1898 was a big year! Paris was split by the Dreyfus Affair, dividing the aristocracy and traditionalists from the new Belle-Epoque artists and intellectuals. The author used Marcel Proust as an example of one of the supporters of Captain Dreyfus, supporters who claimed the Ritz as their home.
Undoubtedly the Hôtel Ritz was always the affluent, sexy centre of Paris. And no era in this book was more fascinating than the 1930s, a time when the avant-garde of the arts mingled with nobility and their entourage.
Hotel Ritz in Paris
So it seems extraordinary to me that the hotel would decide to remain open, at the very moment that 300,000 German occupiers were taking over Paris in June 1940 and two million Parisians were fleeing southwards. Madame Ritz knew that if she left, she may never get her hotel back; she decided to take advice to stay open, with the help of her Swiss Director, Claude Aurcello. Thus the Ritz remained "A Switzerland in Paris" throughout the war.
At least Madame Ritz managed the hotel well, and she did provide luxuries and distractions to Nazi officers. The Nazis indicated they were guests of the French people, and having obtained a 90% reduction in the hotel tariff, sent their bills to the puppet government in Vichy. Very comfortable guests, at that! Occupying the hotel’s fabulously opulent Imperial Suite was Luftwaffe chief, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.
Were French citizens anxious about collaboration with the occupiers back in 1940? Are they now? Did they mind that 850,000 French civilians and soldiers died for France, while German officers were nibbling caviar in the heart of Paris?
German Occupation of Paris started in June 1940
Readers have been fascinated by the guests’ dangerous liaisons, espionage, defiance and treachery. Note that the book’s sub-title is “Life, Death and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris”. How could it have been otherwise when the one hotel was both headquarters to the highest-ranking German officers AND home to exclusive, cashed up French patrons. And British royals, like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Plus it was a base for spies from both sides who could be hidden among the Ritz’s military or civilian residents.
I do not pretend to understand France’s relationship with the German occupiers in WW2, so it is difficult to know what to make of the Happy Collaborationist Theory. Were the collaborators truly pro-Nazi or just trying to live decently as best they could? Did the old witnesses who spoke to Tilar Mazzeo not remember the war years clearly enough or did they lie to the author? How many well established, financially independent Frenchmen actually helped the Resistance? This era provided a rich, messy history, “a breathless exposé of French horizontal collaboration”. Nothing could be taken for granted.
photo credit: Vanity Fair
The book is strongest after the German Occupation ended in August 1944. For example the book has amazing and presumably secret information about the Duke of Windsor’s plan to wait for his brother King George VI to die and for Edward to grab his throne back.
Justice was swift for French women accused of collaborating with the Germans. And for those living throughout the war in extravagant luxury. It is the only opportunity for the modern reader to discover how Parisians felt about those who lived in war time luxury, while the rest of Paris was starving.
Of course Paris in the Belle Epoque and inter-war era had always been full of messy scandal, and the Hotel Ritz even more so. So inevitably this war-time story jumped around. Other reviewers have seen the book as just a gossipy history of Nazis, writers, artists, spies, war correspondents and fashion designers. They wanted a stronger sense of order to the seemingly endless material. I would like the early chapters published in a separate volume, leaving more space for the 1940-44 era. Of the 292 pages in the book, only 11 pages were solely dedicated to the vital Occupation years.