By Dianna Waggoner
Updated May 14, 1979 12:00 PM

It sounds corny, but it was love at first sight,” confesses San Francisco hotel owner Newton Cope, 57. “We were seated next to each other at a dinner party two years ago, and we talked about our children all night. It was a wide table, and I suppose if she’d sat across from me nothing would have happened.”

But fate and the seating plan intervened, and almost before he knew it Cope was popping the question to Lee Radziwill. No, not that question. “I drove her back thinking I would never see her again,” he recalls, “and then I asked if she would take a look at the Huntington Hotel and see if she could decorate some of our rooms.” Lee accepted. “She came to the hotel, looked around and worked her head off,” he recalls. “She’s really a dedicated woman when she starts something.” Cope strung out the project for nearly a year, then pressed for a longer commitment. Shortly after she finished work at Cope’s exclusive Nob Hill hostelry (home away from home for the likes of Barbra Streisand and Carol Channing), he asked her to marry him.

The simple ceremony last week at the Telegraph Hill home of socialite rancher Whitney Warren was attended by five friends, Lee’s big sister not among them. “I haven’t even met her,” said Cope of Jacqueline Onassis. But no sibling snub was intended. “Lee is a very independent woman,” he says. “She doesn’t hold on to Jackie’s coattails.”

The son of a Sacramento, Calif. appliance dealer, Cope dropped out of the University of California to join the Air Force in 1942. After the war he married Marilyn Jacobs, the daughter of a Sacramento car dealer, and eventually took over a share of the business. Later he bought the Fire-house, an old restaurant on skid row, and made a bundle when the area was designated a historical landmark.

In 1967 Cope and Marilyn were divorced. Two months later he married Dolly Fritz MacMasters, whose father had left her the Huntington. When the New York Daily News printed a spicy story about the divorce (saying, among other things, that Dolly was a heavy drinker), the couple sued for $12 million and settled for $30,000 out of court. They subsequently pursued the usual revenge—living well—until Dolly’s death from a heart ailment in 1976. Her estate was valued at $20 million, and Cope got the hotel.

Like Dolly, who came to the office in the Huntington every day, the new Mrs. Cope, 46, will keep working. After a honeymoon on St. Maarten, “We’ll just bounce back and forth between New York and San Francisco until we find out what we want,” jokes Cope. “We’ll ask for a discount ticket.”