“At the Ritz, nobody jostles you,” wrote Marcel Proust of the luxury Paris hotel that became his second home. Arriving late in the evening after a day in bed working on his masterpiece Á la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the reclusive and ailing Proust would dine in a private room.
The Ritz’s maitre d’hotel in the early 20th century, Olivier Dabescat, was a mine of information about the hotel’s eminent clientele, mostly European royals and aristocrats, whose preferences and peccadilloes would eventually find their way into Proust’s seven-volume novel.
When the author became too ill to leave his home nearby, Dabescat would arrange for fried sole or roast chicken and potatoes to be sent there from the hotel kitchen. In 1922, on his deathbed, Proust wanted nothing but cold beer, also despatched from the Ritz; legend has it the last bottle arrived too late.
Since 1 June 1898, when it opened in Paris at the height of the country’s belle époque, the Ritz hotel has been synonymous with a certain luxury and French art de vivre. Now more than 10,000 objects from the lost times of the Ritz, rejected as surplus to requirements after a €140m refurbishment, are being auctioned off. They include furnishings, tableware, chandeliers, a mini bar, a Louis XVI-style dog bed, service buttons and the garden gates, representing more than a century of hotel history.
Auctioneer Stéphane Aubert of Artcurial, which is organising the sell-off, says the items grouped into 3,500 lots ranging from €100 to €5,000, encapsulate “Ritz style”. “It’s a form of elegance and a certain savoir faire à la française,” he told the Observer. “Many of the items were either made by well-known manufacturers or by the Ritz’s own workshops so they are of quality and still in good condition.
If the five-star walls of what Le Figaro magazine called “the Mona Lisa of the luxury hotel world” could speak, they would recall – like maître Dabescat in his day – the gossip about some of the most famous artistic and aristocratic figures of the 20th century, from Proust to Princess Diana and Elton John via Jean Cocteau, Colette, Cole Porter, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin, Churchill and an entire Debrett’s of European royals.
When César Ritz, a Swiss hotelier, who began his career as a wine waiter, decided to transform the Duke of Gramont’s 18th century former home at Place Vendôme into a luxury hotel, he insisted it boast the latest conveniences, including lifts, electricity, telephones in each room and ensuite bathrooms (one of the early bathtub showers is included in the auction).
During the first world war, part of the building was converted into a Red Cross military hospital but its role in the second world war was less glorious. In 1940, as the Germans marched on Paris, Otto von Habsburg, the last crown prince of Austria-Hungary, who was staying at the hotel, wrote: “The city was two-thirds surrounded by German troops, the artillery shells lit up the sky and there, at the Ritz, everything carried on as always: waiters in a line, dishes, wines…”. When the wife of an American diplomat reportedly asked the hotel director, “how did you know the Germans were coming?”, he replied “because they made reservations”.
The Ritz, which adjoins the French ministry of justice, rolled out the red carpet for the Germans, and Hermann Goering, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, took over the imperial suite. After the defeated Germans left, American writer Ernest Hemingway arrived, claiming to have liberated the hotel bar, subsequently named after him. “When I dream of an afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz,” Hemingway said.
Other celebrated guests included Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel who lived – and died – at the hotel, the Shah of Iran and Jean-Paul Sartre.In 1979 Egyptian billionaire Mohamed al-Fayed bought the Ritz; 18 years later his son Dodi and the Princess of Wales would spend their last evening at the hotel before setting off on a fatal car journey through Paris. More recent headlines have been less glamorous: in January, armed robbers smashed and grabbed €4.5m of jewels from display cases in the hotel’s central gallery. Three were caught after the doors locked automatically and the loot recovered.
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