Friday, June 13, 2014

Review: The Hotel on Place Vendome

Narrative nonfiction is becoming a favorite of mine to read. It tells a story in much the same way as a novel, only this story is real. Some really great narrative nonfiction in the history realm include Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and Priscilla by Nicholas Shakespeare (both reviewed here on the blog). I'm very pleased to add another one to the list: The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris by Tilar J. Mazzeo.

Since 1898, the Hotel Ritz in Paris has been the place where heads of state, cultural icons (writers, painters, actors), journalists, and even royalty have flocked. In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald frequented the Ritz, as did Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.

But it was when the Occupation of Paris started in 1940 that things at the Ritz became quite interesting. The hotel was owned by Swiss-born Marie-Louise Ritz (she and her husband founded the Ritz in 1898) and despite her loathing for the Third Reich, Marie-Louise kept the hotel open rather than have it requisitioned by the Germans and losing it altogether.

German Reichsmarshall Hermann Goring took up residence in the Ritz as did numerous other German officials and military brass. Leading members in Parisian society, including Coco Chanel, still lived at the Ritz, though their regular luxury rooms were given to the Germans. Suddenly, the hotel became a seething hotbed of espionage and collaboration. Some of the generals involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler had their talks at the Ritz bar (and the bartender passed messages for them). French actress Arletty carried on a very open affair with German officer Hans-Jurgen Soehring. Members of the staff were involved with the French Resistance, and more than one room hid Jews and others the Gestapo were keen to find.

When Paris was liberated, the Ritz again underwent a transformation as did the entire city of Paris. Reprisals were swift and unrepentant. Women who had become "horizontal collaborators" often had their heads shaved and were paraded in the street. Arletty, even though she was a famous actress, did not escape retribution, either, though details are scarce as to what, exactly, she endured.

The Ritz was occupied again, but this time, it was under the Allies - specifically the Americans. As an official war correspondent, Ernest Hemingway returned triumphantly to the Ritz ahead of his friend and sometime rival Robert Capa, the famous photographer. Here, Hemingway indulged in alcohol and broke his marriage vows. Capa had his affair with Ingrid Bergman at the Ritz, and Coco Chanel was investigated for possible collaboration with the Germans (some thought she might be a Nazi spy), though her tangled relations with high British officials (she called Churchill friend) meant the allegations against her were never proven. Marlene Dietrich caused mischief between Hemingway's ex-wife and her new lover, a U.S. general, and enjoyed every minute of it. A top-secret Allied team even used the Ritz as their home while they sought to discover if the Germans had learned how to split the atom.

After the war, the Ritz started to fall out of favor as Hollywood became the place to be in the world, though the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were guests here while the Duke made plans to usurp his niece, Elizabeth, from the throne (the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson, effectively took care of his plans by embarking on a torrid affair with another man. The resulting scandal finished his ambitions.).

And, years later, after the Ritz had fallen into disrepair, an Egyptian businessman named Mohamed Al Fayed bought the hotel and completely renovated it. In 1997, his son, Dodi, and his girlfriend, Diana, the Princess of Wales, were at the Ritz  the night of their deaths.

Tilar J. Mazzeo does a lovely job of sweeping you into the history of this hotel. It is a history so rich with large personalities that reading the innermost lives of these people is an absolute pleasure. Her writing is rich and engaging, and peppered with such authentic, period detail that it is hard to switch back to reality after being buried in the book's pages for any length of time. That is the mark of a truly good book.

So much happened in this hotel during World War II, so many lives intersected, that it would not be a stretch to say that the Hotel Ritz played an integral role in the framing of modern Europe politically and culturally.

The Hotel on Place Vendome is a book for a wide and varied audience - those interested in World War II certainly, but also for those interested in Paris as a cultural center from the 1920s through the 1950s, and in the Ritz in particular.

I am in awe of the research involved in this endeavor, and Tilar J. Mazzeo deserves high praise for producing such an outstanding piece of narrative history.

Friday, June 06, 2014

70th Anniversary of D-Day

70 years ago, the biggest invasion force in history stormed the beaches of Normandy, France. Thousands died. Thousands were wounded. And thousands survived to keep on fighting.

May we remember their sacrifices always.