Another breathless exposé of French horizontal collaboration from cultural historian Mazzeo (English/Colby Coll.; The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume, 2010, etc.).
The author was warned by an aged Resistance widow not to take up this story of the Hotel Ritz as a happy collaborationist playground since everyone involved lied. The “collective French national fantasy” is that everyone helped the Resistance, yet in reality, very few actually did. Mazzeo struggles structurally with how to tell this story, first introducing the cast of characters and habitués of the Ritz, opened in 1898 in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair by Swiss founders Marie-Louise and César Ritz. Marcel Proust epitomized the group of modern artists and intellectuals and rich American transplants who frequented the hotel. The author then moves through the surrealist mood at the hotel in 1917, during World War I, before touching on the arrival of the Germans in 1940, when the wealthy regular occupants were forced to give up their quarters to German officer Herman Goring and others. Mazzeo then leaps to 1944 just before the liberation of Paris by French and American troops, which sent certain French notables into a panic as their wartime love affairs were public knowledge—e.g., Marcel Carné’s favored actress Arletty, who enjoyed her Nazi lieutenant Hans-Jürgen Soehring, and, of course, Coco Chanel and her own German lover Hans von Dincklage. Mazzeo delights in the story of Ernest Hemingway’s competitive swagger to secure the Ritz first and enjoy its wine cellar before his buddies Robert Capa and others could get there and the numerous “dame reporters” like Martha Gellhorn and Lee Miller, who made it all interesting. Stolen art, double agents, a legendary bartender passing notes to the Resistance: This is a rich, messy history.
A gossipy, occasionally entertaining who’s who that eventually grows tiresome and repetitive.