In the history of modern hospitality and hotel management, no-one has equalled César Ritz. From unpromising beginnings, Ritz climbed to the top of the hotel industry and then transformed it. He introduced the concepts of discretion, comfort, hygiene, exemplary service and gastronomic excellence. Known as the ‘king of hoteliers and hotelier to kings’, his innovations are now considered mandatory for any hotel of quality.
César Ritz was born in Niederwald, Switzerland, in 1850, and was the youngest of 13 children. He learned French, a little German and some English, and at 15 years of age gained an apprenticeship at the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes et Poste. Ritz did not last long, and on his departure was strongly advised that he ‘would never make a true hotelier’. He spent the next few years learning how to be a locksmith, although knew the key to his future lay in hospitality. In 1867, there was to be the Paris International Exhibition and so off he headed, certain that waiters would be needed.
By the age of 18, Ritz was serving as a bellhop at the Hôtel de la Fidélité in Paris. It was here he embarked on an affair with an unnamed Russian aristocrat who is said to have taught him the rudiments of savoir faire. Sadly, the affair did not escape the notice of Ritz’s employers, and he was again dismissed. Ritz was undeterred. He soon gained a waiter’s position at the finest restaurant in Paris, the Voisin. War with Germany took a dark turn in September 1870, when the French capital was occupied. The Voisin had to close, and Ritz found employment at the seedy Café Chateau d’Eau.
Peace between France and Germany was eventually secured, and by 1872 Paris was alive again. Ritz was now a floor waiter at the restaurant of the Hôtel Splendide on the Place de l’Opera. Long gone, it was one of the most luxurious hotels on the Continent at the time. A few rare years of peace led to many wealthy Americans arriving in Europe to see what they might plunder – from ideas to antiques, fashion tips to advice on wine. After Ritz was promoted to maître d’hôtel at the Hôtel Splendide, the manager noticed his ability to move vast numbers of very expensive wines. ‘The Château-Lafitte 1848 is going extraordinarily well,’ the manager noted. ‘I have recommended it,’ replied Ritz. ‘I have made it clear to my clients that it is the surest antidote to the doubtless poisonous waters of the Seine, Sir!’ Ritz soon gained the confidence of many of America’s richest men – JP Morgan, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Wanamaker, the Goelets, the Drexels and the Drakes. He advised them on the unique ways of European society. In turn, some revealed the secrets of their own success.
Friends in High Places
César Ritz’s flair for self-promotion and his tenacious spirit ensured a rapid rise to fame. Soon Ritz was working in some of the finest establishments in Europe. With a view to further improving his contacts, Ritz served at one of the best outdoor cafés in Vienna during the World Exhibition of 1873. It was here that Ritz first encountered Edward VII, Prince of Wales, who was to feature significantly in the hotelier’s later career. By 1877, Ritz had secured his first hotel management position at the Grand Hotel National in Lucerne, Switzerland. He refurbished the cheerless building, reorganised staff and renewed the restaurant menu. He even wrote to past clients to encourage them to return. Both thorough and strategic, Ritz observed that guests were sometimes bored, so he began organising events: balls, regattas, picnics and parties. The hotel’s owner, Baron Pfyffer, was so keen to secure a long-term arrangement with his hotel manager that he found Ritz employment for the winter seasons at the Grand Hôtel Monte Carlo.
Love and Marriage
Ritz began courting Marie Louise Beck in Monte Carlo. He was already 35, and she was only 18 years old. Marie Louise was the daughter of hoteliers and he a mere employee. In 1887, Ritz purchased the Restaurant de la Conversation, followed by his first hotel – the Minerva. Both venues were in Europe’s ‘summer capital’ of Baden-Baden. Now a proprietor, Ritz was given permission to marry Marie Louise, who proved to be a supportive wife and an astute business partner. In 1891, Marie Louise gave birth to their first son, Charles, in Molsheim, a small town in Germany. In 1895, their second son, René, was born in London.
A Hospitality Empire is Born
In 1889, Ritz took on the challenge of building up Richard D’Oyly Carte’s Savoy Hotel in London, with his contract allowing him to pursue other projects for six months of the year. Ever ambitious, he pressured the Savoy management to purchase nearby Claridge’s and to build the Grand Hotel Rome, which opened to great fanfare in 1894. Although unenthusiastic, D’Oyly Carte was forced to participate in order to keep Ritz at the Savoy. Increasingly highhanded in his manner, Ritz continued to expand his commitments. At one point he was involved in ventures not only in London, but also Frankfurt, Salsomaggiore, Aixles-Bains, Palermo, Cannes, Baden-Baden, Lucerne, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, Wiesbaden, Menton, Cairo, Madrid and Johannesburg.
Ritz had an insatiable appetite for success, but he also became increasingly fanatical, particularly over the matter of hygiene. He began neglecting his primary duties at the Savoy, while maître chef Georges Auguste Escoffier was soon discovered to be manipulating the kitchen budget to personal advantage. In 1898, Ritz, Escoffier and another key staff member were summarily dismissed from their positions at the Savoy Hotel. They did not leave quietly, and Ritz had friends in high places. One of the first shots across D’Oyly Carte’s bow came from the Prince of Wales. Withdrawing his business, the heir to the British throne famously declared: ‘Where Ritz goes, I go …’
César Ritz Collapses
Ritz had been spending quite a lot of time preparing to open a hotel in his own name in Paris, with the help of a financial syndicate that included Alfred Beit, possibly the richest man in the world at the time. Coupled with a loan from Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle, Ritz purchased a superbly located property on the historic Place Vendôme and started work on his dream. (Marnier-Lapostolle believed he owed Ritz a favour after Ritz had suggested the name for his highly successful new liqueur, Grande Marnier.)
The Ritz Paris opened in 1898, and the world’s greatest hotelier now had a controlling interest in at least nine other restaurants and hotels. The Carlton Hotel in London was added to the portfolio in 1899. Ritz became heavily involved in the Carlton’s plans for festivities to celebrate the Prince’s coronation. Not only were they friends, but the Carlton offered a perfect view of the Royal Procession. Two days before the event, however, the Prince fell ill and the coronation was cancelled. Although Ritz had been working on this event for days without sleep, he was quite calm on first hearing the news. He cancelled the orchestra and instructed the kitchens to stop preparations. Then, in the midst of a conversation with a staff member, he collapsed. Ritz never fully recovered from what was soon diagnosed as a nervous breakdown. In the words of Marie Louise, he ‘gradually sank out of life. A dark cloud seemed to envelop his mind. It lifted only at brief intervals during the 15 years that elapsed before death released him …’ César Ritz died alone in a sanatorium at Kussnacht, near Lucerne in Switzerland, at 68 years of age. Marie Louise did not reach César in time to say goodbye.
The Ritz Legacy
A complex character, César Ritz was a snob, a perfectionist and a taskmaster, yet always ambitious and driven. He was indefatigable in his attempts to deliver perfect service within the luxury and comfort of a grand hotel setting. Many of Ritz’s original insights are part of today’s industry standards. For example, a hotelier’s duty to his guest is to ‘guide him, advise him, anticipate his wishes and, above all, remember him in order to offer what he likes when he comes back’. Another motto was: ‘Never say no when a client asks for something, even if it is the moon. You can always try, and anyhow there is plenty of time afterwards to explain that it was not possible.’ Ritz also probably created that most famous of hospitality’s maxims: ‘The customer is always right!’
Read more about César Ritz and other great hoteliers in Great, Grand and Famous Hotels.