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Inside life of Paris Hilton’s man-eater grandma ‘Big Kathy’


In Paris Hilton’s just-released “Paris: The Memoir,” the bad girl of the early 2000s paints a glowing, saintly portrait of her late maternal grandmother as a major influence in her life.

But Kathleen Dugan Avanzino Richards Catain Fenton was more sinner than saint.

A high-school dropout at 16, Kathleen grew up in a raucous, well-to-do Irish-Catholic family in upscale Manhasset, in Long Island, and later had a reputation as a man hunter and a wife from hell, first revealed in my 2006 bestselling biography, “House of Hilton.”

Dugan was her maiden name; the other four names came from the men she had married — including a well-connected mobster chased by the feds and a handsome alcoholic who got 20-year-old Dugan pregnant in the back seat of a Chevy convertible.

That’s how Kathy Hilton — Paris’ mother and a star of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” — was conceived. She would be known in the family as “Little Kathy,” while her mother was “Big Kathy.” 

Kyle Richards and her mother Kathleen
Kathleen Dugan Avanzino Richards Catain Fenton (left) once allegedly tried to push her second husband — the father of daughters Kyle (right) and Kim Richards — down a flight of stairs.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Big Kathy would subsequently give birth to two more daughters, actresses Kyle and Kim Richards, also “RHOBH” stars, with her second husband. She become a driven and obsessive stage mother, quickly pushing her girls into show business careers — in Little Kathy’s case, when she was just two years old.

The three daughters were taught to marry rich men and have lots of babies. They followed those lessons to the letter, later leading Big Kathy to boast, “My daughters are married to men who have a total net worth of $13 billion.” 

But, in Paris’s telling, Big Kathy was simply the “single mom of three extraordinary daughters.” 

None of Big Kathy’s marriages and her often bizarre lifestyle made it into Paris’s book.

Kim Richards, Kyle Richards, Paris Hilton and Kathy Hilton
Kim (far left) and Kyle (second from left) Richards are from their mother’s second marriage, while Kathy Hilton (far right, next to daughter Paris Hilton) is from Kathleen’s first.
Getty Images for Extra

When Paris was 14, her parents, Rick and Kathy Hilton, sent her to Palm Springs to live with her grandmother, hoping Big Kathy could get the wild child to behave. It was during that year that the two had bonded.

Paris gave her the nickname “Gram Cracker,” and Big Kathy taught the girl about fashion, style and, more importantly, men and how to handle them.

When Paris complained that a boy in her class had been mean to her, Big Kathy went ballistic and called his home. “Listen, you ugly little pimple face, don’t f–k with my granddaughter. If you so much as speak to her again, I’ll come over there and destroy you.”

It was a threat to take seriously.

Big Kathy, a heavy drinker, was known to have a propensity to violence.

Kathy, Nicky, and Paris Hilton
Paris Hilton (right, with mom Kathy and sister Nicky) was sent to live with her grandma during her wild teen years.
Getty Images

She once put a screw in someone’s cheeseburger, apparently hoping they’d choke or break their teeth. As told in my book, she even tried to push one of her husbands down a flight of basement stairs.

The first guy to be lured into matrimony by Kathleen Dugan was Laurence K. Avanzino, a handsome, blond-haired football player at C.W. Post, part of Long Island University, and said to resemble a cross between Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.

But, like his girlfriend, Avanzino was wild and a drinker, with little interest in academics. They fell for each other in the fall of 1957.

In the spring of 1958, they had sex for the first time, and the future Big Kathy — a “master at getting what she wanted,” a source noted — became pregnant.

Kathleen Richards, Kyle Richards and Kim Richards
Kathleen, with Kyle and Kim Richards, pushed her daughters into acting while they were still in diapers.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

The young couple quickly wed and moved into his parents’ home to await the birth of the baby. The best job Avanzino could secure was at an Esso station in Wantagh in Long Island. It was a turbulent union that would soon end.

Living hand-to-mouth, supporting a toddler by working for peanuts at a cosmetics counter, Kathleen Dugan Avanzino desperately needed security and a better lifestyle.

Enter Kenneth Edwin Richards, the sophisticated — and married — son of a Methodist minister in Valley Stream, NY.

A retired lieutenant colonel under the army’s surgeon general in World War II, Richards had become successful developing and marketing ladies’ clothing.

Earning a princely salary, he had a fancy home in Garden City, a beautiful Manhattan apartment and a family farm upstate.

Kathy and Rick Hilton
Kathy Hilton was reportedly pushed by her mom to marry a wealthy man — and Kathleen was proud of son-in-law Rick Hilton’s bank account.

In other words, he was prime game for man hunter Kathleen.

She met the father of three at a party and they soon began an intimate relationship, meeting at a Long Island bar where she was working as a hatcheck girl.

One evening, Big Kathy and Richards’ wife Evelyn had a confrontation at the bar — and Big Kathy was accused by a witness of putting knockout drops in Evelyn’s drink.

Evelyn’s daughter later alleged that Big Kathy drugged her mother, followed her to the parking lot and slammed the heavy door of the Richards’ Lincoln Continental on her ankle, putting the woman in a cast for weeks.

Big Kathy then showed up at Richards’ home and, with her secret boyfriend’s two older children present, began making accusations about his wife.

Kathy Hilton and sisters Kim Richards and Kyle Richards
Kathleen Richards once allegedly served her stepdaughter — the half-sister of Kim (left) and Kyle (right, with Kathy Hilton) Richards — a cheeseburger with a screw in it.

When Richards hemmed and hawed over divorce and marrying Big Kathy, she got pregnant in January 1964, just as she had done with Avanzino. Richards got a Mexican divorce, and married Big Kathy. 

It was during that time that the new wife began fighting with Richards’ mother, Maunie.

One afternoon Richards’ daughter found Big Kathy in the kitchen laughing hysterically. “I just fed Maunie dog food for lunch,” she declared.

Richards would later allegedly claim that Big Kathy “tried to kill his mother.”

On September 19, 1964, in a hospital in Mineola, Big Kathy gave birth to her second daughter. They named her Kimberly, later shortened to Kim for stage and TV.

"Paris" The Memoir" cover
Paris Hilton writes about her grandmother in her new memoir, but paints a rosy picture.

She was just a few months old when Kathleen got her booked into a TV carpet commercial.

Soon, Richards was allegedly being physically assaulted by Big Kathy.

Richards’ daughter said she came home during one of the fights and discovered that Big Kathy “tried to literally push my dad down the basement stairs. He was holding on for his life.”

Still, the couple stayed together, and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where Richards got a job with a discount store chain and Big Kathy pursued acting careers for the girls.

In La-La Land, Kathleen began demanding diamonds, furs and expensive shoes. Her close friend described her as being “like Imelda Marcos.”

Nicky Hilton, Paris Hilton, Kathy Hilton
A friend once described Kathleen — the ancestor of fashion plates Nicky (from left), Paris and Kathy Hilton — as being like Imelda Marcos when it came to collecting shoes.

And her violence again emerged.

Jealous that her stepdaughter had become friends with the family’s young maid, Big Kathy once served up a cheeseburger with a small screw in it and gave it to Richards’ daughter.

“She always told me I had pretty teeth and I guess she wanted me to break them,” Richards’ daughter recalled.

In April 1968, Big Kathy, was pregnant again. Her marriage was all but over by the time her daughter Kyle was born.

None of the girls would have traditional childhoods because of their mother’s drive to have them work. Kim, for instance, was barely about to read when Big Kathy was teaching her to remember dialogue.

Actor C. Thomas Howell, actress Kyle Richards, Kathleen Richards, actress Kim Richards and husband G. Monty Brinson at Kim and Monty's wedding
Kathleen (center) once boasted, “My daughters are married to men who have a total net worth of $13 billion.” She’s seen here at the wedding of daughter Kim Richards and G. Monty Brinson (right, along with C. Thomas Howell and Kyle Richards, left).
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

After six turbulent years, Big Kathy gave Richards the boot — leading to a nine-year battle over money and the children’s TV careers.

While Richards was mild-mannered and beaten down by Big Kathy, her third husband was a hot-tempered mobster said to have had the power to order hits. She may have married him twice.

In 1969, a US Senate probe into organized crime had named Jack Catain as a member of the Mafia. A subsequent probe linked him to Angelo Bruno, the Philadelphia godfather.

The same year that Big Kathy and Catain tied the knot, Bruno was murdered.

In 1987, after Catain was divorced from Big Kathy, he was convicted for his part in a $3.3 million counterfeiting operation.

Kathy Hilton
“Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Kathy Hilton was called “Little Kathy” growing up, while her mom, Kathleen, was “Big Kathy.”
Getty Images

Next was Robert C. Fenton Jr., known as the “silver fox” because the 70something was in great shape. But as Big Kathy’s husband number four, he’d physically fall apart.

She made his life a living hell.

Big Kathy snagged the recent widower at a Palm Desert, California, dance club.

They moved in together in 1998, not long after meeting and he soon gave Big Kathy an enormous emerald ring surrounded by diamonds.

Married the next year, Big Kathy convinced Fenton to cut off financial assistance to his daughter, and to also sell his home — and put all the proceeds, said to be a quarter-million dollars, into renovating her house.

Once he did, Big Kathy stopped sleeping with him and began treating him like dirt.

Paris Hilton
Paris writes that her grandmother was “unbreakable.”
Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock

Fenton’s daughters said he fell under Big Kathy’s spell because he was “blinded” by the Hilton family’s fame and wealth, which she constantly played up.

On March 2, 2002, some six weeks after her 64th birthday, Kathleen Dugan Avanzino Richards Catain Fenton died after being treated for breast cancer. 

In her memoir, Paris Hilton recalls that time.

“I was crushed by the thought of saying goodbye to Gram Cracker,” Hilton writes “She was unbreakable. Or maybe I just saw her that way because I couldn’t stand the idea of losing her.”


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