In the world of hotels, the Ritz is synonymous with excellence. The reputation of this Parisian establishment is well established: since its creation in 1898, the Ritz has seduced generations of guests, both anonymous and famous, including Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, Proust and – more recently – Madonna, Rihanna and Anna Wintour, all of whom have contributed to its growing reputation.
If the Ritz Paris has become so prestigious, it’s above all thanks to a couple of entrepreneurs: César and Marie-Louise Ritz, who invented everything of the modern hotel industry. A look back at their story.
César Ritz, the mediocre student who revolutionized the hotel business
When he opened the Ritz in 1898, César Ritz already had a great deal of hotel experience behind him. However, nothing predestined him for such a career. Born in 1850 into a modest Swiss farming family, he was the youngest of thirteen children. Not very bright at school, he was placed as an apprentice sommelier in a Valais hotel, where he was quickly dismissed because of his clumsiness. He went on to try his hand at various trades, from locksmith to sacristan to steward, but nothing that really enthused him.
The year 1867 marked a turning point in his young career: on the eve of the Paris Universal Exhibition, he left Switzerland to work in Parisian restaurants. In turn waiter, wine waiter, waiter’s waiter, then head waiter, he made his mark in the hotel business. Working alongside the aristocracy he met on a daily basis, he learned the savoir-vivre of good society and built up a network among the leading figures of the day, including the future King of England Edward VII, with whom he designed the modern palace.
With a solid CV, César Ritz took over the management of increasingly prestigious hotels. Nourished by his many experiences, he set his sights on launching his own business, so in 1880 he and a partner bought a luxury hotel in Trouville-sur-Mer, in which he invested all his savings. The experience was a failure, but it didn’t discourage him and taught him a lesson that would be crucial for the rest of his career: a great hotel must also have a great chef. In 1882, he began working with Auguste Escoffier, nicknamed the “king of chefs, chef to kings”.
Auguste Escoffier: the chef who invented modern cuisine
Working alongside César Ritz, Escoffier revolutionised palace cuisine, modernising and professionalising it. We owe him the concept of the kitchen brigade, which contributed to the international recognition of French cuisine.
The birth of the Ritz
Since 1877, César Ritz has been married to Marie-Louise Beck, whom he met in Lucerne. César and Marie-Louise made a great couple in both private and business life ! Marie-Louise is a woman of taste who is responsible for decorating the hotels.
Twenty years later, in 1897, the couple embarked on the project of a lifetime, acquiring two private mansions, both located on Place Vendôme in Paris, one of the five royal squares designed by the famous architect Jules-Hardouin Mansart. They are the Hôtel de Crozat, built in 1703 at number 17, and its neighbour, the Hôtel de Gramont, built in 1705 at number 15. These two hotels were built by the same architect, Pierre Bullet, who also designed the Porte Saint-Martin and the church of Saint-Thomas d’Aquin.
The Ritzes commissioned the architect Charles Mewès to transform the two private mansions into a luxury hotel and on 1st June 1898, the Ritz opened its doors with their accomplice Auguste Escoffier in charge of the kitchens.
The hotel of the future
At the end of the 19th century, the Ritz offered services that had become standard in all hotels, but which were revolutionary at the time: it was the first hotel in the world to have a bathroom and toilet in every room; there were also lifts and telephones in all 159 rooms.
A name in the dictionary
Take an English dictionary, open it to the ‘R’ page, you’ll find the word ‘ritzy’ [ˈrɪtsɪ] which means ‘Classy, very chic, luxurious’.
As for the expression “To put on the Ritz”, it is used in American slang to mean “to get dressed up”. Irving Berlin turned it into a jazz standard, performed in turn by Harry Richman, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Ella Fitzgerald and, more recently, Robbie Williams.
Yes, across the Atlantic, the Ritz has become synonymous with elegance!
The “Ritz revolution” did not stop there: to give guests the impression of living in a palace, the decoration of the rooms was inspired by the greatest French châteaux such as Versailles or Fontainebleau. The most prestigious houses supply the Ritz: nothing is too good for this wealthy clientele. As for the kitchens, Escoffier launched the à la carte menu with a production line that made it possible to offer a large number of dishes with a relatively short waiting time. In the category of firsts, the Ritz was also the first establishment to offer fresh bread to its customers.
Marie-Louise Ritz: the woman in the Palace’s shadow
César was the best known of the Ritz couple, but Marie-Louise was anything but a figurehead. Passionate about design, she too contributed to the “Ritz revolution”.
The first bar in a hotel dedicated to women: it was her; the wide staircase and lower steps to suit ladies’ dresses and heels: it was her; the indirect lighting: it was her; the cupboards with integrated lighting: it was her again! Marie-Louise Ritz went so far as to choose peach-coloured towels to enhance her customers’ complexions.
It was also her idea to create the “Showcase gallery”, which joins the two areas of the Ritz, creating a Parisian passageway inside the hotel, with boutiques to allow guests to shop without leaving the palace.
On the death of César Ritz in 1918, Marie-Louise took over the management of the Ritz hotels, with the difficulty of being a woman in a patriarchal world that excluded her from certain business meetings. Nevertheless, she remained at the helm of the hotels until 1953, running them with a firm hand.
A legendary hotel
If the Ritz is so famous today, it is of course thanks to its performances but also to the personalities who have frequented it. Colette, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry, Arletty, Cole Porter, Luisa Casati and Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald have all stayed there.
There was also, of course, Coco Chanel, who stayed at the Ritz for 34 years, from 1937 until her death on 10 January 1971; Marcel Proust, who was inspired by the hotel’s clientele to write his famous novel “A la recherche du temps perdu ” and to whom the Ritz has paid tribute by naming the French-style tea room after him; Serge Gainsbourg, who is said to have written his famous song “Je t’aime moi non plus” at the Ritz; and Ernest Hemingway, who frequented the establishment – and above all its bar!
“When I dream of paradise after death, I see the Ritz!Ernest Hemingway
When the past meets the future
Staying modern when you’ve been around for three centuries is no mean feat, which is why The Ritz is constantly reinventing itself. Closed between 2012 and 2016, the hotel has given itself a facelift, bringing modern technology to its 142 suites and rooms.
Yet these technologies remain well hidden behind a setting worthy of the greatest castles. Every day, a number of skilled craftsmen work in the establishment to set the clocks, maintain the rooms and restore the furniture.
While not everyone can afford to stay at the Ritz, be sure to enter the lobby or the showcase gallery to discover this world of perfection and, why not, treat yourself to a pastry by chef François Perret at the Le Comptoir boutique, or even enjoy an afternoon tea in one of the lounges to slip into Proust’s shoes for the duration of a lovely afternoon!
15 place Vendôme