Barron Hilton, the son of Conrad Hilton who expanded his father’s hotel empire and made the brand a force in Las Vegas gambling, has died, aged 91. Hilton died Thursday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, according to a statement from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
He spent five decades at Hilton Hotels Corp., serving as chief executive officer for 30 years starting in 1966. During his tenure, the Beverly Hills, California-based company was the fifth-largest U.S. hotel chain. He was co-chairman in 2007, when Blackstone Group Inc. acquired the company – by then the nation’s No. 2 hotel operator – for $26 billion, including debt.
He amassed a net worth of $1.25 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Hilton oversaw the development of the Carte Blanche credit card, which the company sold in 1966 for $12 million to First National City Bank, predecessor to today’s Citigroup Inc. He pioneered the profitable practice of real estate sale-leasebacks, selling the equity in hotels while continuing to manage them.
In the early 1970s, he oversaw the acquisition of the Flamingo Hotel and Las Vegas International, later renamed Las Vegas Hilton. The move made Hilton Hotels the first company listed on the New York Stock Exchange to enter the U.S. gaming industry.
As chairman, Hilton worked with CEO Stephen Bollenbach to expand the company’s casino operations into Mississippi and Atlantic City, New Jersey, and acquire Bally Entertainment Corp. for about $3 billion in 1996. Two years later, the executives spun off their gambling unit.
“I always found inspiration in how he saw the tremendous potential of hospitality to change the world for the better,” Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta said in a statement.
Though successful as the steward of the family business, he also made his mark as an entrepreneur. With Texas oilman Lamar Hunt and others, Hilton helped found the American Football League, and he was the original owner of the league’s Los Angeles Chargers. The AFL and rival National Football League announced their merger in 1966, the same year Hilton sold his majority stake in the team, by then called the San Diego Chargers. The team has since relocated to Los Angeles.
“The happiest days of my life were the days I was involved with the Chargers,” he said, according to a 2009 Los Angeles Times story.William Barron Hilton was born Oct. 23, 1927, in Dallas, the son of Conrad Hilton and the former Mary Barron, according to “The Hiltons,” a 2014 book by J. Randy Taraborrelli. He was 8 when his parents divorced, and away at school when his father married Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1942.
He had two brothers, Eric, who became an executive at Hilton Hotels, and Conrad Nicholson (“Nicky”) Jr., a socialite and manager of Hilton’s international division. Barron was best man at Nicky’s 1950 marriage to movie star Elizabeth Taylor; the couple divorced within a year. Other well-known family members include Paris Hilton and Nicky Hilton, his granddaughters and high-living heiresses. Eric died in 2016.
Barron Hilton said he had “a misspent youth” and was “kicked out of four or five schools,” according to a 1981 story in People. He said he wasn’t close to his father, who was building a hotel empire that began with a site in Cisco, Texas, in 1919.
Hilton skipped college and served in the U.S. Navy as a photographer’s mate. In 1954, he became vice president at Hilton Hotels.
When Conrad Hilton died in 1979, he gave much of his fortune to his private foundation, which benefited Catholic nuns and other charities. Barron Hilton challenged his father’s will and after several years of legal wrangling reached a settlement giving him effective control over 34% of Hilton’s shares.
In 2007, Barron Hilton announced that he would follow his father’s example and leave 97% of his estate to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The planned gift is projected to increase the endowment to $6.3 billion, according to the foundation.
One of his passions was flying airplanes. “Hotels may have been my vocation, but aviation has definitely been my avocation,” Hilton said, according to a 2010 Forbes story. He owned a fleet of airplanes, helicopters, gliders and ultralight aircraft. Hilton sponsored attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a manned balloon, which he called “the ultimate room with a view – a view of the world.”
He was married in 1947 to the former Marilyn June Hawley, who died in 2004. They had eight children: William Barron Jr., Hawley, Steven, David, Sharon, Richard, Daniel and Ronald. Stephen Miller, Bloomberg