I consider myself genetically lucky.
While I had nothing to do with being born as Conrad Hilton's godchild (he was my mother's uncle, and my grandmother's brother), I got to read 443 pages about the Hilton family courtesy of J. Randy Taraborrelli's book, "The Hiltons: The True Story of an American Dynasty."
Few people are able to have a book describe a relative in such tantalizing detail.
Taraborrelli must have put a heck of a lot of work into his research, which included interviews with people who could cast light on the life and times of Conrad Hilton, the famous hotel guy.
Here's some observations from my perch of a somewhat distant Hilton relative, albeit one who as a child got to visit the man I called Uncle Connie quite a few times at his impressive Bel-Air mansion.
The book cleared up something I wondered about after borrowing $1,000 from my great-uncle in my college days, 1966-71, when I and some other people started what then was the second health food store in San Jose, California.
(I went to San Jose State College.)
A crazed Greek yoga teacher, who drove us students around in a VW bus with Christananda Ashram on the side, had the idea for the health food store.
After things got decidedly weird with the man we called Yogiraj, I asked him to pay me back the $1,000. He did, but slowly. Whenever I got some money from Yogiraj, I'd send a check to Conrad Hilton, Uncle Connie.
I sort of figured that given how rich he was, Uncle Connie would forgive the rest of the loan after I'd paid almost all of it back, given that I was a poor college student.
But no, I'd always get a return letter saying something like, "Thanks for the payment. Your remaining loan balance is $_____." The book explained why.
The question of finances would always be an issue in Conrad's relationships with others, especially with family members. To him, it was a simple, black-and-white matter. He had earned his money fair and square, and he wasn't giving it away to anyone, even to family members.
...He had few limits when it came to giving money to charities, especially to Catholic aid organizations.
However, when it came to family members, as well as friends, he believed that they -- all of them -- should demonstrate a work ethic similar to his own, earn their own way, and not expect to benefit from his own station in life.
OK. Fair enough.
Conrad Hilton continued this attitude through his will, which left most of his assets to the Catholic Church, with comparatively little going to relatives. My mother got $10,000 from her uncle when he died in 1979.
Not surprisingly, I got nothing -- including not getting a lifetime pass to stay in Hilton Hotels, which I fantasized about. My grandmother fared better while she was alive. Gram, as I called her, would stride up to the front desk, loudly say "I'm Conrad Hilton's sister," and soon after find herself in a top floor suite.
Here's a photo of her, Eva Hilton Lewis, that I included in a blog post, "My grandmother taught me the power of 'I like it.'"
Gram wore a lot of Navajo jewelry, since her parents (August Halvorsen Hilton, a Norwegian immigrant, and Mary Genevieve Laufersweiler, of German heritage) settled in the Territory of New Mexico in the late 1800's.
It's unfortunate that back then women were supposed to get married and have babies, not start businesses. Conrad Hilton's sisters get few mentions in the book.
I like to imagine an alternative universe where my grandmother became a hotel magnate and passed on the Hilton name. Hey, then I'd be Brian Hilton rather than Brian Hines. Maybe I could have cashed in on my last name like Paris Hilton has.
(Have to point out that Conrad Hilton’s parents are my great-grandparents, whereas they are Paris Hilton’s great-great-grandparents. Alas, she's hugely rich and I'm not. Paris and I are second cousins, according to someone who knows way more about genealogy than I do,)
I only have one photo of me and Uncle Connie. Here he is with his arm around cute (?) little me. My sister, Carol Ann, is on the left. My mother, Carolyn, is on the right.
I'm pretty sure this photo was taken in front of Uncle Connie's Bel Air mansion on Bellagio Drive.
My mother drove a '57 VW bug to see her uncle. When she'd park in front of the mansion, her car would disappear into a garage in just a few minutes, never to be seen again until we left for Three Rivers, California, where I grew up.
The book mentions Hugo Mentz, the butler, several times. I remember Hugo. He was unfailingly polite and professional when Conrad Hilton was around.
Once, though, I recall my mother going somewhere overnight with her uncle when I was maybe 12 or so, leaving me alone in the mansion with the servants. I remember being treated quite differently then, not nearly so nicely.
Got to eat in the kitchen with the staff, which of course is a totally appropriate place for a child who probably appeared bratty to the butler and maids.
I could comment more on what's in the book, but I won't. I'll simply end with the observation that while Uncle Connie certainly had his flaws and quirks, both my memories of him and the book about him point to Conrad Hilton being an honest, moral businessman.
Very refreshing in the age of Donald Trump, a hotel guy who is anything but honest and moral.
Here's a quote from the last page of the book. Barron Hilton was Conrad Hilton's son (interestingly, supposedly Trump named his son Barron in honor of Barron Hilton).
"So how'd you do it, Mr. Hilton?" someone asked. "What's your secret?"
Barron shook his head, smiled, and hesitated for a moment as if wondering how to distill the experience of fifty years in the hotel business down to a simple answer.
"Nice guys finish first, not last," he finally offered. "At least that's what my father always said."