Hilly was born in Queens, New York on February 12, 1927 and reared there and in Teaneck, New Jersey. A graduate of Antioch College, she received her Ph.D. from Radcliffe College in 1956. Her first book, The Javanese Family (Free Press of Glencoe, Inc.), was published in 1961. After her initial fieldwork in Java, she taught at The University of Chicago from 1960 to 1970 before coming to Princeton University in 1970. At Princeton, Hilly taught courses on the history of anthropological theory, the anthropological study of life stories, the anthropology of art, and the ethnographer’s craft.
In 1972, Hilly became the first chairperson of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University, and thus the first woman chair of a department at Princeton, a position in which she served for many years. She was named Professor Emeritus in 1998.
Hilly did extensive fieldwork in Morocco, and in Java and Bali, Indonesia and returned to Indonesia repeatedly during her career to conduct the research which helped fuel her extensive list of publications. She completed more than two years of fieldwork research in the village of Batuan on the island of Bali. Working in the same village that was studied in the 1930s by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, she focused on the interconnections between different Balinese art forms and how and why such forms have changed through time. She investigated the effects of economic development and tourism on Balinese artistic endeavor.
The first book from the research in Batuan, Images of Power: Balinese Paintings Made for Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, was published in January 1995 (University of Hawaii Press). In 2004,The Life of a Balinese Temple: Artistry, Imagination, and History in a Peasant Village was also published by the University of Hawaii Press. Among her other works, Professor Geertz is co-author with her former husband Clifford Geertz of Kinship in Bali (University of Chicago Press, 1975), and co-author with Clifford Geertz and Lawrence Rosen of Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society (Cambridge University Press, 1979). Most recently, in 2017, at the age of 90, her book, Storytelling in Bali, was published by the Dutch publishing house Brill. She took great pride in sharing her final work with friends and family.
Throughout her long career, Hilly touched the lives of many with her insight, kindness, and generosity. After retirement, she became an energetic member of Community Without Walls (CWW), advocating for programs to provide needed services to the elderly community of Princeton. She is survived by her children, Erika Reading and Ben Geertz, her brother Warren Storey, and grandchildren Andrea and Elena Martinez. A celebration of her life will be announced at a future date. Donations in her memory may be sent to the non-profit Princeton Senior Resource Center (PSRC). CWW is now an affiliate of PSRC.
The family wants to extend a special thanks to Marci HoSang, of Millenium Home Care, LLC, Michelle HoSang, and Monica Rodney, for taking such good care of Hilly, keeping her comfortable, happy, and safe in her own home.