Back in Paris
It’s spooky, standing in the exact same spot at the Paris Ritz service entrance where Diana, the Princess of Wales, stood on that August night and waited for the car that would drive her to her death. Peering up into the eye of the camera, I keep seeing that short loop of footage as she and Dodi walked through the door. Footage than ran over and over again, as incessantly as the Towers falling in New York. I wonder what the 600 employees who use this entrance on Rue Cambon might have thought in the frenzied days after the accident. I also imagine Dodi’s father, the inconsolable Al Fayed, owner of the Ritz, returning to this same spot; to the last place his son was seen alive and how that loss, suddenly, transformed this magnificent trophy, his toy and pride and joy, into a source of relentless grief. Then I remember the words scribbled in chalk on a blackboard down in the Ritz boulangerie, the bakery. “N’oubliez pas le pain de Princesse,” they said. Don’t forget the Princess’s bread.
The reminder was meant for a different Princess, obviously. For one of the legions from the Mideast who currently set up camp in the Imperial Suite upstairs. A suite that rents for a mere 9,200 Euros a night. (Roughly $14,000 US.) As I stumble off into the heat stoked streets, past a group of gypsies towards Place Vendome, my knees wobble from climbing up and down so many flights of stairs. And my head reels with splintered visions of my tumble down the Ritz rabbit hole. Our warning shouts of “Service” as we unlocked doors to the hotel’s grandest (and hopefully, empty) suites: The Windsor, the Imperial, and the Coco Chanel (temporarily closed and under renovation. With all but the couturier’s Coromandel screens shrouded beneath white canvas covers.) The tiny Samsung refrigerators in huge marble bathrooms, made specifically to store a woman’s make-up, the signature bell pulls for Valet and Maid near the gargantuan tubs, and bouncing on the super-size silk swathed bed beneath a portrait of Louis XIV. A bed everyone but he (that is, Louis) and George Washington seems to have either slept and/or cavorted in: Dustin Hoffman (such a small man in such a big bed, I think to myself), Clinton, Mubarek, Lindsay Lohan and Sam (huh?), queens and a king or two. Talk about incongruous bedmates. Then, there’s the Arabian nights tale of yet another Princess who requested a wall of 30 television screens in here simply so that she didn’t have to deal with mastering the remote control. (And man! Can I relate to that one!)
I’ve always dreamed of living in a hotel. I have a friend, well, not a friend, more like a literary acquaintance who is far from rich. But he’s managed to spend most of his adult life in a series of New York hotels. And I envy him–that illusion of transience, of impermanence. Because hotels are never meant to be or feel like home. Which is why there is something both baroque and vulgar, almost tawdry, about all this over-the-top extravagance that appeals to me. The exaggerated size of everything; the miles of miles of plush Persian carpets, the silks, the glitter of crystal chandeliers, and the gold. God! So much gilt and gold. It’s nothing like home. And I feel sorry for the weary rich who can afford to take the Ritz for granted; whose futile battle against boredom too often assumes the form of complaints.”Our guests are more demanding than ever,” says my secret guide as we begin the descent into the cavernous labyrinth beneath the gilt and gold. ”Once upon a time, we didn’t have any competition, you see? And now, we do.”
Wheezing as I struggle to keep up, we race down miles of blue tiled hallways where the hushed silence upstairs, the sense of langourous ease and purposelessness gives way to the clatter of pots and pans, the chatter of blue-uniformed maids, the dissonant image of undressed men. That is, men who have shed their tailor-made black suit jackets and rolled up their sleeves for lunch in the hotel cafeteria. There is the fragrance of fresh-baked breads, bagels, croissants, pretzels and whatever ever other floury flights of fancy might strike a capricious guest. A brief stop in the patisserie where the female chef employs twelve assistants to help create private fantasies like a hatbox garnished with five kilos of bonbons. The kitchens–as organized as any military operation before an invasion with its army of commis chefs, line chefs, sous chefs, sauciers, head chef, and caller. And the chocolate shop (yes, the Ritz also makes its own chocolates.) I glimpse the florist shop (ten assistants, 500 bunches a month, 40,000 stems) and my favorite: The polishing chambre where thousands of pounds of hotel silver is cleaned, buffed, and gently rinsed with white wine vinegar to remove last stubborn traces of fingerprints and tarnish. The laundry rooms consume an entire four block long sous sol and the swimming pool and spa, created when Fayed bought the hotel from the Ritz family in 1979, is so immense, the space to accomodate it had to be excavated–like the ruins of Pompeii and Heraculeum, straight from the bowels of the Paris earth.
This world downstairs is like the engine room of a superliner. Without the efforts and talents of the hundreds who commute so stealthily between it and the opulent upstairs world, the Ritz would grind to a dead halt. Flowers would wilt, food would rot, guests howl in misery. There are employees who have worked here, happily, for over forty years. And then, there are others, more disgruntled,who until recently when cameras were installed, made a point of venturing to the only stretch of corridor left in the hotel that was not under surveillance, to deface and scratch the walls, to make some silent protest against the arbitrary rule of its sole proprietor.
This, to me, of course, is one of the hotel’s greatest assets. The fact that it is the only truly grand hotel in the world that remains in the hands not of some faceless, too tasteful corporation, but of one somewhat eccentic, unimaginably wealthy man. There are many who feel that a massive renovation is long overdue at the Ritz. “The Royal Monceau, the George V, the Meurice… All of them have been freshened up. We are the only one that is still untouched,” says my tireless, exuberant guide. (Don’t even ask what I think about the decision to hire Philippe Starck and his minions of modernisn to ruin versus renovate the Meurice.) And changes are being made. Small changes like new scones in the Vendome Bar, fresh coats of paint in the restaurant, new carpets, and two remodelled modern suites in quieter, less “royal” yet no less expensive fabrics with giant television screens hidden within mirrored walls.
But for me, and for me, there is always this BUT, I feel that she is entitled to her wrinkles, to the occasional water spot on silk upholstered walls, the dints and scrapes, the faded drapes. They are signs of her experience, of her history. Too dramatic an overhaul might endanger this sense of history, not to mention obliterate the memories, that have created this legend, this mythically extravagant refuge, known as the Paris Ritz.
For those of us who cherish our own memories of even a single visit here (mine was lunch with the mother of a friend back when I was twenty and Paris had not yet become the landmark of my youth), there is good news. The Hemingway Bar will remain exactly as it is or was back in the hard-drinking, cigar-smoking, politically incorrect days of great white hunters like Papa H. (With the exception of the phone booth. This archaic romantic symbol of a time, not so long ago, when people actually preferred to conduct their conversations in private is about to be removed.) The next time you’re in town, drop in for a drink. The entrance is on Rue Cambon.