Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society learns about luxurious Paris hotel as setting for wartime intrigue

RSF Literary Society chapter leader Kelly Colvard, author Tilar J. Mazzeo, Chapter President Candace Humber. Photo by McKenzie Images
RSF Literary Society chapter leader Kelly Colvard, author Tilar J. Mazzeo, Chapter President Candace Humber. Photo by McKenzie Images
(Photo by McKenzie Images)

During the Nazi occupation of Paris in World War II, the Hotel Ritz was an island of neutrality, a kind of Switzerland in the middle of a city under the yoke of a brutal regime.

But the hotel was also a place of luxury and intrigue: Wealthy socialites, celebrities and top Nazi officials dined at sumptuous banquets while spies and members of the Resistance plotted.

The story of this legendary hotel, founded in the late 1890s by Swiss hotelier César Ritz, is contained in the pages of “The Hotel on Place Vendôme” (HarperCollins 2014), by Tilar J. Mazzeo, the featured speaker at the May 15 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Grand Del Mar Resort in Carmel Valley.

The cast of characters who lived at or frequented the hotel during the early 1940s —while France was occupied by German troops — included such luminaries as American novelist Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, designer Coco Chanel and philosopher/writer Jean-Paul Sartre.

Also on hand were top Nazis, including Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Carl-Heinrich von Stülpnagel, one of the ringleaders of Operation Valkyrie, a failed attempt to assassinate Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Film stars from France and America, well-known journalists and even members of British royalty rounded out the cast of characters in Mazzeo’s book.

Mazzeo said in an interview that she began the book after coming across numerous mentions of the hotel, and some of its well-known inhabitants, while reviewing wartime documents from the French and British governments. She became fascinated by the interactions of the wide range of people who passed through the hotel during the occupation.

“It’s kind of the ricochet effect,” she said.

Among the objects of her interest were members of the hotel staff, who had a unique vantage point from which to observe the goings-on. At least four separate Resistance groups operated out of the Hotel Ritz, including one involving the head bartender, Frank Meier. Both Claude and Blanche Auzello, the chief director of the hotel and his wife, ran Resistance groups, unknown to each other. Blanche Auzello was even known to sneak down into the hotel basement to open blackout curtains, to help Allied pilots refine their targets during bombing raids.

After the Nazis arrived in the French capital, the hotel was divided in two — one part for the German officers, the other for the rest of the guests. A certain civility reigned in spite of the war raging just outside its walls.

“In the dining rooms of the grand hotel, the outward trappings of the war and its treacheries were suspended — at least on the surface. German officers during the occupation set aside their uniforms and, more often than not, French was the language of conversation. The Parisians who dined with them adopted a pose of studied neutrality in exchange for their pleasures. Over ‘roundtable’ luncheons, the economics of collaboration were hammered out among designers, industrialists, diplomats and politicians. The conversations at the Hotel Ritz laid the foundations for the establishment of today’s European Union,” Mazzeo wrote.

While the Parisians who remained in the Hotel Ritz during the occupation got along well with the occupiers, things were much less cozy after the Allies chased the Germans out of the capital in 1944, as the tide of the war turned.

Those who had had anything to do with the Germans — including women who engaged in sexual relationships with Nazi officers — were subject to scorn, abuse and imprisonment. The term for such women, said Mazzeo, was “horizontal collaborators,” and punishment was exacted, even if the women had acted out of desperation to help their families.

Crowds of vigilantes shaved the heads of such women, marched them through the streets in their underwear, and in some cases, carved or tattooed swastikas on their foreheads, Mazzeo said.

The prevailing view in France in the years immediately after the war, Mazzeo said, was that, “if you didn’t resist and you had any kind of contact with the Germans, that was a kind of collaboration.”

Mazzeo’s book is rich with detail, from the champagne-fueled parties Hemingway held in his room, to the fur rugs and silk designer sleeping bags kept for the guests’ comfort in the hotel’s underground bomb shelter. In one scene, Coco Chanel’s servant follows her into the shelter, carrying her mistress’s gas mask on a satin pillow.

The hotel is closed for renovations and is set to reopen later this year. Before it closed, though, Mazzeo soaked up atmosphere in the Ritz’s famous bar, although she didn’t stay at the hotel — the cheapest rooms went for about $1,100 a night, she said.

At the conclusion of her book, Mazzeo wonders whether the remodeling project will launch a new age of glory for the fabled hotel, which originally opened in 1898.

“And on the Place Vendôme, for the third time in its 115-year history, the Hotel Ritz is reopening, this time after another cutting-edge, $164 million renovation. Perhaps for a second time, it will bring a new generation of global expatriates back to the always beautiful city of Paris. Perhaps for a second time, it will be the Hotel Ritz where France and the world are remade again as all that is freshly modern.”