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Barron Hilton, who expanded his family’s hotel empire, dies at 91

Barron Hilton, right, with President Ronald Reagan in 1985. (Budd Gray/AP)

Barron Hilton, the son of Conrad Hilton who expanded his father’s hotel empire and made the brand a force in Las Vegas gambling and was a founder of the American Football League, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 91.

His death was announced in a statement from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. No further details were available.

Mr. Hilton spent five decades at Hilton Hotels, serving as chief executive for 30 years starting in 1966. During his tenure, the company was the fifth-largest U.S. hotel chain. He amassed a net worth of $1.25 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Hilton oversaw the acquisition of the Flamingo Hotel and Las Vegas International, later renamed Las Vegas Hilton. The move made Hilton Hotels the first company listed on the New York Stock Exchange to enter the U.S. gambling industry.

As chairman, Mr. Hilton worked with chief executive Stephen Bollenbach to expand the company’s casino operations into Mississippi and Atlantic City and to acquire a competitor, Bally Entertainment, for about $3 billion in 1996. Two years later, the executives spun off their gambling unit.

Mr. Hilton was co-chairman in 2007, when Blackstone Group acquired Hilton Hotels — by then the nation’s No. 2 hotel operator — for $26 billion.

Earlier in his career, Mr. Hilton oversaw the development of the Carte Blanche credit card, which the company sold in 1966 for $12 million. He pioneered the profitable practice of real estate sale-leasebacks, selling the equity in hotels while continuing to manage them.

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Outside the family business, Mr. Hilton joined with Texas oilman Lamar Hunt and others in 1960 to found the American Football League, a rival of the National Football League. Mr. Hilton was the original owner of the league’s Los Angeles Chargers. The franchise later moved to San Diego and has since returned to Los Angeles.

In 1966, the AFL and NFL announced a merger, which was completed four years later. Mr. Hilton sold his majority stake in the Chargers in 1966.

“The happiest days of my life were the days I was involved with the Chargers,” he said, according to a 2009 Los Angeles Times story.

William Barron Hilton was born Oct. 23, 1927, in Dallas. He was 8 when his parents divorced.

He had two brothers, Eric Hilton, who became an executive at Hilton Hotels, and Conrad Nicholson (“Nicky”) Hilton Jr., a socialite and manager of Hilton’s international division. Barron Hilton was best man at Nicky’s 1950 marriage to movie star Elizabeth Taylor; the couple divorced within a year.

Other well-known family members include Paris Hilton and Nicky Hilton, his granddaughters and high-living heiresses. Eric Hilton died in 2016.

Barron Hilton said he had “a misspent youth” and was “kicked out of four or five schools,” according to a 1981 story in People magazine. He said he wasn’t close to his father, whose hotel empire began in Texas in 1919.

Mr. Hilton skipped college and served in the Navy as a photographer’s mate. In 1954, he became vice president at Hilton Hotels.

When Conrad Hilton died in 1979, he gave much of his fortune to his private foundation, which benefited charities. Barron Hilton challenged his father’s will and after several years of legal wrangling reached a settlement giving him effective control over 34 percent of the company’s stock.

In 2007, Mr. Hilton announced he would follow his father’s example and leave 97 percent of his estate to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The planned gift is projected to increase the endowment to $6.3 billion from $2.9 billion, according to the foundation.

One of Mr. Hilton’s passions was flying, and he owned a fleet of airplanes, helicopters, gliders and ultralight aircraft. He sponsored attempts to circumnavigate the globe in a manned balloon.

He was married in 1947 to Marilyn June Hawley, who died in 2004. They had eight children.

— Bloomberg News

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