September 28, 1981 12:00 PM

For a young man with everything going for him, William Barron Hilton seemed determined in his first 30 years to make sure that a lot of things simply went. He admits to “a misspent youth” during which he was “kicked out of four or five schools” for playing hooky and generally misbehaving. As a young executive in the hotel empire founded by his father, he managed to sink a small fortune into two apparent dry wells, the San Diego Chargers football team and Carte Blanche credit cards. Both floundered so dramatically at first that Hilton’s father finally had to step in. “I see the Chargers lost $900,000 in the first year and Carte Blanche losses were several million,” the legendary Conrad Hilton drawled. “I wanna know, what kind of a record are you trying to establish?”

The Carte Blanche board didn’t wait to find out. It soon sacked Hilton as president, and that was the last time Conrad’s boy ever fell on his face. The deposed Barron was given the task of selling Carte Blanche to a bank, but he managed the terms of sale so profitably that “all of a sudden I was a hero in the company again.” He has been on top ever since. As president of the mammoth Hilton Hotels Corporation for the past 15 years (and chairman since his father’s death two years ago), Barron, now 53, has racked up the industry’s fastest earnings growth. He has rebuilt the world’s biggest hotel, the 3,174-room Las Vegas Hilton, after it was badly damaged in a tragic fire (a busboy has been charged with arson) that killed eight and injured 242 last February. As the country’s largest hotel chain, Hilton now boasts among its 210 properties such high-gloss hostelries as New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, Chicago’s Palmer House, the Fontainebleau in Miami and both the Hilton and the Flamingo in Las Vegas.

“I never had any aspirations to be president,” Hilton claims. “I sort of evolved into it.” One of his biggest changes has been moving the company into the enormously lucrative gambling business (“the most important decision I’ve made”). So profitable are HHC’s Vegas operations that Barron dismisses paying $735,000 to two recent jackpot winners in a 14-hour period as merely good advertising. An even more important innovation may be Barron’s decision to bring in copartners: Several hotels are now owned by Prudential Insurance and only managed by HHC, freeing up Hilton money for other projects. One analyst says this approach is “now the game plan of the industry.”

Despite his imposing assets, Barron Hilton remains as much roughneck as kingpin. He speaks with his native Texas twang, chain-chomps cigars and loves to fly, hunt and fish. “He’s shy with women,” says Marilyn, 53, his perky blond wife of 34 years. “But he’s a macho man.” Indeed, Hilton’s life-style is at once earthy and opulent enough to make even those television Texans the Ewings blanch. His $410,000 annual salary is only a small fraction of his income from his 29 percent ownership of the $1.1 billion company. His main house—originally built by CBS founder William Paley—in L.A.’s ultraposh Holmby Hills is filled with his guns and model airplanes (his life-size fleet includes a rare antique Beechcraft Staggerwing, a Cessna 182, a Super Decathlon stunt plane and two gliders). The 32-room house has a movie screening room that seats 80, gold faucets in 13 baths, an elevator, an enormous swimming pool and a tennis court. He also maintains a permanent suite in New York’s Waldorf, and when cities pall there is always his 475,000-acre Flying M Ranch—it rambles from Nevada into California—with enough room in the main house and bunkroom to sleep 24. The spread, which encompasses “about seven ghost towns,” features its own airport and a two-hole putting green.

Hilton’s real passion is skeet shooting. He and a group of pals, including Clark Gable (“a great sportsman and a wonderful individual”), set up an exclusive 1,500-acre duck club on Venice Island, Calif. 20 years ago. Hilton hunts there every weekend during the three-month season, but that’s not the firepower that has made the place famous. Every year he sends up fireworks on the Fourth of July and now, he says, “about 10,000 or 20,000 people come in boats and watch.”

Still, running the family business leaves him limited time for such diversions, and by choice the Hiltons’ social life is usually far from hectic. At home he and Marilyn eat alone in the den and climb into bed by 9:30. “We very seldom go out at night,” he says. “I like to get a lot of rest.” He gets up at 6:30 a.m., gulps down coffee and drives his money-green Rolls Corniche to his Beverly Hills office. On Tuesdays he sometimes copilots one of the company’s four jets to Vegas to visit HHC’s holdings.

A high-flying life was his by birth. The second son of Conrad and Mary, Barron was born in Dallas and was 8 when his parents divorced. Three years later he went with his father to L.A. By the time Conrad married Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1941, Barron was away at school. “I didn’t seem to get along with school, but I did well at arithmetic,” Barron says defensively. “It’s somewhat embarrassing that I didn’t really complete an education. I regret that to a degree.” At 17, he worked briefly as a doorman at the El Paso Hilton, then near the end of World War II enlisted as a Navy photographer’s mate. After the service—and one year at USC’s aeronautical school—Barron married Marilyn, whom he had met through a former girlfriend, and turned entrepreneur. With money from his father, he started an orange juice business called Vita-Pakt (in which he is still a partner), a plane-leasing operation and finally MacDonald Oil Corporation (named for Conrad’s horse).

It was not until the late 1950s that he took his gambles on Carte Blanche and the Chargers. The team actually won four of five division titles under Hilton, who was a founder and president of the American Football League. “With the merger of the NFL and the AFL,” he can now smile, “it turned out to be a very fine asset.” These days he has only a 30 percent financial interest in the Chargers and “no responsibilities other than watching the games.”

The Hilton family has always been close, if slightly divorce-prone. “I was best man at Nicky’s [1950] wedding to Elizabeth Taylor,” Barron says of his high-living playboy older brother, who died of a heart attack in 1969 at age 42. (His other brother, Eric, 48, is an HHC senior vice-president.) “I was very fond of Elizabeth. She was a great sister-in-law.” He also claims to like ex-stepmother Zsa Zsa, even though her daughter by Conrad, Francesca, is now contesting Conrad’s will.

There seems little doubt about his affection for his flamboyant dad, who was 91 when he died. “I was very close to my father,” he says. “I always admired him, respected him. His credo was the power of positive thinking and the power of prayer. When I was a child he used to go out and ride, and every time he had business problems he used to discuss them with the horse.” Does Barron emulate him? “Well,” he says, “I don’t go around talking to horses.” As for his own brood of eight, who range from 33 to 18, Barron is sometimes a bit vague in recalling their exact ages.

These days Hilton is contemplating a hotel-casino for Atlantic City; he is also starting up a new international operation (HHC sold off its foreign hotels to TWA in 1967). “We can’t use the Hilton name because of the sale,” he says, “so we’re calling it ‘The Waldorf-Astoria International.’ ” Himself aside, what does he think makes his hotels successful? “I would like to think it’s our service,” he says. “We have some employees who have been at the Waldorf since it opened in 1931. That’s what makes any hotel company successful,” the ex-doorman concludes. “It’s people.”

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