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Conjoined sisters found fame as the first Hiltons

Long before the world ever heard of Paris and Nicole, there were the real Hilton sisters.

Like the modern-day Hiltons, these sisters were beautiful and -- at times -- fabulously wealthy.

What's more, they were twins -- and joined forever by a bond of flesh.

Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins born in Brighton, England, in 1908, built glitzy show-biz careers out of their condition.

They appeared on vaudeville circuits all over the United States, including in Buffalo -- a big-time vaudeville town back in the day -- during their heyday as song-and-dance performers in the 1920s through the early 1940s.

And it was Buffalo that embraced the Hiltons right back.

In 1941, a judge in Buffalo allowed the sisters to do something they had long wanted -- get married, with the help of a valid marriage license.

That's right: in a day and age when 30 states had rejected the Hilton's pleas for the right to marry men of their choosing (sound like something ripped from today's headlines?), Buffalo stepped up and allowed them to do it, writes Dean Jensen in his new book, "The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins," out on Dec. 1 from Ten Speed Press.

Daisy Hilton applied on Sept. 15, 1941, at Buffalo City Hall for a marriage license to marry a musician, Buddy Sawyer. The sisters were appearing at Brogan's, a nightclub at the corner of Michigan and Seneca streets which no longer exists.

"It was done in a low-key way," said Jensen, a Milwaukee writer and gallery owner who has long been fascinated by circuses and unusual performers. "They made this visit to City Hall, and that judge -- Judge (Christy J.) Buscaglia -- he agreed to carry out their marriage ceremony. They were married in Buffalo, in City Hall."

The marriage didn't last long.

But that Buffalo wedding was one of the few happy moments in the lives of the talented, tragic twins.

The Hiltons -- who lived to be 60 years old before dying, alone and in poverty, in North Carolina in 1968 -- were rejected by their birth mother, a single woman who saw their birth defect as a punishment on her for an illicit relationship. She gave the twins to the midwife who had helped birth them.

That midwife, Mary Hilton, adopted the sisters and turned them into a sideshow attraction, touring them through Europe and then to the United States.

Eventually, the sisters perfected some song-and-dance routines and grew strong enough as an act to break away from their caretakers -- who may have been their exploiters as well, Jensen writes in his book.

They became such big stars on the vaudeville stage -- sharing the bill with George and Gracie Allen, befriending Harry Houdini, dancing with a young Bob Hope -- that they made $4,000 a week while the rest of the country was stuck in the Depression.

In 1932, they co-starred in Tod Browning's film "Freaks," a controversial picture in which a gang of carnival freaks attack a man and woman who had hurt one of their own.

"They were initially exploited as freaks. They appeared in sideshows, ragtag carnival sideshows," said Jensen, whose spent 10 years researching and writing about the Hiltons. "But then they went to Broadway, to New York City, and appeared in vaudeville -- and they were enormous. Just so huge. They were attractive women, and they had great talent. They were very charming, and America just fell in love with them."

"A lot of reviewers at the time said they would have been successful entertainers even if they hadn't been conjoined."

But they were, and that was the way the country saw them. From their earliest years working in "pit shows" with traveling carnivals to their last, sad personal appearances at drive-in movie theaters, the Hilton sisters were billed as "freaks" and "Siamese twins." (It was only in the 1960s and after that the term "conjoined" replaced "Siamese" to describe such twins, Jensen said.)

In the end, they worked a few final years outside of show business, weighing produce at the local supermarket and selling cosmetics door-to-door.

And finally they died. Daisy first, of influenza, in bed in their tiny house in Charlotte, and then Violet some two or three days later. Violet could have called for help after her sister died, Jensen said, but she didn't.

The twins had always had a vow, he said: to be together until the end, no matter what.

"They really didn't share any vital organs," he said. "Today, with these really complicated conjoinings they're able to deal with, I don't think it would be any problem at all to separate the two of them."

"They didn't know anything other than that," said Jensen. "They were born that way. They never knew anything else. Their story is a tragic one -- and at the same time, there's something noble about them. They were trying to overcome this."


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