The Hotel on Place Vendôme by Tilar J. Mazzeo
For centuries Paris has captured our imagination. The French capital is known for its art, fashion, fine dining as well as the passion it evokes in men and women. In The Hotel on Place Vendôme, we travel back through time when this luxury hotel was home to many of France’s most influential citizens.
The Hotel Ritz, located at 15 Place Vendôme, opened its door in June, 1898. From the moment of its inauguration, the Ritz was a place where the elite drank champagne with foreign nobles and battled wits with artists from the burgeoning Parisian art scene.
Meanwhile, a disgraced artillery officer is the subject of an inquiry. The government has launched this latest trial to establish the fact that Alfred Dreyfus supplied Germany with France’s military secrets. The Dreyfus Affair has split society into two camps; the upper class who believe he is guilty, and the Dreyfusards (many of whom were artists) who believe the young officer is innocent.
This is a moment when the upper class was beginning to lose its importance in French society, whereas the artists began to cultivate fame. While the wealthy would retain their fortunes it was the artists, actors, film directors, sculptors and writers who would rise to prominence.
The patrons and staff of the Ritz Hotel would witness the end of the Belle Époque and live through some of the most savage events that would inevitably shape the 20th century.
It is the summer of 1917. A blackout turns the French capital into a ghost town. German planes drop their bombs on the darkened city. The populace holds its breath, terrified. Yet in spite of the bombardment life continues. Marcel Proust attends yet another party at the Hôtel Ritz. As the guests drink their cocktails they attempt to discuss gossip, politics – anything except the horrors of the Great War. As conversations continue to flow the writer tries to seduce his hostess, Hélène Chrissoveloni Soutzo, a Romanian Princess.
It’s another night at the Ritz.
When the Germans begin their occupation of France in 1940, Paris takes on a new significance. As a tourist attraction it offers numerous pleasures to beleaguered soldiers. Furthermore, as the cultural capital of Europe, Paris is beyond value. Those who are willing to collaborate with the new rulers will be compensated; some are given material rewards while others are awarded prominent positions within the new government. Unfortunately for most Parisians, the occupation meant food shortages, incarceration for political prisoners, deportation and eventually extermination for its Jewish population.
Because of the occupation many of the other hotels closed; however, the Ritz remained open. Its manager Franz Elminger was Swiss, and like his homeland the hotel remained neutral through out the war. This was a calculated move. The staff would continue to offer comfort and fine dining to anyone who could afford it, regardless of their nationality.
Unlike other long term residents of the hotel, Coco Chanel managed to keep her suites. Throughout the war she was romantically involved with the German officer Hans von Dincklage. Given her status and wealth, Ms Chanel was able to ignore the harsh realities of the occupation and continue living in opulence.
Until its liberation, Paris became an illusion. The Third Reich did everything it could to maintain the city as it had been. But the veneer wouldn’t last forever. Like the rest of their European possessions, the Germans went to extraordinary lengths to exert their control over France and its populace. As the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels famously stated, “The capital will be gay- or else.”
The Hotel on Place Vendome, written by Tilar J. Mazzeo, is a wonderful book that brings the past to life. Whether you’re a Francophile or a student of history this is a worthwhile read.