Cesar Ritz – The Hotelier of Kings
By Alex Starace
For the classic rags to riches story, look no further than the famed Cesar Ritz. The man whose name adorns luxury hotels across the world was born in 1850 to a peasant family in tiny Niederwald, Switzerland. As the last of 13 children, in a village with a population of just over 100 people, Ritz had few opportunities in his place of birth, though from an early age he had an artistic bent.
An arduous climb toward success
After limited success in school, at the age of 14 he was sent to a hotel in Brig, Switerzland, where he worked as an apprentice waiter. But after just one year at the position, Ritz was deemed
unfit for the job, told he would never become a success in the hotel industry, and sent home. It wasn’t until he left Niederwald again, this time for the 1867 Universal Exhibition in Paris, that he began to make a name for himself. Ritz waited on tables at the Hotel de la Fidelite, and then at the high-end restaurant, Voisin, where he learned the value of gourmet cooking and how to serve nobility.
After returning home briefly during the Franco-Prussian War, Ritz resumed his work in the City of Lights, where he was eventually promoted to headwaiter at the luxury hotel Splendide. The young hospitality enthusiast then received an unprecedented opportunity to run the restaurant at the Grand Hotel in Nice – and soon he was managing the Grand National Hotel in Lucerne. While at Lucerne, Ritz impressed with his creative ways to flatter guests and coined the mantra: “The customer is always right.”
The meeting that would change his life
During this fertile period, Ritz met the famed chef August Escoffier, a man who ushered in modern French cuisine and amazed diners at the Grand National Hotel with his ornate, elegant presentations.
The hotel flourished and became known as one of the most luxurious resorts in all of Europe. Based on this success, Ritz and Escoffier were asked to save the then-floundering Savoy Hotel in London – and the turnaround was almost immediate. The hotel became the regular haunt of the Prince of Wales, and soon it became fashionable for aristocrats to dine in the hotel’s restaurant.
The First Hotel Ritz
After eight years of success at the Savoy, in 1898 Ritz finally opened his own establishment. It was called the Hotel Ritz; it opened in Paris in a former prince’s palace at Place Vendome. “A little house upon which I am proud to put my name,” said Cesar Ritz about his hotel on the day of the inauguration.
Marcel Proust and Grand Duke Michael, among other luminaries of the time, attended the elaborate inaugural festivities. And Ritz, who was always at the vanguard of amenities, made sure his was the first hotel in the world to have a bathroom in every room. He also had electric elevators and indirect electric lighting in every room – both of which were cutting-edge for the time. Because of these innovations, Ritz’s hotel was highly popular with the affluent, and his hotel’s restaurant, which was run by Escoffier, was one of the best in all of Paris – and served an exclusive crowd.
Ritz attracts legends in literature and fashion
Ritz soon expanded his hotel empire to London and Madrid. Though he retired in 1907, his wife Marie-Louise took over, becoming the first female luxury hotelier. His son, Charles, also joined the family business. Throughout this transition, the bar at the Ritz in Paris remained a jumping combination of elegance, literature and fashion. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald drank there almost nightly. Cole Porter played the piano and Coco Chanel lived at the hotel. “The Ritz is my home,” proclaimed the famous designer.
A veritable who’s who of the early to mid-twentieth century popped in: everyone from Rudolph Valentino to Ernest Wilde, from a British cigarette magnate (Captain Willis) to American millionaire (Gould Jennings), from war photographer Robert Capa to Austro-Hungarian Prince Esterhazy. Simply put, the Ritz in Paris was the place to be.
And, even today, the Ritz empire is a preeminent marker of class and distinction, best summed up by the saying: “If you have to ask how much a room costs, you can’t afford to stay at the Ritz.”