100 Years Of Putting On the Ritz

Cesar Ritz, who opened his legendary hotel here 100 years ago this month, would have considered it the ultimate accolade.

There, among the sleekly fashionable young women and the discreetly but enormously wealthy men purring their way around the hushed lobby the other day, a Buddhist monk checked in.

Giving pleasure to sybarites accustomed to enjoying extravagance is perhaps not so difficult. But tempting a saffron-robed professional ascetic into your luxurious embrace must be the true sign of excellence.

When Mr. Ritz, the 13th child of a Swiss peasant, opened his pleasure dome on Paris's elegant Place Vendme, he promised it would offer "all the refinements a prince would wish to have in his own palace."

The Ritz was the first hotel in the world to offer electric lights and a bath in every room, following the founder's dictum of "cleanliness, efficiency, and beauty."

But it was the hotel's reputation for opulence and service that from the start attracted high-living spenders from around the world.

Britain's Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII, declared Ritz "the hotelkeeper of kings, and the king of hotel-keepers."

Today, although royalty does show up from time to time, the queens are more likely to be of the fashion or society version.

Basking in a $250 million makeover ordered by Egyptian millionaire Mohammed Al Fayed, who bought the hotel in 1979, the Ritz lives up to its iconic status. Walk up the red-carpeted steps of the main entrance, through the revolving glass doors, and into the heavily carpeted and softly lit entrance hall, and you have walked with Alice through the looking glass.

Everything is so larded with legend it is slightly unreal, from the hotel bar that Ernest Hemingway claimed to have "liberated" from the Nazis in August 1944, to the suite of rooms that Coco Chanel lived in before the war, to the back door through which Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Al Fayed, the owner's son, slipped just before their fatal car accident last year.

Even the kitchens, an underground expanse of gleaming white tiles and shiny copper pots, are mythical. They were designed by the Ritz's first chef, Auguste Escoffier, the most influential cook in culinary history. His motto was simple, and - to a Frenchman - indisputable: "Good cooking is the basis of true happiness."

TODAY, those kitchens serve up dishes such as "medallions of lobster on a cold lobster aspic garnished with caviar and an asparagus mousse with salmon eggs" to customers with $47.50 to spare for a first course.

But price, of course, is no object for guests at the Ritz (42 percent of whom are Americans). If you have to ask the price of a room (average $492 a night for a single, rising to $8,620 for the Imperial Suite), you probably can't afford to stay.

You can ask for anything else, though, and the chances are that the staff will be able to provide it. A guest got the elephant feet he asked for at Christmas dinner in 1900.

A more recent customer was not disappointed when she asked hotel manager Franco Mora to transform a suite into a classroom for 10 days: She wanted to take her small daughter to France during the school term, so she invited the girl's whole class, plus teacher. Mr. Mora scoured the flea markets of Paris for school desks and a blackboard, and created the classiest - and costliest - schoolroom in the world.

Mr. Mora admits, though, that he is not all-powerful.

A few weeks ago, an elderly American asked the hotel to stage his proposal of marriage for him at the top of the Eiffel Tower. A violinist in evening dress was to be playing on the summit platform as he and his beloved arrived at sunset. A Ritz bellboy was then to bring two glasses of champagne on a silver platter, and 10 minutes later another bellboy was to bring flowers.

None of this fazed Mora.

The violinist was arranged, the music chosen, and the bellboys given their instructions. But then the spoilsports at the Eiffel Tower ruled that, in view of security concerns, they could not allow the monument to be opened after hours to private visitors, even if they were guests at the Ritz.

There are some things, apparently, that no amount of money can buy.

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