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THE LIFE OF HOLLYWOOD

She just has to laugh

Francesca Hilton turns her topsy-turvy life into stand-up.

August 03, 2008|Robert W. Welkos | Special to The Times

SHE IS the unknown Hilton. The un-Paris, if you will. For Francesca Hilton, there are no red carpet poses performed before shouting paparazzi, no boutique line of Francesca fragrances, no nervous Chihuahua tucked in her arms.

That the 61-year-old didn't wind up as irretrievably scarred emotionally and psychologically as so many children of celebrities in Hollywood is considered a minor miracle by her friends, who ask, what must it have been like to be the only child of the late hotel magnate Conrad Hilton and Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Hungarian-born '50s glamour queen with the signature line, "Oh, dahlink"?

These days you can find Francesca at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. It's Friday night and a small crowd claps as the hefty comedienne, adjusting her eyes to the glare of the spotlight, launches into a self-deprecating joke.

"Good evening, " she begins. "I am the original Hilton heiress. I'm older, wiser, smarter -- and I'm damn wider."

As laughter ripples through the room, she riffs on her famous family lineage. "My mom is Zsa Zsa Gabor. Couple of you are going to know who that is. My father was Conrad Hilton. Some of you have our towels. Keep 'em! Keep anything you steal! Keep 'em!" Her next relative needs no introduction: "My niece is Paris Hilton. She called me the other day and said, 'Francesca, can you pick me up? I'm just too drunk to drive.' I said, 'Girl, I'd pick you up, but I'm too drunk to drive myself.' "

In a few minutes, she wraps up her stand-up act with another reference to Zsa Zsa. "My mother and I, we're the best of friends now that we're the same age."

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Made for a memoir

"Without THE humor, she would have been Britney Spears," says actress Jayne Meadows, the widow of Steve Allen, who has known Francesca and Zsa Zsa, now 91, for decades.

Director Henry Jaglom, a friend of 30 years, who, at Jack Nicholson's suggestion, cast Francesca in a small role in his 1971 film "A Safe Place," adds: "She is, in her own way, a fighter to have survived with her own identity. She tried to have her own normal life and become her own normal person. To me, that's a bit of an accomplishment when you come from that background."

Former Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas has known her for 25 years. "The big key here is a lack of love on both parents' part," he says. "That is the key to everything, in my view. . . . It's a dark comedy, and Francesca is the first one to recognize this. I can't begin to chart the calamities, but I have to say, even though Francesca has experienced the depths of despair like many people do, she has an amazing capacity to see the absurdity of it all . . . and see the humor in that absurdity. And that is why she is still around to tell the story."

Hilton says she once had a summer job taking reservations at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. "They'd always ask your name so they could scream at you if it didn't work out," she recalls. "When I gave them my name they said, 'Surrrre.' I'd go, 'Listen, do you want to make a reservation?' "

She won't reveal all the details of her relationship with her late father, noting she is saving those for a planned memoir to be titled "Hotels, Diamonds & Me." "He was a businessman," she says dryly. "He was wonderful, but he was married to his business. . . . We'd spend Christmas together. We'd occasionally have lunches at L'Escoffier [the ritzy restaurant that for years graced the penthouse level of the Beverly Hilton] with my mom. He loved my mom. He couldn't pronounce Zsa Zsa, so he called her Georgia from time to time. That's the truth."

Her father, who died in 1979, left the bulk of his estate to set up the foundation that today bears his name. Francesca got $100,000. She contested the will but lost.

"There was a disinheritance clause," she says. "If you sue and you lose, you lose. One-hundred thousand [dollars] out of $200 million, that's why I sued." Still, she says, she is not bitter, noting, "You can't live in the past. That was his decision."

Hilton hasn't seen her mother in two years, although the two talk daily by phone. Gabor, confined to a wheelchair, rarely gets out of her Bel-Air mansion, and Hilton isn't allowed to visit unless either her stepfather, Frederic von Anhalt, or his attorney is present.

Gabor and Von Anhalt sued Hilton in 2005, claiming she had forged her mother's signature to take out a $2-million loan by using Gabor's $14-million home as collateral. Hilton, in turn, accused Von Anhalt of manipulating her mother to get into his wife's will. A Los Angeles judge dismissed the lawsuit after Gabor failed to show up for court hearings. Von Anhalt has vowed to refile the suit.

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Among the famous

Constance Francesca Hilton is having lunch at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel when she spots aging record producer Phil Spector, out in public after a jury deadlocked over whether he had murdered actress Lana Clarkson.

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