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Side Show

Before Paris and Nicky, Charlotte's own Hilton sisters – conjoined twins Daisy and Violet – experienced the dark side of fame


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Even though "celebutante" Paris Hilton has apparently turned her sometimes-sordid life around, she still dominates the tabloids with her comings and goings. It's odd that Americans are so obsessed with an attractive, rich, and otherwise normal girl, and, to a lesser extent, her more reclusive sister, Nicky. Maybe it's because the Hilton sisters live in what many perceive to be an exotic world, inaccessible to us common folk. But often when we look westward for exotic escapes, we overlook the fantastic that happens in our own backyards.

For instance, few people recall that before Paris and Nicky Hilton came to dominate the pop culture compost heap, there were two other Hilton sisters, equally as exploited by the tabloid rags of their day: Daisy and Violet Hilton. They spent the last six years of their life in Charlotte, and it was a single life they possessed -- because they were what is colloquially known as Siamese twins.

Of course, on the surface that doesn't seem so strange at all. Perhaps Charlotte makes sense as a place where conjoined twins might come to live in peace. After all, despite our geographical aesthetic for the grossly curious (watching dozens of cars travel in a circle for hours in the middle of a gas crunch is a bit strange, you must admit) Southerners are by and large polite, private people.

But the Hilton sisters didn't make a decision to live in Charlotte; that decision was made for them. And even a cursory examination of their existence reveals a life at the mercy of fate and unscrupulous people looking to profit from the exploitation of human beings.

It is an odd twist of fortune that the Hilton twins, who chased fame and riches throughout nearly all of their shared 60 years, should end up penniless in Bank Town, working in a grocery store.

Of course, as with any story full of so many turns, the truth of the ending resonates only when we know the events preceding it. Dean Jensen has written an entertaining and well-researched biography, The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins, which clocks in at more than 400 pages. I would recommend that anyone desiring a detailed accounting of the Hilton sisters delve into that. The Charlotte-based Queen City Theatre Company will also present a production of Side Show -- a play that chronicles the adventures of the Hilton sisters -- from July 3-26 at McGlohan Theatre; but, in brief, their lives went something like this:

The twins were born out of wedlock to Kate Skinner in February 1908 in Brighton, England. As Jensen reports in his book, Kate Skinner was a basket case after the birth of her daughters. Her pregnancy had been difficult, and while a normal delivery is painful enough, one cannot begin to imagine giving birth to babies that must be brought into the world simultaneously. (It is worth noting, I think, that Kate Skinner was a twin herself, as was her father.) The twins were what is known medically as pygopagus twins -- they were connected at the pelvis (Daisy on the right; Violet on the left) by a tuberous portion of flesh; they shared blood circulation but no organs. The arrangement of their connection made it so that later in life they moved, more or less, with ease, in a type of "V" formation.

Also, as this was 1908 in England, sharp on the heels of Victorianism, Skinner thought that the condition of her twins was a punishment for adultery. She wanted nothing to do with them. And when it became clear two weeks after their birth that Daisy and Violet were going to survive, Mary Hilton, a woman who held the dual post of landlady and midwife to Skinner, adopted them.

Of course, to say that the conjoined twins were adopted is somewhat of a misnomer. They were essentially slaves. I say that because Mary Hilton began "exhibiting" the girls in saloons by the time they were a year old, profiting from their condition, and upon her death, Hilton willed the girls to her daughter, Edith, and her husband Myer Myers. One bequeaths property, not people, and people passed on as such are slaves, plain and simple.

The poor treatment at the hands of Mary Hilton, and later the Myers, was as bad as you might expect. And when you consider that the twins were "in the care" of their handlers until the age of 21, you realize that there was most likely little difference between the torment of their public lives of spectacle and their private existence of indentured servitude.

But Daisy and Violet Hilton, once emancipated from the Myers in a court case in Texas that netted the twins $80,000, sought out an even more public life. Like our modern day Hiltons, it seems as though once they had a taste of tabloid attention, it was impossible to imagine a life of normalcy. Then again, nothing about their life had been normal from the beginning.

It wasn't as simple, however, as conjoined twins who had grown accustomed to being exploited and knew no other way in the world -- Daisy and Violet were not unattractive women. Their looks, therefore, provided them with a fetishistic sexual allure that made their condition more palatable in light of the possibilities they might provide a man.

In fact, it is perhaps the love lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton that has garnered them the most attention. One of the highlights of Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic film Freaks is Daisy and Violet revealing to the world that conjoined twins do have romantic escapades.

But the year prior to that, Daisy and Violet were at the center of a sex scandal involving their agent, William Oliver. It was the kind of story that tabloids today would kill for, considering the very minor controversies that have come to dominate the pop detritus of our times. A sex tape of a hotel heiress? Please. A married guy banging conjoined twins? Now that's scandalous.

But the novelty of the conjoined twins ultimately became just that, and the potential for them to draw a crowd to their vaudeville act waned. They went through a series of shady managers, with nearly each one ripping them off. Daisy and Violet even tried to open a hot dog stand on the beach in Miami in 1955, only to be run out because the other vendors felt the twins had an unfair advantage in attracting customers because of their condition. Their other notoriety prior to these years, apart from personal appearances, resulted from a series of attempts to get married. They were successful (both Daisy and Violet) in getting hitched for brief periods. (One of these weddings took place on the 50-yard line of the 1936 Cotton Bowl.) But usually their applications for a marriage license were turned down on moral grounds. After all, any sexual contact with one of them certainly meant the other sister would be there too, and states are not in the business of sanctioning kinky sex.

Their last big bid for fame and fortune came in 1952 when Daisy and Violet starred the film Chained for Life, a story of conjoined twins, romance, and murder. The film was a flop, perhaps in large part because it was banned in many places because of the salacious nature of its content -- once again, Americans couldn't handle the notion of a three way. At least not a three way of the decidedly odd variety.

After the failure of Chained for Life, Daisy and Violet took up an existence common to many former stars: trying to cash in on past fame. With the revival of Browning's Freaks in the early 1960s, there was a market again for their personal appearances. Once again, Jensen does a more than thorough job retracing their experiences during this time. Each appearance seems to be at an ever-declining quality of mom-and-pop owned rural drive-ins, laden with humiliation. And that is how the Hilton Sisters, born in England, formerly San Antonio's "Siamese Twins Sensation," came to live in the now-defunct mobile home community Patsy's Park on Wilkinson Boulevard.

According to several journalists who have previously written about the twins, Daisy and Violet were abandoned by their manager in Monroe without any money and were eventually helped by some business people to relocate to Charlotte. Though, as someone who has spent some time in Monroe, somehow I suspect that the townsfolk were eager to help the Hilton sisters on their way for a variety of reasons.

In Charlotte, Daisy and Violet crossed paths with Charles and LaRue Reid, owners of the Park-N-Shop grocery store on Wilkinson Boulevard (no relation, by the way, to the current Reid's Fine Foods grocery chain in town). Their biography paints a picture of the twins in the thick of destitution, but still clinging to the image of their past grandeur, much like twin Norman Desmonds. They still wore their makeup in a fashion more suited to chorus girls on a stage, but they were now in their 50s, their looks having faded, and dressed in ragged clothes.

Charles Reid was not only a grocer, but he employed various magicians and clowns and advertised heavily on locally produced children's programming. As Jensen tells it, part of Reid's business philosophy hinged on luring children to the store for entertainment purposes, making the logical leap that parents would buy things once they were there. Although all accounts portray the Reid's as a benevolent couple -- securing living arrangements for the Hilton sisters, getting them involved in a church (for roughly two months), employing them in the grocery store -- one cannot help but be struck by the coincidence that Reid was, in his own nominal and local way, a show business promoter. It seems for the Hilton twins there was no possibility of escaping what they were destined to be: a curious attraction.

The Hilton sisters worked at the Park-N-Shop on Wilkinson Boulevard for six years -- one of them working the register while the other weighed and bagged items. Their biography more or less accounts for this time as the only period of relative normalcy the twins ever knew. In fact, the only wrinkle during this time seems to have occurred when they were fired from the Park-N-Shop for a brief while after having bad-mouthed a customer's unruly child. Children were to be indulged in the Reids' grocery store, but considering the misery of the Hilton's own childhood, one can perhaps understand why they might have been intolerant of a spoiled kid.

After being fired, the twins quickly fell on hard times. As Guy Rodgers, their supervisor at the grocery store, told Jensen, "They didn't have money to go to the beauty parlor anymore. Their hair was a mess, half-gray, half-dyed, and stringy. I really felt very sorry for them. One day I took them aside and asked them if they wanted me to try and get them their jobs back. Both of them started crying. They told me how grateful they would be if they were given the chance to be working again."

After their rehiring, their entwined lives seem no more or less interesting than the lives of anyone else who might be employed in a local grocery store. They kept to themselves, eventually moving from their trailer to a home on Weyland Avenue, across from Purcell United Methodist Church, which they attended irregularly during their years in the Queen City.

Perhaps the last hint of scandal occurred when their minister stopped by Daisy and Violet's home to pay a visit. As that minister, John Sills, told the Hiltons' biographer, when he happened by early one day he found the twins drinking and in the company of "Uncle Zeke," the host of a local children's television show.

"I felt a little uncomfortable in this situation," said Sills. "Each of them had a highball in hand, and even though it was still quite early in the day, it was pretty obvious from the way they were talking that all of them had been drinking for some time." While the Reverend Sills was quick to point out that he wasn't suggesting anything inappropriate was occurring, given the Hilton's past, one can't help but wonder.

Around Christmas 1968, Daisy and Violet both came down with the Hong Kong flu, which was an epidemic that season, affecting one in five Americans. Jensen speculates in his biography of the Hilton sisters that their early childhood experiences with physicians -- all negative and all resulting in the twins being treated more like potential experiments than human beings -- kept them away from doctors for too long. The physician who finally did see them in late December 1968 recommended hospitalization because Daisy was so dehydrated and malnourished, but the twins refused to be admitted.

There is a great deal of mystery surrounding their deaths. What is certain is that Daisy died first, either the night of Dec. 31, 1968, or a day or two afterwards. The odds are that Violet was conscious and was aware that her death was also rapidly approaching. (There is a secondhand account of a phone call from Violet to LaRue Reid in the hours after Daisy died that is reported in their biography -- but the logistics of such a call happening, which would have required Violet carrying Daisy's lifeless half of their connected bodies throughout the house -- seems doubtful.) Even though they were reclusive during their time in Charlotte, their routine was quite regular, and when they proved unreachable by phone for several days, Charlie Reid and his wife LaRue called the police and had them break open the door of the Hilton sisters' home. They were found lying on top of a heating grate in the hallway of their home.

What is curious to me, though: Those hours before Violet died she was afforded the one curse all of us take for granted -- she knew what it was to be alone.

As Charles Reid told the Charlotte Observer in 1997: "Every doctor that put their hands on them, the first thing they wanted to do was cut them apart. They could have been separated, even back then, but they didn't want to. They said to me, 'Mr. Reid, we've been together our whole life, we don't ever want to be apart.'"

Certainly that must have been true. Violet could have called for help once her sister had passed, but instead she let the blood they shared slowly go cold until she slipped into the next world where her sister waited.

The conjoined Hilton sisters share an astrological sign with the currently en vogue Hilton sister: they are all Aquarians, a sign indicated by two, parallel wavy lines. And Paris was preceded in her film career and sex scandals and tabloid rumors by those two other Hiltons who perhaps warranted more attention than has been lavished on our modern day Hilton sisters. Perhaps Paris should learn from her predecessors: Fame that comes from just being born often means a life as a garish attraction, and wealth or not, that sort of life is hard to escape with much dignity.

Only Charlotte could be the place where conjoined twins, exploited their whole life by others and addicted to the trappings of fame, might find some type of acceptance living in a mobile home park (a home whose resemblance to a carnival trailer cannot be overlooked). They were buried as they lived -- together, naturally -- although the coffin that accommodated them was slightly larger to account for two occupants instead of one. They rest now in Forest Lawn Cemetery, their grave as nondescript as any other ... except that unlike most graves, theirs is not a lonely one. Paris and Nicky should be so lucky.

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