Ritzy tale of Europe’s first celebrity hotelier
IN early 1898, when Cesar Ritz was about to open his most lavish hotel to date on the Place Vendome in Paris — the same ultra- swanky pile from which, 99 years later, Princess Diana would make her final fatal journey to the Pont de l’Alma tunnel — the 48- year- old hotelier drew up a guest list for what would be the party of the decade.
The list included Cornelius Vanderbilt ( who would sail in from the US); Edward, Prince of Wales, heir to the throne of England; and literary legend Marcel Proust.
Cultivating a wealthy, influential clientele, in an age before the mass production of celebrity, had long been Ritz’s trademark, and his name had already become synonymous with refined luxury, as in ritzy and ‘‘ putting on the Ritz’’.
The opening of the hotel, once the palatial home of a prince, was quite a moment for the poor farmer’s boy from Niederwald in Switzerland.
The youngest of 13 children, he was told by his first employer: ‘‘ You will never become a hotelier; it needs a special talent and flair, both ( of which) you don’t have!’’
From waiting tables and emptying slops in Paris restaurants when he was 16, Ritz rose to become manager of the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, then an emerging holiday destination for well- heeled British and French travellers. Ritz was the first hotelier to fit each room with its own toilet and bathroom, a revolution in an era when most houses didn’t even have running water.
After a cholera epidemic in the Riviera in 1877, Ritz enforced the strictest hotel hygiene controls in Europe.
He also had the foresight to recruit an obscure young chef, August Escoffier, who went on to become the father of modern French cuisine.
Ritz was an intriguing individual, his love of beauty, fashion and the good life accompanied by a bundle of insecurities about his looks and humble origins.
He married a beauty 20 years younger than himself, had two sons, but devoted little time to them as he presided, tsar- like, over hotels in Paris, Lucerne, Madrid and London.
It was the unrelenting grind of this, year after year, that led to his spectacular meltdown in 1901 while he was preparing the festivities for the coronation of Prince Edward.
He went on to suffer mental illness for 17 long years before dying within days of the Armistice being declared in Europe.
This absorbing documentary will make you want to stay at the Paris Ritz, if only for the historical interest. As Ernest Hemingway once said: ‘‘ The only reason for not staying at the Ritz is if you can’t afford it.’’
Intriguing individual: Cesar Ritz’s name was synonymous with luxury