It was more than a hotel. It was a paradise of gilded salons, polished mirrors and immaculate brass and mahogany fittings. ‘The champagne flowed,’ says Tilar J. Mazzeo. ‘Bellhops in caps whisked away fur stoles and chauffeurs waited on street corners.’
The Ritz had 450 employees, ‘from bartenders and chambermaids to waiters and oyster-buyers’. It had opened in 1898 and was notable for such newfangled innovations as built-in wardrobes, private bathrooms and flushing lavatories.
It is scandalous more than it is admirable, however, that at the Ritz it was business as usual during the Occupation. High-ranking German officers and their Axis counterparts appeared in white-tie in the dining room each evening, having first checked in their pistols at a kiosk near the Place Vendome entrance.
‘Champagne cocktails and white linen table cloths’ carried on being in evidence. ‘Everything was as it had always been, waiters in tails, the food, the wine.’
There were even fashion shows in the ballroom. (Long-serving manager Claude Auzello shot himself in despair — not during the war, however, but in 1969, after gentlemen clad in ‘velour lounge pants and outlandish blazers started appearing in the dining room’.)
Meanwhile, the rest of Paris suffered ‘devastating food shortages and malnutrition. Beyond the doors of the Hotel Ritz, France was spiralling into a brutal chaos’.
In June 1940, when the Germans were on the outskirts of the city, 70 per cent of the population fled southwards, ‘hauling their possessions and their infirm relatives behind them’.
There was a mass round-up of the Jews, who were held in the Velodrome d’Hiver. Passers-by could hear ‘the screams of those who had gone mad or were trying to commit suicide’.
Similarly, through the windows of the Gestapo HQ, screams of pain and terror issued all day and late at night as the Nazis conducted their interrogations.
The swastika flew above the Eiffel Tower and the other luxurious hotels ‘vanished behind shutters’, but at the Ritz, the suites were full. The hotel was ostensibly spared because Marie-Louise, the German-speaking widow of the founder, Cesar Ritz, was Swiss. The Ritz was designated neutral territory, ‘a Switzerland in Paris’.
But it was really protected because it became the residence of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. His quarters took up an entire floor and consisted of three bedrooms, maids’ rooms, several opulent salons and a huge reinforced marble bathroom, capable of sustaining his bulk.
Carriages parked outside the Ritz Hotel in Paris in 1904
I’d always suspected there was a kitsch element to Nazism (the flags, the uniforms, the rallies, the grandiosity), but Goering suggests outright camp.
His closets at the Ritz were filled with lavender trousers, silk kimonos, gowns trimmed with ermine and mink, jewelled sandals, emerald brooches and diamond earrings. ‘He wore make-up and doused himself with exotic perfume.’
There were crystal bowls brimming with morphine tablets, to which he was addicted. (I wonder who was the most demanding guest in the hotel’s history: Goering or Elizabeth Taylor?)
Somewhat cynically, the Nazis pretended they were ‘guests of the French people’, and having obtained a 90 per cent reduction in the hotel tariff, sent their bills to the puppet government in Vichy.
Mazzeo tries to say that, behind the facade of the Ritz, there was a Resistance network operating in the kitchen and bars. One of the maids, Blanche, left the lights on to give the Allied aircraft ‘a perfect way to orientate themselves in the skies’.
But this strand of her book isn’t very strong, particularly as Mazzeo is generally more concerned to remind us, quite rightly, that the real Resistance movement in France was very small, collaboration was widespread and to believe otherwise ‘is a collective French national fantasy’. Hear, hear.
A long-term resident of the Ritz, for example, was Coco Chanel, who was more than ‘willing to play dirty’ over the Jewish question. Having sold a majority stake of her perfume business to Jewish business partners in the Twenties, she took advantage of the war and her German contacts to grab it all back.
Hitler - who ordered ¿the merciless round-up of conspirators and all their relatives¿
After the Liberation she moved to Lausanne, living with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who in Paris had spied for the Third Reich. ‘The files in the French Justice Department on Coco Chanel have disappeared,’ we are told.
Mazzeo also tells us that the Jewish deportation orders were signed by a Frenchman, Pierre Laval, and that ‘not one German soldier was mobilised for the entire operation’ — the French police and French authorities did the deeds themselves, even sending Jewish children to be murdered.
This all makes it not very funny to hear that Coco Chanel would make her way to the air raid shelters at the Ritz preceded by a servant carrying her gas mask on a satin cushion.
Needless to say, the shelters were well equipped with fur rugs and silk Hermes sleeping bags.
According to Mazzeo, the plot to assassinate Hitler, Operation Valkyrie, was hatched at the Ritz.
Owing to miscommunications between Paris and Berlin, General Carl-Heinrich von Stulpnagel and Colonel Caesar von Hofacker, chiefs of staff for the military government of Paris, believed for a giddy hour or two that the assassination had succeeded.
Hitler, of course, ordered ‘the merciless round-up of conspirators and all their relatives’. The traitors were hanged from meat hooks and strung up with piano wire. Five thousand people were arrested.
Retribution did not end there. As the Allies advanced across northern France, Hitler demanded the destruction of Paris. The city had to be left ‘a field of ruins’. General Dietrich von Choltitz, however, ‘had long since concluded that the German leader was insane’.
Hermann Goering with his baton taking the salute at the march past of Airforce men in front of the air ministry in Berlin
Though dynamite was placed under bridges and in the foundations of Notre Dame, Choltitz deliberately delayed carrying out the order until the Allies obliged him to surrender.
But it was a close-run thing. The Allies weren’t particularly keen on liberating Paris, as the city would require ‘vast quantities of food and fuel, supplies that were still needed desperately on the front lines of battle’. Paris was a luxury that war couldn’t afford.
Ernest Hemingway begged to differ. He was determined his entrance to the city ‘would make a good story’ and yearned to be the one who personally liberated the Ritz from the Germans, as he put it.
He was driven in a Jeep to the Place Vendome, stopping only a dozen or so times on the way for refreshments.
‘We’re the Americans,’ he said to the maitre d’, ordering a round of 73 dry Martinis. ‘We’re going to live just like in the good old days.’
‘Of course, Mr Hemingway,’ came the unperturbed response. ‘But be so kind as to leave your weapon at the door.’