Closin’ Up the Ritz

From Elaine’s Lumière column for T Magazine’s The Moment.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone, via Getty Images
The Ritz Hotel in 1948

 

The marble fountain sang. The waiters moved with elegance and grace. The sun softened the sharp edges of the late October afternoon. The outdoor terrace at the Ritz was open for tea. It could have been perfect.

 

But the sandwiches were soggy and the scones chewy, and the linen napkins were ever so slightly a darker off-white than the tablecloths. In a town where the art of tea sipping has risen to the level of fine wine tasting, the waiter wasn’t quite sure which pot was jasmine, which was green. (And the bill for three people came to 132 euros – about $183.) On the way out, I noticed that the gladiolas jutting from the wall sconces were wilting, and some of the lampshades were crooked. The hand towels in the ladies’ room were soiled.

 

So it may not be a bad thing that the Ritz is closing sometime in early summer for a 27-month renovation. Mohamed al Fayed, its owner, has been talking about it for five years. But if he ever had any doubt, clarity came in the form of a brutal rebuff last May when the French tourism ministry left the Ritz off its inaugural list of French “palaces,” the classification for five-star hotels of special character.

 

The only Paris hotels to merit “palace” designation were the Plaza-Athénée, the Meurice, the Bristol and the Park Hyatt Vendôme. The Crillon (which did not apply) and the Hotel George V (which had closed for a total makeover in the late 1990s) were also shunned. The George V appealed and won. At the time, Dominique Fernandez, the chairman of the jury, a novelist and a member of the Académie Française, explained that a “palace” had to transport clients into “another domain than everyday life,” and be steeped in history with powers of “enchantment by the fantasies it evokes.” He compared it to “a kind of novel placed in a mythical setting which the guest enters, like the world of a thousand and one nights.”

 

One wonders if Fernandez had read the apocryphal “letter” from Marcel Proust to the Ritz, which was presented as part of its 100th anniversary celebration in 1998. The one in which he confessed to finding happiness in this “palace of The Thousand and One Nights,” where he “most keenly savored those powerful tonics — choice company, serious talk, lighthearted banter, delicious food and an exquisite atmosphere?” Was Fernandez jeering?

 

Courtesy of the Ritz
New Year’s Dinner at the Ritz

 

The rebuff stung the Ritz, and the downgrade stuck. No matter that the hotel set the gold standard for hotel living when it first opened in an 18th-century residence on the Place Vendôme in 1898. Or that when Ernest Hemingway dreamed of afterlife in heaven, he said “the action always takes place at the Paris Ritz.” Or that for more than 30 years, Coco Chanel slept in a suite at the Ritz (she brought in her own furniture) instead of at her apartment on the nearby rue Cambon. Or that Maria Callas, André Malraux, Charlie Chaplin, Richard Nixon, Greta Garbo, Truman Capote, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Gianni Versace, Oscar Wilde, Madonna, Elton John and George Clooney all slept here.

 

Many a well-heeled traveler and even many a Parisian have some memory of the Ritz. Mine was the Sweet 16 party of a friend of my daughters’. Some mothers were dripping in jewels, real ones, and the kids drank good Champagne from elegant crystal flutes. I seem to recall that live birds flew out of a cake. My husband and I sneaked off to the Hemingway Bar. He sipped cognac and I sipped port. Slowly. (The drinks were 24 euros apiece.) It’s not much as stories go, but it was romantic to us. It was our one and only date at the Ritz.

 

These days it’s hard to imagine many such stolen moments at that legendary bar. The Ritz has lost much of its luster, especially in a city where people seem more interested in trying a Spinner (ginger beer, lime, rum extract) at David Lynch’s new club, Silencio, than a bloody mary at the Hemingway Bar (which invented the drink). It’s hard to imagine, too, that many people would choose the predictability of the Ritz’s spa — which once had the best pedicure in Paris — to the private spa suites, complete with their own steam showers and vitality pools, at the new Mandarin Oriental. And need I say it? L’Espadon restaurant at the Ritz is a Michelin two-star, and Le Meurice’s Yannick Alléno has three.

 

The brutal reality is that the Paris grande dames, no matter how good their bone structures, have not aged well, and younger beauties are invading their turf. Le Royal Monceau, just off the Champs-Élysées, opened a year ago after a basement-to-roof renovation by Philippe Starck that added an art gallery and cinema. The Shangri-La opened last December in a building that housed the grand-nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. Forty percent of the rooms and 60 percent of the suites look right at the Eiffel Tower and the Seine, and nearly half have balconies and terraces.

 

The Mandarin Oriental, which opened in June behind an Art Deco-inspired facade on the Rue Saint Honoré, has rooms with neutral tones and sleek furnishings; animated floral graphics over the swimming pool; a 10,000-square-foot spa; a restaurant run by the Michelin-starred chef Thierry Marx; and a vast courtyard garden. In 2013, Peninsula Hotels will open its first outpost in Europe in what used to be the Hotel Majestic, near the Arc de Triomphe. And a year later, LVMH is slated to unveil its redo of the old, Seine-facing Samaritaine department store, which will become the 80-room Cheval Blanc hotel (with its own Vuitton store).

 

Bettmann/Corbis
Afternoon tea in the Ritz Hotel Corridor, 1957.

 

But there’s life in the old girls yet. In November, the Plaza Athénée on Avenue Montaigne is expected to close for major renovations. The Crillon, which was recently bought by a member of the Saudi royal family, is remaking its facade and roof, and will at least partially close next year for full-blown renovations, including construction of a spa and swimming pool.

 

And the Ritz? All but about 30 of the hotel’s 500 employees have been told they will be laid off. They are consulting with their union representatives, not placated by generous French severance packages and unemployment benefits. And adding to the anxiety for some is the fact that the designer in charge of the makeover, Thierry W. Despont — the New York-based, Legion of Honor-decorated French architect who mainly does private residences and retail spaces for clients like Bill Gates and Ralph Lauren — hasn’t revealed any of his plans.

 

Some things he will barely be allowed to touch: the building facade, the Art Deco bas-reliefs and wood paneling in the Imperial suite and the allegorical ceiling and 18th-century marquetry floors of the Chopin suite are classified as historic monuments. The wood-paneled Hemingway bar will stay, but the Vendôme Bar will be enlarged and fully renovated with the addition of a glass roof. There will be new suites with their own terraces overlooking the garden. But the rest remains a secret. One consultant said the plans include direct underground access to a parking garage so celebrities can come and go unnoticed (so far unheard of in Paris), a new soundproofing system between rooms and floors, a new set of suites overlooking the gardens, bathtubs that will fill up in 10 seconds.

 

“We have an interesting time coming in the history of our charming hotel,” said Christian A. Boyens, the German-born general manager who has been with the Ritz for less than a year. “One thing is sure: When you wake up in the Ritz, you will know you are in Paris, not Shanghai or Tokyo. The Ritz will stay the Ritz.”

 

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