by Jonah Raskin
The Hôtel on Place Vendôme: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris, by Tilar J. Mazzeo, Harper, ISBN-13: 978-0061791086, March 11, 2014, $25.99, 292 pages.
(Swans - March 24, 2014) The guns are silent now; Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, and Stalin are long since dead, but there's a sense in which World War II hasn't really ended. The specter of fascism continues to haunt the capitals of Europe and Europeans still remember Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and the liberation of the concentration camps. Last year, art historians swooned over the discovery of modern paintings stolen and horded by the Nazis, while moviegoers flocked to theaters to watch Monument Men in which George Clooney and his cohorts hunt for modern art filched by gangsters armed with machine guns and ideology.
Now there's Tilar J. Mazzeo's new book, The Hôtel on Place Vendôme, which reconstructs the Ritz, the palatial hotel in Paris that housed Nazi officers, the super-rich, and members of the French Resistance during World War II. I can't think of a more intriguing cast of characters, but that's probably because I was born in 1942. After all these years, I think of the 1940s as the decade that shaped my sensibilities and my sense of history.
Made for the movies, Mazzeo's lively book begins in 1898 when the Ritz first opened its doors to European aristocrats and American commoners who wanted to live as aristocrats. In the lap of luxury that was known as the Ritz, one could ignore the growing storm that burst across the continent in 1914. Mazzeo's book moves through the twentieth century. It ends in August 1997, when Princess Diana, recently divorced, dined at the hotel with an Egyptian multimillionaire named Dodi Fayed, just before her fatal auto crash. Closed since August 2012 for renovations, it's scheduled to reopen in July 2014, and while it's sure to be a destination again for movie stars, millionaires, and the nouveau riche, it's unlikely that it will shelter Nazi officers like Hermann Goring, French actresses like Arletty, who collaborated with the Nazis, and American writers like Hemingway, who helped to liberate the Ritz in 1944, and thereby augmented his own legend. The one percent will always want a hotel like the Ritz where the ninety-nine percent never get through the front door, unless they clean house, cook, and fetch luggage.
Mazzeo tells riveting, salacious stories about Hemingway, Goring, and Arletty, who stars in one of the greatest French movies, Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), which was made during and in spite of the German occupation of France. Mazzeo also recounts the tales of nearly 50 other political, cultural, and literary figures, including Coco Chanel, the French fashion designer, who lived with her German lover Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage during World War II but was never charged with espionage or collaboration. Capsule biographies of all the players appear at the start of the book and help keep readers from becoming confused.
Written in a wry, ironical style that doesn't demonize or deify, The Hôtel on Place Vendôme shows fascists and anti-fascists living under the same roof, sometimes eating the same food and sleeping side by side. Sex, as well as politics, Mazzeo seems to say, makes for strange bedfellows. Perhaps the only real hero to emerge in these pages is the Hungarian photographer Robert Capa, who documented the Spanish Civil War and the liberation of Paris and had an affair with Ingrid Bergman, who stars in Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart. If Mazzeo's book has much of the feel of Michael Curtiz's 1942 Hollywood classic, that's probably not an accident. In an Afterword, Mazzeo says that she hopes that the new Ritz will remake France and the world, too. In a world once again rolling with bombs and refugees, that seems like wishful thinking of the kind that the hotel on the Place Vendôme famously encouraged.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. He is the author of the booklet, A Few French Scenes, that was first published on Swans in November and December 2013 (see the Travelogue's archives). To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)