The Ritz Hotel in Paris is an iconic symbol of opulence and luxury. Tilar J. Mazzeo’s new book, “The Hotel on Place Vendôme: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris,” is an exploration of life behind the glitter and the gleam during the Nazi occupation of Paris, when the hotel became home to the Nazi elite.
On orders from Berlin, the Ritz was the only Parisian hotel that was allowed to go on operating much as before. It became the only neutral zone in the city, where Nazi leaders such as Hermann Göring could mingle with the hotel’s regular, very eclectic clientele, which included film stars, royalty, writers and painters, Vichy government officials, and members of the French resistance.
Mazzeo is a cultural historian, biographer and professor of English at Colby. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It,” and of “The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume.”
Her new book is a well researched, seductive read that views the occupation through a prism of life at the Ritz, illuminating issues of neutrality, resistance and the moral compromises people make to survive under the daily threats of war.
There is pathos and courage, as well as jealousy, tangled trysts, and bizarre behavior. Mazzeo introduces a morphine-addled Göring who loves to dress in drag; Ernest Hemingway and his out-sized ego, wanting to be top-dog war correspondent and paramour to numerous women; and the Duchess of Windsor, who has a very public affair at the Ritz while her husband, the former King Edward of England, is back in Britain attempting to engineer a royal coup to reclaim the throne and keep Princess Elizabeth from becoming queen.
The book chronicles a fascinating drama with a cast of famous people, all drawn in one fashion or another by the glimmering facade of an iconic luxury hotel during one of the darkness moments of the 20th century. Like all good stories, Mazzeo’s book reveals that appearances are often deceiving.
Q: You speak of your first two books as “biographies of products.” Would you deem “The Hotel at Place Vendôme” a “biography of place”?
A: It is a biography of place. In some ways, it’s a biography of Paris during the occupation as much as it is a biography of the Ritz. My thinking was to view what was happening with the occupation of Paris through the central location of the hotel. All kinds of people came through there. You get a rich cross section of different perspectives. The story has a cast of characters who were playing out an impromptu drama that nobody was scripting.
What was so unique about the Ritz was that it was the only neutral place in all of Paris, a little Switzerland. Outside its walls was a very different space. The order came from Berlin that, among all the hotels in Paris, this one would be unique. It had one half where German officers would live and party. The other would be where its regular clientele and the elite of Paris could hobnob. It was the only place in all of Europe where the two groups could sit and have dinner across the room from one another.
Q: What was the central question that drove you to want to tell this story?
A: The thing I wrestled with the most was the question of neutrality. For the French, the Nazi occupation of Paris is still very painful. It’s a sensitive subject. People feel compelled to say that they resisted or were neutral – even when they weren’t. But can you really remain neutral if you remain in an occupied city?
Q: You draw a link to your academic specialty in 18th- and 19th-century Romanticism and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” in your second book, on Coco Chanel. The allusion is how the creator makes something, but then becomes ruled by it. The epigraph of “The Hotel on Place Vendôme” is a quote by Charles Ritz, who said, “Luxury stains everybody it touches.” Are you harkening back to “Frankenstein” here, too?
A: This is very much a story of the dark side of luxury – how things that we desire become who we are, and how they end up compromising us.
Q: The hotel was a grand stage where intrigue, betrayal and social climbing crossed all national boundaries and political loyalties. Everyone seemed deeply enamored with being there, being seen and being perceived as important. Yet nobody was shot on the premises – until after the liberation of Paris. What was it about the place that bred this bizarre bipolar nature that seemed to affect everyone?
A: Violence didn’t happen there, which goes back to the hotel being neutral, like Switzerland.
But the Germans spoke French, so everyone could have these polite conversations. The Germans weren’t allowed to bring guns into the hotel, which was important in establishing it as a refuge from all the violence going on outside.
At the same time, violence was being planned there. One of my favorite chapters is about the German resistance planning Operation Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate Hitler. It was a small group of people, but they were hanging out in the bar at the Ritz. At the same time, Frank Meier, the famous bartender – who was Jewish – was actively passing notes to members of the French resistance. The bar was the epitome of the bipolar nature of the hotel.
Q: Adaptation and outlandish behavior seem prevalent themes in the story about life in Paris during the occupation. The Ritz seems to be a place where skillful adaptation was paramount, and outlandish behavior was common. Can you comment on this?
A: The Ritz was a kind of theatrical space. This included the architecture. It was designed without a lobby, designed to feel like a private home. It was like a set design where things could be played out. Like the grand staircase. There’s a photo in the book of Marlene Dietrich’s dramatic descent down the stairs. And Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring coming down the staircase dressed in drag. It was a place where people performed a kind of perversion of luxury. It was like a private vaudeville theatre.
The hotel was like Sartre’s play, “No Exit,” written during that time. Everyone was locked in a room and had to play out the destiny of the space.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in pulling together all the pieces of this sprawling story?
A: As a historian, you can only work from the material you have. The research was the most difficult. It was a real sleuthing to find out what happened, as much of the material I wanted was missing. What’s missing is the story of those who collaborated.
I tried to write the book in a very visual, episodic manner. The idea was to write each chapter as a self-contained short story. Most chapters have a central character. In selecting which characters to use, the guiding principle was to select those whose stories intersected with several other characters, not just with one. I thought of it as a strange play where you might not realize how various characters affected each other until the end.
I was hoping the book could be a history that read like a novel, with each chapter having its own narrative. And with the bigger story having an overarching narrative that tied it all together.
Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel “Dream Singer,” a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, will be published this year. Reach him via thewritinggroup.com.