Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The 97 percent solution

Twas the day after Christmas and Paris Whitney Hilton, heir to the hotelier fortune that bears her name, did what millions of other Americans did: Go shopping. A bargain hunter like the rest of us, the hotel heiress went in search of bargains (only she went to Lisa Klein in West Hollywood, one of the high-end boutiques she frequents). For Paris, however, the mag stripes on the back of her credit cards may be holding different data before much longer. This Christmas may be the last of the sort of wonderful life she’s grown accustomed to. Things are changing at the House of Hilton.

Twas also the day after Christmas that Barron Hilton, chairman of the Conrad Hilton Foundation and an earlier heir to the hotel chain that bears his name, announced his decision to donate 97 percent of his fortune, currently estimated at $2.3 billion, to charity. Reuters reported the news on Wednesday.

In a statement, the foundation said that Barron Hilton, son of the founder, intends “to contribute 97 percent of his entire net worth, estimated today at $2.3 billion, including the created trusts, at whatever value it is at the time of his passing.”

Reuters reported that the mission of the foundation is to back ventures that provide clean water in Africa, education for blind children and housing for the mentally ill. Based on the language of Conrad Hilton’s will, job one is “to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute.” The foundation assets will swell to about $4.5 billion under the terms of Barron Hilton’s plans announced Wednesday.

“Paris Hilton was not immediately available for comment on her grandfather’s plans for his fortune,” Reuters reported, high up in the story.

Now, we’re not ordinarily big on schadenfreude. We just won’t go there. But there’s no escaping the sense of poetic justice at work. One’s tempted to cast for a moment Paris Hilton in a variation of the role of Regina in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” jilted from her inheritance by her father, favoring her brothers. Or something from the start of “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” But we might have seen this coming.

Paris has done more than shop in recent years. In 2003, about the time when most of us knew she was even alive, Paris Hilton Gained Notoriety when a videotape of her and her boyfriend having sex was released on the Internet.

Reuters neatly conflated the next four years: “She parlayed her notoriety, fueled by tabloid headlines about her partying lifestyle, into a celebrity career that has included a reality television show, a book, a music album, and film roles. Then this year she spent more than three weeks in jail for violating probation in a drunk-driving case.”

That smartly-condensed nutshell embraces the “career” of the most celebrated person in popular culture to be, by and large, famous for being famous and nothing more. Paris Hilton has, by coincidence and design, become the symbol of a certain vulgar aridity in popular culture, the literal expression of a by-the-numbers ethos of ascension to those fifteen minutes of fame. Like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears -- the two other tragic musketeers of pop culture -- she’s that painfully irresistible magnet, that train wreck you can’t help but look at as you drive down the highway.

Remember what happened last November? At a nightclub in Vegas promoting her own record release? Singer Joshua Radin did, and put it on his MySpace page. “Paris, who had been swilling straight vodka from [a] Grey Goose bottle for hours, gets up on stage, has the people in charge throw her ‘record’ on the house stereo for her to lip sync two of her songs,” writes Radin. “She gets up on the stage, pukes, leaves. . . I find the music business charming.”

Well, Granddad apparently didn’t. Reuters reported that Jerry Oppenheimer, author of the 2006 book “House of Hilton,” said Barron Hilton “was embarrassed by the behavior of his socialite granddaughter and believes it has sullied the family name.”

That’s not hot.

What happens next? In the short term, nothing. Paris Hilton still stays at any Hilton Hotel on this planet for free. The service on her diamond-encrusted Vertu cell won’t be cut off (hell, her mobile carrier is probably paying her). With her investments (assuming she's made any) and lavish event appearance fees, she won’t be serving you your Chicken Club at the Wendy’s drive-thru window anytime soon.

But still, it’s got to be some kind of wake-up call. At one level or another, Paris Hilton got a taste of mortality the day after Christmas. Just like the rest of us fighting subprime mortgages, insane gas prices and a nagging sense of disquiet in spite of the Christmas lights. And still very unlike the rest of us. Grandpa’s announcement won’t be exactly a change to the simple life – 3 percent of $2.3 billion is still $69 million. But it’s a far cry from the stellar money she no doubt envisioned.

Welcome back, Paris. Welcome back to a place a few decimal points closer to our wonderful life.
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Top image: Kevin Mazur. Bottom image: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

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