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Love one another, for that is the whole law; so our fellow men deserve to be loved and encouraged—never to be abandoned to wander alone in poverty and darkness. The practice of charity will bind us—will bind all men in one great brotherhood.

— Conrad Nicholson Hilton, in his legacy

Perhaps it's due to the "financial" hoops one must jump through when playing the popular board game, Monopoly, in order to buy a hotel. Perhaps due to the fact that even in this day and age, hotel living is either a necessity of corporate travel or a privilege reserved for the wealthy, mention the name of a successful hotelier and it evokes a feeling of envy in some, awe in others. Names like Astor, J. Willard Marriott, and more recently Trump, and Schraeger epitomize wealth and fame, but no other man in the business of hospitality was more famous than Conrad Hilton. An investigation into the life of Conrad Hilton reveals contradiction, eccentricity and a controversial legacy.
 

Humble Beginnings on the American Frontier

Conrad Nicholson Hilton was born on Christmas day, 1887 in the U.S. territory that was to become New Mexico. His father was a Norwegian immigrant; his mother was, at least partially, of German descent. Hilton had seven siblings.

Hilton's colorful life began with an elementary education at a military academy in New Mexico, as well as studies at the College of Santa Fe, and New Mexico Tech. By the time he was 21 he was a representative in the nascent legislature of the new U.S. state of New Mexico.

He served his country in World War I, achieving the rank of Second Lieutenant. His father passed away in an automobile wreck while Hilton was serving in Europe.
 

The First Hotels - Good Times, Hard Times

After returning from the war, Hilton moved to oil-rich Texas to seek his fortune. Instead of him finding a deal, the deal found him. He purchased the Mobley hotel in Cisco, Texas for very little money because the owner was so fed up with the business of running it he just wanted to get rid of it. Hilton succeeded at turning what was essentially a filthy flophouse into a respectable hotel, and turned a profit by doing it. His second venture (the first one with the Hilton name on it) was a high-rise either Dallas or El Paso, whichever of this article's sources you trust. That hotel was built ca. 1925.

Business went well for the amicable, determined businessman. He earned the trust and respect of most of the people he did business with. By the time of the depression, he had assembled a group of hotels aimed at businessmen. Hilton lost a lot of money, many of his properties, and had to put building plans for new properties on hold. The trust and affection of his suppliers and workers got projects finished, however. A man of his word, both he and those who trusted that he'd succeed prospered (they'd extend him credit for supplies and services until he could pay).
 

Marriage

Despite being a devout Catholic, he divorced his first wife, Mary Adelaide Barron, in 1934 (in the midst of his Depression-related financial difficulties). He'd married Mary Barron in 1925. Barron had borne him three sons; Conrad Nicholson "Nicky" Hilton (born 1926), William Barron "Barron" Hilton (born 1927) and Eric Michael Hilton (born in 1932). One source for this article, an unauthorized history of the Hilton family, describes Mary Barron Hilton as a woman 20 years Hilton's junior, married as a teenager, a hard drinker and a gambler with an eccentric, self-centered personality.

"Nicky" Hilton was a drinker like his mother, with a hot temper and a tendency to get into fisticuffs. Regardless, he was the first to wed Elizabeth Taylor although their marriage lasted a mere three years. Barron Hilton was the one groomed to take the reigns of the hotel empire from his father, which he did.

Conrad Hilton's second wife was Zsa Zsa Gabor, the one-time actress (who is a prime example of one who's famous merely for being famous). Together they had a daughter, Constance. Constance Francesca Hilton was the only daughter born to any of the famous Gabor sisters. Hilton and Gabor were married briefly; from 1942 to 1946. The newspapers, legitimate and gossip-column alike, had a veritable field day with the divorce of the tremendously wealthy hotelier from the Hollywood gadfly.

Hilton wouldn't marry again until 1976, when he married Frances Kelly (also far younger than he). They remained married until Hilton's death in 1979.
 

Milestones

Conrad Hilton bought the famous Plaza Hotel on Central Park South in New York City in 1945, and created the legendary dining room The Oak Room (and the Oak Bar). It was not policy to allow women in for week-day lunch. Well, the National Organization for Women figured that invading this men-only bastion would be a fabulous opportunity for publicity and a test case. Betty Friedan and a few other supporters of women's liberation bowled over the maitre d' and sat down in 1969 but were not served. In fact, the maitre d' ordered a waiter to physically remove their table. The women sat there in a circle, however, long enough to make all concerned feel rather uncomfortable. A man seated nearby offered a breadstick. They finally left but set-up a picket line outside. Four months later the Oak Room changed its policy.

The Plaza was also the location of writer Truman Capote's famous 1966 "Black and White Ball," raved about by gossip-columnists and agreed by many to have been the party of the Century. When asked why Capote chose the ball room at the Plaza, he quipped "It's the only ballroom left in the City." The exclusivity and decadence of that single evening also paved the way for the protracted hedonism which became the infamous night spot opened in 1977, Studio 54.

By 1946 the Hilton Hotel Corporation was founded. Beside San Francisco's Drake Hotel, and the famous Palmer House in Chicago, Hilton considered the "Crown Jewel" in his hotel collection New York's Waldorf-Astoria, which he acquired in 1949. The Waldorf is just as exquisitely luxurious as the Plaza, but it's peculiar that Hilton favored the plainly-built Waldorf over the opulent excess of the Plaza's architecture, not to mention its superior view of Central Park and Grand Army Plaza.

1957 saw the publication of his autobiography, "Be My Guest." A copy of that book, as well as a Gideon's Bible, are placed in the night-stand of every Hilton organization hotel room worldwide. "Be My Guest" is a fascinatingly candid read about a man and his struggles as well as successes. He credits God with giving him the strength to endure hard times, and the grace to share his wealth charitably.

In 1964 Conrad sold the rights to the Hilton name to a British company, which named itself the Hilton Group. To this day, the two entirely separate companies enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, sharing logos and service marks, and promoting each others' properties.

Conrad's son "Barron" Hilton was made President of the Hilton Hotels Corporation in 1966. Conrad stayed on as CEO until his death in 1979. When Barron joined the company there were hundreds of Hiltons nationwide.
 

The End of An Era

Conrad Hilton passed away in January of 1979. The bulk of his estate was given to The Catholic Church and the Conrad Hilton Foundation, dedicated to philanthropy. His will left a mere six-figure amount to his offspring, and $10,000 each to his nieces and nephews. Hilton had endowed a school of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Houston University and also donated a building to the Business Education department of Loyola Marymount University. There is a humanitarian prize bearing his name, which he endowed as well.

Perhaps his heavy giving to the Catholic church was meant to ensure the thrice-married Hilton a place in Heaven nonetheless.

Barron Hilton contested the will, and won after a nine year battle. His contention that as President of Hilton Hotels alongside his father, he was instrumental in the corporation's growth. The court agreed; Barron was now worth over $300 million.

After his death Hilton's vice president for communications told an interviewer, “He envisioned a world where acts of hospitality built bridges between people and even nations—hospitality as almost a social, respectful form of love; consideration, charity, and respect given unconditionally from one person to another. And there is no better place than the hotel business to become a beacon to encourage greater hospitality between people.”

Always ahead of the curve, The Hilton chain recently set up a group of ultra-deluxe hotels, naming them "Conrad" hotels after their founder. These hotels will help Hilton compete with deluxe and "boutique" independents which have popped up all over the country. Before the Conrad group was set up, many larger Hilton hotels had a two-tier room system, with deluxe rooms on the upper floors, and an exclusive lounge featuring complimentary light food and a bar for members of their unique Hilton HHonors VIP system.

HHonors is singular in the industry in that they allow guests to earn points toward hotel stays while earning frequent-flyer miles on Hilton's partner airlines. They advertise this as "double-dipping." It's the most successful loyalty program in the history of the hospitality industry.

Even though first published in 1957, Hilton's book, "Be My Guest" is a quick read filled with sage advice about everything from how to comport oneself to the ins and outs of success in the corporate jungle. Its advice is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. To read it is to get to know Hilton and a way of thinking and living that's commendable.
 

"That" Girl

No biography of Conrad Hilton would be complete without discussing some of the more notorious members of the Hilton family. Now, Conrad Hilton's offspring followed in their father's footsteps by marrying very beautiful, very young women. Barron and his wife were the parents of Rick Hilton. Rick married his wife Kathleen when she was still in her teens. The couple proceeded to turn the otherwise rather staid Hilton family topsy-turvy with their pedantic behavior and acts of hedonism.

Just one interesting anecdote: An unauthorized book about the Hilton family mentions that even though Barron Hilton had strict rules forbidding any special treatment to Hilton family members, Rick and Kathleen showed up one night at the New York Hilton during holiday season. The hotel was full; every room taken, but for a suite rented on a long-term basis by a chemical company. Rick, Kathleen and then-toddler daughters Paris and Nicky were allowed the use of the suite so long as they'd vacate by Monday morning.

Vacate they did, leaving behind a mess that took the breath away from the hotel's staff. Their pet lap dogs had been put in a spare bedroom in the suite and had not been let out all weekend. There were feces and urine all over the creamy white carpeting which took a very expensive professional service to get out. Worse, Kathleen Hilton ran roughshod over the staff, barking out orders and running up a room-service tab in the thousands of dollars. The staff was too afraid to let Barron Hilton in on any of these goings on. Similar scenes were repeated worldwide.

Not unlike her step-grandmother, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Paris is, currently, arguably the most famous person who's famous for, well, being famous. Paris's misbehaviors and troubles have now far eclipsed those of her grandfather, "Nick" Hilton, hard-drinking, hard-gambling first husband of Elizabeth Taylor.

In defense of Paris, she never was given the love or attention a child needs while growing up because, frankly, Rick and Kathleen liked to go out a lot. Paris grew up spending time equally with nannies and concerned relatives, who'd occasionally be left with Paris on the spur of the moment, without Kathleen leaving so much as a bottle or diapers.

One can only imagine the prim, proper and reserved Conrad spinning in his grave at the thought that money he'd intended to leave to the Catholic Church and other charities is now being spent by his great-granddaughter shopping on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California or vacationing on the French Riviera.
 

ADDENDUM 9/28/08: Jackie Gleason has a favorite joke that goes: I heard Conrad Hilton is going to buy the leaning tower of Pisa. You know what he's gonna call it? {pause} The "tiltin' Hilton."


SOURCES:

  • Conrad Hilton (biography) at Answers.com (uncredited) http://www.answers.com/topic/conrad-hilton (Accessed 12/7/2007)
     
  • Conrad Hilton (biography) at who2.com (uncredited) http://www.who2.com/conradhilton.html (Accessed 12/7/2007)
     
  • Conrad Hilton (biography) at Wikipedia.com (collaboratively-written) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conrad_Nicholson_Hilton (Accessed 12/7/2007)
     
  • "House of Hilton," (an unauthorized biography), Oppenheimer, Jerry; New York, Random House 2006 (excerpt from the book) http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780307351951 (Accessed 12/7/2007)
     
  • "Be My Guest," Hilton, Conrad; New York, Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0130715980
     
  • Review: "Be My Guest" by David Thompson, May 26, 2006, http://www.dwlt.net/archives/2006/05/26/BeMyGuest (Accessed 12/7/2007)
     
  • "Conrad Hilton's Secret of Success" by Erin Gaetz, Website of American Heritage, http://www.americanheritage.com/people/articles/web/20060802-conrad-hilton-paris-hilton-hotel-waldorf-astoria-barron-catholicism.shtml (Accessed 12/7/2007)
     
  • "What Would Eloise Say?" by Curtis Gathje, The New York Times, January 16, 2005 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/16/opinion/opinionspecial/16gathje.html (Accessed 12/7/2007)
     
  • Snippet of Hilton Hotels history from Scripophily, addenda to a sale of a vintage Hilton stock certificate: http://www.scripophily.net/hilhotcor.html (Accessed 12/8/2007)

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