The Ritz Bar - Paris

Almost every evening the American architect Barry Dierks and his English partner Eric Sawyer would repair to the bars of the Ritz Hotel on the Place Vendôme in the 1st arrondissement in Paris.  In the frenetic gaiety of the post-war years of the early 1920s the Ritz bars were the place to see and be seen. They became the melting pot of the demi-monde and, as the playwright Noel Coward saw it, the semi-monde of the capital. In 1897 the architect Charles Mewès transformed the building into a fine hotel for the hôtelier Cesar Ritz and, among other luxuries, it became the first in the world to have a bathroom for every bedroom. Over the years kings, sultans and aristocrats of society and the arts flocked to its all-embracing luxury.

Now those who jostled into the bars were joined, and refreshed by, a vibrant new clientele. After the armistice of 1918 Paris was awash with soldier students who had served with the American Expeditionary Force. The journalist O.O. McIntyre wrote of the cocktail hour when Americans headed for the Ritz bars where 'everything is as American as the seventh inning stretch'. Among the cosmopolitan crowd English was the common language. They came to drink champagne cocktails or dry martinis, some with a touch of absinthe, and socialise with other expatriate Americans and the cosmopolites of the city. At this point in history it was felt the United States had firm links with France and, for many, the social attitudes of the French were appealing. As far as the private lives of individuals were concerned, this was basically a nonjudgmental society. Both men and women found a haven in which they could liberate inclinations unacceptable in their homeland.

In 1926 Noel Coward wrote a play which he called The Ritz Bar – the title being later changed to Semi-Monde. In England the Lord Chamberlain, censored it, declaring the play immoral. In fact Semi-Monde was not finally produced until 1977. Here like-minded people came together – 'You haven't' queries Marion to an acquaintance in Semi-Monde, 'seen a dark little American girl with a sort of wood-violet face loitering, have you?'

Beverley Nichols in his poem Ladies of the Ritz would describe a group of elderly women sinking into chairs in the grand salon until: 'Now from the shadows creep the stallions, magnificently muscled and equipped, dark-suited, double-breasted, heavy-lipped'. For the clientele of the Ritz provided and received diverse services.

Both Barry and Eric, so different in background and character, felt very much at home among the cocktails, repartee and flaneurs of the Ritz Bar. Who did they see, greet and converse with as they relaxed over their cocktails after a day at the bank in those early years of the 1920s? They would almost certainly have rubbed shoulders with Cole Porter and his wife Linda, arriving from their sumptuous apartment on the rue Monsieur; with Scott Fitzgerald and, a still impecunious, Ernest Hemingway. Perhaps even with Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin, for the Ritz was their preferred hotel in Paris. Coco Chanel, who made it one of her homes for 30 years, would have walked the corridors as her own – and the voice of the outrageous American actress Tallulah Bankhead may have rung out from the Ladies Bar. Some habitués became life-long friends, as did Beverley Nichols and Noel Coward. It was perhaps here they first met another regular visitor, the author Somerset Maugham, who would soon play  such an important part in their lives.

Copyright © Maureen Emerson

A few words from Chapter One of the forthcoming

Living and Loving on the Riviera by Maureen Emerson.

The Ritz Bar Paris

The Ritz Bar, Paris

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Living & Loving on the Riviera Maureen Emerson Maureen Emerson
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