism that is any tell-all book’s sine qua non, “House of Hilton” manages to unearth a few interesting tidbits. Like who knew that way back when, Paris’s great-grandfather, Big Ed Dugan, was a liberal politician in Omaha, or that his wife — Paris’ great-grandma — was a comely Nebraskan matron named “Dodo.” Or that Big Ed and Dodo’s wild-child daughter, Big Kathy Dugan, got knocked up at 20 in the back of her boyfriend Larry’s Chevy — the result of course being Little Kathy, the future Rosemary Woodhouse of American culture.


Oppenheimer also reveals the disconcerting fate of Larry from the Chevy — Paris’ grandfather, and the first of Big Kathy’s four husbands. Big Kathy divorced him after two years, after which he had no contact with his daughter. He lived as an unemployed housepainter, and never got the upper hand on his mental problems and alcoholism. He died from brain injuries at a low-income nursing home at 61, after being assaulted with a baseball bat. Paris probably never met him.

Though hard facts like these are in relatively short supply in “House of Hilton”, the book never runs out of gossip. Oppenheimer’s crew of embittered sources keeps him flush with the kind of damaging assertions you can neither prove or deny. Still, as defenders of the unauthorized biography have noted, “just because an ex-wife says it doesn’t mean it’s not true.” And though it doesn’t mean it is true either, at some point you have to think, gee, there sure are a lot of people who hated Paris Hilton’s grandmother, and it’s funny how they’re all saying the same things.

Big Kathy Dugan Avanzino Richards Catain Fenton — Oppenheimer loves to saddle her with all five of her surnames — was “money-driven, amoral, and would in a moment backstab you,” says a daughter’s ex-boyfriend. “I don’t think she really cared about her kids,” says the third wife of her second husband, “except for the money they made.” And the daughter of Big Kathy’s third husband says, “Kathy was a gold digger, no doubt about it. And so were her daughters. She trained them that way.”

We also get the dish on Big and Little Kathy’s hard-core partying tendencies, their obscene spending habits, and their almost desperate desire for power and attention. It’s here that “House of Hilton” hits its one small vein of meaning. If we accept that Paris had women like this as role models and genetic antecedents, the whole thing becomes a lot less mysterious. Superficiality seems literally to have been passed down to her after being improved upon in each generation. The grandmother never succeeded in marrying ultra-rich, but the daughter did, and now the granddaughter doesn’t have to marry at all. Ah, the American Dream.

The book’s shame is that the last 80 pages are filler. They center on Paris’ great uncle Nicky Hilton, a now-forgotten ‘50s playboy who lived hard and died young, and whose story is certainly not worth resurrecting. The raw material here is not personal interviews, but recycled dross from ancient tabloid clippings. Nicky’s irrelevance is best captured in a quote from Mamie Van Doren, who ran into Paris once at a party: “I wanted to tell her I slept with her great-uncle, but…she probably could have cared less and didn’t even know who he was.” Good call, Mamie.