If you've been following along in these pages you might by this point have become a bit confused, might want to know something more about all these brothers and uncles, great and not-so-great. Like, who are these guys? Who's who in this curious cast of quirky characters. Might want to see a family tree; although in our case the tree might look more like a bush, maybe poison sumac. I went on Genealogy.com like so many folks are doing these days, plugged in a few relevant details, family traits and so on, and traced us all the way back to Cain and Abel. Turns out the Hiltons are direct descendants, repeating everything short of fratricide, if barely. To rephrase Tolstoy’s famous line from Anna Karenina: All happy families are alike; all unhappy families should never, ever, go into business together. All the books and theories, all the prescriptive advice for the management of family businesses can be boiled down to one simple axiom: a functional family enterprise will succeed from generation to generation; a dysfunctional family will produce a dysfunctional family business and the casualties, both human and fiscal, will be the individual family members and ultimately, the business itself.
This first part of the Hilton history is undocumented, maybe just legend, but it's what will go down in history as what the Hilton clothing clan considers its heritage. Iussel and Pacey Ulanov, sons of an allegedly wealthy Jewish miller in Kiev, Ukraine, escaping pogroms and inevitably fatal military service, with two of their brothers arrived in New York in the mid- to late 1880s and for some unknown reason started a tailoring business in northern New Jersey. Iussel, now Joseph, and the now Phillip, made custom tailored garments for butlers and chauffeurs and the like, Joe being the “outside man” who schlepped the samples around from house to house until one day it occurred to Joe that there must be a better idea. Why not make up a bunch of suits in more or less standard sizes and hang them in a store for guys to come in, try on, and take home? So he did, and they did. The first-hand evidence I have for this came from a guy I met early on, in a memorably random men’s room encounter. This small gentleman, standing at the adjacent fixture, looks up at me and says, “You’re a Hilton, right?”
“Uh, yes? Yes. I am.”
“I knew your great-grandfather. I sold him coats!” he said, in a Boston-inflected Yiddish accent. “A brilliant man! Opened stores instead of everything custom! Brilliant!” This guy, named Cohn, by then in his 90s, went on to tell me how Joe Hilton had been a customer of his; bought the topcoats and overcoats that his family produced in their Massachusetts factory. To the Cohns, Joe Hilton was a pioneer; a brilliant visionary.
“It vas a tragedy he died so young. A shame.”
I thanked him as we washed our hands, told him that Joe hadn't left any records, and neither had the succeeding generation, so it was as if the earlier metamorphoses of Hilton Clothes hadn't existed. I was thanking him for giving me a missing piece of myself, somehow. I've wondered since if it was something about an immigrant’s state of mind, to shut the door on the past, to have no sense of posterity because the memories to be preserved were only painful, and the future was hidden in a pessimistic shroud. Who would be around to care, anyway? Maybe the fact that Joe never learned to read or write English, nor even to speak it well. It's also likely that he’d have wished to bury the memories of the trademark lawsuit he was subjected to by his brother Phil, which went on for years and years, and I’m not sure, but I’ll bet prevented Joe and Phil and their families from enjoying the annual holidays together, or even speaking to each other. It had to do with the use of the Hilton name, and I have a feeling never ended well. All the more ironic since the family's real surname was Ulan or Ulanov, or some more-or-less typical Ukrainian Jewish name, and once dropped in favor of the anglicized “Hilton,” might have been a scourge, a curse that followed us down the generations. Don't think this didn't occur to me while I was waiting for a judge in Trenton to decide, twenty years later, whether I would have the right to use what I thought was my “own” name.
Joseph Hilton died in 1933 at the age of 57, leaving everything to his wife, who shortly thereafter left everything to their nine children equally. My grandfather, Alex Hilton, who was smart enough to foresee the inevitable Cain-Abel saga in 9 acts, sold his one-ninth share to my father in the early days of the Norman Hilton venture for a smallish sum, so that my father would have an equal say in the management to that of his resentful retailer uncles. Alex’s other two children, Norman’s brother and sister, did not get a piece of the action. I suspect that it was not my grandfather’s conscious intention to foster enmity between his sons; it may have seemed to him that the company stock was less valuable an inheritance than his other assets, which at the time were many, and from which Norman would receive proportionally less. In all likelihood, A.E. (as he was called) expected to leave his son John and daughter, my Aunt Bobbie, something of real value in Mid-City Enterprises, a thriving restaurant, bar and bowling alley that he’d started in the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Manhattan’s West Side. I have no idea what my grandfather’s reasoning was, but his apparent favoring of my father was a major reason for the painful and destructive rift that developed between my father and his brother John. Hate is a strong word; but it is no exaggeration to say that my father and his brother absolutely hated each other.
John Hilton, graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and army veteran, married, father of two, had settled in Florida after the war and had taken a job with Cluett, Peabody and Co., the makers of Arrow shirts, as their regional representative; and in what my father would ultimately recognize to be the major mistake of his life, as sales of Norman Hilton Country Jackets began to grow, necessitating a full-time “outside man,” Norman invited his brother to move back north and take over the sales effort. Worse yet, he made John a partner in the fledgling enterprise. Initially, and for a period of five or six years, the brothers worked together to make the Norman Hilton company (still only a minor division of the business) into a profitable enterprise with a loyal base of retailers and nation-wide distribution. It was not until the business started to throw off some real money that the brothers’ differing visions of style and ideas about management began to clash, triggering arguments which led to second-guessing and back-stabbing and the eventual division of the company and the entire, multi-generation family into two warring factions, one supporting Norman, the other John. During this period, while I was in sixth and seventh grades, every family gathering would turn into a row. The most memorable was the Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ that ended before dinner was even served. All the simmering hatred and jealousy came to a boil over a comment my grandmother made, erupting in pandemonium that threatened actual physical violence. Later, sitting at the desk that three generations of Hilton management had occupied before me, I would wish I’d really understood the implications of this, or just remembered it clearly. To me, this was the recently-departed William Hilton’s desk, scene of so many arguments and bad feelings it had about it the aura of a battlefield monument.
The youngest of Joe Hilton’s nine children, Billy was only two years older than my father, and he’d been a real uncle to me all my life. He never had kids. He married Max Factor’s daughter after graduating from Bucknell and they divorced soon after. He married Betty Jane, an executive with the Sanitized ™ Corporation, when they were both in their forties, long after the idea of diapers, playground swings and strollers had lost its appeal. When I went to visit my grandparents, Alex and Lil, Billy would come by and take me over to Asbury Park to go on the rides, walk the boardwalk and ride around in the paddle boats in the lake by Ocean Grove. In due course I would come to believe that while his business acumen wasn’t much, he was smart, and he was in all things a gentleman. He was the perfect uncle, and to this day I’m wondering what more a man can accomplish.
A guy named Stanley Monsky actually ran the factory. Nice a man as Billy was, Monsky was that terrible. As it would turn out, maybe he had to be; but I thought like everyone else did, the guy was just a major-league asshole. The factory ran efficiently and smoothly: an industrial HMS Bounty, and Monsky a 60s Jersey version of the tyrant Captain Bligh. Uncle Billy didn’t know a pressing iron from a bar-tack, almost never went beyond the door that led from the front office except to go to the mensroom. God help the employee who gave Monsky trouble. His management “style” could be described as Rage and Vengeance; any underling with the temerity to suggest a change in the operation or find fault with a decision or, depending on the day, commit some other unpardonable sin had his name carved on Monsky’s monumental shit list, inclusion in which guaranteed that the Hiltons would get frequent, detailed reports of the deficiencies and malfeasances of the person until the poor sod was made to walk the plank. Peter Strom was Fletcher Christian in this scenario, suffering stoically for years until finally deciding he’d had enough of the Hiltons and monster Monsky. The dignified future president of the billion-dollar Ralph Lauren business asked me to drive him to the city when he quit. As we came around the block in front of the factory Strom rolled down his window and yelled, as loud as he could, “FUCK YOU MONSKY!”
Uncle Billy, my wife Jennifer and I went to lunch at Le Cirque once in a while. Billy was Joe Hilton’s youngest and only surviving son, and consequently he out-ranked my father as the titular head of the family enterprise. At one memorable repast the subject of Billy’s health came up. I asked what exactly was wrong with him, as he’d been in the hospital pretty often, and he answered me by taking a piece of paper from his pocket on which was typed, from the top to the bottom of the page, a list of ailments and their causes, complications of ailments, symptoms of ailments, and outright diseases. He might have answered, simply, “I smoke like a chimney, drink like a fish and eat like a zoo animal,” but instead he gave a detailed description, starting with diabetes and ending with emphysema and heart disease. This was how he introduced the subject who would be his successor. Billy's authority in the business was supreme, and the thought of succeeding him was attractive, naturally. The sweetener, if he needed one, was the news that Stanley Monsky was retiring. I’d be Monsky’s assistant for a few months; plant manager for a while, and, when Billy retired, I'd take over. I would have to give up the fancy New York office and the quiet, riverside home Jenny and I had in New Canaan and move to New Jersey, within driving distance from the plant. As if in a trance – induced by an unaccountable, subconscious urge to join the inter-generational dysfunction – I heard myself, in the quiet elegance of Le Cirque, utter the fateful words known to tragic princes throughout history: “When do I start?”
I have made more ill-advised choices in my life, perhaps, but only two or three. This was my ego thinking, and when it came to thinking, my ego was as dumb as a lead pipe. But Billy accepted, as was his plan all along, promising to show me the ropes. I suppose I imagined a box at Belmont Park with Martinis and Macanudos, a chauffeur and a lot of vacations, but it wasn’t to be. Monsky left before we had found a replacement for me, the major-account salesman, calling on the likes of Nordstrom, Neiman-Marcus and so on. I was travelling to Dallas and the West Coast from time to time, assuming all would go well at the plant. I had a great operations guy, Ed Johnson, who could basically run the place in my absence. One morning at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills I was awakened by my bedside phone. It was Ed Johnson, calling from Linden.
“You’d better come home,” he said. “Billy’s dead.”