When César Ritz first opened the Ritz Paris he was said to have remarked “It is a little house to which I am very proud to see my name attached.” Of the original Petit Bar, on the Rue Cambon side of that great luxury edifice Ernest Hemingway too might now say the same thing. The most perfect boite en bois ever constructed, the Bar Hemingway is a masterpiece. Greatness in a bar is about many things — cost is often not one of them and whilst a visit is expensive it is by no means unaffordable. Exclusivity can be an important factor, the limited seating (the Bar Hemingway seats less than thirty) combined with the omission of a reservation system, mean however that entry can be anyone’s for the price of a drink if the good manners of punctuality are observed. For those with money, time is often mentioned as the greatest of luxuries and — as if to offer proof — the Bar Hemingway opens only at 1800 each day before officially closing a mere eight hours later. Arrive just before 1800 then — entering through the gilded maze that weaves itself from the Vendôme side to the Cambon, taking in the splendour of the Ritz along the way — and you can join those waiting, often under the eye of bartender Roman Deveaux. Once inside, if possible, you’d do well to take a place at the bar. Hemingway, who wrote on his feet away from his desk with his typewriter at bar height, was said to quip in a lesson for living, “never take a seat at a table when you can stand at the bar.” This is the Ritz however and true to its established reputation customer comfort is paramount. Backed bar stools in deep studded green leather are provided, reminiscent of a Chesterfield sofa, and appropriately adding to the masculine, club-like comfort. Brass coat hooks affixed to the oak beneath the bar (a relatively recent addition) are one of those small details of constant refinement and courtesy. To the right of the bar a typewriter sits poised for members of the Dead Letter Club and other patrons to use, behind that a bust of Hemingway presides over the room observing all. The panelled walls are adorned with mementos like the study of a well-lived elder statesman — reminiscent perhaps of the trophy room at Sagamore Hill (home of Hemingway’s own hero Teddy Roosevelt). LIFE Magazine covers, shark’s jaws, faded photographs all blend in an aura attuned perfect with the writer’s life. The drinks menu, titled “The Hemingway Star” a nod to Hemingway’s journalism days resembles a newspaper and is published in editions to buy and take away as a keepsake. Rather than hotel pens in their metal gilt finery a pot of short pencil stubs are present. Hotdogs are available to order from the Ritz kitchen. To call this a Disneyland for grown men would hint at a truth. Disneyland however is a false construct, pure make-believe, and men — if they’re men at all — desire a basis of truth even in fiction. Whilst it may seem a false concoction to use Hemingway’s reputation and draw to add lustre — to fill a Palace-status hotel with the bric-a-brac pastiche of an honest dive bar — well-crafted concoctions are the things the Bar Hemingway excels at. The failing of many high-profile bars, particularly in hotels, is that they are the created and maintained by committee. Hemingway’s writing and the Ritz itself (the creation of the thirteenth child of a poor Swiss family) show that true greatness comes from the romantic triumph of the individual. The Bar Hemingway is no exception. Despite being conceived by the Ritz management and backed with the support of the Hemingway family themselves, it is Colin Field, Head Bartender, who has been most responsible for weaving the layers of the final mix and imbuing the Bar with genuine passion, meaning and charisma. Fitting then that many of the artefacts lining the space are items from Colin’s own personal collection. On first glance the only thing missing might appear to be true patina — that soft ageing that enriches objects with historical meaning and speaks to the soul. Patina is obviously anathema to a venue like the Ritz; a diamond is not made to be concealed beneath dirt or have worn edges. Here however the patina comes from the venue’s history. Each story of the past adding a deeper richness to every surface regardless of when it was last re-polished. The integrity beneath any aesthetic finish is that Hemingway did actually drink at the Ritz and some of the facets of his own legend shine brighter because of the Ritz itself. If Hemingway’s image and association bestows anything then on the venue, it is only echoing a great mutual kinship that the writer shared with the hotel itself.
In addition to being a master of cocktail preparation Colin Field is an informed cocktail historian. As a long time scholar on his subject Field can recount — as great bartenders are wont to do — the history and stories behind the drinks he serves. As any patron who has spent time with Colin will know, many cocktail invention stories are apocryphal. A favourite was retold by Colin himself in his book on the Bar Hemingway — perhaps one of the best produced cocktail books ever published. Within he tells how Bernard “Bertin” Azimont, bartender of the Petit Bar, once informed him that he had invented the Bloody Mary for Hemingway at the Ritz in the 1950s: The story suggests that Hemingway’s doctors had forbidden him to drink and that Mary, Hemingway’s wife, had taken this interdiction seriously and put him under close watch. With stealth and cunning Azimont claimed to have devised the drink which is packed full of alcohol but that simultaneously could not be detected on the writer’s breath. Hemingway was said to be so pleased that he had got the better of his “bloody wife” that he so named the drink in her honour. Unfortunately for those who are fond of both the truth and a good story, Colin then goes on to offer solid evidence however for why the great tale cannot be true. So much has been written of Hemingway’s life, much of it —like the Bloody Mary myth — and wider legend of Hemingway himself is somewhat fanciful. Some of it even from the best source is contradictory. Fiction and fact have become blended together like gin and vermouth to create something so seemingly perfect that men swallow it up seemingly with abandon in order to emulate and get drunk on the same bravado. Through the tales he told himself, the writing of journalists, and the incantations of drunken admirers Hemingway both in life and death has grown into his own greatest character. Like the trophy catch in a fisherman’s tale, his tough image gains more weight with every retelling of his exploits. As part of that wider life story, Hemingway’s patronage of the Ritz follows the same theme. Some might assume that Hemingway’s association with the Ritz exist primarily from his time as a resident in Paris in the 1920’s — as documented in his famous memoir of the period A Moveable Feast. Some articles go so far to mention too that the hotel garners a mention in Hemingway’s first great success A Sun Also Rises which, although seemingly a piece of fiction, like much of Hemingway’s writing, is based very closely on events from his life. Whilst this is not untrue however it is an overemphasis. Most of the Parisian action of A Sun Also Rises takes place on the left bank of the Seine in the environs that Hemingway lived. The Ritz on the right bank features somewhat off-hand as the location for a scene that doesn’t occur. As A Moveable Feast tells us Hemingway himself was an impoverished writer during the period before the success that the novel garnered. As Hemingway was said to have informed a friend and biographer in later life “The only reason not to stay at the Ritz is if you can’t afford it” — this statement could be said of visiting the bar there too. Whilst Hemingway always lived with apparent hedonism at the edge of his means his work at least features an Epicurean leaning too – proudly savouring the simple and the pure. Perhaps this is then why documentary evidence for Hemingway’s association with the Ritz during his life in the 1920’s is seemingly quite scant. As the années folles — those golden years of Paris after the Great War — got underway, spurred by a devalued Franc, the booming dollar and the foreign impetus that this created, the original Ritz Bar opened on the Cambon side in 1921. It has been said to have been the first American-style cocktail bar in a Parisian hotel. Originally solely for the use of men, a small waiting room for wives and female accomplices of patrons was created across the hall. Aptly described as “The Cambon Dog House” by Lucius Beebe, society women would wait within for their male counterparts and carry out correspondence. During the 1920’s the Ritz Bar was a Parisian epicentre of wealthy foreign and particularly American interest. Alongside a who’s who of clientele F. Scott Fitzgerald – then bathing in fame and drowning himself in champagne – epitomised its customer. Hemingway himself became friends with Fitzgerald in 1925 meeting. According to A Moveable Feast the two met at Dingo American Bar and Restaurant, close to Hemingway’s home. A 2012 article for Vanity Fair by A. E. Hotchner retells a story of Hemingway and Fitzgerald drinking at the Ritz: Hotchner recounts that Charles Ritz provided him the tale of the “Orchid Ploy” in which Fitzgerald gained a woman’s affection after being rebuffed by eating the same orchids he had first offered her. Perhaps, although there is no proof of it, it was under Fitzgerald’s largesse that Hemingway first cemented his relationship with the Ritz and its bar. It’s possible too that Hemingway’s patronage happened as he similarly found fame and his wealth increased in the years approaching his departure from Paris. Hemingway, divorced and newly married to Pauline Pfeiffer would eventually leave Paris for Key West in 1928 – two years after the publication of his first great success. In 1929 looking back fondly he’d recommended the Ritz cocktails in a letter to his sister who planned to visit offering some of the most solid documentary evidence of his custom. The stock market crash of that year however would eventually mean that American visitors to the Ritz and its bar would comparatively dry up. In Scott Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited written in 1930, Charlie Wales (the short story’s protagonist) visits – “Passing through the corridor, he heard only a single, bored voice in the once-clamorous women's room. When he turned into the bar he travelled the twenty feet of green carpet with his eyes fixed straight ahead by old habit; and then, with his foot firmly on the rail, he turned and surveyed the room, encountering only a single pair of eyes that fluttered up from a newspaper in the corner.” Charlie “was not really disappointed to find Paris was so empty. But the stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous. It was not an American bar any more - he felt polite in it, and not as if he owned it. It had gone back into France.”
Charles Ritz, son and heir of César (who passed away in 1918), returned to Paris himself from the US in 1928. At that time César’s widow Marie Louise Ritz was managing the company and in doing so — in the great lineage of French widows at the head of significant concerns — was the first female hotel manageress in the world. During the 1930s the women of the correspondence room (perhaps emancipated by the designs of Coco Chanel whose base was on that side of the hotel) would strike a blow for sexual equality too. Apparently led by Charles’ young American wife Elizabeth, who reportedly staged a sit-in out of defiance, the Ritz Bar was eventually opened to both sexes. As a result, the then defunct correspondence room was eventually converted to “Le Petit Bar” in 1936.
Hemingway’s life after Paris went through a period of change too. Huge acclaim and financial independence had followed the release of A Farewell to Arms in 1929. Written, like much of his work, as a roman à clef, the novel was a fictionalised account of his own experience and physical injury as an ambulance driver during the Great War. The freedom his triumphed afforded meant that his time as a reporter during the Spanish Civil War was one of the few things that pulled him from a life of daily masculine leisure – whether that be running with bulls, deep-sea fishing or big-game hunting. He would divorce and remarry again during the 1930s too — this time to fellow war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. The marriage of two like-minds wasn’t a success — the Hemingway-like character of Gellhorn being an almost obvious point of contention. When the European politics of the era eventually resulted in WW2 Hemingway would find himself back in Europe as a reporter again. He landed himself landing a position for Collier’s — Gellhorn’s normal employer. His status as America’s greatest writer gave him access to D-Day and the subsequent front (more than could be said for Gellhorn who would have to resort to subterfuge). Hemingway would see the Normandy beaches on D-Day first-hand before returning to the bar at The Dorchester in London. He would later have an opportunity to accompany the R.A.F. on a mission too. Eventually as the Allied forces pushed through Normandy he would return to the front. Once there his natural machismo and experience of war would eventually result in perhaps the most fantastic of his exploits and one that would cement his relationship with the Ritz forever. Carrying a Mumm champagne cork from a night in London as a good luck charm, Hemingway would join the allied army as it prepared to advance towards Paris. Used to being in full command of his daily life and at home, both with daily physical exertion and the face of war, Hemingway was not suited to docile observation. In the commune of Rambouillet his manner led him to head a company of rag tag militia of Free French fighters echoing his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. On August 25th, just ahead of the US Fourth Division, he and his militia would press into Paris from the south west crossing the Seine at Pont de Sèvres. From there they would continue north to the Arc de Triomphe passing close to Fitzgerald’s old apartment on Rue de Tislett. The German army had largely retreated but some fighting was still being waged. Snipers, firing down from the Parisian rooftops, would be a notable concern. In need of refreshment and possible cover as they passed down the Champs-Elysées toward the centre of Paris they would enter the Traveller’s Club where they both satiated thirst and began to celebrate their Parisian presence by reportedly drinking two bottles of champagne. By mid-afternoon they would make it to the Ritz, for many the heart of Paris, which had been occupied by Germans and used as a Parisian base by Hermann Göring during the conflict. The plethora of documentary accounts of Hemingway’s arrival at the Ritz (all of which are worth seeking out) range in contrasting content based on who is doing the telling. The fact that Hemingway was amongst the first Allied people to “liberate” the hotel following the Nazi retreat is unequivocally agreed upon however. Following a greeting by the Ritz staff Hemingway would head to the roof, firing off shots into the drying laundry, presumably in an effort to search for lurking snipers. As one would expect he eventually found himself Cambon-side in the bar (which side of the hallway however is not certain). Ensconced inside, the various stories have him, his militia and their guests celebrating the liberation of Paris with Perrier Jouet, Lanson champagne, Cheval Blanc and, most notably, fifty-one martinis — blending the best of French and American creations in obvious reverie. Food inevitably followed and that evening they would eat a meal from the Ritz kitchen before retiring to their rooms. After the meal was over the waiter offered a bill that included the standard wartime taxes payable to Vichy (the French government that had collaborated with the Nazi occupation), the diners rose together and refused to honour the tax - “Millions to defend France, thousands to honour your fare, but not one sou in tribute to Vichy” was reputedly the response. Hemingway’s final expense claim for Collier’s for his wartime excursions totalled around $13,000 – obscene perhaps but befitting given it included properly celebrating the liberation of Paris from tyranny. The following day Hemingway held a lunch at the hotel with several other correspondents. One of those present wanted to watch a formal victory parade that was being held elsewhere. To the idea of this Hemingway, in his epicurean manner, is said to have responded “What for? You can always see a parade, but you'll never again lunch at the Ritz on the 26th of August, the day after Paris was liberated.” Hemingway would write of the days that followed in a short story unpublished in his lifetime. A Room on the Garden Side would tell a fictionalised account of his time there and Hemingway’s conversations with Charles Ritz (affectionately referred to as “Charley”) himself. Hemingway would stay in Room 31, eventually being joined by Mary Welsh, by then his lover, who he had met earlier in the year in London. Later, Welsh would write that the couple lived “on little besides Lanson Brut champagne and the wonder of being together.” At Hemingway’s request Welsh decorated his room with prints of artworks he admired, including a print of Van Gogh’s worn brown leather boots — similar to Ernest’s own issued by the U.S. Army. Eventually the realities of the world and their relationship would catch up to them. Communications from the couple’s married partners would, according to accounts, have Hemingway unload a pistol into a Ritz toilet basin containing variably a photo of his wife, or a photo of Welsh’s husband – perhaps both. Any destruction of hotel property seemed not to deter the friendship with Charles Ritz who famously once said that “the guest is always right—even if we have to throw him out.” Charles didn’t eject Hemingway at all and instead would hold the room decorated with prints for Hemingway into the Autumn and Winter of 1944. After the war and their necessary divorces, Ritz would attend Hemingway and Welsh’s wedding in Cuba — offering a pocket watch as a present. When Hemingway died that watch was given back before eventually being sold by Christies in 2019. Coincidentally, Ritz would also act as a witness at the wedding of Hemingway’s granddaughter Margaux who celebrated her wedding at the Ritz itself many years later.
During the 1950s Hemingway’s patronage of the Ritz would reach its peak. George Plimpton would meet Hemingway completely by chance at the hotel which would in turn lead to a notable feature in the Paris Review. A.E. Hotchner again would relay stories of his and Hemingway’s time at the Ritz during 1950 in the biography Papa Hemingway. Hemingway, Hotchner, and friends — many members of the Ritz staff — would form a betting syndicate and study racing form in the bar during the mornings. Bertin’s Bloody Marys would fuel their efforts (the heart of truth behind the Bloody Mary invention myth perhaps being revealed). Afternoons were spent at the track. The fun of the enterprise was taken so seriously that HemHotch Ltd. complete with printed business cards would eventually be formally incorporated.
According to an article by Hotchner published in the New York Times, Ernest and Hotchner were having lunch at the hotel in 1956 when Charles Ritz revealed that a trunk belonging to Hemingway that had been found in a storage room. According to the article the truck had been left there in 1930. Hemingway it is said opened the trunk which he had forgotten, in Charley’s office, to discover amongst other things two stacks of notebooks containing memories of his time in Paris in the 1920s. These notebooks would provide the core material that would become A Moveable Feast. Many understate this fact but it is an important part in the Ritz and Hemingway’s legacy — if it had not been for the Ritz then A Moveable Feast, that great paean to Paris, and one of Hemingway’s most loved works would likely never have been written.
In Fishing Passion a memoir by angler Jim C. Chapralis, he recounts a tale of being invited by Charles to attend a special event at the Ritz. The event would turn out to be a celebration of the discovery of the trunk and the media event that surrounded it. Charles Ritz mention in the book was a result of he himself being an expert fly fisherman. He would publish a standard reference work on the subject in 1959 for which Hemingway would write the foreword. After Hemingways death in 1961, Charles looked to establish a new bar on the Vendôme side before himself sadly passing away in 1976. The Ritz would would lose direction until it was purchased by current owner Mohammed Al-Fayad. It was under Fayad that the Hemingway Bar would come into being and be formally named in 1994 – exactly fifty years after the famous liberation occurred. Under Colin Field’s efforts it would rapidly gain huge global acclaim so much so that it was expanded to it’s current size in 1998. Field would garnish women’s drinks with flowers, letters could be typed and posted on the aforementioned type-writers as a nod to its time as a correspondence room and a fishing rod would reside behind the bar – a testament to Hemingway and indeed Ritz too. Whilst the lustre and reputation of the bar grew, so the rest of the hotel unfortunately declined. It’s size and scale requiring significant investment to achieve magnificence. By 2012 the patina of immediate history was beginning to show and as a result the Ritz would be missed out of those venues awarded Palace status — a new status intended as highest grade in French hospitality — a damning blow to a venue that had been the a birthplace of modern hospitality a century before. Almost as a result, it was eventually announced that the hotel would close for a significant overhaul. The Ritz would eventually reopen anew in 2016 after a quite amazing refurbishment to reclaim its crown. The Hemingway Bar, to the relief of its many fans, was fortunately largely untouched. On the eve of the closure prior to the works commencing Hotchner — by then as much a personally appointed publicist of the Ritz and Hemingway as anything else — wrote a history for Vanity Fair. Heading the article is the following attributed to Hemingway which says:
''When I dream of afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz. It's a fine summer night. I knock back a couple of martinis in the bar, Cambon side. Then there's a wonderful dinner under a flowering chestnut tree in what's called 'Le Petit Jardin.' That's the little garden that faces the Grill. After a few brandies I wander up to my room and slip into one of those huge Ritz beds. They are all made of brass. There's a bolster for my head the size of the Graf Zeppelin and four square pillows filled with real goose feathers - two for me, and two for my quite heavenly companion.''
When the Ritz missed out on Palace status Dominique Fernandez, the chairman of the jury, explained that a Palace had to transport clients into “another domain than everyday life,” and be steeped in history with powers of “enchantment by the fantasies it evokes.” A Palace then is not just a space surrounded by four walls but must instead represent “a kind of novel placed in a mythical setting which the guest enters, like the world of a thousand and one nights.” In its place in the evocation of Hemingway’s afterlife the hotel and indeed the Bar Hemingway itself achieve this aim unequivocally. Many of the stories about it vary in accuracy but in the mixture of truth and well-told fiction the Bar is the perfect testament to the great writer for which it is named. With its aura, its history and the stories it has conjured it has the ability to transport patrons to another plain. Rather than a fairy tale it is the perfect roman à clef within which guests can enter and take an active part in the almost mythical legend and history of the venue and evoke the man for which it is named.
Fittingly, on August 24th — almost exactly 76 years to the day that Hemingway entered the Ritz in the spirit of liberation — the Bar Hemingway, and the Ritz itself, opens again after another notably dark part of human history. Arrive early enough and you can relive that experience too. As martinis are enjoyed, and as the clock counts down the fleeting seconds of your visit, whilst mindful of the great past around you, you can plan a future. For, if Hemingway’s writing, and indeed his life in general, teach us anything it is to live each day fully. Whatever your plans may be as you leave — whether that be to a brass bed upstairs or not — be aware that if the bust in the corner could talk, it would remind you, whatever else one might be resolved to do the following day, you may never have the opportunity again to “lunch at the Ritz on the day after Paris was liberated.”
I hope you enjoyed this article - if you would like to visit the Paris Ritz and the Bar Hemingway its website is available here:
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