Hernando Courtright, boniface, bon vivant and intimate friend to the great and near-great, who built two Beverly Hills hostelries into world-famous institutions while cultivating a personal taste for elegant living, died Monday at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica.
He was 81. A spokesman for the family said he was hospitalized Saturday night when he suffered a stroke that left him unconscious.
Friends said he had been in declining health since selling the Beverly Wilshire--his greatest success and career-crowning achievement--to a Hong Kong-based hotel management firm last November.
His wife, Florence Falzone Courtright, and children were at his side when death came, according to Beverly Wilshire spokeswoman Helen Chaplin.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by six children, six stepchildren, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Funeral services are pending at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.
Perfectionist and innovator, Courtright held the honorary titles of Padrino del pueblo de Los Angeles (inherited, he joked, from the former holder--his cousin, actor Leo Carrillo), a recently awarded order of the Aztec Eagle, the rank of Delegue General, Honoraire, of the Confrerie des Chevaliers de Tastevin . . . and the far-from-honorary designation of "innkeeper."
'A Plume I Wear With Pride!'
"And it is that final honor that truly matters," he told a 1976 interviewer. "It is one thing to be a hotel manager--quite another to be an innkeeper. There are, perhaps, six of them in the country right now. Perhaps I flatter myself to say there are five besides myself.
"But it is a plume I wear with pride!"
No one ever doubted his right to the title.
"It's the extras--the little touches--that make a stay at a Hernando Courtright hotel memorable," one guest, a former king, remarked early in Courtright's career. "They make one feel regal in a way that my crown never did."
Every employee of his hostelries, from striped-trousered assistant manager to chambermaid, was rehearsed and constantly reexamined in the Courtright philosophy of hotel management: "Mi Casa, Su Casa," a phrase he interpreted to mean that his hotels were grand luxe or nothing--and that nothing was too much to ask of the staff.
Over the years, they peeled grapes for the emperor of Japan, brought in 30 Big Macs to honor the culinary taste of the (400-pound) king of Tonga, and created a real snowfall (using hastily acquired ski resort snow machines) in the gaslighted private street that separates the old from the new wings of the Beverly Wilshire to lend cachet to a Christmas Carol luncheon.
There were also small niceties:
Registered guests could leave their shoes outside their doors at night and find them there, freshly shined, in the morning--while at table, every lemon slice was hand wrapped in cheesecloth lest a seed find its unwelcome way to the fish or tea.
"We try-- harder ," the innkeeper said.
And it had been so for him almost from the beginning.
Hernando William de Vos Courtright was born in Coeur D'Alene, Ida., reared in San Francisco, and learned the necessity of trying harder when he was 6 years old.
That was the year he suffered what was subsequently diagnosed as a skull fracture when he was thrown from a pony and dragged. The accident impaired his hearing and set him to climbing what he later described as a "long, winding--and largely silent--staircase."
Anxious about sounds--words--he could not hear, secretly concerned about his own ability to earn a living in a world where deafness could lead to unemployability, Courtright strained always to listen without seeming to listen, to learn without appearing to struggle.
Eager to Hear It All
A college friend remembered him always with his head slightly atilt, his face thrust forward, always eager to find the first-row chair in classes.
The effort paid off: Courtright sprinted through UC Berkeley and the USC School of Business and became president of the National Pacific Tank and Mill Co. of Oakland, then vice president (and one of Amadeo P. Giannini's bright young men) at Bank of America, where he first was exposed to the wine business as a member of the bondholder's committee that foreclosed on Christian Bros. winery.
In 1936 Courtright was sent as the bank's representative to preside over a bondholders committee charged with liquidating a suburban white elephant called the Beverly Hills Hotel.
"The bank, naturally, wanted to get out of the hotel business," Courtright said, "and there were good reasons to drop that particular bit of real estate: My goodness, the boilers dated to 1912 and there were buckets in the attic to control flooding every time it rained. It was a wreck!
"But I didn't care. I was in love. . . !"
A Welcome Task
He told the bank he thought the place would have to be "put back together" in order to make it salable, and was--as he had hoped--assigned to do just that.
"I had acquired, through years of travel and residence in hotels, some definite personal views on service, food and general conduct in the operation of inns, taverns and bars," he said, "and for nine years, as the bank's agent-in-residence, I applied them to the Beverly Hills Hotel."
The results were little short of spectacular. Weaned from the "lavender and old lace" image it had formerly worn, the old hostelry bloomed and grew. In 1943, Courtright put together a syndicate that bought the place--and he resigned from the bank.
"I had found my calling," he said.
For the next few years, Courtright devoted himself to making the Beverly Hills Hotel a world-famous inn. He succeeded handsomely; it became the "in" place to stay, its Polo Lounge a mecca for film deal-makers, its manager a sought-after adviser to hotel management firms the world over.
To New Assignment
And then the hotel was sold.
Courtright agreed to stay on as manager for a time, but personal problems involving his family and the new owner interfered and in 1959 he departed--first to become an executive of Zeckendorf Hotels (the company was building a new hotel in Century City) and then, at a time when retirement seemed to beckon, to take on a new and gigantic project.
The old Beverly Wilshire was on what everyone agreed were surely its last legs. Antiquated, run-down, unable to compete with newer and fancier neighbors, it seemed a sure candidate for the wrecker's hammer.
"It was a challenge no true innkeeper could possibly resist," Courtright smiled. "Or--at any rate--it was one that I couldn't resist. Heaven knows there was enough to be done."
One of the major problems, he recalled, was traffic along Wilshire Boulevard. There was no place to get guests' cars to the undersized front entrance.
Answer in the Night
"But I came down one night with my brother-in-law from Mexico," Courtright said, "and we looked out back at the swimming pool and tennis courts and conceived the notion of literally turning the hotel around--making a private driveway back there where we could run three lanes of cars or more from a quiet side street.
"Then, too, I knew from my experience at the Beverly Hills Hotel that I needed a ballroom to hold commercial activities, so I began at once to plan a ballroom and additional guest rooms on the other side of the drive--covering the two with a porte-cochere across the way.
"Finally, there was the training--the re-training--of the staff.
"And then . . . well . . . it was just a matter of doing one's best. After all--I live at the hotels I operate. This is my home, and the people who stay here are guests under my roof in the literal as well as the figurative sense."
Good Business Deal
Sale of the hotel to Regency International Hotels of Hong Kong for $125 million last year was a good business move, friends said, but while Courtright asserted that he was pleased with the arrangement (he was to stay on as titular proprietor and resident consultant), it was a blow of major proportion.
"He put his personal stamp on everything," hotel spokeswoman Chaplin said. "This was his own . . . his achievement."
"I never thought of it as a business," Courtright told an interviewer in 1982. "For me it was always more than that. It's stuffy and fatuous, of course, to call running a hotel a labor of love. No one would believe it, anyway.
"But it's true."