King of hotel-keepers put name to luxury, cocktails

  • By Bill Daley Chicago Tribune
  • Monday, June 9, 2014 3:55pm
  • Life

Cesar Ritz was a Victorian era hotelier who did much more than open luxury hotels, many of which bore his name. His modern ideas about accommodations, including an insistence on the finest cuisine, so captured the world’s imagination that the word “ritzy” has become an enduring eponym for fashionable elegance.

“He was the showman,” said Willa Zhen, a food anthropologist and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “He was the first to make hotels, and fine dining in the hotel an experience. He got the right set of people through the doors and got the rest of us imagining what it would be like to stay there.”

Ritz’s philosophy was that the customer is always right. It was more than just a catchy line. So expertly did he anticipate, meet and exceed the expectations of his celebrity guests that England’s Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, once told him, “You know better than I do what I like. Arrange a dinner to my taste.”

Working in concert with his business partner, legendary chef Georges Auguste Escoffier, Ritz gently upended the social code of the time. Notably, he and Escoffier made it acceptable for “respectable” women to dine or take tea in public; a practice hitherto unheard of, as noted by Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of “The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris,” a chronicle of the landmark hotel and its people during World War II. The cuisine, the decor, the service, even the hue of the electric lights, were carefully chosen to appeal to female diners, wrote Marie-Louise Ritz in her 1938 biography of her husband, “Cesar Ritz: Host to the World.”

“And it was discovered that ladies — bless them — had palates after all,” Madame Ritz wrote archly.

That Ritz would enjoy such success that his name would come to symbolize luxury, glamour and wealth is all the more remarkable given he was the 13th child born to a peasant family in Niederwald, Switzerland. At 17, in 1867, he made his way to Paris and found work in a hotel, slowly and steadily moving up to better establishments and positions of greater responsibility, serving an ever-grander roster of customers. Young Cesar paid attention.

“These people he served were of far more use to him than he to them,” Madame Ritz recalled in her book. “And he learned to see everything without appearing to observe, to hear everything without appearing to listen, to be attentive, not servile, to anticipate needs without being presumptuous.”

Soon, Ritz found himself managing and then owning hotels catering to Belle Epoque A-listers. Through the 1870s and 1880s, he moved according to the seasons and the whereabouts of his monied clientele. Then, in 1890, Ritz and Escoffier were tapped to manage the Savoy in London.

The pair scored so big with English society that Madame Ritz claimed they got the law changed so the Savoy could serve late-night suppers to the theater crowd and Sunday dinner.

But in 1897, both men were fired amid allegations of kickbacks from suppliers, missing wines and divided loyalties; Ritz and Escoffier were working at the same time on opening their own rival hotel in London, the Carlton. Madame Ritz does not address the accusations in her book, insisting instead that a turf-conscious Savoy housekeeper poisoned relations between the parties. The ouster generated much speculation, but it never devolved into scandal.

Ritz’s clients stayed loyal, notably the Prince of Wales, who declared, “Where Ritz goes, I go,” and promptly decamped to the Carlton when it opened in 1899.

Yet, Ritz had just a few years left to actively enjoy his fame. After complaining increasingly of fatigue and depression, he suffered what Madame Ritz described as a nervous breakdown in 1902. (Journalist Paul Levy wrote in 2012 in the Telegraph that Ritz suffered from bipolar disorder.) Ritz never really recovered, was hospitalized in Switzerland and died there in 1918 at age 68.

But his name lived on through his eponymous hotels, the Ritz in Paris, opened in 1898 and is now owned by businessman Mohamed Al Fayed, and the Ritz in London, opened in 1906 and is now owned by the Barclay Brothers’ Ellerman Investments. The current Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, organized in 1988 and a subsidiary of Marriott International, lists Ritz as its founder.

Ritz and the hotels also loom large in popular culture. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a short story in 1922 called “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” In 1929, Irving Berlin wrote his hit tune “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which was also the title of a 1930 movie. Ernest Hemingway claimed he liberated the Ritz bar in Paris during World War II. (He didn’t, Mazzeo’s book declares, but it makes for a great story.)

Then there are, of course, Ritz crackers, which were introduced by the National Biscuit Co. in 1934. No company documents survive that explain the name, wrote Julia Marget, senior communications manager for Mondelez International, which owns the Nabisco brand, in an email. “But we have anecdotal after-the-fact descriptions about the name being chosen because that word — in reference to the hotel by that name — had come to mean luxury and quality,” she added.

Ironically, it was a concern that Ritz the man had become a mere symbol — a brand name — that prompted his widow to write her lively biography. Madame Ritz framed it as a true rags-to-riches story: “A herdsman from the Swiss Alps became the shepherd of world-society and a dictator of fashion in his time.”

Ritz cocktail

¾ounce each: fresh orange juice, cognac

¼ounce Cointreau

3to 5 ounces chilled Champagne

Shake all ingredients but the Champagne vigorously with ice. Strain into a chilled Champagne flute; slowly top with Champagne.

Serves one.

From Mittie Hellmich’s “Ultimate Bar Book.”Ritz fizz

Champagne, chilled

1dash each: lemon juice, blue Curacao, amaretto

Lemon twist

Fill a flute with Champagne. Add remaining ingredients; stir. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

Serves one.

From “Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide,” edited by Anthony Giglio with Jim Meehan.


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