In the late 19th century, French society was riven by the Dreyfus Affair. This scandal, concerning a Jewish army officer wrongly accused of giving away military secrets, exposed the fault-lines in French society between traditionalists and modernists.
It was in this cultural climate that the palatial Hotel Ritz opened in Paris.
From its outset, the Hotel Ritz was identified with the modernists -- the so-called Dreyfusards in the Dreyfus Affair, who stood against the members of the military and government they thought corrupt and anti-Semitic.
It became an international symbol of luxury and a beacon for the avant-garde: artists, writers, intellectuals, film stars, directors and a few renegade aristocrats.
This was a new cultural elite whose cachet was based on its embrace of innovation, of new social trends. It was displacing an older, aristocratic elite.
The story of the Hotel Ritz and its cultural significance is recounted by Tilar J. Mazzeo in an absorbing work of popular narrative history.
Mazzeo, an American English professor, has written several books about wine and the history of luxury.
She shows how the hotel's early association with the Dreyfusards gave it a modernist stamp that persisted well into the 20th century.
Salient among those attracted to the Hotel Ritz were Americans, who contributed to the hotel's modernist flavour. In particular, two types of Americans made the hotel their province: ultra-wealthy socialites and heiresses (such as Laura Mae Corrigan and Barbara Hutton) and boozy writers (such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway).
Mazzeo is especially interested in the hotel's experience during the Second World War, when it became the domicile of high-ranking Nazi officers in Paris, which was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1944.
The Hotel Ritz was a hotbed of espionage. Staff members risked their lives, hiding refugees and relaying information to the German resistance, i.e., the organized German opposition to the Nazi regime.
Moreover, the ultimately unsuccessful plot to assassinate German dictator Adolf Hitler took shape in the Ritz bar, Mazzeo says.
The author recounts with relish the wartime antics of Hemingway, who served as a correspondent for Collier's magazine.
As the German occupation of Paris collapsed in the face of oncoming Allied armies, Hemingway was determined to be the first American journalist to liberate the Ritz. Accordingly, he gathered a cadre of American soldiers and resistance fighters about him, and dashed into Paris in a jeep, brandishing a machine gun. Soon he was ensconced in the hotel, guzzling its wine.
By the 1960s, Mazzeo writes, the Hotel Ritz was losing its lustre. New York City and Hollywood had replaced Paris as the haunt of the glitterati. "That moment," she says, "when Paris was the heartbeat of all that was new and glamorous had passed."
Mazzeo has depicted the events and personalities that made the Hotel Ritz a French cultural legend.
Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.