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Business: His Name Meant Hotel

3 minute read

Dash and panache made Conrad Hilton innkeeper to the world

He attributed his success to his rather square and old-fashioned philosophy that “man with God’s help and personal dedication is capable of anything he can dream.” But who could argue with the shrewdly audacious small-town boy who put together the world’s foremost chain of luxury hotels and became a multiple millionaire and one of the most colorful American businessmen? From New York to Istanbul and from Las Vegas to Addis Ababa, the name of Conrad Nicholson Hilton was synonymous with hotel, as in “I’m staying at the Hilton.”

When he died of pneumonia last week at a wizened 91, his perennially profitable Hilton Hotels Corp. owned, managed or franchised 185 hostelries in the U.S. with revenues of $372 million in 1977. (The overseas subsidiary, Hilton International, was sold to Trans World Airlines in 1967.) Though Hilton’s son Barren, 51, took over as chief executive more than a decade ago, Papa kept the title of chairman and continued to turn up daily at his Beverly Hills office to answer fan mail and assist charities. Besides Barron, another son, Eric, and 14 grandchildren, Hilton is survived by his third wife, Mary Frances, 63, a former United Airlines saleswoman he married two years ago.

Tall, lean, moustachioed and permanently suntanned, Hilton had the courtly manner of a Spanish grandee. “Connie” was a man who loved ballroom dancing and opened almost all new Hilton hotels by taking to the empty dance floor with an attractive partner to perform an obscure European dance, the Varsoviana, which he regarded as a good-luck ritual.

Hilton was twice divorced; his second marriage to Zsa Zsa Gabor was a tempestuous union, punctuated by well publicized donnybrooks. Though Zsa Zsa’s divorce settlement cost him an estimated $275,000, Hilton, a Roman Catholic, was relieved; by shedding Zsa Zsa he got back into the good graces of his church (his first wife died in 1966).

Hilton had an ego as big as his chain, and he kept the vanity press busy printing books praising himself; his folksy upbeat autobiography, Be My Guest, is in every one of the company’s 64,000 hotel rooms, right next to the Gideon Bible. He lived regally in a 61-room mansion named Casa Encantata in the Bel-Air area of Los Angeles, where 19 servants filled his every need, including buying his clothes. Yet Hilton retained an almost childlike wonder at the world around him. He also had some simple tastes, preferring corned beef hash or pork chops to any of the fancified dishes served in his hotels.

Hilton was born in San Antonio, N. Mex., on Christmas Day, 1887, when the state was still a territory. In 1919 he plunked down his entire savings of $5,000 to buy a small hotel in oil-rich Cisco, Texas, and eventually put together a small chain before the Depression wiped him out. With borrowed money he bounced back and bought up hotels at distress prices before and during World War II. He acquired a prestigious lineup: Los Angeles’ Town House, Chicago’s Palmer House, New York’s Waldorf-Astoria and in 1954, the entire Statler chain.

At the same time, Hilton led the way overseas for other U.S. chains by opening hotels and widely introducing such novelties as coffee shops, self-service elevators, health clubs and swimming pools in Europe, the Caribbean and the Far East. He once wrote: “I like the tumult of life. I like its problems, its ever changing stresses.” It was a zest that was reflected almost daily in Conrad Hilton’s long, full and useful life.

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