Nobody knows the exact date on which Castor and Pollux, the two elephants that gave rides to visitors at the Jardin d'Acclimatation, went before the firing squad. A radical newspaper – distributed by balloon to avoid interception by the Prussian army – fixed the execution just before New Year's Eve 1870, and added that the deed was done, messily, with explosive-tipped steel bullets. The menu of a restaurant on the Rue Saint-Honoré, however, suggests otherwise. For Christmas dinner on the 99th day of the siege of Paris, diners at Voisin sat down to an elephant consommé. The maître d', who also drew his customers' attention to the truffled antelope and le chat flanqué de rats, was César Ritz.
Ritz – eponym, fraudster, founder of some of the world's grandest grand hotels – was a talent shaped by war. It was the conflict that he held at bay with culinary pragmatism in the months Paris spent surrounded by the armies of General von Blumenthal. It was an unpleasantness that could be avoided by retreating inside the gilded spaces of the buildings that bore his name – a service that remained on offer long after he died, rich, bewildered and back in his native Switzerland, a few weeks before the 1918 armistice was signed. As Tilar Mazzeo's history of the Paris Ritz describes, when two decades later Europe sank once more into conflict, war proved no reason to put up the shutters. The Nazis may have been bad for the balance sheet – with ingenuity worthy of Jimmy Carr's accountant, they negotiated a 90% discount and then claimed the rest back from the Vichy exchequer – but they kept the Ritz open. During the second world war, nobody in Paris dined on elephant soup.
A swastika drapes the cover, but Mazzeo's book is not as precisely focused on the German occupation as the image suggests. The author has a more expansive argument to put forward – that the agonies of the Dreyfus affair created the conditions for French collaboration with the Nazis, which in turn determined the nature of cold war European politics. The idea is underexplored, but pursuing it across the palm court of a luxury hotel makes for an enjoyably eclectic guest list. That muscular and faintly absurd band of cultural superheroes – Ernest Hemingway, Lee Miller, Robert Capa – swoop in and out of the story and back again, in a cloud of alcohol fumes and self-regard. The principal comic villain, Hermann Göring, stuffs his luggage with looted art, totters around the Imperial Suite in a silk kimono, or lies submerged in the bath as he endures the morphine-fiend's cold turkey.
The real fascinators of this world, however, are figures caught in even more compromising positions: those who were too prominently comfortable during the Nazi years to participate in the collective postwar fantasy that most Vichy citizens had been resistance members in their hearts. Like the vengeful mob, Mazzeo singles out the women: Coco Chanel, who took a lover in German military intelligence and used Nazi laws to expel Jewish business partners from her company; Arletty, the star of Les Enfants du Paradis, whose social and sexual proximity to the occupiers earned her a place among the shaven-headed and the spat-at. (A nun rounded on her during mass with the words, "Whore, you are done looking at men.")
Mazzeo begins The Hotel on Place Vendôme with a richly melodramatic pronouncement: "On at least one occasion" – meaning, presumably, on one occasion – "I was warned that I should not attempt to tell this story." The injunction was issued, she says, during a cloak-and-dagger liaison with a resistance widow in a nondescript cafe in the 17th arrondissement. "Here is what I need to tell you," said her nameless informant, word-perfect and portentous. "The truth you are looking for, it was lost to history the moment the war ended. Perhaps it was lost even before that. The questions you are asking are more treacherous than you think. This book about the Hôtel Ritz and the story of the occupation, you should not write it. I am sorry."
It's a terrific scene – I'm thinking Jeanne Moreau in tightly wired Cadolle underwear, flipping open a gold cigarette case and casting a careful glance at the patron – but the mysterious woman in the cafe is the only living witness Mazzeo can muster. The written record, unfortunately, doesn't compensate for this silence. Mazzeo has done archival work in Berlin, but is unable to produce much quotable detail. Nor does her own prose style improve the texture. Some of her sentences are worthy of Dan Brown. ("The antisemitic impressionist painter Edgar Degas stormed out of the party in a fury.") In the space of a few pages, she asserts that "astonishing things happened" at the Ritz, and that her book contains "the astonishing history" of those things and the "astonishingly powerful stories" of the hotel's guests. So astonishingly powerful that we're not trusted to remember who they are: this is not a long book, but the first chapter is preceded by nine pages of dramatis personae. (One of the principals, the Ritz deputy manager Hans Franz Elmiger, has his name spelt incorrectly throughout.)
Whoever she was, that widow in the cafe had no real cause for worry. Mazzeo's conclusions are modest. Unlike the historian Patrick Buisson, a competitor in this field, she doesn't suggest that France became "un immense camp naturiste" as soon as the Germans marched in. And for her, the hotel itself is rarely less than gorgeous and inculpable. When the Paris Ritz, currently closed for refurbishment, re‑opens its doors, The Hotel on Place Vendôme should sit happily in the gift shop beside the champagne truffles and the souvenir spoons. Only one offence may bar it entry: Mazzeo has spoiled her deference towards the present owner by overestimating his age by a decade. (Mohammed Al Fayed has long been in the habit of knocking four years off.)
A neighbour of mine once told me how she had worked behind the reception desk of the Hôtel Ritz during the Cuban missile crisis. If the four-minute warning sounded, she, her fellow staff members, and a number of guests planned to retreat to the wine cellar for a premier cru apocalypse. Did the same impulse thrum in the air during wartime? Were the occupants of this hotel always enjoying a last drink, a last dance, a last cigarette? Or was it business as usual, in an environment where money always trumps morality? This is the elephant in the room of Mazzeo's book: she seems too dazzled by glamour and glitter to shoot it.
• Matthew Sweet's books include The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London's Grand Hotels. To order The Hotel on Place Vendôme for £16 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to guardianbookshop.co.uk.
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