In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen did a good job of showing how foolish it is to be obsessed by previous generations who’ve passed through Paris. Going back through the years, each group of geniuses turns out to be just as drunk and silly as the next, albeit with longer cigarette holders. Tilar Mazzeo, who has written biographies of Coco Chanel and the woman behind Veuve Clicquot, has done a similar service with this history of the Ritz. Focusing on the hotel is partly a device to write about the German occupation, but it’s mainly a way of gathering all the old Paris icons under one roof. Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich and Coco Chanel all drank cocktails there, and no one comes out of it well.
Hemingway was too interested in his own legend to make a reliable war correspondent. He went rogue, taking a small band of fighters to try and kill some Germans, and then to commandeer the Ritz. His macho excesses are rather compelling and his alcoholic gun-slinging seems to have worked on Marlene Dietrich and Simone de Beauvoir, among many others. Mazzeo is perhaps a little too gentle with him, but it may only seem so because she calls him by his preferred nickname, Papa.
Other journalists had better wars and they provide some of the most memorable parts of the book: Hemingway’s wife Martha Gellhorn was one of the first journalists into Dachau concentration camp, and her description is quoted sparingly and powerfully. Their friend Robert Capa took the only pictures of the D-Day landings. The mission almost killed him and a darkroom error meant only 11 pictures survived.
The Swiss-owned Ritz stayed neutral during the war, so the Germans took all the rooms on one side, allowing business to continue as usual through another entrance. It gives Mazzeo a strong cast of characters to work with. As well as journalists, duchesses and celebrities, the bar was a good meeting place for spies and conspirators. The American scientist tasked with monitoring Germany’s nuclear research set himself up there, and the German men who tried to kill Hitler made their plans over cocktails. Most of them ended up being hanged by piano wire from meat hooks: ‘Hitler and his intimate circle watched filmed recordings of the executions in the evenings with grisly pleasure.’
Mazzeo says in the prologue that when she was researching this book, the widow of a resistance fighter warned her off, telling her it was still dangerous to ask questions about the occupation. Untangling the networks of spies is still more or less guesswork, though, and she doesn’t get bogged down in too much analysis; the book’s strength is more in quickfire anecdotes and gory details.
The combination of grandeur and war often creates entertaining images: long-term resident Coco Chanel had her gas mask brought down to the air raid shelter on a silk cushion; Proust flirted with a princess as a dogfight went on in the skies above their heads; and, best of all, Hermann Göring could indulge his love of cross-dressing:
Staff reported finding lavish gowns trimmed in ermine and mink…jewelled sandals, emerald brooches and diamond earrings. He wore make-up and doused himself with exotic perfumes, they said, and kept a crystal bowl filled with morphine tablets on a table beside an armchair, alongside another bowl, which contained a mélange of precious gems — emeralds, black pearls, opals, garnets, rubies.
The Hotel on Place Vendôme opens with a quotation by Charles Ritz: luxury stains everyone it touches. Apart from this flash of moralising, Mazzeo sticks to gossip. Die-hard groupies will always want to transport themselves back to one salon or another, but for the rest of us her tales of slippery morals and general dissipation are an eye-opener.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16. Tel: 08430 600033. Molly Guinness is a BBC radio producer and blogs from The Spectator’s archives.