In the history of modern hospitality and hotel management, no-one has equalled César Ritz. From unpromising beginnings, Ritz climbed to the top of the hotel industry and then transformed it. He introduced the concepts of discretion, comfort, hygiene, exemplary service and gastronomic excellence. Known as the ‘king of hoteliers and hotelier to kings’, his innovations are now considered mandatory for any hotel of quality. And of all the hoteliers who have given their names to, or had them taken by, the international hotel industry, none is as synonymous with luxury and fine living as César Ritz.
In the small mountain village of Niederwald in the Swiss Alps, César Ritz was born on 23 February 1850 as the 13th child of a farming family. Despite the humble condition of his family, Ritz’s sharpness didn’t go unnoticed — his mother saw in him a lot of creative potential and insisted that he continue with his education. At the age of 12, Ritz was sent to a French-speaking boarding school in Sion run by Jesuit Fathers — he gradually learned French, a little German and some English there — but the young César showed little interest in the subjects that were taught by his professors. At 15, Ritz’s father decided to move him to Brig, to apprentice as a sommelier at the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes et Poste. Unfortunately, Ritz didn’t seem to be much appreciated by his superiors and was dismissed by the patron of the hotel.
He spent the next few years learning how to be a locksmith, although knew the key to his future lay in hospitality. In 1867, there was to be the Paris International Exhibition and so off he headed, certain that waiters would be needed.
By the age of 18, Ritz was serving as a bellhop at the Hôtel de la Fidélité in Paris. After a short stint working at the Hôtel de la Fidélité, he worked as a waiter in a workman’s bistro and took a position in a prix fixe restaurant owned by the Chevallier family, where he was later sacked for breaking too many dishes in his desire to work briskly. Ritz was undeterred. He soon gained a waiter’s position at the finest restaurant in Paris, the Voisin.
By the time he turned 19, he was known for being an exceptional server, fast on his feet and attentive to his guests. During this time, he also met famous French chef Auguste Escoffier, who became an indispensable mentor and advisor, as well as one of his best friends. Ritz’s life and career were finally on the right track and he was about to make a name for himself in the world of luxury hospitality. War with Germany took a dark turn in September 1870, when the French capital was occupied. The Voisin had to close, and Ritz found employment at the seedy Café Chateau d’Eau.
When peace between France and Germany was eventually secured, by 1872 Paris was alive again. Ritz was now a floor waiter at the restaurant of the Hôtel Splendide on the Place de l’Opera. Long gone, it was one of the most luxurious hotels on the continent at the time. A few rare years of peace led to many wealthy Americans arriving in Europe to see what they might plunder — from ideas to antiques, fashion tips to advice on wine. After Ritz was promoted to Maître d’Hôtel (Restaurant Manager or Head Host) at the Hôtel Splendide, the manager noticed his ability to move vast numbers of very expensive wines. Ritz soon gained the confidence of many of America’s richest men — JP Morgan, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Wanamaker, the Goelets, the Drexels and the Drakes. He advised them on the unique ways of European society. In turn, some revealed the secrets of their own success.
With a view to further improving his contacts, Ritz served at one of the best outdoor cafés in Vienna during the World Exhibition of 1873. It was here that Ritz first encountered Edward VII, Prince of Wales, who was to feature significantly in the hotelier’s later career. In 1874 he travelled to the stunning Rigi Kulm Hotel on Lake Lucerne, where he amazed guests with his avant-garde and extravagant ideas, like making brass plant pots into radiators when the heating stopped working or saving the Grand National Hotel from bankruptcy by motivating the staff with an innovative performance and reward system.
In 1877, Ritz had secured his first hotel management position at the Grand Hotel National in Lucerne, Switzerland. He refurbished the cheerless building, reorganised staff and renewed the restaurant menu. He even wrote to past clients to encourage them to return. Both thorough and strategic, Ritz observed that guests were sometimes bored, so he began organising events: balls, regattas, picnics and parties. Ritz was the first to mandate that “the customer is never wrong”. His code was “See all without looking; hear all without listening; be attentive without being servile; anticipate without being presumptuous. If a diner complains about a dish or the wine, immediately remove it and replace it, no questions asked.”
The hotel’s owner, Baron Pfyffer, was so keen to secure a long-term arrangement with his hotel manager that he found Ritz employment for the winter seasons at the Grand Hôtel Monte Carlo. Ritz takes care of the first rooms with their own bathroom and delights guests with his creative crisis management: when the lighting in a Grand Hotel breaks down, he has a sea of candles set up and turns the shortage into an unforgettable event. Even if the heating fails. He heats stones by the fire and fills them into copper flower pots as radiators. And “ritzy” has become an English-language term that can still be used today to describe things from noble to ostentatious.
In the 1880s, Ritz bought two businesses, in partnership with Escoffier is the Restaurant de la Conversation in Baden-Baden, Germany, and the Hôtel de Provence in Cannes, France. Thanks to his experience, intuition and creativity he quickly attracted important guests, such as the German Kaiser and the Italian Prime Minister, and with them came great success and international recognition, to the point that he was called to hotels of the highest calibre, such as The Savoy in London when the structure was undergoing a difficult time and was fearing bankruptcy.
In 1889, Ritz took on the challenge of building up Richard D’Oyly Carte’s The Savoy hotel in London, with his contract allowing him to pursue other projects for six months of the year including overseeing the management of his businesses in Baden-Baden and Cannes. Ever ambitious, he pressured The Savoy management to purchase nearby Claridge’s and to build the Grand Hotel Rome, which opened to great fanfare in 1894.
Although unenthusiastic, D’Oyly Carte was forced to participate in order to keep Ritz at The Savoy. Increasingly highhanded in his manner, Ritz continued to expand his commitments. At one point he was involved in ventures not only in London, but also Frankfurt, Salsomaggiore, Aixles-Bains, Palermo, Cannes, Baden-Baden, Lucerne, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, Wiesbaden, Menton, Cairo, Madrid and Johannesburg.
Ritz had an insatiable appetite for success, but he also became increasingly fanatical, particularly over the matter of hygiene. He began neglecting his primary duties at the Savoy, while Maître Chef Auguste Escoffier was soon discovered to be manipulating the kitchen budget to personal advantage. In 1898, Ritz, Escoffier and another key staff member were summarily dismissed from their positions at the Savoy Hotel. They did not leave quietly, and Ritz had friends in high places. One of the first shots across D’Oyly Carte’s bow came from the Prince of Wales. Withdrawing his business, the heir to the British throne famously declared: ‘Where Ritz goes, I go …’
Ritz had been spending quite a lot of time preparing to open a hotel in his own name in Paris, with the help of a financial syndicate that included Alfred Beit, possibly the richest man in the world at the time. Coupled with a loan from Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, Ritz purchased a superbly located property on the historic Place Vendôme and started work on his dream.
Ritz’s first own hotel under his name finally opened in 1898 in Paris on the Place Vendôme. It was among the first hotels in Europe to provide an en suite bathroom, electricity, and a telephone for each room. It quickly established a reputation for luxury and attracted a clientele that included royalty, politicians, writers, film stars, and singers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, King Edward VII, and Coco Chanel. Several of its suites are named in honour of famous guests of the hotel including Coco Chanel, and the cocktail lounge Bar Hemingway pays tribute to writer Ernest Hemingway.
After the death of Escoffier in 1935 and Charles Ritz, César Ritz’s first son, in 1976, the hotel went into a period of slow decline. As it lost its luster, its clientele diminished, and for the first time in its existence it began to lose money. It was rescued, however, in 1979 by an Egyptian businessman, Mohamed Al-Fayed, who purchased the hotel for $20 million. Al-Fayed renovated it completely over several years without stopping its operation; this was achieved by annexing two town houses, joined by an arcade with many of Paris’s leading boutiques.
The renovation of the hotel was headed by the architect Bernard Gaucherel from 1980 to 1987. The entire ten-year renovation cost a total of $250 million. The restaurants were given a new look, and a swimming pool, health club, and spas were created in the basement. The Little Bar was renamed the Hemingway Bar. In 1988 the Ritz-Escoffier School of French Gastronomy was established in honour of Auguste Escoffier.
On 31 August 1997, Al-Fayed’s son Dodi Al-Fayed and Diana, Princess of Wales, and their chauffeur Henri Paul, who was the acting security manager of the hotel, dined in the Imperial Suite of the hotel before leaving the hotel with bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones, only to have a fatal car accident in the Pont de l’Alma underpass.
Ritz Hotel Empire
César Ritz, now the world’s greatest hotelier, had a controlling interest in at least nine other restaurants and hotels.
For his new hotel in London, Ritz was determined that it would surpass its competitor in their delivery. The hotel installed two large lead-lined tanks on its roof to provide a steady stream of hot and cold water. The hotel’s bathrooms were all spacious with each having its own heated towel bar. Every bedroom in the hotel was provided with its own working fireplace. Ritz shunned free-standing wardrobes due to his fear of dust settling on them; instead he built cupboards into the rooms with doors matching the panelling. Ritz’s ideas of cleanliness and hygiene prompted him to originally have all bedrooms painted in white and all beds made of brass, not wood, for the same reasons. Anything new or potentially useful was available to the guests of the hotel.
Unlike the opening of the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, which had catered to society, most of those invited to the London opening were members of the national and international press. Major British newspapers such as the The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, Berliner Tageblatt, Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and The Daily Telegraph. Ritz’s guest list also included the engineer and architects of the structure along with key staff members of the new hotel and their wives.
The hotel was not immensely profitable in its opening years; smaller than many of the new hotels springing up in that period, it was not fashionable initially, and was resented by many of the London elite who considered it vulgar. The hotel also suffered a blow upon the death of King Edward in 1910, when 38 planned dinners and functions were cancelled, but began to prosper the following year, made fashionable by the Prince of Wales who regularly dined here.
The hotel suffered from the effects of the General Strike of 1926, subsequently seeing competition from the likes of the Dorchester Hotel and Grosvenor House. The Great Depression brought a sharp decline in business to the hotel, and in the summer of 1931 staff wages were reduced — the chefs, kitchen workers and the directors had a 25% cut in their wages.
During World War II, the hotel became integral to political and social life among the elite, and a number of eminent royals, aristocrats and politicians moved into the hotel. In 1942, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle met in the Marie Antoinette suite of the hotel to discuss operations. In total, the hotel was damaged nine times during the World War II bombing raids, and its restaurant had to be closed twice.
The social scene changed dramatically in London in the 1960s, with Beatlemania and the sexual revolution, and British aristocracy in the capital was not what it had been. By this time the general impeccable standards of the hotel had fallen. Peregrine Worsthorne noted the change: “Precisely that it was not all Ritzy, in the sense of being conspicuously luxurious…the glitter had long since faded and shabbiness set in. The place was usually empty, kept alive by memories of former glories and a clientele who preferred nostalgia to comfort”. Yet celebrities often held parties at the hotel, and The Rolling Stones were guests for many years. British Prime Ministers Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Harold Macmillan often lunched at the hotel; Heath would always reserve table 29 in the restaurant.
The Barclay twins of The Ellerman Group of Companies purchased the hotel for £80 million in October 1995, through their company Ellerman Investments. They spent eight years and £40 million restoring it to its former grandeur. Two years after the death of Princess Diana, the Charles, Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles made their first public appearance together at the hotel, as they left a birthday party for Parker-Bowles’ sister. The couple returned to the hotel in November 2002 for the Prince’s birthday party attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. In 2002, the Ritz became the first hotel to receive the Royal Warrant from his Royal Highness The Prince of Wales for banqueting and catering services.
Throughout the years, The Ritz London has become so associated with luxury and elegance that the word “ritzy” has entered the English language to denote something that is ostentatiously stylish, fancy, or fashionable.
After the success of Hôtel Ritz in Paris and The Ritz in London, Ritz opened his new hotel in Madrid in 1910. The hotel was built at the behest of King Alfonso XIII who, returning from a tour of Europe, realized that the Spanish Court lacked a hotel with enough pomp for European royalty and other illustrious visitors. His idea was for Madrid to have such a hotel to equal the likes of the other two hotels owned and operated by César Ritz in Paris and London. The King himself contributed part of the capital, along with other members of Madrid society, and he instructed the Ritz Hotel Development Company that it would be designed and built under the personal supervision of César Ritz. Although Ritz initially intended to be involved in the project, he was unable to do so because of depression.
The Ritz in Madrid was designed by French architect Charles Mewes and Spanish architect Luis de Landecho. It became one of the first in Madrid to use reinforced concrete in its construction. The most famous Spanish and foreign companies of the time contributed to the decoration of its rooms. Carpets were woven to order at Spain’s Royal Tapestry Factory, linens were commissioned from Ireland and crockery and cutlery arrived from England.
The chosen site was once an area occupied by barracks belonging to the Hippodrome Circus and the gardens of the old Theatre Tivoli.
The hotel’s grand opening on 2 October 1910 was officiated by King Alfonso XIII himself in the company of ministers and representatives of the mayor of Madrid. The hotel quickly became one of the leaders of the social and cultural life of the capital.
Similar to its sister hotels, the Ritz in Madrid also experienced ownership change several times. It was previously owned or managed by Le Méridien (2001–2003) and Orient-Express. Orient-Express changed its name to Belmond and the hotel changed its name to Hotel Ritz by Belmond. Hotel Ritz is now owned and managed by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group after a $148 million acquisition in 2015. Hotel Ritz is scheduled to reopen sometimes this year after a two-year renovation which cost approximately $108 million.
After successfully opening the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, Ritz agreed to take a 72-year Crown lease of the new hotel in London. A limited company, The Carlton Hotel, Limited, was formed. The name Carlton comes from Carlton House, the nearby former home of the Prince Regent.
It was designed by the architect C. J. Phipps as part of a larger development that included the rebuilding of Her Majesty’s Theatre, which is adjacent to the hotel site. Construction of the hotel was not yet complete when Phipps died in 1897. The architectural partnership of Lewis Isaacs and Henry L. Florence were appointed to complete the building.
At the height of the fame of The Carlton, Ritz was preparing to mark the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902 with much-publicised and elaborate festivities. Ritz became heavily involved in The Carlton’s plans for festivities to celebrate the King’s coronation. Not only were they friends, but The Carlton offered a perfect view of the Royal Procession. Two days before the event, however, the King fell ill and the coronation was cancelled. Although Ritz had been working on this event for days without sleep, he was quite calm on first hearing the news. He cancelled the orchestra and instructed the kitchens to stop preparations. Then, in the midst of a conversation with a staff member, he collapsed. Ritz never fully recovered from what was soon diagnosed as a nervous breakdown, leaving Escoffier as the figurehead at The Carlton and his other business ventures.
Without Ritz, The Carlton had no hotelier of flair to compete with its peers. Nevertheless, with Escoffier presiding in the kitchens, The Carlton continued to be one of London’s leading hotels, yielding substantial profits for its shareholders. Apart from two spells of poor results, the first in the early years of the First World War and the second at the beginning of the Great Depression, the Carlton remained profitable until the Second World War. The Manchester Guardian commented that the hotel’s “grill room looked very old fashioned and glum in latter years.”
The hotel was badly damaged by German bombing in 1940. The residential parts of the building were permanently closed. In 1942 remaining parts of the building were requisitioned as offices by the British government, although the American Bar and grill room of the hotel remained open. In 1949 the company sold the unexpired portion of its lease to the government of New Zealand for £325,000; the site was proposed for the new High Commission of New Zealand. In 1951 The Carlton Hotel Limited went into voluntary liquidation. The hotel was demolished in 1957–58.
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company
In 1911, in the United States, The Ritz-Carlton Investing Company was established by Albert Keller who bought and franchised the name. In the same year the company gave birth to the first modern-day Ritz-Carlton in New York City.
The company experienced several highs and lows, and ownership changes. Blackstone Real Estate Acquisitions bought The Ritz-Carlton Boston at auction for $75 million in February 1998. A month later, Marriott International acquired the hotel from Blackstone for $100 million. Marriott International, which franchised and managed over 325,000 rooms, then bought The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and rights to the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain worldwide from Johnson for $290 million in a two-part transaction completed in 1998.
Between 1890 and 1900, Ritz reached the peak of his success as the number one hotel expert in the world. He was appointed the first president of the Ritz Hotel Development Company in London and designed plans for stunning and avant-garde hotels in Cairo, Madrid and Johannesburg, as well as managing eight hotels with more than 2,000 beds across Europe: not an easy job, but one that Ritz excelled at, nonetheless.
Shortly after that he began to suffer from breakdowns and depression. His illness forced him to pass over his business to his wife Marie-Louise Ritz. She carried on her husband’s hotel empire as first hotel manageress in the world.
César Ritz retreated to Central Switzerland for the 16 years to follow. A slight improvement of his health allowed him to travel to his beloved home village Niederwald from Lucerne with his wife. Ritz died on 26 October 1918, leaving a large void in the world of luxury hospitality. His wife had him buried in Paris, next to their unfortunate son, René, who had also died that year. In 1961, when Marie-Louise Ritz died as well, the last surviving member of the family, her and César’s son Charles, had the three of them moved to Niederwald, where Ritz originally came from.
A complex character, César Ritz was a snob, a perfectionist and a taskmaster, yet always ambitious and driven. He was indefatigable in his attempts to deliver perfect service within the luxury and comfort of a grand hotel setting. Many of Ritz’s original insights are part of today’s industry standards. For example, a hotelier’s duty to his guest is to ‘guide him, advise him, anticipate his wishes and, above all, remember him in order to offer what he likes when he comes back’. Another motto was: ‘Never say no when a client asks for something, even if it is the moon. You can always try, and anyhow there is plenty of time afterwards to explain that it was not possible.’ Ritz also probably created that most famous of hospitality’s maxims: ‘The customer is always right!
This Hoteliers series documented some of the innovators who laid the groundwork for modern-day hospitality industry. More stories will be gradually added.
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