Hotels and History: Affairs at the Ritz Paris

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Hotels and History: Affairs at the Ritz Paris
Hotels were made for affairs. And where better to conduct an affair than in the inimitable, iconic surroundings of The Ritz Hotel in Paris? This was especially true through the febrile, uncertain times of the Second World War when the doors of the Ritz stayed open, the rooms ever luxurious, and the service, if anything, more discreet than ever. When Paris was occupied by the Germans in 1940, most of the luxury hotels in Paris were requisitioned by the hierarchy of the Nazi party. Hermann Goring, Hitler’s second in command, perhaps unsurprisingly claimed the Imperial Suite of the Ritz Hotel. More surprising, perhaps, was that the whole hotel was not requisitioned for the Nazis but the smaller, less exclusive, rooms near the Rue Cambon entrance and the Ritz bar (made famous by Hemingway and Fitzgerald) remained open to the general public. One of the residents of the Ritz was Coco Chanel. It was very common for hotel rooms and suites to be rented on a long-term basis. Rich Americans, especially, made these luxury hotels their home in Paris. French writers and artists chose cheaper hotels but both found the convenience of hotels their preferred way of living in Paris. Coco Chanel’s extravagant suite of rooms in the Ritz was quickly requisitioned. She had already closed her fashion house in the Rue Cambon and initially left Paris for the south, and the comparative safely of Vichy France, but it was a brief escape and she soon returned to Paris. Chanel was offered two smaller rooms on the less palatial Rue Cambon side of the Ritz not facing the Place Vendôme. Chanel had the hotel build a small staircase into the attic from her suite and remained there for the duration of the war. She may have temporarily given up on fashion but her perfume Chanel No 5 was still selling hand over fist in the Rue Cambon– especially to German officers. Chanel was already a very wealthy woman, with many affairs behind her. Her lovers had been rich, often aristocratic, and just as often married, but Chanel was about to embark on an affair in the Ritz Hotel that would not only scandalize but also leave a stain on her reputation for years to come. Gabrielle Chanel came from the poorest of backgrounds and was born illegitimate (although her parents married after her birth) in 1883 in the poor house in Saumur. She was often on the road with her family; her father, an itinerant trader, finally deserted them so Chanel spent six years in the Aubazine orphanage run by the nuns of the Sacred Heart of Mary. Chanel never fully got over the shame of her upbringing and alternatively denied or changed the details of her birth and youth. Most of the time though she simply refused to talk about it. Whatever bad memories of her time in the orphanage tainted her life, the nuns taught her to not only to be self-disciplined, but to sew beautifully. Chanel used her talent and imagination initially on decorating hats. She had been the lover of Etienne Balsan, whose family had made a fortune in textiles. For six years he was her protector, and Gabrielle would have been known as a ‘Grande Horizontale’. But Chanel wanted to work, knew the uncertainty of depending on a man, and understood that despite mixing in high society, she could never be fully accepted and had little confidence in their company. Hardly surprising she blurred her background out of all recognition. It was her next lover (and the love of her life) Arthur Capel who was to set Chanel on her meteoric rise to the best-known couturier, not only in France, but also in most of the world. Capel was immensely wealthy and incredibly connected to the aristocracy and politicians such as Georges Clemenceau, but he mixed just as easily in the bohemian atmosphere of dancers, artists and writers. In Paris, Capel guaranteed Chanel’s first boutique on the Rue Cambon. She was an unusual creator– neither sketching nor drawing her designs. Instead Chanel draped her models with fabric and worked from there. Her instincts were infallible; her deceptively simple designs utterly innovative and an immediate success. When Capel was killed in a car accident in 1919, Chanel was heartbroken. They had been together eight years and although Capel had married the previous year, their affair had continued unabated. Chanel’s next great affair was with the richest man in England, the Duke of Westminster. The importance of this affair most certainly saved Chanel from the harsh, ignoble consequences that other, less fortunate women suffered at the end of WWII. Through the Duke of Westminster, Chanel was on intimate terms with Winston Churchill and the exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor. These contacts and the murky secrets Chanel was privy to regarding the Duke of Westminster and Wallis Simpson would stand her in good stead when she was arrested at the end of the war for collaborating with the enemy. Living in the Ritz Hotel side by side with the German occupiers was obviously going to cast suspicion on even the most innocent of guests. For Chanel who had a German lover also living at The Ritz, she would have no defense. Hans Von Dinclage had been attached to the German Embassy in Paris since…

Lead photo credit : Coco Chanel on the balcony at the Ritz/ courtesy of Ritz Paris

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.


  • Dorothy Garabedian
    2019-03-23 02:47:45
    Dorothy Garabedian
    What a fabulous article! Thank you.