César Ritz was the first, great modern hotelier. He created the concept of the “grand hotel”, which turned out to also be the perfect stage for the “grande cuisine” being created by his business partner, Auguste Escoffier.
Ritz startled everyone by the depth and breadth of the luxury he provided, and was an absolute perfectionist. Only Escoffier would he trust with his kitchens. The names of the two are now inseparable in food history.
Ritz was born 23 February 1850 in Niederwald, Valais Canton, Switzerland (near the Simplon Pass.) His parents were Johann-Anton and Kreszentia (née Heinen) Ritz. He was the youngest of thirteen children. During the summer he looked after goats; in the winter he went to the village school.
In 1863, at the age of 13, his family sent him to live with a family in Sion (Sitten in German) to learn French.
- 1866 — César wasn’t really applying himself, so his father sent him in 1866 to apprentice at the Couronne et Poste hotel in Brigue. The hotel owner soon dismissed him from work, saying he didn’t have it in him, so Ritz found work as a waiter at the Kollegium in Brigue.
- 1867 — Ritz left Switzerland for Paris, where the World’s Fair was being held at the time, and got work at the modest Hôtel de la Fidélité where he wanted to learn to be a wine sommelier. Instead, though, he was given every hard job, scrubbing floors, polishing shoes and hauling suitcases. But this time, he applied himself: he worked himself up to be a head waiter. Then he worked at a slightly better hotel, and then another one, aiming for the Voisin Hotel.
- 1869 — Ritz began working at the Voisin, and learnt the habits of high society.
- 1871/72 — Ritz returned to his home-town of Niederwald to work in the Splendide hotel, where he came to be “maître d’hôtel.”
- 1873 — Ritz worked during the World’s Fair held in Vienna at the French restaurant “Les Trois Frères Provençaux.” He fell in love in Vienna, but because he wanted to follow the “beau monde” in their winter season, he left for the Riviera, where he became head of restaurant at the Grand Hôtel Nice. A Swiss friend, a man named Weber, who was the Director of the “Hotel Rigi-Kulm” in Switzerland, got him a job the following summer as restaurant manager. Then Ritz was lured to work at the Hotel National in Lucerne, Switzerland, by its owner Max Pfyffer (Alphons Maximilian Pfyffer von Altishofen), where he met Auguste Escoffier. The Hotel National was only open summers, so in the winters Ritz went back to the Riviera.
Ritz starts in business for himself
- 1888 — Ritz acquired a hotel-restaurant in Baden-Baden called the “Restaurant de la Conversation.” Baden-Baden appealed to him because all the German upper classes and royalty came to the waters there to “take the cure.” In the same year, he bought a second hotel in Baden-Baden called the “Minerva.” He also bought the “Hôtel de Provence” in Cannes.
- 1887 — Ritz married Marie-Louise Beck (born c. 1866) from Strasbourg; her mother ran a hotel in Menton. He was 38 at the time; she 21. they had a son named Charles (born approximately 1891), and another son named René.
- 1890 — Ritz and Escoffier were hired as a team to do a re-opening in 1890 of the Savoy Hotel in London.
- 1891 — Ritz started construction on Le Grand-Hôtel (now known as The St Regis Grand Hotel) in Rome. To raise the money, he sold the two hotels in Baden-Baden (the Minerva and the Restaurant de la Conversation) and the Hôtel de Provence. Le Grand-Hôtel would be the first hotel in the world to have a private bathroom in every room.
- 1894 — On 11 January, he opened the Grand Hotel in Rome on the Via Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, built at cost of 3 ½ million lire. After the opening reception for 1,000 people, Auguste Escoffier, together with a chef named Luis from the Hotel National in Lucerne, served a sixteen-course meal for 200 people.
- 1896 — Ritz and Escoffier open a company called the “Ritz Hotel Development Company.”
- 1898 — Ritz and Escoffier were fired from the Savoy on 28 February 1898, because their new company is seen as a conflict of interest. They were also accused of stealing from the hotel. “The reasons were that the pair had been dining – and especially wining – potential investors in the new Carlton Hotel that they opened that year (on the Haymarket site now occupied by New Zealand House) at the Savoy’s expense. They were accused of stealing “£3,400 of wine and spirits in the first six months of 1897” and “wine and spirits consumed in the same period by the Managers, staff and employees amounting to £3,000” — more than half-a-million pounds in today’s money.” Levy, Paul. The master chef who cooked the books. London: Daily Telegraph. 9 June 2012. Accessed August 2019 at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/9320918/The-master-chef-who-cooked-the-books.html
- 1898 — On 1 June, Ritz and Escoffier open the Hôtel Ritz at 15 Place Vendôme in Paris with 50 rooms. To create the hotel, they converted the Vendôme and the Cambon buildings.
- 1898 — Ritz returned to London to oversee the opening of the Carlton Hotel, which was to take much business away from the Savoy.
- 1902 — Ritz suffered a nervous breakdown in June of 1902. His wife Marie-Louise and Escoffier began taking a larger managing role in the business.
- 1903 — In July, Ritz suffered another nervous breakdown.
- 1906 — Ritz went to a sanatorium for mental illness in Lausanne. During this time, he also made a trip with his wife to visit Niederwald.
- 1906 — On 24 May, Ritz opened the Ritz Hotel in London, built to resemble a Parisian building. It was the first large building in London to be erected with a steel frame, and the first hotel in London to have a private bathroom in every room. Doormen had a special bell they were to ring when royalty were arriving. (The hotel was sold in October 1995 to Ellerman Investments, owned by a David and Frederick Barclay, and underwent a subsequent eight-year restoration.)
- 1918 — Ritz died 26 October in Küssnacht, Switzerland, near Lucerne. His son René had died just a few months before him. Ritz was buried first in “Père Lachaise” cemetery in Paris next to René, then later (1961) transferred to Niederwald.
- 1953 — Marie-Louise hands over management to Charles. The Ritz chain of hotels went into decline under Charles; his heart wasn’t in the business.
- 1961 — On 8 January, Marie-Louise died, aged 93. On 14 January, her body, along with those of René and César, were brought by train to Niederwald and interned there.
- 1976 — Charles stopped managing the hotels.
- 1979 — The Hôtel Ritz Paris was sold to Mohamed Al-Fayed, who also bought Harrod’s in London. (It was from there in September 1997 that his son, Dodi, and Princess Diana left to be killed in a fatal car crash shortly afterward.)
Literature & Lore
“In England, Justice is open to all; like the Ritz hotel.” — Lord Justice Sir James Mathew (1830-1908)
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