THE HOTEL ON PLACE VENDÔME: LIFE, DEATH AND BETRAYAL AT THE HOTEL RITZ IN PARIS
By Tilar Mazzeo
When the Nazis entered Paris in June 1940, their leaders headed straight for the only hotel that mattered: the Ritz. Located in the city’s ﬁrst arrondissement, it was the epitome of luxury and style, the centre of haute society. Designer Coco Chanel and writer Marcel Proust lived at the hotel, which also hosted artists and celebrities, including Pablo Picasso, actress Béatrice “Arletty” Bretty, and Serge Lifar, founder of the Ballets Russes. As Ernest Hemingway said, “When in Paris, the only reason not to stay at the Ritz is if you can’t afford it.”
The German high command commandeered the sumptuous Place Vendôme side of the hotel—with a 90 per cent discount, paid by the Vichy regime—leaving the rue Cambon side as a hotel and residence. The bars and restaurant were open to all, creating “a Switzerland in Paris,” author Mazzeo writes. Soon, journalists, spies and collaborators were making their way to the Ritz. Using the Nazi era as her linchpin, Mazzeo weaves tales of the Ritz’s occupants into a fast-paced social history. Some stories are famous, such as Hermann Göring using the imperial suite as his base to seize Europe’s cultural bounty, and Ernest Hemingway’s race against war photographer Robert Capa to be the first liberator to reach the Ritz (the author won) in 1944.
While name-dropping is inevitable, the more intriguing stories focus on those who spent decades there, such as hotel director Claude Auzello and his mercurial wife, Blanche. He smuggled information gleaned at the hotel to Allied forces, and she helped downed airmen escape the city while keeping a dangerous secret: She was a Jew. But word was leaking out. One day, Coco Chanel, who had taken a German lover, confronted Auzello: “One of my salesgirls told me you’re Jewish, Blanche.” After brazenly celebrating D-Day, Blanche Auzello was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. She survived, but never recovered. In 1968, after being told he was being replaced as director, Claude Auzello killed his wife, distraught at having to leave her home, then himself. He used a German gun.