Sir Hugh Wontner; Elegant British Hotelier

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Sir Hugh Walter Kingwell Wontner, the elegant British hotelier who for more than three decades presided over four of London's top hotels, has died, his family reported over the weekend. He was 84.

He died in London on Wednesday of unreported causes.

Sir Hugh, knighted in 1972, was a former lord mayor of London and longtime trustee of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Co. who helped guide the world's leading Gilbert and Sullivan company out of financial distress in the 1980s.

His Savoy Group controlled the Savoy, Claridge's, the Berkeley and the Connaught, all of which were committed to excellence, style and luxury. Despite soaring prices, Wontner said there were always enough wealthy people willing to pay for the best at his hotels.

Called aloof and arrogant by business rivals, Wontner survived numerous takeover bids for the Savoy Group. He remained as its president after stepping down as chairman and managing director.

The son of an actor and actress, Wontner joined the secretarial staff of the London Chamber of Commerce at 19 and six years later became general secretary of the Hotels and Restaurants Assn. of Great Britain.

Managing Director George Reeves-Smith of the Savoy Group brought Wontner to the Savoy in 1938, attracted by his business skills and knowledge of fine wines. When Reeves-Smith died in 1941, Wontner succeeded him as managing director.

Business at Savoy Hotel--built along with the Savoy Theater by Richard D'Oyly Carte, the impresario who presented the 14 operettas written by W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan--had grown slack with the onset of World War II. It picked up strongly after the United States entered the war and military officers, diplomats, trade officials and journalists booked rooms and suites.

Gen. Charles de Gaulle, later president of France, was among the wartime military chiefs who regularly dined in the Savoy's Grill Room.

Wontner became chairman of the Savoy in 1947 and chairman of the Berkeley and Claridge's in 1948. He bought the Connaught Hotel in 1956.

Claridge's became a home in London to such visiting statesmen as the late President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia and Indian leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, while the Savoy attracted show business stars such as Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren.

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