Where Do Hiltons Come From?

A new tell-all tries to explain.

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We are going to have to accept Paris Hilton as a subject worthy of contemplation, so let’s start at the bottom with a new book titled House of Hilton (Crown). It says here on the dust jacket that the book’s best-selling author, Jerry Oppenheimer, “has been writing definitive biographies of American icons for twenty years,” and only the blessedly ignorant can doubt the truth of the statement. You might say that the eight books Oppenheimer has written or co-written are trashy, vapid, scurrilous, comprehensively nasty hatchet jobs—and you can rest assured that people already have—but they do shape the bizarre fantasies of tabloid culture into definitive monuments.

House of Hilton—its full and foaming subtitle reads From Conrad to Paris: A Drama of Wealth, Power, and Privilege—takes its place next to Oppenheimer’s Front Row: Anna Wintour and Just Desserts: Martha Stewart to complete a trilogy of anti-hagiographies about women of influence. “Who’s responsible for turning out a persona like Paris?” a confidential source wonders at the peak of the prologue.  “Where’d she get her values and ethics and morals?” What follows is less a celebrity bio than an epic family tell-all—Star magazine crossed with a Russian novel.

Or, if you prefer, crossed with The Great Gatsby. It turns out that the Fitzgerald novel shares its Long Island setting with the childhood home of our heroine’s maternal grandmother, born Kathleen Dugan. “By coincidence,” Oppenheimer writes, “the protagonist, Jay Gatsby, had some of the same twisted values that possessed hotelier Conrad Hilton and career stage-mother Kathleen Dugan Avanzino Richards Catain Fenton throughout their lives.” Oppenheimer invites the reader to imagine “the pretty Irish-American Dugan girl” and Larry Avanzino, who would become the first of her four husbands, fatefully celebrating physical love in the back seat of a Chevy: “The unplanned bundle of joy conceived in that cramped vinyl and chrome General Motors love nest would grow up to be none other than Kathy Hilton, Paris Hilton’s mother.”  It goes without saying that that is not a good sentence.

The prose—jauntily and unremittingly lurid, attuned to a singular trash rhythm—operates on a level that renders such concepts moot. Oppenheimer isn’t writing a story but transmitting a legend, taking special care to throw in “unfounded rumors” if they’re juicy enough. Rather than reading the book, you allow it to blast away at your senses. Thus did I find myself leering at Paris on Page 1, “the red, red nails of her right hand perfectly perched on her well-trained arched hip.” And I simply marveled, rather than chortling, as would be proper, when faced with the image of Conrad Hilton, the heiress’ hard-working great-grandfather, strolling to the doctor’s office: “[He] would rather walk than ride, and his long legs gave him an Olympian stride.”

Where’d Paris get her values and ethics and morals? From a clan comprised of slatterns, satyrs, gold diggers, layabouts, social climbers, publicity fiends, and narcissists. Further, Oppenheimer asserts that the Hiltons have ties to the two great families of modern American myth, the Kennedys and the Mafia. This is a nice touch: By association, the innkeeper’s clan is elevated to the status of a dynasty, and the author gently settles Paris, already royalty in the reader’s heart and spleen, on a symbolic throne.

Just this morning, Gawker directed its readership to a piece of Paris Hilton scholarship by Kay S. Hymowitz in the policy magazine City Journal. It’s titled “The Trash Princess” and, though overheated, works wonderfully as a convincing riff on class, spectacle, and cultural decadence. The one respect in which Hymowitz’s intelligent piece resembles Oppenheimer’s deliberately lobotomized book is that both get hung up, at critical spots, on the news that Guinness World Records has gauged the planet’s mood and determined Hilton to be our “most overrated” celebrity, which is just nonsense. The whole sick lesson of the trash princess is that you can’t be overrated. There’s no such thing as bad celebrity.