‘There is a very special atmosphere here, and I intend to keep it that way’
Ernest Hemingway personally “liberated” its famous bar in August 1944, striding up in his dusty foreign correspondent’s uniform and ordering champagne. Proust, a hypochondriac, always dined there in his overcoat. Coco Chanel was a resident. F. Scott Fitzgerald used its name in the title of a short story, and its kitchen was the domain of legendary chef Auguste Escoffier. The place even added a new adjective to the English language: ritzy.
Since the death of Charles Ritz two years ago at the age of 84, the world’s most famous hotel has been run by the last of the Ritzes—Charles’ 57-year-old widow, Monique. As chairman of the British company which has owned the hotel since Charles’ father, César, founded it in 1898, Madame Ritz has become the undisputed empress of Place Vendôme. “I think it is indispensable for a great hotel to have a woman in authority,” she declares. “A woman has an eye that a man will never have. Running a hotel is like running a big house.”
This particular house has a staff of 430, which outnumbers the guests almost 2 to 1. The price of a single room is around $100; for the larger suites, $500. (There are also 40 servants’ rooms.) Over the years the hotel’s guests have been both distinguished and wealthy, but now, for the first time ever, the Ritz is accepting group tours. “Very small, very exclusive tours,” the Madame is quick to point out. “Like the ones that come over on the Concorde.”
Monique Ramsmeyer was born in Geneva, where her father imported Lancia automobiles from Italy. Her first husband, a Frenchman, died of wounds early in World War II. One of her father’s favorite fishing partners was Charles Ritz, who knew Monique all her life. She settled in Paris in 1969; two years later—when she was 50 and he 80—they married.
At that time the hotel was badly in need of a facelift; most of the furnishings and appointments had not been changed since it opened. Although his new bride had no training in the field, Charles asked her to take charge of the redecorating—while he jogged around the courtyard to stay in shape (“You couldn’t have kept up with him,” Monique recalls). By 1973 the hotel had a new but classic pastel Louis XV look. Madame Ritz had obviously found her calling: She happily rushed about, choosing new material for a salon’s wall or a concierge’s tie, questioning the sommelier about the temperature of a wine and welcoming VIPs. Still, the hotel was losing money when Charles died in 1976. Almost as soon as his widow took over, it was in the black again.
“I never pontificate,” Madame Ritz says of her relations with the staff, all of whom she calls by their first names. “I insist that I’m not a snob, although Charles used to say I was the greatest snob he had ever met.” Ironically, space is so limited in the Ritz that its chatelaine lives alone in a Right Bank apartment across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.
These days Americans constitute half of the Ritz clientele and Europeans the other. Curiously, oil-rich Arabs and wealthy Japanese seldom stay there. “I really like Americans,” Madame Ritz insists, though she winces when tourists show up in boots and tight jeans. “The customer is always right,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean I have to say bravo.”