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Barron Hilton, Hotel Magnate and Founding A.F.L. Owner, Dies at 91

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Barron Hilton, who oversaw the vast expansion of his father’s hotel empire and took part in changing the pro sports landscape as an original club owner in the American Football League, died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. The last survivor of the A.F.L.’s founding ownership, he was 91.

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, of which he was chairman emeritus, announced the death.

Mr. Hilton embarked on a business career at 19, when he acquired a citrus distribution company in the Los Angeles area. He had turned down an offer from his father, Conrad Hilton, for a $150-a-week job and a chance to work his way up in the chain he founded in 1919 when he bought his first hotel, in Cisco, Tex., capitalizing on an oil boom in the area.

Barron Hilton’s citrus business proved successful. But he joined Hilton Hotels in the early 1950s, became a vice president in 1954 and then rose to president and chief executive in 1966 and chairman in 1979, when his father died.

“Barron, like Conrad, was a man who paid great attention to the day-to-day operations of his hotels,” J. Randy Taraborrelli wrote in “The Hiltons: The True Story of an American Dynasty” (2014), explaining that Barron Hilton reduced company payrolls, economized on food preparation costs and centralized purchasing in the 1960s.

“Everything is about the bottom line,” the author quoted Mr. Hilton as saying. “That’s where I keep my eye, all the time.”

Still, Barron Hilton pursued new ventures, turning the family enterprise, based in Beverly Hills, Calif., into a business that included thousands of hotel rooms, casino-hotels, time-share apartments and an early credit-card company, Carte Blanche.

He engineered Hilton’s entrance into the Las Vegas casino market in 1970. He purchased Kirk Kerkorian’s International, the world’s largest resort hotel, renaming it the Las Vegas Hilton, and bought Mr. Kerkorian’s Flamingo as well, renaming it the Flamingo Hilton.

The company’s casino-hotels later extended to Atlantic City and other locations. At varying times the Hilton empire also included the Waldorf Astoria and the Plaza in New York, as well as the Sir Francis Drake in San Francisco, the Mayflower in Washington and the Conrad Hilton and Palmer House in Chicago.

The Hilton company split off its United States and international hotels into separate entities in the 1960s, but reunited its properties in 2006 with the acquisition of more than 400 overseas hotels, creating an empire of 2,800 hotels.

Barron Hilton was co-chairman of Hilton Hotels together with the financier Stephen Bollenbach when it was sold for some $26 billion to the private equity group Blackstone in 2007.

Mr. Hilton largely kept away from the spotlight that fell on others in the family.

His father had a brush with show business when Zsa Zsa Gabor became his second wife in 1942. Barron’s older brother, Conrad Jr., known as Nicky, married a teenage Elizabeth Taylor in 1950. Barron’s socialite granddaughter Paris Hilton transformed herself into a pop culture brand.

Barron Hilton entered the sports world as a member of the so-called Foolish Club: the eight team owners who defied long odds in challenging the National Football League by forming the American Football League in 1960.

He was the founder of the A.F.L.’s Los Angeles Chargers, then moved the team to San Diego in 1961 after the Chargers lost some $900,000 in their first season. The Chargers, with an offense led by quarterback Tobin Rote, running back Paul Lowe and receiver Lance Alworth, won the 1963 A.F.L. championship and captured five Western Division championships during Mr. Hilton’s ownership. They returned to their origins in 2017, becoming the Los Angeles Chargers again.

William Barron Hilton (he preferred using his middle name) was born on Oct. 23, 1927, in Dallas, the second of three sons of Conrad Nicholson Hilton and the Mary Adelaide (Barron) Hilton.

He displayed a penchant for deal-making while away at school in his early teens. As related in Jerry Oppenheimer’s “House of Hilton” (2006), Barron sent his father a letter carefully detailing his expenses in asking for a raise in his allowance to $5 a week, leaving him $2.50 for “weekend pleasures.”

“Sorry this is all business,” he wrote in conclusion, then signed off, “Your loving son, Barron Hilton.” (It’s not clear whether he got the raise.)

After serving as a Navy photographer at Pearl Harbor and running his citrus distribution business, he was groomed by his father to oversee the Hilton properties, although Nicky and Eric, the youngest of Conrad’s three sons, also held executive posts with the company.

Mr. Hilton is survived by two daughters, Hawley and Sharon Hilton, and six sons: Steven, the chairman of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation; Richard, the father of Paris Hilton and her three siblings; William Barron Jr.; David, Daniel and Ronald. He is also survived by 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife, Marilyn Hawley Hilton, died in 2004. His brothers Nicky and Eric and his half sister, Constance Francesca Hilton, whose mother was Zsa Zsa Gabor, also died before him.

Mr. Hilton had been an aviation enthusiast since his teens and received a twin-engine rating from the University of Southern California’s aeronautical school, though he did not earn a degree. He played host to aviation pioneers and Hollywood celebrities at his Flying-M Ranch in Nevada (named by a previous owner) and piloted a variety of aircraft, including gliders and helicopters, from its airstrip. The adventurer Steve Fossett died flying one of Mr. Hilton’s planes from that ranch in September 2007.

Conrad Hilton left 97 percent of his estate to the foundation he created in 1944; its ventures include the development of clean water and sanitation facilities in developing countries, the prevention and treatment of blindness, and housing for the homeless. In 2007, Barron Hilton announced plans to similarly bequeath to the foundation 97 percent of his own net worth, estimated this year by Forbes at $2.5 billion. He was the foundation’s chairman from 2007 to 2012.

Mr. Hilton paid a $25,000 fee to obtain a franchise when he founded the A.F.L.’s Chargers. Although he became a billionaire with his Hilton holdings, he told The Los Angeles Times in 2009 that “the happiest days of my life were the days I was involved with the Chargers.”

Those were profitable days as well. In 1966, he sold the majority interest in the Chargers for $10 million.



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