Texas has been known for producing colorful, larger-than-life business figures. That has been found in a variety of industries. Perhaps one of the most unusual was hotel magnate Conrad Hilton, whose multi-billion dollar hotel chain began in Texas by accident.
Conrad Hilton was born in what was then the New Mexico Territory on Christmas Day, 1887. He was one of eight children. His father was a Norwegian immigrant and businessman who taught his son how to run a business. His father ran a small general store and eventually converted it into a small hotel.
He was very ambitious as a young man. He briefly attended two small New Mexico colleges. When New Mexico became a state in 1912, he was elected to the first session of the new state’s House of Representatives. He served in the army during World War I and returned determined to be a successful banker, seeking a small bank to buy outright. He located a bank in Cisco, Texas, not far from Abilene. The bank purchase fell through, so Hilton bought the local hotel instead. With oilfield workers streaming into the small town, the hotel was an overwhelming success.
Hilton started buying more hotels. By 1924, he built a new hotel in Dallas, the fourteen-story Dallas Hilton, which he completed for more than $1.3 million (or $19.4 million in 2019 dollars). In Dallas, he also settled down and married Mary Barron, with whom he would have three sons. He continued to expand, building new hotels in Abilene and Waco in the late 1920s. The popular Waco Hilton was completed in 1928.
However, the road to success was not smooth. In 1929, Hilton built his next hotel, the San Angelo Hilton. It was built at a cost of $1 million (nearly $15 million in 2019 dollars). However, the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression caused business travel to evaporate, and the hotel almost became a victim of the Depression.
Hilton had taken out a loan for $385,000 from American Life Insurance Company of Galveston. When Hilton was unable to pay the mortgage, the company foreclosed and forced Hilton into a partnership with them. The shotgun marriage dissolved by 1934 amidst a series of lawsuits, and he lost the hotel. The experience nearly ruined Hilton just as his hotel empire was beginning. His former partners later renamed it the Cactus Hotel and ran it for another thirty years before it was donated to a local hospital and converted to a nursing home. Hilton rebounded and kept adding properties.
In spite of Hilton’s success in the hotel business, his private life was a Texas-sized soap opera. His nine-year marriage to the mother his three young sons ended in divorce in 1934, at a time when divorce was still considered scandalous. Hilton became notorious for his string of young girlfriends and drinking. In 1942, he married actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. It was Hilton’s second of three marriages. It was the second of nine marriages for Gabor. The marriage was a storm of trouble from the beginning. The marriage produced a daughter, the long-troubled Francesca Hilton, Gabor’s only child. The bitter divorce came in 1946. Hilton would not marry again for thirty years. Gabor alleged years later that Hilton assaulted her during the marriage and even had an affair with his eldest son. However, she made these allegations years after both men had died and were unable to respond to the charges.
In the meantime, his son Nicky Hilton developed a reputation of his own. He married actress Elizabeth Taylor in 1950, but the marriage collapsed within a matter of months. His drinking and gambling destroyed his marriages and his health before his death in 1969.
Hilton moved onward and bought the Stevens Hotel in Chicago at the end of World War II, then the largest hotel in the world. He created the Hilton Hotels Corporation in 1946 as a holding company for his properties. In 1949, he bought New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel, a hotel that had long since become a landmark and become synonymous with luxury. By this point, his holdings were worth an estimated $100 million (more than $1.06 billion in 2019 dollars). “Successful men keep moving,” he said in an interview. “They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.”
By the 1950s, he brought his son Barron on board as vice-president. The father-son team managed to keep expanding the Hilton Hotel chain around the globe. By 1955, they guaranteed that each room would have its own air conditioning, an unheard-of luxury at the time. In the midst of his rise, he established the Conrad Hilton Foundation, dedicated to alleviating suffering around the world.
Hilton died in 1979 at age 91 and was buried in Dallas. Even in death, one more scandal erupted surrounding his will. Though son Barron had been left in charge of the company, he did not receive any money. He sued and eventually was given a large amount of stock in the hotel chain. Years later, he announced he would be leaving the bulk of his fortune to the Hilton Foundation, much as his father had done. Today, Hilton Worldwide Holdings boasts 5,500 properties in 109 countries and is worth $14 billion.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a
historian, writer, and native Texan. He is the author of several books, and his
columns appear in dozens of newspapers. Dr. Bridges
can be contacted at