'Billy always said he wanted to be in his own bed when he passed on, he loved Christmas music and it was on in the background, it came to the last line of In The Bleak Midwinter ... Billy closed his eyes, and then he was gone'
In an exclusive interview, Lady Joy Hastings, widow of the late hotelier Sir William, tells Ivan Little about his quiet generosity to staff, how he escaped a gang of UVF kidnappers and why their first date was a midweek showing of the movie South Pacific
In the splendid opulence of the new luxury suite named in honour of her inspirational hotelier husband, Lady Joy Hastings spoke movingly yesterday of her love and admiration for her husband of 57 years, Sir William, who died just before Christmas last year. "I miss him every day and I still turn to talk to him, but when I look around, he's not there," she said, ruefully.
Surrounded by pictures of a smiling Sir William (universally known as Billy) with the likes of Princess Diana and Bill Clinton, but more importantly with his family, his spirited and engaging widow talked for the first time of how he:
- stood up to terrorists who kidnapped him and bombed his hotels;
- quietly helped charities and needy employees;
- lived for his four children and nine grandchildren, with whom he sometimes exchanged poems;
- bore his illness in his last nine months with courage and dignity, and;
- passed away peacefully to the sound of a Christmas carol in the background.
Lady Hastings, an elegant, stylishly dressed and immaculately coiffed 86-year-old grandmother, exuded pride as she toured the lavish £53m Grand Central Hotel in Belfast and her only regret was that her husband died without seeing his dream 300-bedroom flagship become a reality.
With the panorama of his beloved Belfast spreading out below her and into the distance, Lady Hastings said: "During the building work, he came here in a wheelchair to see how the hotel was shaping up. But it was a pity that he didn't get to appreciate just how well the Grand Central has turned out.
"It was all his vision. He saw the potential in the old 22-storey Windsor House here in Bedford Street and he knew it could be transformed into a top-class hotel. He had great foresight about a lot of things. It was the same with one of his earliest hotels, the Stormont in east Belfast."
Lady Hastings added: "He bought the dwelling house that was there with a view to making it into a hotel. And he did it. The only problem with Windsor House was that it was floor after floor of offices and the conversion was a big, big job in many, many ways."
She said that reviving the name of the former Grand Central Hotel, which was in Royal Avenue, was also Sir Billy's idea, adding: "He believed the Grand Central was the best hotel in Belfast before it became an Army base during the Troubles. He was impressed with the standard and quality of the old Grand Central and he wanted to replicate them in the new one."
Lady Hastings said her husband would have been thrilled to see the 2018 incarnation of the hotel, which oozes class and style.
Looking back, her eyes twinkled as she recalled how she and the-then Billy Hastings met.
She said: "A mutual friend introduced us, but it wasn't a blind date as such, because we lived near one another in Belfast and knew each other to see. Billy invited me to a play in Bangor, but I'd already seen it. So we went to the Ritz cinema to see the movie South Pacific. Our relationship blossomed nicely."
It wasn't a conventional relationship. Billy had inherited a number of pubs in Belfast from his late brother, who had taken over the bars from their father. And Saturday night dates were impossible, because he had to work morning, noon and night. At one time, there were as many as eight Hastings pubs in Belfast.
"We tended to go out in the middle of the week, because Saturday nights were so busy for him," said Lady Hastings, who laughed as she described Sir Billy as a romantic whom she married after an 18-month courtship. They went on honeymoon to Italy. Four children were to follow - Julie, Howard, Allyson and Aileen - and, one by one, they followed their father into the hotel business, which was a source of immense pride for Sir Billy, who maintained a hands-on interest in the Hastings Hotel Group as its chairman until he took ill in March 2017.
Lady Hastings said she and her husband allowed their children to find their own way in the world, but they all eventually decided to take roles in the family business.
"And we were delighted that they all came back," she said, adding that their father had always wanted to be an hotelier - even when pubs were his bread and butter.
The Adair Arms Hotel in Ballymena was his first purchase and then came the Stormont and the Ballygally Hotel on the Antrim coast road, which he bought from carpet magnate Cyril Lord and which is reputedly haunted, though Lady Hastings insisted she's never seen the ghost of Lady Isabella Shaw.
What's called the "jewel in the Hastings crown" - the five-star Culloden Hotel - was bought for £100,000 in the mid-Sixties and the Slieve Donard was one of six railway hotels that were acquired several years later.
Most of them were blasted out of existence, but the Slieve Donard in Newcastle went on to become one of Northern Ireland's finest hotels.
However, all that was eclipsed by the addition of the most-bombed hotel in the world, the Europa, to the Hastings portfolio, a move that was to change everything for Sir Billy.
He paid £10m for what was essentially a bombed-out wreck, but Lady Hastings said he was determined to make it a success, against all the odds and in the face of scepticism from naysayers who thought the hotel was doomed.
Lady Hastings said that Sir Billy had seen the Troubles at close hand before.
Even his children were threatened and the week after one of his employees was murdered by loyalists in the Shankill Road area, a UVF gang, including "supergrass" Jimmy Crockard, kidnapped him in the same district, but he made a dash for his life.
Lady Hastings said: "They had a gun in his back and told him to drive to a certain place, but he knew it could be curtains for him, so after he slowed down at traffic lights, Billy jumped out. He was wearing Hush Puppies shoes and he said they were sliding all over the place, but he ran off like mad down the road until he saw an Army vehicle."
Buying the Europa in the 1990s was another leap - of faith. "The curtains were flying out the shattered windows when Billy bought it," said Lady Hastings. "No one else was interested."
Sir Billy invested millions in restoring the hotel and his widow said she believed he had a sense, a vision, that there could be peace on the horizon. But it was an optimistic view that wasn't widely shared.
However, the Europa was itself to play another part in Northern Ireland's history in 1995, when President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, stayed in the hotel during their peacebuilding trip, that included switching on Belfast's Christmas tree lights.
But Lady Hastings said that, even after her husband turned the fortunes of the Europa around, he didn't rest on his laurels.
She said: "There was always something else for him to do. Nothing was ever finished for him."
The Grand Central is his seventh hotel in Northern Ireland and he also had a 50% stake in Bruce Springsteen's favourite Dublin hotel, The Merrion, which has been undergoing a major refurbishment programme.
The story goes that, at The Merrion, Sir Billy famously ordered a gin and tonic from a waiter who wanted to know what sort of gin he would like.
"A large one," Sir Billy replied with a grin.
Lady Hastings said her husband thrived on his work, but he wasn't obsessed by it and he liked travelling and, although he invariably stayed in luxury hotels, the visits weren't busman's holidays.
"He enjoyed his family time and we loved going on holidays to nice places. But if Billy saw something that captured his attention in hotels, he didn't necessarily say anything, though I know he was registering it.
"However, he could switch off when he was away. He loved his golf and we invariably holidayed in places where there was a course. One of our favourite spots was the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados, where we returned maybe 12 times."
"For his 85th birthday, he took the whole family there. It was a tremendous party," said Lady Hastings, who looked after Sir Billy when his health deteriorated last year.
"He wasn't able to get out of the house very much and that just wasn't him. People would come to see him and, because he looked okay, Billy would say he was a fraud. He knew, however, how serious it all was, but he didn't want to upset, or distress, anyone.
"Even so, around four o'clock every day, he liked a gin and tonic, but he wouldn't take it unless I was there to drink a glass of wine with him.
"Among the last things he said to one of our daughters was to 'make sure that your mother gets her glass of wine every day at 4pm!'"
Clearly, for Lady Hastings, however, the ritual isn't the same without her beloved husband, whose contribution to tourism in Northern Ireland was recognised with his knighthood in 2009.
But he told reporters at the time: "My wife of 50 years, who has always supported me, will also receive the title she deserves in becoming Lady Hastings. A very suitable title for Joy, in my opinion."
The honour was also in recognition of Sir Billy's support for charities, but he didn't make a song and dance about his largesse.
Lady Hastings said: "Behind the scenes, he was very generous to his staff, as well as to charities.
"One employee had a very serious eye problem and Billy gave him £1,000 and told him to 'go and get that fixed'. There were lots of things like that."
Lady Hastings said her husband was a doting grandfather, who sometimes exchanged poems with his grandchildren.
She added that he was always a sage and valued counsellor to whom they could - and regularly did - turn for advice.
Lady Hastings revealed that her husband's passing was peaceful, adding: "He always said he wanted to be in his own bed in his own house.
"He loved the Christmas music and it was on in the background. It came to the last line of In The Bleak Midwinter. Billy closed his eyes and he was gone."