In early August 1889, César Ritz, a Swiss hotelier highly regarded for his exquisite taste, found himself at the Savoy Hotel in London. He had come at the request of Richard D'Oyly Carte, the financier of Gilbert & Sullivan's comic operas, who had modernized theater and was now looking to create the world's best hotel. D'Oyly Carte soon seduced Ritz to move to London with his team, which included Auguste Escoffier, the chef de cuisine known for his elevated, original dishes. The result was a hotel and restaurant like no one had ever experienced, run in often mysterious and always extravagant ways--which created quite a scandal once exposed.
Barr deftly re-creates the thrilling Belle Epoque era just before World War I, when British aristocracy was at its peak, women began dining out unaccompanied by men, and American nouveaux riches and gauche industrialists convened in London to show off their wealth. In their collaboration at the still celebrated Savoy Hotel, where they welcomed loyal and sometimes salacious clients, such as Oscar Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt, Escoffier created the modern kitchen brigade and codified French cuisine for the ages in his seminal Le Guide culinaire, which remains in print today, and Ritz, whose name continues to grace the finest hotels across the world, created the world's first luxury hotel. The pair also ruffled more than a few feathers in the process. Fine dining would never be the same--or more intriguing.
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The Hotelier and the Impresario
In early August 1889, César Ritz left Cannes on an overnight train, the 8:43 p.m. bound for Calais. He was en route to London, ensconced in a private cabin, traveling alone.
He wore a suit with a high-collared shirt, a tie and waistcoat, and a bowler hat. As usual, he was dressed impeccably, a white carnation in his lapel, his moustache carefully waxed. Ritz was a young man, but his hairline had begun to recede above his high brow and intelligent, watchful eyes. He looked around the compact cabin: it was wood-paneled, with brass coat hooks, a mirror, and a number of storage compartments for his personal items. (His trunk had been taken by a porter when he boarded the train.) Now Ritz hung his jacket in the small closet and placed his hat on the rack. The weather was hot, and he was glad to be traveling at night.
Ritz loved to travel, the thrill and speed of it, the trains rushing toward the future. The Calais-Mediterranean Express train he was on now, for example, had launched a few years earlier, in 1886, and was state of the art, with a restaurant car and onboard lavatories, precluding the need for rest stops at stations along the way. The train ran slowly along the French Riviera, stopping at resort towns like Menton and Monte Carlo before speeding north through Lyon and Paris and on to the English Channel. From there, Ritz would board a ferry and then another train, to London. The trip would take a full night and day.
It was remarkably fast, Ritz thought. The express trains were transforming European travel and, especially, the towns along the Mediterranean. The English had been coming to the Côte d’Azur for a century already, traveling by carriage and on boats. Rail lines had made the trip far easier. There were numerous competing train companies using the tracks--the long-established Marseilles-to-Nice service along the coast dated back to the 1860s, which was when the Cannes station had been built, a small white building with a roof covering both tracks. But the express trains heralded a new era, bringing throngs of visitors from all over Europe. This was good for Ritz: he was in the hotel business.
Why was he going to London, anyway? He hated London. Well, he’d never been to London, actually, but he hated the idea of it: the gloom, the fog, the dour English propriety and cool reserve. The mediocre food. He was Continental, in every sense of the word. His business was pleasure. Ritz was a hotel man, welcoming guests with well-practiced charm at his two small properties, one in Cannes, the Hotel de Provence, the other in Baden-Baden, Germany, the Hotel Minerva, where he also ran the Restaurant de la Conversation.
He was thirty-nine years old and had been working in the business his whole life--in Lucerne, Paris, and Vienna; in San Remo, Monte Carlo, and Trouville; all over Europe, following the glamorous trail of vacationing aristocrats and wealthy tourists as they took their cures and baths and sought mountain air in the summer and Mediterranean sun in winter. They were an international tribe, increasingly mobile--the Orient Express, with its luxurious sleeping cars, had just launched the first nonstop train between Paris and Constantinople--and Ritz had cultivated a following among them. The dapper young Swiss hotelier was effortlessly multilingual (if heavily accented), and never forgot a name or a face. Not only that, he also made careful note of his clients’ whims and desires: who preferred what for breakfast, who required a carafe of water on his bedside table at night.
Ritz was also a showman, an orchestrator of evening entertainments and gala dinners. Indeed, it was because of one such grand dinner that he now found himself, however reluctantly, on the train to London.
It had been almost a year ago, that dinner, at Ritz’s recently opened restaurant in Baden-Baden. The Restaurant de la Conversation was already the talk of the town. He had advertised both the hotel and restaurant extensively, printing lavish brochures, and installed electric lights above the terrace, twinkling in the branches of the plants and trees. He was soon attracting a glamorous crowd. (Kaiser Wilhelm I, the German emperor, had eaten dinner there, and Ritz had made sure everyone knew it.) Baden-Baden was a summer resort, a place people came to for the casinos and the racetrack, and of course for the hot-spring baths--baden is German for “bath”--and it was a town where, in the evening, elaborate dinner parties were held. So when Prince Radziwill, a leading member of the Kaiser’s circle and Berlin society, told Ritz that he wanted to host a dinner that would be remembered--“something original,” he said--and that cost was not a concern, Ritz seized the opportunity.
This was the sort of challenge Ritz loved: to create a spectacle. And all the better to do so with an unlimited budget. This would be more than a dinner; it would be an event. He landed upon a simple, summery idea: to bring the outside in. He covered the entire floor of the restaurant with grass, and the walls with roses, hundreds and hundreds of them. He placed potted trees among the tables and brought a stone fountain and pool into the restaurant and filled it with exotic goldfish. At the center of this theatrical indoor woodland scene was an enormous fern. Ritz had seen it at one of the local horticultural gardens and managed to rent it for the night. (That alone had cost a small fortune.) Then he built a table around the towering plant and covered that with yet more flowers. (Ritz was a great believer in flowers--vast, extravagant quantities of them. He sometimes thought he was singlehandedly keeping the local florists in business.)
He hired an orchestra, designed the menu, and then basked in the delight of the prince and his guests. The scene was magical, transporting the diners into a kind of Midsummer Night’s Dream stage-set fantasy, and the evening, despite all the logistical hurdles, was a stunning success.
It was just after dinner when Ritz was approached by an Englishman named Richard D’Oyly Carte. “This is the sort of thing,” D’Oyly Carte said, his arm sweeping across the room, “I’d like to do at my new hotel in London.”
D’Oyly Carte was a few years older than Ritz, in his mid-forties, a short, wiry, frenetic man with a full beard and piercing brown eyes that seemed to have an orange tint. He owned the Savoy Theatre on the Strand in London--this was “Theatreland,” they called it, a raucous stretch of the Embankment that was the center of bohemian London’s nightlife. D’Oyly Carte was now building a large luxury hotel next door to his theater, also called the Savoy, one that he said would be the best in the world.
D’Oyly Carte had made his fortune producing Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, hugely popular entertainments that included The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, in the 1870s and ’80s. The hotel was a long-held dream of his: a place for theatergoers to eat dinner and, if they were from out of town, stay the night. D’Oyly Carte had traveled widely and was convinced that London was ready for a truly modern hotel.
The two men had met before, two years earlier, in Monte Carlo. D’Oyly Carte had stayed at the Grand, which Ritz was then managing, and had been effusive in his praise: “There is not a hotel in London,” he proclaimed, “where you can get a decent meal . . . much less one where you can dine like a god, as one does here.”
He went on to tell Ritz when they spoke in Monte Carlo that London desperately needed a good hotel with a good restaurant. Or, better yet, a great hotel with a great restaurant. Yes, what London needed was a man like Ritz. “You’d make money hand over fist,” D’Oyly Carte said. “Hand over fist!” There were plenty of large hotels in London (the Langham, the Westminster Palace), but their food and service were mediocre. Unsophisticated. And as for the leading restaurants, they were banal. Stolid chophouses mostly, along with a few decent French restaurants, such as the Café Royal and Kettner’s, both favored by the literary set. Still, there was nothing that could compare to the glamorous atmospherics and sophisticated cooking on the Continent.
Now, amid the trees and ferns and roses at the Restaurant de la Conversation, surrounded by German, French, and English high society, the orchestra playing, everyone drinking, Prince Radziwill holding court at the center of the room, D’Oyly Carte was no longer making idle small talk about the hotel business. He was offering Ritz a job: come to London, he said. See it for yourself. The Savoy was going to change everything. And he needed a man like Ritz to manage the hotel and restaurant.
Ritz had only smiled. London? No one even ate in restaurants there, at least not the aristocratic types he served in Provence and Baden-Baden. The English elites were tradition-bound, in Ritz’s experience. They all ate at their private clubs, or entertained at home, either in town or at their country estates. Why would they come to a hotel for dinner?
And furthermore: Ritz had only just gone into business for himself, independently, taking charge of the restaurant in Baden-Baden and the nearby Hotel Minerva, and opening his hotel in Cannes. Not to mention he was newly married, just last year: his young wife, Marie, awaited his return from Baden-Baden even as they spoke. His plate was full. He had to say no.
D’Oyly Carte understood completely. But . . . and now a new idea formed. Why not come to London for the grand opening, just for a short visit--a week or two? Ritz could survey the operation and offer advice. His knowledge and expertise would be invaluable, said D’Oyly Carte. He would be a consultant, his very presence at the Savoy conferring legitimacy and guaranteeing its success. In fact, if Ritz agreed, D’Oyly Carte would announce to the press that the renowned César Ritz was overseeing the debut of the restaurant. And for this, D’Oyly Carte would be willing to pay a significant sum: £350.
He looked at Ritz in his keen, assessing way. It was a baldly mercenary offer, a form of prostitution, really: Ritz’s reputation in exchange for cash. Still, £350 was a lot of money, the equivalent of a decent annual salary.
“He wants the clientele I can give him,” Ritz told Marie when he arrived at home in Cannes--the guests he had courted and served over the years both there and in Baden-Baden, and before that in Monte Carlo and Lucerne, relationships he’d nurtured for years. First and foremost, “the Marlborough House set--Lord Rosebery, Lord and Lady Elcho, Lord and Lady Gosford, Lord and Lady de Grey, the Sassoons.” They were members of London’s social, political, and business elite: the Prince of Wales’s inner circle, named for his residence on Pall Mall. Not far from Buckingham Palace, Marlborough House was a grand London mansion and had been home to Queen Victoria’s eldest son and heir to the throne since the 1860s. The prince was a man of great appetites and good taste, and he traveled often. He was Ritz’s most important client.
But it wasn’t only English aristocrats who favored Ritz’s hotels and who D’Oyly Carte hoped would come to the Savoy: there were “the Roman Princes, Rudini, the Crispis, the Rospigliosis, the Radziwills, and so forth,” Ritz continued--all the great royal families of the Continent. “And the best of the theater and opera crowd--Patti, the de Reszkes, Coquelin, Bernhardt; the Grand Dukes, and the smart Parisian crowd--the Castellanes, the Breteuils, the Sagans.” And, of course, the European and American financiers: “He wants the Vanderbilts and Morgans, he wants the Rothschilds.”
There was nothing that gave Ritz more pleasure than contemplating this list of his most illustrious, glamorous guests--the prestige, money, and honor their names represented, prestige that had now attached itself in some way to his own name. And for a man who’d grown up herding cows and goats in the Swiss Alps, that was saying something.
Ritz was known in this rarified world. Respected. He had made something of himself. Ritz had been serving the Prince and Princess of Wales since the early 1880s; the royal couple had come to the Hotel de Provence with their five children the previous year over Easter, and had addressed him as a friend. They had stayed for two weeks, their royal patronage a most valuable endorsement of Ritz’s new venture: where the prince went, others invariably followed. And the prince was loyal.
Now D’Oyly Carte was hoping for a similar result in London, and hoping Ritz could help. If the prince and his friends were to embrace the Savoy, that alone would justify the cost of paying Ritz an exorbitant fee to attend the opening.
“He wants to make his hotel the hotel de luxe of London and of the world,” Ritz told Marie.
“And he thinks your name alone can do it?” Marie asked.
“He says I am one of the titans of the hotel and restaurant world,” Ritz said, laughing. “And he’s right in thinking that my name now has a certain value. It will attract the crowd he wants--but it won’t keep them. He hasn’t the least idea how much work and care, how much imagination and effort, go into the proper running of a hotel.”
Still, he was flattered--and curious. And so here he was on the train to London. The Savoy Hotel was opening the following Tuesday, August 6, 1889. Ritz would be there in his dark suit, a flower in his lapel, a temporary figurehead, a symbol of the Continental style and luxury the Savoy promised. Would it deliver? He felt a twinge of unease at the risk he’d taken on--the risk to his own reputation. Would it be tarnished if the Savoy failed to live up to expectations? Ritz didn’t think so. He was his own man, with his own hotel. And this visit to London would also be an excellent opportunity to remind some of his many longtime English customers about his new, independent ventures in Cannes and Baden-Baden.