Everyone loves a good rags-to-riches tale. But Francesca Gabor Hilton’s life followed a dramatically different path. Born to Hollywood star Zsa Zsa Gabor, and founder of the famed Hilton hotel dynasty, Conrad Hilton, Francesca was raised living in mansions, attending celebrity parties, earning blue ribbons in horse-riding competitions, and jet-setting to Rome and Paris, among other fashionable cities. But her life was not as idyllic as it seemed.
Zsa Zsa Gabor wrote in her autobiography that Francesca was born following a pregnancy that resulted from rape by Conrad Hilton, her husband at the time. The couple divorced before Francesca was born. Francesca told the Los Angeles Times in 2007 that she spent Christmases and occasional upscale lunches with her father. But their relationship was never close. When Conrad died in 1979, he left his only daughter $100,000 out of his estate, with most of the wealth earmarked for charity. That doesn’t sound too bad, except that Conrad Hilton’s estate was worth about $200 million at the time, including massive Hilton Hotel stock interests.
Francesca Hilton tried to challenge the will in court, but she lost. At the same time, one of her half-brothers, Barron Hilton, also started legal proceedings over the estate. After court battles stretched on for almost ten years, Barron walked away with voting interest and income rights over the majority of Hilton Hotel corporate stock. Already acting as CEO of the company, he dramatically grew the value and holdings of the Hilton empire and became a Forbes 400-ranked billionaire in the process. In 2007, Barron Hilton announced that his estate plan, like his father’s, would leave the large majority of his holdings (specifically, 97% of $2.3 billion) to charity when he dies — much to the chagrin of his granddaughter, Paris Hilton.
Unlike her famous grand-niece, Francesca stopped enjoying the support of wealthy parents many years ago. She earned a living from a variety of jobs — including acting, stand-up comedy, and working for her father’s charitable foundation. She watched her mother go through six more husbands after Conrad Hilton, before finally “settling down” with Prince Frederic von Anhalt in 1986. While von Anhalt and Zsa Zsa were both coy about their actual ages, well-accepted media reports have placed the couple’s age difference at 25 years, at least.
Their marriage appeared to be one of convenience more so than love. At least, that’s what this Vanity Fair story from 2007 suggests, even though von Anhalt said he loved Zsa Zsa. Nonetheless, the relationship gets the prize for surviving the longest out of Zsa Zsa’s nine marriages. In fact, going on 29 years, the marriage has outlasted all of Zsa Zsa’s prior eight marriages combined.
During that time, Zsa Zsa Gabor’s age finally caught up with her, especially following a 2002 car accident that left her wheelchair-bound with partial paralysis, followed by multiple strokes, surgeries, and other health problems, including losing the ability to speak and the amputation of her leg due to an infection. Prince Frederic has remained as her husband and full-time caregiver throughout, despite numerous bumps in the road, such as his bizarre plan to cause Zsa Zsa to become a 94-year old mother (through an egg donor and surrogate mother), his public claim that he had an affair with Anna Nicole Smith, and mounting financial difficulties.
Von Anhalt battled to remain as the decision-maker for his wife after Francesca filed legal challenges to him and sought a court-appointed conservator, claiming that he mismanaged Zsa Zsa’s assets, botched her medical care, and refused to allow her to visit with her mother. Von Anhalt denied the charges, refuted the public claims that he imprisoned rather than cared for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and eventually reached an out-of-court settlement with Francesca. In exchange for monthly reporting to Francesca Hilton’s attorney, and hour-long visits once per week, the legal fighting ended. The hard feelings remained, however.
Their feuding was not new. In 2005, von Anhalt filed a lawsuit on behalf of himself and Zsa Zsa, accusing Francesca of fraud and forgery, in obtaining written permission from her mother to refinance her Bel Air mansion. Von Anhalt said Francesca Hilton did it to pillage her mother’s equity in the property, but Fransceca said she did it with her mother’s approval and permission to refinance the home and save it from foreclosure. The lawsuit was dropped after Zsa Zsa did not appear in court or sign an affidavit saying that she wanted to be part of the lawsuit against her daughter.
Despite the fact that there were no ongoing lawsuits pending when she died, Francesca’s friend and publicist told Radar Online that the bitterness remained until her death on January 6, 2015, at age 67. Not long before her passing, Francesca Hilton said, “My mother wanted to be a princess, so she married an evil queen.” Francesca also said she was still very angry with the Prince and challenged him to sue her. By then, only weeks before she died, Francesca was flat broke and alternated between living in her car and a low-end apartment building when she could afford the weekly rent.
Things became so bad for Francesca that when she suddenly passed away, no one came forward to claim her body. With Zsa Zsa Gabor as her only family member (unless you include Paris Hilton and the other, well-to-do side of the Hilton family), Francesca’s remains were held in the morgue for days.
So who stepped forward to take care of her final resting arrangements? None other than Prince Frederic von Anhalt himself. He also called for an investigation into her death, claiming she left him troubling messages threatening suicide. Francesca’s publicist says Francesca would have been very upset if von Anhalt handled her funeral and burial arrangements. He even blamed von Anhalt for Francesca’s death, saying, “Everybody that really knows Francesca knows why she passed away. It was a massive heart attack caused by the stress of one Frederic von Anhalt.”
Ultimately, authorities ordered an autopsy and did not allow von Anhalt to claim Francesca’s body. One of Francesca’s half-brothers, Stephen, reportedly will step forward and claim the body, and then allow Francesca’s friends to lay her to rest in the manner they believe she would have wanted.
It’s quite a fall from grace for the daughter of the woman called “glamour personified” and one the world’s most successful hoteliers of all time. With all of the time, money, and energy invested into battling over her mother’s best interests, it’s too bad that Francesca did not take more care to plan for her own estate. Francesca Hilton could have planned out her funeral and burial arrangements, even if she did not have assets to worry about. Exercising that forethought would have ended any concern that the man she battled against so fervently may have been the one to plan her funeral and burial.
It’s a lesson for everyone. No one knows when the end will come. Francesca Hilton was so worried about her mother that she probably never stopped to think about her own mortality. Everyone should take the time to plan out their estate — or at least their funeral and burial wishes — so that it’s not left up to chance. Francesca certainly did not plan to pass away at the age of 67, before her 97-year-old mother, but it happened. Delaying planning for what happens after you die is never a good idea.
Danielle and Andy Mayoras are co-authors of Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights! and attorneys with the Michigan law firm, Barron, Rosenberg, Mayoras & Mayoras, P.C. Click here to subscribe to their e-newsletter, The Trial & Heirs Update and learn more about their book. You can reach them at Contact@TrialAndHeirs.com.