Dysfunctional Dynasty 1888 - 1960
Tolstoy said, “All happy families are alike.” What he didn't say was, "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: love makes it work. Fatherly, brotherly, however you define it. Because the truth is, a functional family’s enterprise will succeed from generation to generation; a dysfunctional family will produce a dysfunctional family business. A state of war. And the casualties will be family members. Ultimately, the business itself.
Our family tree, the map of generations of this quirky cast of characters, is more like a bush; like poison sumac. You can trace us all the way back to Cain and Abel. Turns out the Hiltons are direct descendants of Adam and Eve’s two boys; genetically programmed to repel one another; to repeat everything short of fratricide, if only barely. The name seems to be the seed of it, in the American saga anyway. Hilton. A name. Originally just a mistaken pronunciation? A random spelling by an Ellis Island clerk? A shot at instant social status? All we can say for sure is that this made-up identity has been the family’s casus belli for a hundred and fifty years.
People want to be Americans. To shut the door on their immigrant past. It’s natural. Poverty, persecution, the stench of hiding, escaping; the fear; no one wants to relive that; but they wind up with no history, no sense of posterity. No roots. The memories are painful, the future unknown. Let’s make a new life. Start with a new name. But in trying to erase their past the Ulanov brothers invited a curse, a malediction, by their adopted name. Iussel Ulanov, now Joseph Hilton, could not have foreseen that his immediate family as well as three successive generations would do battle over this high-class-sounding, phony Anglo moniker.
The early years of the Hiltons’ American history are undocumented, a fractured legend. There is, however, a wealth of legal history. Pages and pages of legal records chronicle the lengthy trials and tribulations of my great-grandfather and his brothers and their decades-long wrangle over the ownership of the Hilton brand name for their competing businesses. All that remains of this illustrious and successful family is a record their fight. A fight about something that neither of them actually owned; something they were probably given, probably by chance.
Joe, Phillip, Isaac and Pacey, sons of a Jewish miller in Kiev, Ukraine, escaped pogroms and inevitably fatal military service by secretly emigrating and arrived in New York in the early 1880s, seeking to blend in and to get a share; started a tailoring business in northern New Jersey, making custom-tailored garments for butlers and chauffeurs. Joe Hilton sold clothing by knocking on doors, showing cloth samples and model sketches to customers. We know this much. What we don’t know is how Joe came up with the idea that made him a rich man. But we can guess: like a lightning strike, he saw it. Why make this thing so hard? 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. And Joe, who never learned to read or write English, nor even to speak it well, ended up a millionaire, in a time when that meant something.
Little beyond that is left of the early Hilton Clothing history. Joe left no records, and neither did the succeeding generation, so knowledge of this era in our family has largely been lost to history, but this detail about how Joe switched the business from custom tailoring to wholesale manufacturing and specialty retail was related to me first-hand one day long ago by a guy named Arnold Cohn. A surprise chance encounter in the men’s room on the seventeenth floor of 1290 Avenue of the Americas. A small gentleman I did not know, standing at the adjacent fixture, looked up at me. I returned his glance.
He said, “You’re a Hilton, right?”
How did he know? “Uh, me? Well. Yes. Yes I am.”
“I knew your great-grandfather. I sold him coats!” he said, in a kind of New England Yiddish accent. “A brilliant man! Genius! Opened stores instead of everything custom! Brilliant!”
I’m thinking, “What? Who is this guy? This is weird.”
“Hello. I am Arnold Cohn,” he said. “That’s our office there.”
At the end of the hall. An unadorned office door. “Mr. Coats of Boston.” I’d never seen anyone enter or leave. “How do you do?” I nodded. Shaking hands out of the question.
Cohn, maybe four and a half feet tall, in black suit, white shirt – an orthodox get-up, minus the payis and the hat – by then probably in his late 80s, told me more about the origins of my business than anyone in my family seemed to know. Joe Hilton had been a customer of his; bought the topcoats and overcoats that his family produced in their Massachusetts factory. To the Cohns' way of thinking, Joe Hilton was a pioneer; a brilliant visionary. Rare; rarer still in having paid in cash. The story went on. Did I know about the New Jersey congressman who brought a Hilton suit to Washington to demonstrate buying power of an average guy – the quality of New Jersey-made clothing products? No, I hadn't heard about that. This was getting to be the longest bathroom conversation in history.
“That factory over there – where is it – Linden? That Norman Hilton place?” he said, excited to be telling me, “That was there to make the suits. Joe built that.”
We stood there, in the bathroom, as if it were the natural place to be discussing all this. I told him that we had little knowledge of Joe Hilton, so I was grateful to him for giving me a missing piece of myself, somehow.
When, eventually, I sat took the office that had once been Joe’s, more than a half-century after his death, there was nothing in it anywhere to prove any of this. Nothing except a couple of photos marked “Outing of the Joseph Hilton Company”: a bunch of men in suits and ties in sepia-toned stiffness on the grounds of some long-gone picnic grounds. No old newspaper clippings, no folios of ads, no records of any kind. The brothers’ habit of erasing the past had continued in their new lives. The reality of it happened on a trip to Atlanta, Georgia, to visit our retail accounts. I happened to go to lunch at a place called the New York Diner and going to the cashier’s desk to pay, saw on the wall behind a big, black and white photo of a New York street scene, the Hollywood Theater — Featuring Rudy Vallee — 50 Glamorous Girls! — and, most prominent in the picture, the Joseph Hilton and Sons store at the corner of 47th Street and Broadway. Suits $12.95. Men in topcoats and fedoras passing by. Incredible.
“Where did you get that picture?” I asked the cashier, who, it turned out, was the owner.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I told the decorator the name of the place and she brought me some prints to hang.”
“Well I you ever want to sell it…” I gave him my card, expecting nothing; two years later the picture arrived.
Joe married Jenny Cohen, from Saugerties, New York, and they had nine children. They named their first-born son, my father’s father, A.E.ander Elias Hilton. A.E., born in 1897, grew up in this genteel, no-longer-Jewish family, pampered and protected in a grand house amid servants and chauffeurs in the leafy majesty of the Llewellyn Park, and with a great, Miegs-designed summer home on Ocean Avenue in Deal; for as well as he knew how to make money, Joe Hilton knew how to spend it. He had a need for elegance. In the clothing trade, the two work together. Sell Good Goods Cheap was one of his mottoes; probably the reason behind his success. Knowing what good goods look like, feel like; that’s the difference. He knew what the competition was selling for twelve bucks and he priced it at eleven. His other motto: There Is No Substitute for Fine Things. Tiffany. Wedgewood. Christofle. Vacheron Constantin. It’s a special sensitivity— no, a passion — for perfection, for excellence, which he passed on, along with piercingly bright blue eyes, to his five sons, two of whom, the eldest and the youngest, my grandfather and his brother, were the major influences in my life,.
Joseph Hilton and Sons employed, by 1927, about 750 people, two-thirds of them in the clothing factory he built in 1923 on a two-acre lot in a residential neighborhood in Linden, about ten miles south of Newark. The retail staff in the ten stores numbered as many as 250. Not bad for a Yiddish-speaking refugee literally right off the boat; a rag-trade Horatio Alger tale. The legend was that Joe worked incessantly; the success of his labors was personified by the lifestyle of his eldest son, my grandfather, A.E. Hilton.
Alexander Elias (A.E.) Hilton was born in 1897. First-born son of Jenny Cohen and Joseph Hilton. Unique. Impossible to stereotype, almost impossible to imagine. A Jewish Ivy Leaguer. Princeton University class of 1919. Overcoming the stifling and painful ostracism — “All I ever got from Princeton was an inferiority complex,” he said — to become a roaring Tiger in the New York 20s, bon vivant, speakeasy habitué, sportswriters’ boon companion, sophisticated world traveler. Man About Town. A.E. had responsibility for buying the watches for Joseph Hilton and Sons. That took up, maybe, a couple of hours a week, leaving him time to attend to his real interests, sporting events, clubs. Dames.
A.E., as he was called, married Lillian Gilbertson. “Lil,” the belle of Scotch-Irish Newark. The circumstances of the ceremony remain a mystery — probably your classic justice-of-the-peace elopement — the whole affair a secret. That is until Lillian’s Irish butcher older brother Frank got wind of the marriage and dragged his wayward Catholic sister to the Hilton home in Llewellyn Park, where Joe, A.E. standing anxiously behind him, greeted them at the front door.
“Your son got my sister… To… To marry him!” Frank said. “What are you going to do about it?”
Holding out his hand to the girl Joe said, “Come in here, young lady.” Then added an epigram of kindness that has been quoted over and over again down the years, by my grandfather, and then by my father, as a lesson to me; a code of Hilton generosity:
“Come in this house,” he said again. “As long as I️ have, you’ll have.”
My father was born in April 1919, two weeks short of nine months later. A.E. bought a house in nearby South Orange, dropped off mama and the baby; went to town, by chauffeured car. Friends, luncheons, sporting events and just being a gentleman took up most of his time. Popular. He had friends the likes of Max Kase, Pulitzer-winning Journal-American sportswriter; Father Rudolph Harvey, editor of The Friar. And with all sorts of ladies. He kept busy; by no means the ideal family man, not chummy with his kids, nor especially faithful to his wife. A 20th century man: cynical, smart, confident; educated, in the classical sense and in the ways of the world. He knew money and knew how to use it; loved by track touts, club waiters and doormen, practically everyone who knew him. “Money is like horseshit,” he’d say. “Doesn’t do any good unless you spread it around.”
Two things mattered most to him.
Sports. Anything he could bet on. The fights at Madison Square Garden. Yankees Baseball. New York Giants Football. Friendship with Tim Mara, the Giants owner, got him four fifty-yard-line seats at the Polo Grounds, then at Yankee Stadium. Horse racing was the main thing; the elegant air of thoroughbred racing his métier. I can still see him, a picture of post-WWII, American masculinity, standing in his box, silhouetted against the bright green track infield, binoculars, Racing Form folded neatly under his arm. Beer in a conical glass. He followed the New York Racing Association season at Aqueduct and Belmont, had himself chauffeured up to Saratoga Springs, and in the late summer at Monmouth Park; he and Lil comfortable in nearby Allenhurst. Dinners at Deal Golf and Country Club.
And clothes. The best-dressed man in an age of Best Dressed Man awards. From mornings in his living room, coffee in Limoges cup, silk paisley robe, striped pajamas, soft, calfskin English slippers. Then he got dressed to go out. He got dressed. But really dressed: in summer, bright cashmere jackets, high-waisted, pleated gabardine trousers, silk broadcloth shirts, ascots. Panama hat. In winter, peak lapel double breasted English flannel suit, striped broadcloth spread collar shirt. Solid, textured grenadine neckties. Full Windsor knot. Ribbed silk socks, striped garters. Alligator belt with Tiffany gold clasp buckle, spectator wing-tip brogues. Every day a different watch. Always a pochette — a pocket square, the finishing touch. To evening, black grosgrain bow tie, silk voile shirt and black suede pumps, single-breasted, peak-lapel dinner jacket. He once told me that getting dressed was a matter of taking time and enough patience to look like you’d just put it together one, two, three. Work hard to look like it just came naturally.
Summer days on the striped-awninged porch of their Allenhurst house, amid the cushions and wicker furniture, or winter, at the window of Apartment 15 E at 200 East 66th Street, looking out on snow falling against the Manhattan skyline, I was alive. This was me, my real self. These are my memories, my image of childhood. Far away from that other life; from the Garden Road house in Little Silver, from my four siblings, the youngest, Mary Ann, dying of a rare infantile cancer amid candles and incense and the smell of doctors. Far from the boredom, punctuated by visits to the principal’s office, of Little Silver School. Far away from my father’s distant, aloof manner. Mom’s drinking. Far from that everyday unsettled sadness, I’m a little boy, watching housemaids in striped dresses walking neighbors’ dogs; looking down, through falling snow, at the 3rd Avenue El trains, silent from this height. I spent these days with Lil and Pop; this was my childhood. The world of Sinatra LPs, Life magazine, luncheon at Schrafft’s after shopping at Best & Co. or Bonwit Teller, Allenhurst Beach Club, the Central Park Zoo, Four Roses on the rocks, dinner downstairs at Longchamps.
My grandparents were in charge of manners world-wide. Knew the correct way to do everything; and were prepared, even eager, to inform you, or anyone else, about the correct way — the only way — to do things. Only way to eat soup, address your elders, put your knife and fork on your plate, ask for things, stand when an elder entered a room or came to your table, stand aside and let the other person go through the door ahead of you. Theirs was an orderly, friction-free world, made so by customs we followed without thinking, without questioning. My grandmother said, "Good manners are just common sense.” This was just elemental, like looking both ways before crossing the street. “It’s not hard to know how to act. You just have to pretend I’m there watching you,” she said. I can still do that, imagine her presence, checking, nodding in approval — most of the time. Probably the most important thing I learned from her was that good manners are evident in everything you do, like an advertisement for your personality. Like how you dress.
From this distance my grandfather’s way of dressing seems extravagant. Raises the question of his motive, but I am sure it was not vanity; it was self-respect. Respect, also, for his surroundings, for the venue, the other people in his life. His life gave him a unique perspective on quality of fabric, deftness of tailoring and accuracy of fit, sure, but A. E. Hilton was just a well-heeled gentleman, doing what any well-heeled or, for that matter, any aspiring not-so-well-heeled gentleman, would do. He dressed in a mannerly fashion, not for ostentation or egotistical effect. To him it was as natural to wear a short-sleeved, easy-fitting cotton batiste shirt, crisply creased, fine worsted trousers and a cashmere jacket to the race track as it was to open a door for someone, or to stand when a lady came to his table. He didn’t put on a cashmere jacket to go to the track in so that he’d be noticed. He did it to make the experience special. Like his Sulka pajamas made his mornings.
Somewhere along the line, we forgot about this, forgot about our grandparents and their insistence on acting nice, on the common sense of dressing well. As time went on, as life and attitudes changed over time, gradually these old ways became outdated, like making war, like racism and apartheid, like discrimination, like all the destructive and dehumanizing “traditions” we came to know were wrong. We threw the baby out with the bathwater. My generation’s rejection of old behaviors mistakenly included the decent, humanizing customs and conventions that just made everyday life more pleasant, and somehow at the end of it, while we, thank goodness, forgot that war or racism or gender discrimination was the answer, we also forgot to take off our baseball hats when we came inside, or to stand back and let someone go through a doorway ahead of us.