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Ritz, César Jeanlocked

(1850–1918)
  • Brigid Allen

César Jean Ritz (1850–1918)

by Studio René

© reserved

Ritz, César Jean (1850–1918), hotelier, was born on 23 February 1850 at Niederwald, Switzerland, the son of Anton Ritz, a peasant farmer. At the age of twelve he was sent as a boarder to the Jesuit college at Sion, and at fifteen, having shown only vaguely artistic leanings, was apprenticed as a wine waiter at a hotel in Brieg. Dismissed after a year as an unsuitable candidate for the hotel trade, he returned briefly to the Jesuits as sacristan, then left to seek his fortune in Paris at the time of the 1867 Universal Exhibition.

Ritz's formative five years in Paris, including the siege of 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, gave him sufficient polish and confidence to transform himself from a waiter and general factotum into a maître d'hôtel, manager, and eventually hotelier. Beginning with the humblest of hotel jobs, he moved on to waiting in restaurants and was employed at the high-class Restaurant Voisin between 1869 and 1872. Here he waited on Edmond de Goncourt, Théophile Gautier, and Alexandre Dumas, learned the essentials of his trade from the owner, Bellenger, and served up dishes such as elephant's trunk in sauce chasseur as supplies of fresh meat dwindled during the siege and zoo animals took their place.

In 1872, Ritz became floor waiter of the Hôtel Splendide in Paris, meeting many rich, self-made Americans as guests. In 1873 he was a waiter in Vienna at the time of the International Exhibition. In the winter of that year his astonishing career in hotel management began when he undertook the direction of the restaurant at the Grand Hôtel in Nice. Regular moves then followed, usually twice a year just ahead of the migration of the international tourist set from the hotels of Nice or San Remo in winter to Swiss mountain resorts such as Rigi-Külm and Lucerne in summer.

From 1877 until his marriage in 1888, Ritz spent every summer as general manager of the Grand Hôtel National at Lucerne. This, reputedly the most luxurious hotel in Switzerland, frequented by Rothschilds and other members of the European élite, had been designed, and was then owned, by Baron Hans Pfyffer d'Altishofen, to whom Ritz remained close for the rest of his working life. Ritz imported Georges Auguste Escoffier as chef de cuisine in 1879, and devised a succession of grand summer entertainments for which the hotel became famous. From 1880 he spent his winters managing the Grand Hôtel at Monte Carlo, where his future wife, Marie-Louise, was growing up as the daughter of a hotel-keeping family. Their marriage took place in January 1888. Later he worked partly in Cannes and partly at Baden-Baden, as manager of the Restaurant de la Conversation.

In December 1889 Ritz was appointed to an important post in London as manager of Richard D'Oyly Carte's newly opened, luxurious Savoy Hotel. Again he secured Escoffier as chef, knowing that the hotel could not outdo all others without first-rate cuisine. During much of the 1890s he was based in London, commuting from there to spend periods managing the Grand Hôtel in Rome, the Frankfurterhof in Frankfurt am Main, and other grand hotels in Aix-les-Bains, Lucerne, Monte Carlo, and Salsomaggiore, in some of which he and his associates had acquired financial interests.

Ritz left the Savoy in February 1898. According to his wife he resigned to pursue new interests (the pretext being an escalating quarrel with the housekeeper, which provoked a number of his colleagues to resign with him in protest). In fact Ritz and Escoffier were dismissed from the Savoy for deceiving the directors. In 1900 he and the Savoy maître d'hôtel, Louis Echenard, agreed to pay more than £10,000 to make up for the disappearance of over £3400 of wine and spirits in 1897; Ritz also admitted to having known that Escoffier was receiving gifts from the Savoy's suppliers. At the point of departure Ritz had already moved decisively towards independence. The Ritz Hotel Development Company, consisting of Ritz himself and a number of wealthy backers, planned to open a chain of luxury hotels all round the world, in booming cities such as Johannesburg as well as the older capitals of Europe. Each hotel was to be capitalized individually by its own group of shareholders, who would form themselves into a holding company for the purpose.

The first hotel to be completed, in 1898, was the Paris Ritz, partly financed by Marnier Lapostolle, the inventor of the liqueur Grand Marnier which Ritz had helped to promote, and designed by the architect Charles Mewès to be built on a south-facing site on the place de la Concorde. Ritz's innovative standards of hygiene demanded a bathroom for every suite, the maximum possible amount of sunlight, and the minimum of curtains and other hangings. At the same time he furnished the hotel with all the old-fashioned appeal of an English or French gentleman's house, in order to make clients feel at home. In a city at the height of its fin de siècle Anglophilia, five o'clock 'tea at the Ritz' became a fashionable institution.

The next hotel, the Carlton in London, conveniently close to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, opened in 1899 and attracted much wealthy custom away from the Savoy. By 1902 plans were laid for the London Ritz, a steel-framed structure, like the Carlton purpose-built and designed by Mewès, on a site towards the west end of Piccadilly previously occupied by the Walsingham and Bath hotels. Meanwhile Queen Victoria had died, and had been succeeded by her eldest son, Edward VII, who was already in his sixties and whose health had been steadily undermined by years of dissolute good living. His coronation was fixed for 26 June 1902, several weeks after the end of the South African War. Ritz, then based at the Carlton, planned festivities of the most elaborate kind to coincide with the event, but two days beforehand the king was reported to be acutely ill and in need of an immediate operation. The coronation was postponed indefinitely, and the shock caused Ritz a profound emotional and physical breakdown. He retired to his home in Paris, where he remained for most of the next ten years, amusing himself with hobbies such as history and learning to sculpt. He took little further interest in the hotel business, and suffered intermittently from melancholy and memory loss.

New hotels associated with the parent company continued to open: the London Ritz in 1905, the New York Ritz–Carlton in 1907, and the Budapest Ritz, with which Marie-Louise Ritz was associated as managing director, in 1913. Ritz himself withdrew progressively from the affairs of his various companies, selling out his interests in hotels at Frankfurt and Salsomaggiore in 1905 and retiring from the Ritz Hotel Development Company in 1907, from the Carlton Hotel Company in 1908, and from the Paris Ritz Company in 1911.

By 1912, according to Marie-Louise Ritz, to all intents and purposes his life had finished. In 1913 he was placed in a private hospital at Lausanne, and the following year he was moved to another on Lake Küssnacht in Canton Schwyz. He died at Küssnacht on 26 October 1918. Although from a humble Swiss background, César Ritz and his luxurious hotels became legendary, and his name entered the English language as an epitome of high-class cuisine and accommodation.

Sources

  • M. Ritz, César Ritz: host to the world (1938)
  • T. Shaw, The world of Escoffier (1994)
  • C. Mackenzie, The Savoy (1953)
  • S. Jackson, The romance of a great hotel (1964)
  • P. Levy, Out to lunch (1986)

Likenesses

  • Studio René, photograph, repro. in S. Watts, The Ritz (1963) [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£48,325 3s. 1d.: probate, 19 April 1920, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]