The World of Mistress of the Ritz
“When I dream of an afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz.”
The Hotel Ritz
A hotel that inspired a phrase and a song—”Puttin’ on the Ritz”—and a cracker—”The Ritz Cracker”—and a whole lot more, the Hotel Ritz, from the moment it first opened its doors in 1898, has remained an icon of luxury. The hotel was the passion project of its Swiss founder, César Ritz, who had worked at the Savoy in London, where he met chef Auguste Escoffier. Ritz wanted to build the most luxurious hotel in all the land, and he succeeded in Paris.
The Ritz was one of the first hotels to have bathrooms en suite and electric light. The light itself was unique; Cesar Ritz wanted a light that universally flattered all women, and hit upon a soft, peachy hue. The bathroom taps were gilt swans. The bathtubs were fit for a king, literally; King Edward VII, a friend of César Ritz, once became stuck in one of the original bathtubs (supposedly with his mistress); Ritz took all the bathtubs out and installed new ones that were more than adequate in size!
Escoffier was the first Ritz chef; he created, among other delights, the famous “Pêche Melba” in honor of Dame Nellie Melba, one of his favorite singers. The cuisine at the Ritz was notable, even for Paris, from the very beginning.
No need goes unmet at the Ritz. Through the years, it has (discreetly) arranged for every kind of service for its famous guests; impromptu weddings, last-minute banquets, entire wardrobes, unusual culinary requests no matter the hour. The famous “Hall of Dreams” was established soon after the Ritz acquired the mansion at its rear, almost doubling the size of the hotel. César Ritz decided that the long hallway connecting the two buildings shouldn’t be any old hallway. Instead, it is a walkway full of luxury items on display, a superior form of advertising paid for by the makers of these goods, companies such as Chanel, Van Cleef and Arpels, Mark Cross, Louis Vuitton.
Monsieur Ritz was also determined to keep the riff raff out; he peddled exclusivity and meant it. So there is no typical hotel lobby inside the Ritz; instead, it has a long hallway full of little sitting areas and parlors, all decorated in the finest antiques and furnishings. The color called “Ritz Blue” is also prominent throughout.
Over the years, the Ritz has been the Paris home of many luminaries and royalty. Marcel Proust loved to come to the Ritz after a day of writing. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor spent time here in their Paris exile. Perhaps its most famous resident was Coco Chanel, whose atelier was right around the corner. Prior to World War II, she moved into rooms in the Ritz; when the Germans occupied the hotel, she had to move to a different part of the hotel. After the war, she remained there.
Ernest Hemingway loved the Ritz, and his legend is still everywhere, particularly in the Hemingway Bar. But he wasn’t alone; F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn…the list goes on and on of the rich and famous who have passed through its doors.
The Imperial Suite—the most luxurious set of rooms—was once the Paris home of Barbara Hutton, the richest woman in the world. During the war, these rooms were occupied by Hermann Görring. Tragically, this suite is where Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed dined the night of their fatal car accident.
Claude Auzello was born in the south of France, sometime in the late 1890s. He was a decorated World War I soldier. He had an uncle who managed a hotel, and doing the same became his passion. He was the assistant manager of the Hotel Claridge in the 1920s, which is where he met his future wife, Blanche. His dream was to open his own hotel; he had some investors, but the plan fell through. His other dream was to manage the iconic Hotel Ritz, where he started working soon after he became engaged to Blanche. He worked his way up and was managing director when the German Occupation began.
Claude revered the policies begun by César Ritz, who had died in 1918, although Madame Ritz kept ownership, running the hotel from her suite of rooms. She wasn’t involved in the day-to-day running, however; to do this, she trusted Claude. It was Claude who continued the Ritz policy as described by César: See all without looking; hear all without listening; be attentive without being servile; anticipate without being presumptuous. If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked.
Claude, at Blanche’s urging soon after their marriage, asked Madame Ritz for a small suite of rooms for the couple. Even though, throughout their marriage, they kept an apartment away from the hotel, they spent a majority of their time at the Ritz. And, after Claude was called up as part of the general mobilization in 1939 and sent to command a garrison in the south of France, it was to the Ritz that Blanche and Claude returned after the country fell to the Germans. And it was at the Ritz where they lived out the Occupation.
In the years immediately after the war, it seemed as if the Ritz would go back to life as usual, welcoming its famous guests. But in the lingering post-war austerity, and particularly under the leadership of President De Gaulle, who liked nothing more than to anger his former allies, the Ritz started to lose some of its favorite guests, as well as its luster. The Ritz family didn’t have the cash to put a lot into renovations. After Madame Ritz died, her son, Charles—who had never seemed particularly interested in running his birthright, prior to this—took over. He did want to modernize some of the now-archaic traditions of the Ritz—like Claude’s policy of refusing to let women wear trousers in the public spaces; Claude also resisted the idea of putting televisions in every room—and this set up an inevitable clash between the two.
In 1969, Claude Auzello was “allowed” to retire from his position as Managing Director of the Hotel Ritz.
Born on the upper East Side of New York City in 1897, Blanche was a woman ahead of her time.
She was born into a very traditional family of immigrants from Germany, but she had no desire to walk any kind of traditional path. She bobbed her hair, rouged her knees, pursued a movie career, and became the lover of an Egyptian prince. This prince was charged with starting up a film industry in Egypt, and he promised Blanche she would be a star there. So she followed her lover across the Atlantic, first landing in Paris, where he was supposed to meet her at the Hotel Claridge. Her lover was delayed, and she spent the week until he arrived in the company of one Claude Auzello, the assistant manager of the Claridge, who promised to show her Paris.
Which he did, indeed, with the result that Blanche spurned her furious Egyptian when he finally showed up and decided to marry Claude instead.
For a while, she—along with her closest friend, the American actress Pearl White who was famous for her movie serial, “The Perils of Pauline”—did get some small acting roles in French films. But Claude did not approve, and soon she was spending all her time at the Ritz, hanging out with her chums Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Blanche also integrated the famous Ritz bar, which hadn’t allowed women until then.
The Auzellos’ marriage was rocky; their fights well known among the Ritz staff. Claude had mistresses, Blanche had tantrums about it. She was forever leaving him, only to return. On one of these trips, she met a mysterious woman named Lily; this meeting was to have enormous consequences during the Occupation.
After the war and her imprisonment, Blanche returned to the Ritz, hoping to recapture the glories of the past. But she never fully recovered her health. When Charles Ritz returned and Claude was forced out, Blanche and Claude retired to their apartment on the Rue de Montaigne, where they lived out the rest of their days.
The Ritz Bar
Even if you couldn’t afford to stay at the Ritz in the 1920s and 1930s, you would definitely find a way to hang out in the famous Ritz Bar. This was the domain of Frank Meier, the Ritz bartender.
During the Occupation, when the Ritz was full of Germans and members of the Resistance, both, Frank was a courier for clandestine messages. The plot, by Nazi officers, to assassinate Hitler in July of 1944 was hatched in the Ritz bar, most likely with Frank Meier’s aid.
But before he became a spy, Frank Meier was the most famous bartender in Paris. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Ritz bar was the hangout of all those writers and musicians and painters who couldn’t quite afford a room. Hemingway and Fitzgerald engaged in feats of alcohol while Cole Porter worked on his music and Picasso sketched away in a corner. Frank Meier was so popular that in 1936, he produced a book called “The Artistry of Mixing Drinks,” which was recently reproduced by a Mud Puddle Books; I highly recommend it.
Meier is credit with creating many cocktails, including the Bees’ Knees and the Mimosa. But what he was best at was creating a lively atmosphere that kept patrons coming back, even in times of danger.
After the liberation of Paris, Frank Meier disappeared. There is no record of him after that.
The Ritz During the Occupation
When Paris fell to the Nazis in the spring of 1940, everything changed.
The German High Command took over most of the major buildings and businesses, including many palatial homes. They took over all the luxury hotels, such as the Hotel Bristol and the Majestic.
They also took over the Ritz.
But the Ritz was different. Its iconic status meant something to the Nazis. They were eager to show the world that despite taking France, they didn’t mean to destroy its culture, and the Ritz was a cornerstone of their propaganda plan. If they kept the Ritz running as a hotel, they reasoned, they would show to the world they were benevolent dictators.
So the Ritz was the only major hotel left to do business as usual. Almost.
Since the hotel was really two separate buildings connected by a long hallway, the Nazis hit on a plan. The largest part—the original building—would be where they set up command. Hermann Görring himself was given the Imperial Suite. Armed guards would be stationed at both the exterior entrance to the building, and the entrance at the end of the hall. The Nazis were officially “paying” guests, but unofficially, they demanded ridiculously low rates and charged the bill to the French government in Vichy, which had no money. But they still expected the luxuries that the Ritz was famous for, and it fell to Claude Auzello to figure out how to do this in wartime, when French citizens had to use ration books, and normal suppliers outside the country were, for the most part, cut off.
The other side of the hotel—the “Rue Cambon” side—was allowed to house paying guests, ostensibly so that the Ritz could continue to turn a profit. (Which wasn’t entirely possible, of course, with the Nazis not paying their bills, and most French citizens not able to afford to stay, and few people from outside the country able to visit, due to the war.) Coco Chanel was one of these guests, as was the famous French actress, Arletty.
The result of this unusual arrangement was that the Hotel Ritz become somewhat of a hotbed of intrigue, not entirely a neutral country like Switzerland, but perhaps the closest thing possible in Occupied Paris. Diplomats from Germany and its allied countries frequented the hotel. French citizens who were rich enough and reckless enough to go drink-to-drink with the invaders still flocked to the bar. Arletty and Chanel were among the citizens who decided to throw their lot in with the Nazis, taking German officers as lovers. The staff operated at reduced levels; after the invasion, many of the young men who had been with the French army didn’t return, either captured or having escaped to Great Britain at Dunkirk. And of course, Jews started to disappear as the Occupation went on.
And members of the Resistance also infiltrated the Ritz. At the highest levels.
Occupied Paris and the Resistance
Immediately after the invasion, there was an effort by the Nazis to be courteous and respectful of the citizens of Paris. (Although they still held a weekly military parade on the Champs-Elysees and flew the Nazi flag from every building.) Soldiers would regularly give up their seats on the Metro to women; they were polite, they were eager to see the sites of Paris, most of them having never been outside of Germany before. They flocked to all the usual tourist sites, including the Moulin Rouge.
In the immediate aftermath of the Occupation, the Resistance was weak, and mostly comprised of foreign nationals who had somehow ended up in Paris, many after the Spanish Civil War. Only a few Parisians, and those mostly youth, tried to fight back, and their efforts were quickly squashed. For the most part, a sense of numbness encroached upon the citizens. They were too stunned to do anything other than try to figure out how to live with the conqueror. Their army was gone; either in prisoner of war camps or trying to regroup overseas. When Hitler visited Paris after the Occupation—an unpublicized visit, quick and done in the early morning—he wasn’t met with anything other than curiosity.
As time went on, rationing began, although Germans always got the best of everything that was available. Certain stores and restaurants were forced only to serve Germans, not Parisians. Street signs began to be appear in German, not French. The exhibition, Le Juif et la France (The Jews in France), which was anti-Semitic propaganda, was opened by the Nazis.
The Nazis forced businesses to post “No Jews allowed” signs; every Jew in France had to register and wear the yellow star. Jews were no longer allowed to operate businesses, practice as professionals, or attend schools. Eventually, they weren’t allowed to congregate in public; curfews were enforced; Jews weren’t allowed to move or change address.
Then they began to disappear, starting with the infamous, tragic Vel d’Hiv roundup.
Half of the Jewish population in France was foreign nationals, many of whom had fled to France from Germany, Austria and Poland in the years leading up to the war. The majority of Jews who were deported from France and sent to concentration camps were these foreign nationals. Still, many French Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Twenty-five percent of the Jews living in France died, a smaller percentage than most European countries lost.
The Shoah Memorial, located in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, is a moving memorial to those who were lost.
As the Occupation continued, the Resistance became less of an idea and more of an actual network of citizens from all walks of life, as well as operatives parachuted in from England and the other Allied countries. Jean Moulin, one of the leaders of the government who was able to escape France before it fell, parachuted back inside the country to lead the movement; he was captured and killed. Not everyone in the Resistance fought with guns; many served as couriers, getting troop movements as well as people—fallen airmen, British soldiers trapped after Dunkirk—out of the country.
The Cross of Lorraine was the Symbol of the French Resistance
As the Resistance grew more militant in Paris, the Germans started to retaliate by executing dozens of innocent citizens for every Nazi murdered. But still, the Resistance grew. The role of the Resistance was vital to the success of the Allied troops after D-Day.
The French Resistance has loomed large in dramatic portrayals of Occupied France in the years since the war. But there are differing opinions as to how many French citizens actually participated in the movement; the guess is anywhere from only 2 percent to perhaps 10 percent.
Still, there is no denying the bravery exhibited by those who participated.
There is a museum to the Resistance just outside of France.
After June 5, 1944—D-Day—the Nazis knew that France would not remain in their hands for long. Like caged animals, they lashed out as the citizens, hearing the news of the invasion, became more involved in resisting and acting out. As the Allies marched toward the city, Hitler ordered the German Commanding Officer of Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz, to destroy Paris before the Allies could take it; von Choltitz did not, and after the war von Choltitz started calling himself “The Savior of Paris.” However, historians question his role in saving the city.
Finally, the longed-for Battle for Paris began on August 19th, 1944; it ended on August 25th when von Choltitz surrendered the last of the German soldiers to the Free French—the government, headed by Charles de Gaulle, that had formed in England during the Occupation. The Free French Army, headed by General Le Clerc, marched ahead of the Allied armies into Paris.
Back at the Ritz, the last of the German officers had just left, and Claude Auzello was raising the French flag back up over the building, when an American Army jeep roared up. In it was Ernest Hemingway, accompanied by a band of soldiers he had “commandeered.”
“I’m here to liberate the Ritz Bar,” he shouted, leaping out of the jeep and storming the hotel.
Claude Auzello, trained to let the customer be right, always—even when a hotel has already been liberated—allowed Hemingway to “liberate” the Ritz bar. A party to end all parties soon took over the entire hotel as former guests who had been with the Allied troops—including Marlene Dietrich—celebrated the liberation of Paris.
The Ritz Today
Reopened in 2016 after a four-year renovation, the Ritz today still exudes luxury, from the splendid spa (named after Chanel), complete with pool, to the enormous bathrooms with the gold swan taps to the surprise breakfast service laid out for guests who have to depart in the early morning. The Hall of Dreams still tantalizes with exquisite jewels, shoes, leather goods, scarves; there are little shops where you can purchase these high-end luxuries. You can dine at the 5-star L’Espadon, have tea in the Salon Proust, or have a champagne cocktail with a fresh rose in the Bar Hemingway. (Or any of the other two bars in the hotel.) You can still walk down the hallway and encounter employees, dressed in black, obsessively cleaning and polishing; they will immediately cease their activities and step back against the walls, almost invisible, when guests approach. The fixtures and bedding are all of the finest quality. The fresh floral arrangements are gigantic; the tapestries and paintings belong in museums. And the people-watching is grand; you will most certainly encounter a celebrity or two.
Coco Chanel Suite
A typical Ritz bathroom
I stayed at the Ritz for three nights for research and pinched myself every second of the stay. I was given a behind-the-scenes tour, including the Imperial Suite and the Coco Chanel suite; every night, I had that champagne cocktail. And that early-morning breakfast treat while waiting for a cab to take me to the airport was life-saving.
The only thing that makes me sad is the knowledge that I’ll never be able to stay there again; as Hemingway once said, “The only reason not to stay at the Ritz is if you can’t afford it.”
And most mortals can’t. But we can have a drink at the Bar Hemingway. And raise a glass to all the heroes who’ve had a drink there too, including Blanche and Claude Auzello.
Moi in the Bar Hemingway!