This season's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (RHOBH) has been one for the books, and a major factor has been the addition of Kathy Hilton to the cast. I've read a lot about Kim and Kyle over the years, but with Kathy added to the mix, I wanted to deep dive into the common denominator that binds them--Big Kathy.
A lot has been published on "Big Kathy," and she's clearly a dominant figure. Born Kathleen Mary Dugan on 17 April 1937 in Omaha, Nebraska, she is the daughter of Edward J. Dugan and Dorothy Callahan. She's been married to four husbands: Lawrence Avanzino (father of Kathy Hilton), Ken Richards (father of Kim and Kyle), Jack Catain, and Robert Fenton. A lot of books and articles have gone into Big Kathy's husbands (House of Hilton by Jerry Oppenheimer is next to me as I write this), but I'm not interested in a muckraking piece here, since there's enough of that out there. I'm more interested in the family history that made Big Kathy who she is and by extension, the RHOBH characters we love (or love to hate).
Big Kathy is Irish. Full stop.
Big Kathy descends from Irish immigrants, most who immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-19th century and eventually settled in the Midwest. Lots of typical Irish names like Dugan, Callaghan, Dougherty (and various spellings), Ryan, Kelly, Conway, and Quinn appear throughout the tree. Although I wasn't able to find all the ancestral origins, Big Kathy definitely has roots in counties Tipperary and Sligo. Various Ancestry trees place ancestral roots in Dublin as well, but I couldn't find evidence to corroborate.
She has pioneer ancestors.
A couple branches were described as pioneer ancestors in their respective areas. Big Kathy's grandfather, Charles Mathias Dugan (1858-1928) was included in History of Crawford County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement, a 1911 publication that provides a great biographical sketch on Big Kathy's grandfather, Charles.
Charles's maternal uncle and Big Kathy's Great-Uncle, Thomas Ryan (1833-1921) also received a biographical sketch in volume 1 of the same work and within a Biographical History of Crawford, Ida and Sac Counties, Iowa in 1893, as the first pioneer ancestor of Vail, Crawford County, Iowa (more on him shortly).
Another great-grandfather of Big Kathy, Neil Callahan, was described as a pioneer of Union County, South Dakota, in his obituary. Land records from the Bureau of Land Management illustrate that Neil Callahan obtained 120 acres in Sioux Falls Dakota Territory under the Homestead Act of 1862 in 1874.
"I Am Working on the Railroad"
Before their descendants were flying in private planes and sailing in luxury yachts, Big Kathy's ancestors were literally building infrastructure for travel. Big Kathy's great-uncle mentioned earlier, Thomas Ryan, was recorded as "laying the track" in locations like Cedar Rapids and Jefferson, Iowa, among other places. It was written, "for many years he was the able and popular section foreman on the road, and no part on the Northwestern railroad was kept in better shape or had less accidents than where he had charge of the track." He was also credited as "employed in building bridges, some of the best and strongest structures in the county having being erected by him."
Thomas's brother-in-law and Big Kathy's great-grandfather Martin Dugan, likely gravitated to the area because of his brother-in-law, and also was recorded as working on the railroad in Franklin, Linn, Iowa, in the 1860 census.
Big Kathy's likely 2nd great-grandfather, David Conway, also worked on the railroad in McLean County, Illinois, according to the 1870 census.
Her father was an attorney and politician.
Despite more humble roots, Big Kathy's father, Edward J. Dugan (1901-1976), had a very interesting resume and highlights real upward social mobility for the family. Born in Vail, Crawford County, Iowa, he grew up on the successful farm described in the excerpt on his father, C.M. Dugan, above. He settled in Nebraska (likely sometime between 1917-1920, as there is inconsistency within the records) where he attended Creighton University. He later served in the state's house of representatives in 1933 and 1935.
That's not to say hard work wasn't instilled early in the family. Edward worked 70 hours the week in which he was enumerated in the 1940 census. Big Kathy's maternal grandmother, Mary (Dougherty) Callahan was also living in the house at this time working as a stenographer in a courthouse, having worked 48 hours that week. As there was a housekeeper recorded in the 1940 census in the household as well, the Dugans were probably doing well financially. You can also see Big Kathy appearing in this census along with her family.
Her third husband was involved in organized crime.
I didn't want to spend too much time on Big Kathy's lifetime, but I was completely fascinated by her third marriage to Jack M. Catain Jr.
They were married in Los Angeles on 4 July 1980 and divorced less than two years later on 16 March 1982. A book could probably be written about him, but Jack Catain evaded law enforcement for years over charges money laundering, extortion, racketeering, etc, and linked to mob connections around the country.
Catain died on 27 February 1987 while out on bail. News of his death made national news.
What I especially enjoyed about researching Big Kathy's roots (and by extension, Kathy, Kim, and Kyle), is that they were just everyday people. They were Irish immigrants who labored as railroad workers and farmers, building lives in a new country. Never would you predict that their descendants would become household names, but they provided the foundation for just that.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interesting in exploring your family history. Free initial consultations.
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