Rachel's Blog: Review: The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton - Dean Jensen

Fri, 08 Sep 2006


Softcover, 400 pages, B&W illustrations
Published by Ten Speed Press, available in October.

Today, Daisy and Violet Hilton are probably best remembered for their brief appearance in Tod Browning's contentious film, Freaks. But in their heyday, the Hilton twins were household names. Genuine conjoined twins, they were born fused at the lower spine in 1908, and lucky not to be handed off to eager experimental surgeons.

Dean Jensen's book is, thankfully, a traditional biography, with the sister's birth on page one and ending with their funeral on the last. Jensen has not tried to be clever, but rather let this unusual story and the numerous strange characters have all the attention.

Adopted, raised and exploited by a pub owner turned raconteur and, later, a Melbourne-born self-taught showman, Daisy and Violet Hilton remain an island of near-calm in the giddy upheaval of their lives. Dragged from their birthplace in Brighton, England, to Germany, then Australia and finally to the United States, where they tried to simultaneously rise above their affliction and take advantage of it. The girls became talented singers, musicians and dancers, with one of their signature pieces being a pas de quatre at the end of the show.

Their lives touched briefly with others who were, or would go on to be, Hollywood or Broadway stars, something which the twins attempted numerous times. The book is peppered with familiar names and locations, such as a lovely snippet on the opening of Luna Park in Melbourne. The girls appeared in the park's Egyptian temple, "Pharoah's Daughter", just after their fifth birthday, only a few months after the park was opened. They went on to tour country Australia where they met Myer Myers, a Clifton Hills born circus-runaway who would gradually become the twin's manager and guardian.

The Lives and Loves... allows room to explore the people who surround Violet and Daisy; the characters of the freak shows and fairs (think Carnivāle) and later the vaudeville circuit, their colleagues on stage, in the orchestras they used, and their business associates.

With black and white publicity photos, film stills and postcards every few pages and quotes from contemporary documents and articles, as well as recent interviews, The Lives and Loves... has clearly been thoroughly researched. It is written in a straightforward, engaging manner, which gives the bizarre characters that populate every page of this book space to shine on their own. And it is not the more physically unusual people that are the most oddly behaved.

Highly Recommended.

Preorder from Ten Speed Press, or Amazon.