After four years of renovations - originally estimated to cost 140 million euros ($150 million) - the Ritz finally reopened its doors Monday, giving the rich and famous the chance to return to one of their favourite haunts.
The renovations, carried out at the behest of Egyptian owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, are meant to bring the hotel back up to the high standards of luxury and innovation for which it became famous. But while the makeover includes installing the latest technology in guest rooms and a movable glass canopy over its restaurant, it could be argued that it is the history of the hotel – sometimes romantic, sometimes scandalous, but always glitzy – that gives it its real lustre.
Proust's last words
"In the building there is something, in the walls there is something. When people came inside they talk in a whisper like in church," says Claude Roulet, who worked at the Ritz for 14 years and has written two books on its history.
Opened in 1898 by Swiss hotelier César Ritz, it wasn't long before the luxury hotel on the Place Vendôme could list some of the biggest celebrities of the day among its clientele. One of them was Marcel Proust, who liked the hotel so much he came there for dinner practically every day, says Roulet, and who wrote one of his most famous works, "In Search of Lost Time" (À la recherche du temps perdu), there in 1909. "All the characters in the book were based on real-life clients at the hotel," says Roulet.
Proust was a frequent visitor right up until his death in 1922, and the story goes that while on his death bed with pneumonia, he sent his chauffer Odilon to fetch him a bottle of beer from the Ritz – apparently, nothing else would do.
“Thank you, my dear Odilon, for getting me the Ritz beer," were rumoured to be the writer's final words.
While most writers these days will probably find the hotel's prices a little too steep, it could be argued that the Ritz has in days gone by played a small but significant role in 20th century literature.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a regular (especially at the bar) and the hotel features in his novel, "Tender Is the Night".
Noel Coward was also a frequent guest and his play "Semi-Monde", a tale of the extravagant lifestyles but ultimate monotony of the Paris elite, was set at the Ritz.
Hemingway 'liberates' the Ritz, celebrates with champagne
But it was Fitzgerald's friend and drinking buddy Ernest Hemingway who was perhaps the hotel's most committed literary devotee. Not only did he drink enough at the hotel's bar that it is now named after him, he also once proclaimed that: "When in Paris the only reason not to stay at the Ritz is if you can't afford it."
There is one particular story about Hemingway that is now the stuff of legend – that at the end of War World II he more or less single handedly "liberated" the hotel from the Nazis.
There are several different versions of the story, but the basic version goes like this: Hemingway, having returned to France as a war correspondent embedded with American D-Day invasion troops, found himself back in Paris. Though the liberation of the city by allied forces was imminent, Hemingway decided that he couldn't wait any longer to pay a visit to his favourite haunt. So he rounded up a few French resistance fighters, commandeered a jeep, and set off to take it back from the Nazis himself.
But when he got there, the doorman informed him that the Germans had already left.
"The doorman told him he couldn't take his gun inside so he left it by the door, went in and ordered champagne," says Roulet.
Wartime at the Ritz was one of the darker chapters in the hotel's history. When they arrived in Paris, the Germans used the hotel as a swanky headquarters for high-ranking officers, Hermann Göring among them. The Nazis took over half the hotel, allowing the other half to remain open to guests.
Coco Chanel and her Nazi love affair
Among those guests were famed French fashion designer Coco Chanel, who made the hotel her home for some 35 years.
Although Chanel's link to the Ritz is celebrated – the room where she stayed is now called the Coco Chanel Suite – her time there is marked by allegations of collaboration with the enemy.
It was while she was staying at the Ritz during the war years that she had a romantic liaison with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer and Abwehr spy.
Recently declassified documents suggest she was providing information to the Nazis, though Roulet doubts how active her role really was.
"I don't think she ever collaborated directly. I think she was just in love with a German officer and he exploited it," he says.
In fact, there has been no shortage of love affairs behind the palatial doors of the Ritz – and probably many more that will forever remain unknown.
It was at the Ritz that the photographer Robert Capa met and fell in love with Ingrid Bergman, while Sophia Loren once said, “The Ritz is the most romantic hotel in the world because a woman really feels a man loves her if he takes her there."
At times, those romances have been tinged with tragedy. It was at the Ritz that Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed, Mohamed Al-Fayed's son, spent their last evening before they were killed in a car crash in a Paris tunnel.
With the doors of the storied hotel now once again open, it will no doubt be the scene of plenty of new tales of the escapades of the rich and famous. But with the modernisation of the hotel is there a risk that some of its heritage and history could be lost?
Not according to Roulet, who says that tradition will always trump change in the Ritz's palatial rooms, bars and corridors.
He recalls the time he tried to introduce the idea of a dedicated guest relations manager at the hotel when he first started there in the 1980s, something it had never had.
"It was very hard to introduce the idea among the staff. I got a lot of resistance from them. Fed up, I went to see the manager. He was a long, thin man who looked like a priest. He offered me a seat, told me to calm down, looked at me for a while and then said: 'You will never change the Ritz to fit your ideas, the Ritz will change you to fit its'."
To celebrate the iconic hotel's reopening, the Ritz Paris partnered with director Zoe Cassavetes to make a short film. The movie, “Behind the Door”, will be released on Wednesday (see the trailer below).
By Sam BALL