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How Webster University's Nuns Charmed Hotel Magnate Conrad Hilton Into A Big Gift

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Courtesy of Webster University

By the mid-1960s, Conrad Hilton’s brief marriage to Zsa Zsa Gabor was decades behind him. The hotel magnate was worth an estimated $100 million, but he tended to be tightfisted with both his ex-wives and his children. 

So how did a pair of St. Louis nuns persuade Hilton to give them more than $1.5 million — $12.6 million in today’s dollars? As Webster University professor emeritus Allen Carl Larson discovered, it took three years of correspondence, a shared faith and a deep mutual respect. And, yes, quite a bit of cajoling. 

“You are a first-class saleslady,” Hilton wrote Sister Francetta Barberis, president of what was then Webster College, in 1961. Indeed she was, as their letters charmingly attest.  

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Credit Courtesy of Webster University
The Loretto-Hilton Center serves as a performing arts hub on the campus of Webster University.

Hilton’s donation led to the construction of the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts. On the campus of Webster University, the facility today houses the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and the university’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts.  

The letters among Hilton, Barberis and Sister Jacqueline Grennan were nearly destroyed. Larson happened upon them while he was moving into his rental housing near the Webster campus to become the music director of the Webster Symphony Orchestra.

“I asked the young man next door where to put our packing debris,” he recalled on St. Louis on the Air. “He said, ‘Put them right here in this pile of stuff; it’s going to be picked up tomorrow.'” Glancing at the pile, he saw some folders labeled “Conrad Hilton” — and started reading. 

Given permission to take the files, he was blown away by the story they told. 

“I sat down and started reading it, and my helpers that day moving in and my family were quite disappointed,” he said. “I’m sitting there reading files, and they’re out there carrying boxes and chairs and whatever else in and out of the house. I knew right away it was interesting; I couldn’t stop reading it. 

“When I came to a certain important telegram later on in the second file,” he continued, “I literally teared up. It was such a dramatic story in how they pleaded and cajoled various ways to get him to spend the money.”

Listen here:

More than 40 years later, the correspondence Larson saved for posterity are the subject of his new book, “The Sister Backstage: A Story of Faith, Perseverance and the Loretto-Hilton Theatre.” The book reprints the letters and telegrams in their original form, with telegrams and letterhead alike faithfully preserved.

The book is now available at the Webster Groves Bookshop (27 N. Gore Ave., Webster Groves, MO), or by emailing Larson at larsonac872@gmail.com.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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