Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar Mazzeo

Image from amazon

The Hotel Ritz of Paris legend is the hostelry in question. The book highlights its history from its image as the "mirror of Paris," before World War II -- an international mecca for artists, writers as well as old aristocrats and the newly rich.

Tilar Mazzeo describes the WWII Ritz as the meeting place of the mavens of journalism and politics, couture and culture. When France was occupied in 1940, it stayed open. On the surface, the privileged life of fashionable elites, dining on fresh oysters and champagne, carried on much as before.

The new arrivals in 1940 were Nazis. The morphine-addicted Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering had an enormous bathtub built into his room to facilitate a new treatment that was supposed to help him get off the drug. Headquartered at the Ritz, he ate, drank, looted French art and helped run the Nazi war machine.

The Ritz was also rife with collaborators, although their cooperation with the Nazi conquerors would later be hard to prove. This was especially true of the Coco Chanel. Openly anti-Semitic, she tried to use the German occupation to have her Jewish business partners stripped of their assets. The lover of German diplomat Hans Gunther von Dincklage, whose loyalties were also uncertain, she travelled to Berlin twice during the war, assisted by Abwehr head Walter Schellenberg.

Spies on both sides, including both employees and guests, spent the war at the Ritz. Jews and even some downed pilots were hidden for long periods in concealed wings of the hotel. Meanwhile, two factions of German spies watched each other in the Place Vendome, and some German agents doubled as informants to MI6. Ritz guest and Abwehr head in Paris, Wilhelm Canaris acted as a double agent for the British until he was caught in 1944.

The failed Operation Valkyrie that was supposed to kill Hitler, replace the government and make peace with the Allied side was planned in part at the Ritz, where its architects included Colonel Hans Speidel, Carl-Heinrich Stulpnagel, and Caesar von Hofacker.

Many politicians visited the Ritz during WWII. British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill spent time there, as did Georges Mandel, the man he hoped would lead post-war France. Indeed Mandel, a Ritz resident, persuaded Swiss owner Marie-Louise Ritz to keep the hotel open when France fell to the Nazis. Vichy collaborators Pierre Laval and Paul Morand were at the Ritz too.

This work reveals a darkly clownish side of Charles de Gaulle. Having remained safely in England during the occupation, he returned during the liberation of August 1944, causing much trouble for his allies by delaying their entry into Paris and courting the very real danger that Hitler's instructions to burn the city would be carried out before the allies arrived.

He then  made a rousing speech about how France had liberated itself, making no mention of the Americans or other allies. This astonishing blunder reminds Canadians of how he provoked a diplomatic incident by shouting "Vive le Quebec libre!" from a Montreal balcony during Expo '67.

Winston Churchill's wife Clementine gave de Gaulle a piece of advice he didn't take: "General, you must not hate your friends more than you hate your enemies." An interesting historical footnote: then President de Gaulle fled to Baden Baden at the onset of the student riots in Paris in 1968.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, decided Nazi sympathizers, spent time at the Ritz until the British government shipped them off to Bermuda, far from their Nazi friends, in the hope of minimizing the trouble they might cause.

Naturally, the hotel was full of international journalists covering the war. Ernest Hemingway was the most famous of this motley crew of raucous boozers, jealous lovers, and determined scoopers. "Papa" fell out with Robert Capa when his longtime photographer buddy befriended Hemingway's jilted third wife Martha Gellhorn. Later Capa had an affair with Ingrid Bergman, whom he met at the Ritz.

The actress Marlene Dietrich deserves special mention. Though this Hollywood siren caused bitter jealousy among Hemingway's women, she was one of the few at the Ritz who chose her side without waiting to see which way the wind would blow. Passionately anti-fascist, she took out American citizenship "in defiance of Adolf Hitler."

The heyday of the Ritz ended with the peace. It went quietly downhill until the eighties, then enjoyed a resurgence when Mohamed al Fayed bought and renovated it. Tragically, it was from there that his son Dodi and Princess Diana fled before the fatal crash that killed them both.

Since then, it has been resold, re-renovated and is about to be re-opened once again. What will be the future of this historic Paris luxury hotel?

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