I read a lot of Hollywood biographies and non-fiction stories and figured the blog might be a great forum for me to review said books. I was inspired by Rianna, creator and writer over at the excellent film blog Frankly, My Dear who did a book review on Carole Lombard. For Christmas I got the book, The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton by Dean Jensen. I’d wanted it for a while as it details the life of the Hilton sisters, the Siamese twins most famous for their brief role in Tod Browning’s Freaks. The Hilton sisters led lives filled with glitz to be sure, but it was also filled with sadness and loneliness. This is a fascinating and probably the most comprehensive biography we’ll ever get on the Hilton sisters and worth it for fans of Browning’s films and actors trying to break through despite their adversity.
Before reading this I’d only known the Hilton sisters through their five-minute role in Freaks. They play sisters, one of whom is married and the other who is engaged. Their plot isn’t the core of the story but they definitely make an impression. I’ve wanted this book for over a year ever since hearing the Hilton sisters had lived such an amazing and ultimately sad life. Jensen does give a comprehensive overview of the Hilton’s entire lives from birth to death. Considering they’re all but forgotten today, this book is probably the definitive biography on them we’ll ever get.
Jensen starts with their birth to an unmarried English woman named Kate Skinner who was so repulsed that the twins were conjoined that she gave them to her midwife, Mary Hilton. Hilton raised them as her own, while also making money by showing them off. The book follows their life on the carnival circuit where they were so powerful they commanded $4,000 a week and gave starts to luminaries like Jack Benny and Bob Hope! Despite making all this money the sisters were under the thumb of Meyer Meyers, the husband of their adoptive sister. Meyers was an opportunist and probably the world’s only show “father.”
After that we get their lengthy trial to get Meyers to give the Hilton’s their money and independence, their role in Freaks (a film that did so poorly the Hilton sisters regretted doing it), their failed marriages, one that was purely for publicity, and ultimately their final years of destitution in a small town. In reading the book I felt fascinated that these two girls, who were continually threatened with being placed in an institution, were considered the stars of the carnival circuit. Sure they were continually labeled by various interviewees as “freaks” but Jensen never makes the carnival circuit sleazy or exploitative, instead he shows off the sense of family the sideshow oddities felt as the various other people in the carnivals were generally their only friends.
Jensen doesn’t make the sisters out to be saints, showing their story warts and all. There’s their various romances with married men, and Daisy’s illegitimate pregnancy. The child she gave up for adoption is one of the great mysteries of the book as Jensen says we may never find any proof of Daisy’s child out there. The various men in their lives are where the sadness comes from as they just couldn’t find men to get over the fact they were conjoined. I think that’s what’s ultimately the most intriguing element of this book in that these two women were able to succeed as conjoined twins, and yet were continually taken advantage of because of their human flaws. The book details the various con men who ended up leaving the twins destitute and the books saddest parts are in the final chapters where the twins were taken in by the kindness of various residents in Charlotte, North Carolina who gave the Hilton’s their last job working in a grocery store. Two women, who loved show business, and commanded $4,000 a week were denigrated to working in a grocery store. Jensen says numerous times the Hilton’s couldn’t understand why they weren’t remembered, living a life of denial until their final days.
The pictures are actually embedded in the book’s pages, no section of colored photos here. I enjoy embedded pictures more as they show off what the author is telling better than you flipping continuously back to that section. There’s a fair amount of pictures and promotional materials from the twins birth announcements to their obituaries.
The only issue with Jensen’s book is the typos. I’m a grammar Nazi (I’m an English major) but I usually don’t mind a typo here and there. This movie has some glaring typo from repetition of words to words out-of-order or the absence of conjunctions (a lot of missing “the’s”). I’m not sure if Jensen used an independent publisher, which sometimes accounts for these, but it just seems like lazy writing sometimes as it’s throughout the whole book.
Overall, I loved The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton. A comprehensive biography of two stars we’ll never see the likes of again.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.