Playing on his nickname, the Observer newspaper in England once dubbed him “The Sundance Kid of the Caribbean.”
He was a considered a White Jamaican with European roots, but he was born and bred on the island and retained his Caribbean accent. As well as his resorts, he founded the daily Jamaica Observer to compete with the island’s oldest newspaper, the Gleaner (launched in 1834).
Leading a group of investors, he also bought the national airline Air Jamaica in 1994, expanding its routes beyond the Caribbean to destinations including the United States and the United Kingdom. The airline continued to lose money, however, and after Mr. Stewart and his group pulled out in 2004, it bounced between state and private control until it went out of business in 2015.
He twice put his money where his mouth was for Jamaica when its foreign currency holdings were low and democratic socialism was on the rise: First in the 1970s and ’80s when he realized the island had to build tourism hotels. Then, in 1992, when the economy was threatened by currency speculators, he pumped $30 million of his own money into Jamaican banks to keep them afloat.
Mr. Stewart, 79, died Jan. 4 in Miami, according to his son Adam Stewart, who now takes over the Sandals Resorts International empire and who did not give a specific cause of death. He did say that his father had received a recent “medical diagnosis” but had kept it quiet so as not to worry his friends or workers. In May last year he had donated $31.5 million to Jamaican authorities to help families suffering from the coronavirus.
Gordon Arthur Cyril Stewart was born in the Jamaican capital Kingston on July 6, 1941. His father had been brought to Jamaica from England as a baby and became a radio maintenance technician at the state-run Jamaica Broadcasting Corp., while his mother ran an appliance dealership.
He first went to school at Campion Hall Jesuit preparatory school in Kingston, where a priest once dubbed him “the most unlikely to succeed in life,” and later in the parish of St. Ann on Jamaica’s north coast. He was sent to England to complete his education at a school in London.
By 10, he was obsessed by the sea and soon began to find any ways to make money. From a tree trunk, he built himself a dugout canoe; later he bought a bigger boat, caught fish and sold it to local hotels. He also learned he could make decent bucks by taking wealthy visitors from their yachts to shore and back.
According to his friend, Jamaica Observer founding editor Desmond Allen, he once took glamorous British actress Joan Collins to a secluded reef where she proceeded to have a nude dip. He was still a boy, and she did not invite him to join her. (He could only have dreamed then that he would one day own his own 132-foot, $5 million yacht, the Lady Sandals, on which he sailed until shortly before his death.)
He was in his early 20s when he saw a moneymaking opportunity while the first James Bond film “Dr. No” (1962), starring Sean Connery, was being shot in Jamaica. He borrowed his father’s motorboat to take Connery and the film crew to location sites, including a shipwreck. He was also of a mechanical bent and bought dilapidated cars, spruced them up and sold them for a healthy profit.
After his spell at school in London, he returned to Jamaica and soon became a successful sales manager for the Dutch-owned Curacao Trading Co. In 1968, he set up his own company, Appliance Traders Ltd., to sell air-conditioning units, fridges and freezers, and it remains the parent company to Sandal Resorts International.
His son Jonathan died in a car accident in 1989, and Mr. Stewart said he plunged into a months-long depression. Survivors include his third wife, Cheryl, and seven children from his three marriages; his mother; 12 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Mr. Stewart ran into serious controversy in the 1990s when, with the gay rights movement blossoming, he was attacked for his no-gay policy at Sandals resorts. The initial policy, from 1981, was that Sandals resorts, starting with the first one at Montego Bay, would be for “couples (heterosexuals) only.” At the time, homosexuality was still illegal in Jamaica.
Mr. Stewart eventually caught up with the times and abolished the policy in 2004, and the Sandals resorts have continued to prosper. He created the Beaches resorts for families, also a major success.
The anti-gay policy damaged him abroad but not in Jamaica, where he often strolled (without bodyguard) around Kingston to shouts of “Mornin’, Butch!” In his office one morning in 1996, while he lounged in a beige armchair wearing his trademark Harrods of London striped shirt — no tie — and with one foot on a glass coffee table, he was asked by a journalist for the London Independent: “What are you worth?”
“I don’t have any money. I sank it all into this,” he replied, indicating a model of an Air Jamaica jetliner. “We come out of a culture that says everything that happens has to be done by the government. More and more people are realizing you’ve got to do it on your own.”
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