Conrad Hilton was an American hotelier and businessman and the founder of the much renowned Hilton Hotels chain. Hilton’s philanthropic philosophy was influenced by his mother’s Catholic beliefs. He was told by his mother that prayer was the best investment that he could ever make. His two golden rules of being a successful hotelier were, “digging for gold” and “espirt de corps”. Hilton received a number of honorary degrees from eminent institutions like the University of Detroit (1953), DePaul University (1954), Barat College (1955), Adelphi College (1957), Sophia University, Tokyo (1963), and the University of Albuquerque (1975). In 1957, he published his autobiography, “Be My Guest”, which can be found at every hotel room of Hilton Hotels.
Conrad Hilton Childhood & Early Life
Conrad Hilton was born on December 25, 1887 in San Antonio, New Mexico. He was born to Augustus Halvorsen “Gus” Hilton, who was an immigrant from Norway, and Mary Genevieve, a Catholic American of German descent. Hilton had seven siblings, Felice A. Hilton, Eva C. Hilton, Carl H. Hilton, Julian Hilton, Rosemary J. Hilton, August H. Hilton, and Helen A. Hilton. His father was a trader and an influential citizen of San Antonio. Also, he was the owner of a general store and occasionally owned or operated town’s post office, bank, telegraph office and a hotel. In his childhood, young Hilton attended a number of schools which included, Goss Military Institute (New Mexico Military Institute), St. Michael's College (now the College of Santa Fe) and the New Mexico School of Mines (now New Mexico Tech). He was also a member of the international fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon. During this time, the Hilton family moved to California for a while, but following an economic downturn and loss of considerable amount of money, they moved back to San Antonio.
At the age of 21, Conrad Hilton started working in his father’s store. He took the management of the company in his hands and was sharing profits. When New Mexico became a state in 1912, Hilton was elected to the state legislature as a Republican. After working in the legislature for two terms, he left on accounts of frustration over underhand deals and red tape. On his return to San Antonio, he raised $3000 to establish a bank. But as the United States entered in the World War I, Hilton had to sell his bank and enlisted himself in the Army. He served in the France in the Quartermaster Corps. Following his father’s death in a car accident, he was discharged from the Army in 1919. He returned back to San Antonio and took charge of his father’s businesses, which faced a lot of turmoil. Despite the mayhem, Hilton saw immense opportunities of growth.
Career & Later Life
On an old friend’s advice to seek fortune in Texas, Hilton moved to Wichita. He had $5000 pinned to the lining of his coat and had a hope to buy a bank. Wichita didn’t please him, so he moved to Cisco, which had oil fields near to it. To buy Mobley hotel, he raised $35,000. With the passing years, he gained reputation as a master financier and a cautious bargainer. Following his two golden principles, “digging for gold” and “espirt de corps”, he made a successful career as an hotelier. Within a year only, he received his investment money in Mobley hotel. Subsequently, he bought the Melba Hotel in Ft. Worth and the Waldorf in Dallas. The first hotel that he built was the Dallas Hilton at the cost of $1million. It was inaugurated in the year 1925. His business grew and he decided to build a new hotel every year. He opened the Abilene Hilton in 1927, Waco Hilton in 1928, and El Paso Hilton in 1930. The Great Depression left Hilton bankrupted, due to which he lost several hotels. He was in debts of $ 5, 00,000 and had to sell many of his properties. However, using his profits from oil leases, Hilton bought back eight of his hotels and paid off his debts. Andaluz Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was his first hotel outside Texas in 1939. Post Great Depression, he bought the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco. In 1942, Hilton shifted his corporate headquarters to Los Angeles and moved to the Bel Air section of the city.
His business empire grew further in the east when Hilton bought the Roosevelt in New York City. In the span of two years, he bought Chicago's Palmer House and the Stevens, the world's largest hotel. In 1946, he formed the Hilton Hotels Corporation. In 1947, his company became the first hotel chain to be enlisted in the New York Stock Exchange. Hilton’s first overseas hotel was Castellana Hilton in Madrid. In 1948, he formed the Hilton Hotels International Company. In 1949, he leased the greatest hotel in the world, New York's Waldorf-Astoria. In 1954, in a striking deal, Hilton acquired the Statler hotel chain for a staggering $111 million. During 1960s, his second son Barron convinced him to trade Hilton International for a stake in Tans-World Airways. Even when the airline suffered, Hilton International flourished. In 1966, he handed over the administration of the company to his son Barron after naming him the president of the company, though he kept the position of the chairman of the board. Meanwhile, Hilton Hotels bought and built a number of hotels around in the world. At the time of his death, the Hilton Hotels chain had about 185 hotels in the United States and 75 in foreign countries.
Hilton married Mary Adelaide Barron in 1925; the couple had three children, Conrad Nicholson "Nicky" Hilton, Jr., William Barron Hilton, and Eric Michael Hilton. However, his extreme dedication to the business caused problems in his married life and he took divorce from his wife in 1934. Hilton married for the second time to the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1942. As a devout Catholic, Hilton had to marry Gabor in a civil ceremony as the Catholic Church was not ready to recognize the marriage. The couple was blessed with a daughter, Constance Francesca Hilton. However, difference soon crept up as the two separated in 1946. Thirty years later, Hilton tied the nuptial knot again, this time it was Mary Frances Kelly in 1976. The marriage lasted until his death in 1979.
Conrad Hilton died in 1979 due to natural causes. He was 91 at the time of death. He was buried at the Calvary Hill Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in Dallas, Texas. Post his death, the bulk of his estate was left to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which he established in 1944.
Conrad Hughes Hilton, son of Richard Hilton, and Conrad Nicholson Hilton III, son of Conrad Nicholson Hilton, Jr., are named after him.
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation was established in 1944 with a mission to alleviate human suffering worldwide.
Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize was created in 1996 by The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
A hospitality school of the University of Houston, Conrad N. Hilton College, has been named after Conrad Hilton.
The Conrad N. Hilton Chair in Business Ethics, The Hilton Distinguished Entrepreneur Award, and the Conrad N. Hilton Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship at the College of Business Administration Loyola Marymount University
Conrad Hilton is the great grandfather of Paris Hilton and Nicky Hilton.
A fictional version of Hilton portrayed by actor Chelcie Ross appears in the award-winning AMC television series Mad Men.