The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris
Paris’s Hôtel Ritz opened its doors in 1898 and holds a spot in history as home to the elite and glamorous. Bestselling author Tilar J. Mazzeo writes an illuminating history of the intrigue and drama taking place inside its elegant façade. Early on, the Ritz became a plush symbol of lavish living, catering to the world’s wealthiest clientele.
Mazzeo begins her story by introducing us to her cast of characters. While reading the subsequent chapters, it may become necessary to refer back to this list because she covers a lengthy period of time involving some or all of them briefly and in detail. She notes important hotel staff members and owners, German occupiers, American war correspondents, famous writers, royalty and film glitterati. Some interacted with the German military officers until the Allied invasion, but others remained cautious. Alcoholism took a toll on literati such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and, most famously, Ernest “Papa” Hemingway. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor often visited the Ritz but removed to the countryside when their fascist sympathies became a threat.
Beginning each chapter with a time frame of its content, Mazzeo includes quotations relevant to the period from famous figures, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Winston Churchill, correspondent Robert Capa, collaborators and German field officers. The words lend a human character to the information written within. Intrigue, lust and zest for the good life --- the Ritz embodied all. Even Hitler sought to preserve rather than destroy it as a symbol of his love for the arts in culture. At the same time, though, he wished that the arts would display his ideology.
"Mazzeo’s research is extensive, and her zest for detail in the human narrative is clear.... The narrative reads like fiction, with the difference being accurate testimony from well-researched documents and interviews."
The Ritz family founder had Swiss citizenship, signifying his neutrality. Thus, the Ritz was regarded as the same during the war years. Built originally in two large but connecting units, German Army Officers of Occupation took up residence in one section, displacing some permanent residents to the other. By the early 1940s, the hotel had become the established playground for wealthy thinkers, painters and champions of a new political intelligentsia. When German troops entered Paris in June 1940, signs of a panic included some of the hotel’s former residents as fleeing refugees. For those who remained, the staff had dwindled to fewer than 40.
On an evening, a waiter could be quoted as saying, “Unfortunately the lunch was interrupted by the bombing of Paris.” Among those celebrities facing the dilemma of staying or leaving, Coco Chanel closed her couture house across the street from her hotel residence. Unable to persuade her chauffeur to drive her powder-blue Rolls-Royce through crowded Paris streets, she left the city but soon returned to the Ritz when the Germans allowed former guests to reside there as symbols of Hitler’s generosity to the arts. His second-in-command, Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring, would move into a generous suite covering an entire floor.
Mazzeo’s research is extensive, and her zest for detail in the human narrative is clear. Hemingway is depicted not only as an established novelist but also as a war correspondent. Not only did he take advantage of his celebrity status when traveling with the Allied forces after the Normandy invasion of France, his highly competitive spirit sprung to life. His primary goal was to be the first correspondent to liberate his favorite hotel. His troubled marriage to Martha Gellhorn, a magazine war correspondent, erupted, compliments of the film queen Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich was venomous in her efforts to sidetrack Gellhorn. Hemingway’s involvement with his mistress, Mary Welsh, ended his liaison with Gellhorn, which was applauded by Dietrich.
Intrigue lived within the Ritz’s walls during the German occupation. An occasional refugee was housed, hidden deep within; the lavish wine cellar doubled as a bomb shelter during raids; and the hotel bartender served drinks with tangled code work to French partisans. The narrative reads like fiction, with the difference being accurate testimony from well-researched documents and interviews. The personalities of Chanel, Hemingway, Dietrich and the hotel owners and managers come to life on Mazzeo’s pages.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on April 4, 2014