From the archives of 60 Minutes: The Paris Ritz

Morley Safer's 1971 trip to the Ritz in Paris, a hotel synonymous with all things elegant, opulent, and snobbish

The following script is from "Ritz" which originally aired on Nov. 25, 1971. Morley Safer is the correspondent.

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Ritz. Ritzy. We all know what the word means-- swank, fashionable, et cetera. It's, of course, why so many diverse enterprises use it as their name. For example, if you look at the New York telephone directory, you'll find the Ritz Button Company, the Ritz Corset Company, the Ritz Delicatessen, and the most contradictory of all, the Ritz Thrift Shop. And, of course, Ritz Crackers. But it all started at the end of the last century when a man named Ritz opened a hotel in Paris, and to people who care about such things, that is the one Ritz that counts.

In Paris, 75 years ago, a Swiss peasant realized a lifetime ambition. Just off the Place Vendome he opened what he believed to be the best hotel in the world. His name was Cesar Ritz and he named the hotel quite simply, the Ritz. The word and the hotel have become synonymous with all that is best, elegant, opulent, and snobbish too.

Today, his son Charles carries on his father's wish. At 80, Charles Ritz is the last of the line. But Ritz, the hotel and all that the name implies, will go on as long as there are people with money who care about living in and being seen to live in what we call the grand manner.

The Ritz is not the biggest hotel in the world, neither is it the most expensive. In truth, it's much as its founder, Cesar Ritz, wanted it to be, "a little house to which I would be very proud to see my name attached." Cesar's idea was that people should feel at home in his little house. And the names that made it their home would fill a Blue Book of the arts and politics and finance. And a rogue's gallery as well.

Marcel Proust was passionate about the Ritz, as were the Grand Dukes of Russia, the British aristocracy, the Goulds and the Rockefellers and the Woolworths. Jimmy Walker made it his home in Paris. Coco Chanel lived here until she died a year ago. And Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering lived in this suite during the occupation. All of this might be a touch too sumptuous for most of us to feel at home, but there is still enough old and nouveau rich around to keep the Ritz filled most of the time. Proust, who haunted this hotel in his short lifetime, said, "The thing about the Ritz is no one jostles you."

A jostle at the Ritz would be as unthinkable as ketchup on the table. The Ritz is where so much of the lore of the hotel and dining trade began. Its first chef was Escoffier, whose ingenuity as a chef set a standard for most of a century. People who come to the Ritz come for two reasons: out of habit-- the people who have been coming for half a century or more; and those who wish to be seen to be staying at the Ritz. Arrogance and snobbism live in adjoining rooms and both use the common currency of money. Lots of money.

The Marquessa St. Innocent and the Marquis. She is Russian, very Russian; he is American. The title, Spanish. The Marquessa often appears as a Dali creation; Salvador is her closest friend. The Marquis writes novels, is president of the International Union of Vegetarians and a life member of the Committee of Friends of Trees. He is an understandably quiet man. They, with their Chinese Crested hairless, named Fu-Fu, live in a castle in Barcelona, on a yacht in Monte Carlo, and in Paris, they live at the Ritz.

SAFER: Marquessa, has the Ritz changed very much over the past 50 years that you've been coming here?

MARQUESSA: I shouldn't say so. The Ritz has not changed. It has remained charming as it was. But I think the customers, the people have changed.

SAFER: In what way?

MARQUESSA: There are too many foreigners.

SAFER: But surely, that's what a hotel is for?

MARQUESSA: Yes, that's what a hotel is for, but still before somehow or other you didn't notice them so much.

SAFER: The directors of the Ritz say that the kind of service that this hotel has offered over the past half century will have to change and it will have to keep up with more modern things.

MARQUESSA: How simply dreadful. Everything's going to change? They have to change? What for?

SAFER: To stay in business, they say.

MARQUESSA: To stay in business? It's always full. I have to order -- even I, who are known here, I have to order my room two months ahead. So everybody wants to change everything. It's quite enough to change, to have a beard, to have long hair. I'm in agreement with that. But to change the Ritz -- I think that's simply a crime.

SAFER: What was the Ritz like 50 years ago?

MARQUESSA: The same. The same.

SAFER: Tell me about the people who came, the guests in the hotel?

MARQUESSA: Ah, the people who came. There were the Grand Dukes from Russia. There were the Crown Prince from Germany. There were the Royal Family from England.

SAFER: Was it fun?

MARQUESSA: Yes, it was really charming and people used to get up and bow and make reverences in front of the royalty that passed. It was something that doesn't exist any more.

SAFER: Do you miss those days?

MARQUESSA: Yes, I miss them, but not very much because I'm too busy to miss anything. I'm always doing something, like constructing a pagoda. I have just finished constructing a big yacht, but it's Chinese and it's all Chinese Chippendale inside. And outside is all gold leaf and in front is a huge dragon. So when I arrived in that in Seville everybody was there. There were about 20 yachts, one better than another one, beautiful, all white, lovely. Mine was red with gold and silver. You know, I'm Russian, so I like the splendor of the savages.

Most of the people who stay at the Ritz today belong to the industrial aristocracy of the United States. The few remaining Grand Dukes are more likely to be minding the door at Hotels like the Ritz than actually living there. A few linger on. Yvette, the Begum Aga Khan, lives at the Ritz for months at a time. She was a clerk at a chocolate shop before she married the Aga Khan. And today, she keeps eight retainers and two dogs at the Ritz. Up in Goering's old room, Senor and Senora Aleida of railroads and car factories and banks in Lisbon.

ALEIDA: Coming here for more than 20 years. And always, I choose these place, these suites and sometimes I have to postpone our voyages to have this suite reserved for ourselves. You see the furniture is very nice furniture, very big space, very nice.

SAFER: When Cesar Ritz opened this hotel, he wanted people to feel at home here. Is this the way you live?

ALEIDA: Yes, yes, absolutely. Well, you see since the porter up to the manager, they are always most kind people, and we - we think that we are talking to our friends.

SAFER: Indeed, if anything makes the Ritz work, it is the sense of continuity about the people who work there. Galopin, who runs the ticket desk, has been one of the family for 55 years. Jacques, well into his 70s, still gives the same careful service after 56 years at the Ritz. Michel, the concierge, started as a pageboy 40 years ago. It is probably the only hotel in the world where the staff have been as celebrated as the guests. They, all of them, living here or coming here since before the war to end all wars, regard the Ritz as more than a place, or a job. It is a shred of ourselves, still alive in our own golden age.

If you were brought up between the wars and read the fiction or listened to the music of the time, then this is just probably the most romantic place on earth. It is the Ritz bar and 40 years ago you could come in here and watch the truly gilded people at play. F. Scott Fitzgerald brought the young Hemingway here. And Fitzgerald and many of his characters got very drunk, made passes at beautiful women and got beaten up in fist fights. In the corner, Cole Porter scribbling music on a napkin. Winston Churchill sipping champagne. Valentino and Garbo being idolized. It was the literary and social mecca of the time and everyone seemed young and beautiful and rich. It was to here that the lost generation came, to laugh at the rest of the world.

SAFER: Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway, is reputed to have liberated the Ritz, when Paris was liberated. Tell me about that. Is it true?

CHARLES RITZ: Well, I happened to be there and I must say there's quite a lot of truth to it. He arrived from the Place Vendome, drove around here, arrived here, got out of a Jeep with the Fifis and the machine guns and he walked in -

SAFER: How many Fifis?

MAN: He had three of them. And he walked in and he said, "I'm taking over the Ritz." And at the same moment, way up over there, they heard a shot, a rifle shot. Hemingway looked up there and he said, "There must be a German up there. Where's your roof?" And he took the elevator and the staircase, got on the roof and started on a safari hunt for the Germans on the buildings in the Place Vendome, but he didn't find them. Then he came down and he said, "Charles, how about a magnum of champagne now?" So we went upstairs and the house gave him a magnum of champagne.

SAFER: You say that the Ritz is changing, changing with the times, and yet you don't really want it to become like, say, the big hotel chains that are in every capital of the world.

RITZ: We want to have the hotel chains right next door to us, or very close if we can and have in there all the average people who go in there to travel that way today by jumbo jet. But the top boys, we like to have them here.

SAFER: The owners of the Ritz like to think of themselves as select as the hotel itself. Charles is Chairman of the Board and the major stockholders are people like Stavros Niarchos and Lady Berlin. They insist on preserving the hotel as an international monument to the grand manner of living and traveling. And at the same time, they are as unsentimental as Swiss bankers about the hotel's balance sheet. Charles would like to modernize the unseen parts of the hotel, the bookkeeping, the kitchens, the below stairs things that make it tick. All of that without changing the reasons for the hotel's existence - the best care and feeding and pampering of people who can afford it.

So the hotel maintains its ratio of two and a half servants to every guest. The ratio increases if you bring along your own servants. And the hotel keeps servants' quarters for traveling sheiks and other potentates. But all of them sooner or later come to rely on the one man without whom no great hotel could survive, the concierge. To Michel come troubled ladies from many lands, but these days mostly Americans. The problems that they bring to him are as varied as the fortunes that brought them to the Ritz. And he always listens with a sympathetic ear and he rarely says no. The ladies linger while their husbands play the horses at Longchamps or quietly roll in their graves as their fortunes slip away in the silken salons of Schiaparelli and Chanel.

WOMAN: Do you know a bronze foundry where I can have that cast? I fooled you--

MICHEL: What do you want?

WOMAN: I want to have a new mold made -

MAN: ...get somebody to buy me two collar buttons.

MICHEL: Very well.

MAN: I want a very long one for the front because I have these English shirts, you know. And a short one for the back. In gold if you can get them, if not--

A great hotel like the Ritz is truly a great drama. Whatever happens happens in the grandest manner. There are people in this world who would feel themselves homeless if the Ritz ever closed. Only the Ritz, or a hotel like it, can fulfill their needs, comfort their pain and suffer their eccentricities. Great characters without whom the Ritz and the world would be much poorer.

SAFER: Marquessa, has the Ritz treated your animals well?

MARQUESSA: Oh, yes, beautifully. Special meat is bought for him. And I traveled also with a snake that was a boa constrictor, three and a half yards long and about that wide, could kill a man in about two minutes, but she was very sweet. Her name was Zoa the Boa. And they brought me breakfast one day and I forgot to tell them I had this snake. And the snake came out -- she slept with me in bed -- she came out and the breakfast all on the floor. After they got used to it, it was perfectly all right.

SAFER: You were saying earlier that the kinds of people who travel and stay at the Ritz have changed a great deal.

MARQUESSA: The kind of people who travel? I always take the boat. I take the plane when I go somewhere near, but then I go to America, I take the boat. I never meet anybody I know. I used to always meet somebody on the boat that I know because I live all over the world. But today, no. Very triste. But that -- I understand that. I understand everything and I agree with everything except the Ritz must not change. There must be left one little island, one little island for us, not for me long anymore because I'm almost eighty so I'll die, but still there will be some other people, and I think that they must have a little island somewhere and I think that little island is the Ritz that is everywhere.

SAFER: There may be only one Ritz, and indeed only one Marquessa, but here in the United States, we have a hotel that's unique too, and we'll check in in a moment.

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