Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Tale of Two Sisters


The sky is gray today. A small crowd of
60 or so – mostly employees and customers of the
Wilkinson Boulevard Park ‘n Shop grocery store – are
gathered around a small plot in Charlotte’s Forest
Lawn Cemetery. They have come to bid farewell to their
friends and co-workers, Violet and Daisy Hilton.
The date is Wednesday, January 8, 1969.
It is a particularly turbulent time in American
history. Just months prior Martin Luther King Jr. and
Robert Kennedy met their demise from an assassin’s
bullet. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson has been
replaced in the White House by Republican Richard
Nixon, and the nation is struggling with the issue of
public school desegregation. Amidst the hoopla of the
holiday season, the country is caught in the grips of
an epidemic known as the Hong Kong flu.
The strange illness, a virus of avian descent thought
to be transmitted through chickens and poultry
products, will lay claim to more than 34,000. In
Charlotte the Hilton twins are among the victims.


Most longtime Charlotte residents know at least a
little about the history of Violet and Daisy Hilton.
Among west side natives, it’s become something of a
legend.
“They attended Purcell United Methodist,” recalls John
Sills, who also presided over their funeral. “I was
their minister for a time. They were very good people.
I visited them often at Park ‘n Shop, and upon
occasion, at their home. They didn’t talk much about
the past and their careers, but we had some pleasant
conversations.”
Once heralded vaudeville and sideshow performers, the
twosome performed around the globe with the likes of
Bob Hope and appeared in the films “Freaks” and
“Chained for Life.”



Born February 5, 1908 they captured acclaim for their singing, dancing and
clarinet playing. They attracted attention – and lots
of it – because they were conjoined twins. Attached at
the hip and fused at the base of the spine, they
shared some blood vessels but maintained predominantly
separate circulatory systems.
From their meager beginnings – an abusive guardian
purchased them from an unwed barmaid and exhibited
them in carnivals – to scandalous marriages for both
that ended disastrously, sensation and press attention
followed them throughout their lives.
It was late July of 1962 when the Hiltons arrived in
Charlotte. They’d been here before – performing at the
old Carolina Theater in 1945 – but this time they were
traveling around the south promoting a re-release of
the 1932 film “Freaks.” The movie had sparked major
controversy – even banned in some areas upon its
initial release – because of a cast that included real
circus sideshow performers, or “freaks” as they were
called at the time. Violet and Daisy were two of the
more noteworthy cast members.
“They were here for a screening at a drive-in,”
recalls Brenda Scott, an owner and manager at Park ‘n
Shop and the daughter of Charles Reid, the now-retired
President of the company that would later hire the
Hiltons in September of that year. “Their manager left
and promised to return for them. He never came back.”
Stranded at a motel in Monroe, they eventually made
their way to Charlotte’s west side and the Huffman
Trailer Park on Wilkinson Boulevard. It was the
trailer park’s owner that contacted Charles Reid about
work for the Hiltons.
“Violet and Daisy came in here for their groceries a
few times before they inquired about a job,” recalls
Reid, now 82. “I knew who the Hilton sisters were, I’d
seen ads and stories about them before – but I didn’t
realize they were the same people who were asking me
for a job.



“They told me they could mop my floors and stock my
shelves and do just about anything I needed around the
store, and I’d only have to pay for one of them.”
Reid paints a picture of two wildly untamed show
people who found their way to his doorstep that
September day. Both standing less than five feet tall,
they were decked out in somewhat disheveled stage
wear, open-toed sandals that exposed nails painted
crimson red and they sported dye jobs of opposing hues
(at the time Violet was brunette and Daisy was blond).
The two captured more attention for their fashion
sensibilities than their unique physical state.
Reid promised he would consider their offer and would
contact them the following day.
“I went home that night and thought about it quite a
bit,” Reid says. “I thought, what can I do with these
two women? I wanted to help them, but I wasn’t quite
sure what kind of job I could offer them. I didn’t
know how well my customers would take to the sight of
the two of them together cleaning the floor.”
Then Reid remembered Park ‘n Shop’s produce section at
the back of the store. At the time people lined up to
have their vegetables and fruits weighed and priced.
The area consisted of two counters that ran parallel
to one another – but it seemed a simple enough matter
to turn them into a V shape, just like Violet and
Daisy.
If you were looking directly at the Hilton sisters,
Violet was on the left and Daisy was on the right –
Violet’s left hip joined Daisy’s right. They could
easily stand practically back-to-back, but usually
formed a sort of V shape.



Reid agreed to hire the women for the position, but
there were a few issues they had to discuss first. “I
told them their hair had to be the same color and that
they would need to get rid of the long nails and their
stage clothes – they couldn’t wear them to work.” Reid
also made it clear that he would pay them both.
Reid’s wife Larue later took them shopping for skirts
and to get their hair done. He provided them with the
standard-issue red and white check button shirts that
all the employees wore. “After my wife came back with
them from the beauty parlor they looked pretty good,”
Reid says. “Very pretty.”
The Hiltons meshed quickly and quietly into the local
population. They developed bonds of friendship with
fellow employees and customers, as well as members of
Purcell United Methodist, but their involvement with
the community beyond that was next to nil.
“They did very little outside of work, home and
occasionally going to church,” Reid offers. “I think
they had led a very active life and they just wanted
to be left alone.”
His favorite recollection of the Hilton sisters? Their
response to neighborhood children. “They didn’t really
like kids too much because they would stare,” Reid
chuckles. “Sometimes they would get right up next to
Daisy and Violet to try and see where they were
connected. Some even tried to look under their dress.
“I’d be in another part of the store but I could still
hear it – that slapping noise as Daisy or Violet would
pop some little boy on the head because he got too
close. You’d just hear that pop and some
kid would take off running.”
After a few months in the rundown trailer park off
Wilkinson Boulevard the two women grew weary of their
living situation. Reid approached his church about a
small home that was owned by Purcell United Methodist
– adjacent to the property. The sisters rented the
two-bedroom house immediately.
Despite the fact they moved away from Huffman’s mobile
home park, they had developed a fondness for the
restaurant Tanzy’s – just a few feet from their
trailer’s front door – and apparently had struck up
somewhat of a friendship with owner John Tanzy.
“It’s not at all surprising,” says Robert Tanzy, son
of the late owner. “My dad was just that kind of a
guy. He was pretty unusual himself and he liked to get
to know people.”
Robert Tanzy remembers Violet and Daisy in much the
same way as their other friends do – quiet and
amiable. “They usually ordered burgers or sandwiches,
and they always had one particular booth they liked to
sit in when it was available. It was the first booth
right beside the door.”
Moving into the small house on the corner of Weyland
and Greenland Avenue proved to be one of the Hilton’s
crowning moments while living in Charlotte. Reid
convinced his friend Archie Moore, who ran Clinton’s
Furniture in downtown Charlotte, to provide the
sisters with some donated furniture. Violet and Daisy
settled happily into their new digs along with a
mixed-breed lab and a pet bird.
Once the Hiltons were somewhat financially solvent
again, they never hesitated to share what they had
with those around them.
“It’s true,” recalls John Sills. “They were always
giving stuff away.” In an interview with the Charlotte
News in 1969, Sills elaborated. “Every Christmas they
would buy expensive gifts for some of the customers of
the store. Even this Christmas when they were sick,
they sent their presents to the store to be passed
out.”
According to Reid, the Hiltons had a stellar
attendance record at their job with Park ‘n Shop.
“They were very rarely sick and hardly ever missed
work,” he emphasizes. “So we were worried when they
were so sick they couldn’t come to work.
“Violet was the first to get sick,” Reid continues.
“Just as she started to get better, Daisy caught it.”
It was the Hong Kong flu – a
particularly nasty virus that could wreak havoc on a
body by inflaming all the internal organs. Although it
didn’t have a very high mortality rate and most people
who caught it recovered, individuals 60 and over were
at higher risk. Daisy and Violet were just about to
turn 61.
“We called just about every day to check on them,”
Reid recalls. “Sometimes when they didn’t want to be
bothered they wouldn’t answer the phone, but that
Saturday morning we tried calling every hour and
nobody answered the phone.
“I knew they hadn’t gone out of town or anything
because they didn’t know anybody to go visit, so we
decided to go over to the house and check on them.”
With the aid of Reverend Sills and the Charlotte
Police, Reid had the front door forced open. Inside,
lying on the furnace grate in the hallway, were Violet
and Daisy. In an apparent attempt to stay warm in the
final throws of the Hong Kong flu, the two had managed
to drag themselves over to the vent.
It was Saturday, January 4, 1969. Violet and Daisy
Hilton were dead at the age of 60.
Reid handled the details that followed. Hankins and
Whittington Funeral Home recovered the bodies – both
were buried in a single oversized casket in a plot
owned by Reid.
An attempt to find any survivors to claim the $1200 or
so they had left behind proved to be fruitless. After
the bills were paid Reid donated the remaining cash to
the Charlotte Mecklenburg school system.
Inside the house was very little – just the furniture
they had acquired since their arrival years earlier.
In one of the bedroom dressers Reid and Sills
discovered a handful of old photos from the Hilton’s
film and stage careers, as well as a few letters
detailing the difficulties they had experienced.
“From the letters, it seemed the sisters were
constantly being duped by managers who couldn’t find
jobs for them,” Sills said in the 1969 interview with
the Charlotte News. “They were always ending up in
hotels without any money in a strange town, with the
hotel manager growing more and more impatient.
“They weren’t exactly treated very well in the
entertainment business,” Sills says today. “That’s why
I think they were so happy here because they were able
to live quiet, normal lives, and people accepted them
the way they were.”



More info:
If you’d like to see the Hilton Sisters in
performance, order “Chained For Life” from Rhino Home
Video or Amazon.com. It’s a low budget, black and
white film-noirish b pic about conjoined twin sisters
in show business. One sister (Daisy) marries a cad and
the other (Violet) later offs him with his own pistol.
The story ends with the judge pondering their fate as
he realizes that if the guilty sister goes to prison,
so does the innocent one. Judging from this film, the
Hilton Sisters never really had an opportunity to
refine their acting skills, but they do some pretty
mean harmonizing on such musical ditties as “Don’t
Fall in Love” and the slightly surreal number “Love
Thief.”

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