I first “met” Sarah Miller through her fabulous Miss Spitfire; Voya says “Miller brings history to life,” and that is no exaggeration. Her work always adds something fresh, especially to familiar subjects like the relationship between Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. Now that I’m fortunate enough to call Sarah a friend IRL, it is a puzzle to me how such a sunny cheery person finds herself drawn to less than sunny topics (the Dionne Quintuplets and Lizzie Borden, for two). This is a question I will definitely ask when Sarah is my guest next Thursday, August 26, at 5 pm PDT on my new program, Write Space with Kirby Larson and Friends (find it by following me on Instagram, @kirbylarson). Her newest book, Violet and Daisy: The Story of Vaudeville’s Famous Conjoined Twins (Penguin Random House) is yet another Sarah Miller tours de force. Read on for the story behind the story!
Writing about Violet and Daisy Hilton taught me something brand new: Sometimes, lies illuminate the truth.
The reality is fascinating enough. Born conjoined at the hip in 1908 (they shared a tailbone, and the last few inches of their intestinal tracts), Violet and Daisy were given by their unwed mother to her midwife, Mary Hilton. Mary immediately began exploiting the three-week-old sisters by using them to attract customers into her pub. As toddlers, Violet and Daisy embarked on a show business odyssey that would take them across the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania before crossing the Pacific Ocean and entering the American Carnival circuit at the age of eight. In 1925 they exploded onto the vaudeville stage, where their one-of-a-kind musical act earned record-shattering profits that afforded them every kind of material luxury. From the outside, their lives looked like a Cinderella story. Behind the scenes, though, they were being mercilessly exploited, kept in a state of isolation they likened to imprisonment. At age twenty-two, they escaped and successfully petitioned the court for emancipation from their guardian/manager, and continued their stage career for nearly three more decades.
Nevertheless, lies were woven through the fabric of Violet and Daisy’s lives from beginning to end. Mary Hilton lied to them, and about them. Their manager filled their promotional materials with fairy-tale nonsense about an idyllic childhood that had never happened. They themselves fed newspaper reporters carefully scripted fabrications at interviews to bolster their immaculately crafted good-girl image.
When they gained their independence, Violet and Daisy continued to freely embellish their history whenever it suited them to do so. It was as if they escorted the truth into their dressing room, sat it down before the mirror, and painted it with makeup and dressed it in sequins. That fact is as much a part of their story as the truth itself. They lied about their career, erasing their early years in carnivals and inventing a European musical debut that almost certainly didn’t happen. Most often, they invented whoppers about their love lives, even going so far as to stage phony engagements and weddings for the sake of publicity.
Why did they do it? After years of research, I still don’t know. Yet amidst the tangle of ballyhoo, hype, and stunts, one thread remains absolutely unchanged: Violet and Daisy Hilton never wanted to be separated.
To me, that ironclad devotion is the most fascinating thing about the Hilton sisters. Though they considered themselves distinct individuals — even dismissing the very idea that ‘identical’ twins existed at all — they adamantly and consistently opposed any suggestions of surgical separation throughout their lives.
Their physical bond was the reason their mother abandoned them, the reason they were abused and exploited for the first twenty-two years of their lives, and the reason that when one sister died, the other would have no choice but to follow. And yet Violet and Daisy had not the slightest interest in severing that link. Their connecting bridge, a band of flesh and bone a mere six inches in diameter, was as central to their identity as their own thoughts and emotions.
Imagine being both individual and indivisible. That mind-boggling dichotomy formed the bedrock of Violet and Daisy’s existence. In the Hiltons’ case, harmony was the key. To their way of thinking, all their individual differences weren’t cause for conflict and disagreement. Rather, they saw themselves as two halves of a perfectly balanced whole. The fact that their preferences rarely matched became a point of pride between them. They favored contrasting colors, different foods, opposite genres of books and movies, and even maintained separate circles of friends. Their personalities, too, diverged to create a stabilizing harmony. Where Daisy was impulsive, Violet was more cautious, just as Daisy’s easygoing nature counterbalanced Violet’s temper. And on and on.
In fact, they were so different, and so adamant about the distinctions between their tastes and personalities, that I don’t mind admitting that I have a favorite Hilton sister. I’ve never been willing to do that before, not when I wrote about the four Romanov sisters, or the five Dionne quintuplets. It never seemed fair to single one out of the crowd before. But Violet and Daisy finally made me understand that when you spend your entire life being viewed as an identical component of an indistinguishable unit, being seen as an individual is one of the highest compliments you can be paid.
So let the record show it: Violet Hilton is my favorite.
Sarah Miller began writing her first novel at the age of ten, and spent two decades working in libraries and bookstores. She is the author of The Miracle and Tragedy of the Dionne Quintuplets, which received four starred reviews and was praised in the New York Times as “riveting.” She is also the author of The Borden Murders: Lizzie Borden and the Trial of the Century, an SLJ Best Book of the Year and an ALA-YALSA Quick Pick; two historical novels for teens, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller and The Lost Crown, both ALA Notable Books; as well as a bestselling novel for adults, Caroline: Little House Revisited. Sarah lives in Michigan.