After a spectacular four-year, $200 million renovation, Paris’s storied Ritz hotel reopens, with a new Chanel beauty sanctuary nestled inside.
It’s hard not to think of the decades-spanning construction that transformed Louis XIII’s simple countryside hunting lodge into his son’s great palace at Versailles when considering the nearly four years and reported $200 million it has taken to restore the Ritz hotel in Paris to its famous standards of beauty and opulence. Physical evidence alone aligns the two great monuments historiques of France: While official accounts of César Ritz’s destination for luxury typically begin in 1898, the year he opened its doors, the property’s latest restoration—a Herculean undertaking finally completed this summer and motivated in part by a wish to preserve antiquities—reminds us that the building’s facade actually dates from 1705. It was sketched by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the chief architect to Louis XIV whose design ambitions put both king and country in the vanguard of glamour, culture, and fashion in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. The Ritz, it can be argued, did the same for Paris in the early part of the twentieth.
An extraordinary intersection of wealth and gaiety through the Jazz Age with a reputation for unrivaled service, the hotel and its bars hosted such literary figures as Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jean-Paul Sartre. While some of its stories are apocryphal—for example, Oscar Wilde objecting to the electric lights or Barbara Hutton complaining about her mattress sagging in the middle where the obese Nazi Hermann Göring had slept—my own memories of the Ritz as an American in Paris are steeped in nostalgia. In the Bar Hemingway, where there has always been a palpable sense of the author himself, maintained by wonderful photos of him, handsome in military uniform, a group of us celebrated the late Art Buchwald, a fabled writer for the beloved Paris Herald Tribune. In the Ritz Bar, my husband and I would reconvene annually on New Year’s morning to meet friends in the room’s bright morning light. But it’s been a while since we’ve mingled with hungover guests and impassive, carefully nonjudgmental waiters, as the hotel’s renovations have themselves become Versailles-like in stature.
There’s been a certain slow, cinematic build to watching its corner of the Place Vendôme swathed in tarps and peopled by an army of restorers and researchers, digging and scraping to find the original shades of greens and pinks of the lavish suites. A similar tension unfolds on Versailles, the popular Canal+ series that will debut Stateside on Ovation in October, and which follows the stars of this shoot, George Blagden as a young Louis XIV, Anna Brewster as Madame de Montespan, and Noémie Schmidt as Louis’s mistress Henriette. The palace plays its own part in the period piece, too, as camera pans to blueprints offer thematic respite from plotlines heavy on burgeoning war, a contentious nobility, and adulterous betrayal. They’re also familiar reminders that the structure that “might seduce your eyes and steal your heart,” as Blagden claims in an early episode, his clear blue eyes capable of piercing through a high-definition screen, was under construction for nearly the entire length of Louis’s reign.
Why has the Ritz’s major renovation taken so long? People are reticent about saying what they thought of a remodel it underwent from 1980 to 1989, after Mohamed Al Fayed bought the hotel. Was Al Fayed’s version too modern? Unwisely glitzy? Gossip also has it that this current version was prompted because when the French government handed out a new top designation in its hotel-rating system of palace hotels, the Ritz was omitted. Had its standards lapsed? Had it grown too shabby? Was it the lack of air-conditioning or all those wi-fi cables stuffed clumsily under the carpets? Its regulars had never complained, but Al Fayed must have felt the slight.
Following some decorative detours, not to mention a disastrous fire, I was finally to lay eyes on its progress this past spring during a meeting with Thierry Despont, the project’s designer, before experiencing a facial at the property’s new Chanel spa—the first of its kind. An attractive and amiable man in a hard hat, Despont gave me my own piece of protective headgear as we were coming into the work site through an entrance guarded like the mint. He assembled 800 stonemasons, upholsterers, gilders, and woodcarvers, all devoted to returning the hotel to what it must have been when it opened, and adding some touches Monsieur Ritz could not have imagined. Chief among them: a long-awaited update to the celebrated Ritz Health Club. Renamed the Ritz Club Paris, it’s the city’s fanciest, with a beautiful neoclassical–meets–Art Deco swimming pool (where, alas, the late American ambassador Pamela Harriman experienced a fatal cerebral hemorrhage). The Ritz has a range of its own spa treatments, mostly a variety of massages, as well as a new five-chair outpost of coiffeur David Mallett’s popular salon. But it will now be the flagship for deeply thought-out treatments that use Chanel skin care in newly developed protocols performed in an elegant space that Mademoiselle would have approved of: Her signature chinoiserie screens and a palette of beige and black lacquer are both accounted for.
The Grand Soin facial I selected, which matches one of four Chanel product lines to individual concern—Hydra Beauty for moisture; Le Lift for firmness; Le Blanc for brightening; and my prescription, Sublimage, for anti-aging—lasted more than two hours, with the aesthetician, Angelina, doing wonderful things to my skin—and my feet. We began with a chat so that Angelina could gauge what my hopes and problem areas were. I can’t remember what I said, although I likely ticked all of the global skin-aging boxes—chin slackening, crow’s-feet, you name it. Angelina nodded with mysterious understanding and fed me a delicious fruity drink made with orange and kiwi and birch and borage. She had an array of such preparations to induce radiance, to hydrate, and to tighten the skin.
Truth to tell, I was barely aware of much of the 120 minutes I lay there once Angelina began le massage de Chanel, smoothing the layer of tissue just underneath my skin with precise hand motions. Combined with the heavenly smell of camellia and vanilla that emanated from the rich creams she used while kneading out each and every fine line, and the strange, soothing music tailor-made for the ritual and designed to sonically aid in the relaxation process, it made me settle into a swoon of tranquillity. In blissful stages, there was cleansing, a special exfoliating scrub, a collagen mask, another application of Sublimage tonics and creams—and Angelina was there the whole time, which is a brilliant soulagementif, like me, you hate those moments of being left during a service as on a mortuary slab.
Before the light came back up, the music changed, and another delicious drink arrived—this one devised to further assist my skin’s regeneration and bring me out of my pleasure-derived coma—I slid deeper into reverie and imagined the faces and figures of those who might have been in the same room years earlier—the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the shah of Iran, George H.W. Bush. Or the one I preferred to conjure in my subconscious, Mina Kirstein Curtiss, a handsome, rich, and bookish young widow (sister of the New York City Ballet’s cofounder, Lincoln Kirstein), who went to Paris in 1947 to search for letters written by Proust that she was afraid would otherwise be swept out of attics into dust heaps in the chaos after the war.
Though the Nazi occupation had been over for three years, Paris was still battered, depressed, hungry, its citizens demoralized and surly. The Reich, which had commandeered half of the Ritz, left its mark on the rooms and on the cellars, settled into the comfortable suites, ordered the foie gras, and drank all the Château Lafite. The staff had held its tongue and conformed to the tradition of perfect hoteliers started by Ritz, but food was hard to come by, the kitchen pressed to sustain the level of cuisine expected of its renowned L’Espadon restaurant. But even in its straitened condition, the Ritz has always invited romance. While rescuing Proust’s letters, Mina was to enjoy a very satisfactory love affair with Antoine Bibesco, a handsome Romanian prince, who had a number of Proust’s letters and made Mina a very explicit proposition for giving them to her. She thought about it and accepted, more gracefully than, say, Tosca, and complimented him in hindsight. Bibesco, aged 69, had claimed she had cured him of impotence. She later wrote, “I must hand it to the Rumanians. Their idea of impotence in old age is the Anglo-Saxon notion of potency in the prime of life.”
Will the Ritz be as it was when it was filled with Proust’s aristocratic friends or those in Hemingway’s bohemian circle? The world is not as blithe as it was. But there is still the Bar Hemingway, the Salon Proust where faint wafts of madeleines, still expertly baked by pastry chef François Perret, manage to cut through that new-hotel smell, and, of course, L’Espadon, that étoile restaurant. The École Ritz Escoffier, the cooking school named for its first chef, Auguste Escoffier—the father of French cuisine—is reopening new test kitchens, too, I’m told as I recall the time I saw a teacher demonstrate how to massacre a lobster there, causing a fainting pupil to be helped out. A staff of 600 concierges and sommeliers, chefs and voituriers, maids, room service, and laundry with amazing esprit de corps will make things again fit for a king—which, in the end, is what will set the newest incarnation of the Ritz apart from its competitors. While the utter discretion of the modernization is impressive, with Internet and air-conditioning and fabulously silent heating and cooling systems—not to mention television sets camouflaged as tinted dark patches in the wall mirrors until you turn them on—it’s the details, sumptuously tasteful, with elaborate swagged draperies, brocade spreads, velvet sofas, lovely tapestry hangings, and delectably deep bathtubs that make you feel as though you are truly living in a palace of luxury. Newer high-end hotel chains like the Peninsula or the Mandarin Oriental are serious rivals for comfort, but none can offer the one thing the Ritz has in abundance: the glamour of history—of the past.
It isn’t accidental that Blagden, in his full regalia, and Schmidt and Brewster, dressed in couture costumes that are the modern equivalent in elegance of the sumptuous clothes people wore to Louis’s court, look so at home in the hotel. “It’s very easy to feel regal here,” Blagden admitted. I asked him if he thought there were any ghosts at the Ritz. “I’m sure there are plenty,” he said running, a gloved finger through his hair. “I imagine the renovations have given them more reason to stay around a bit longer.”
(Article first appeared in Vogue)