Puttin' on the Ritz
Paris has, for some two centuries, held an extraordinary fascination and appeal for American writers. The long list of scribes from across the Atlantic who chose to live or spend a creative sojourn in the French capital includes Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Henry Miller and poet-musician Jim Morrison.
To this illustrious list we can add a professor at a college in the New England state of Maine, whose bestsellers The Widow Clicquot (2008) and The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume (2010) have, in recent years, placed her in the premier league of literary American Francophiles.
Tilar Mazzeo became intrigued by the Hotel Ritz in Paris while researching The Secret of Chanel No 5. On leafing through declassified documents on the wartime activities of style icon Coco Chanel, she felt another book coming on. And this is the gratuitously fascinating result.
But it wasn’t as breezy an undertaking as one might think. Mazzeo was actually warned by an elderly widow who fought in the Resistance against recounting the wartime history of the Hotel Ritz as a giddy collaborationists playground.
If truth is the first casualty of war, this is doubly true in enemy-occupied cities. The “collective French national fantasy” – now rather frayed – is that everyone aided and abetted the Resistance. However, the reality is that only a few brave souls did. Inevitably, the hotel’s WWII years constitute most of the book, though Mazzeo also includes the establishment’s history from its 19th century construction right up to today.
No simple dry litany of facts (that so often make up historical non-fiction), this story is told in a rather intimate tone, giving it an engaging warmth rarely found in such works. It’s also cinematic, a film noir in many shades of grey, and swarming with dramatis personae and their endless intrigues and betrayals.
Indeed, this story of shadowy lives, mysterious deaths and dangerous liaisons feels ripe for a Hollywood adaptation, albeit a sensitive and appropriately art-house one. We learn how lavish and rowdy dinner parties continued even while the French capital was under siege during WWI, and of the hotel’s surreal indifference to – and insulation from the privations of – that horrific conflict, which took around 1.5 million French lives.
During the next world war, German troops occupied their own wing of the hotel. One such “guest” was Gestapo founder General Hermann Göring. Nazis, moneyed expats, war reporters, well-heeled mischief-makers and assorted Parisians all managed to co-exist in this parallel universe through Europe’s darkest years.
The hotel also became a hub of informal and illicit commerce with perfumes, jewellery and furs being sold for francs and reichsmarks. Coco Chanel was the principal retailer and amassed a fortune flogging Chanel No. 5 to the Nazis. Her own German lover, Hans von Dincklage, found her scent part of the irresistible seductive package, despite severe penalties for fraternising with the enemy.
We also read of the ferocious competition for scoops among the press corps stationed at the hotel. The notion of fair play swiftly went out the window once the guns started firing on various fronts around Europe.
Inevitably, one of the larger-than-life characters here is Ernest Hemingway, and his legendary passion for the hotel’s wine cellar, which he basically drank dry before other war correspondents (such as photojournalist Robert Capa) could get to it.
A whole chapter is given to the liberation of Paris, and the desperate dealings and double-crossings that ricocheted around the hotel in its aftermath.
Mazzeo is a top-grade storyteller whose aim is true – and shines a beacon on the evidenced truth, no matter how sordid. Duly, the book contains extensive bibliographic notes. “We all live in the long shadow of this history,” she states, after illustrating how the many weird vignettes told here shaped the future. And Mazzeo’s remarkable history of the Hotel on Place Vendôme drives this truism home with élan.