The man with the Ritz-y name


A boss once said he couldn't make it in the hotel business

Back Story

Taking Note of History

July 16, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Where generations of sweaty shipyard workers once toiled repairing sea-worn vessels at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s former Key Highway Shipyard, the fabled Ritz name will soon endow an upscale condominium development.

Only a few words have come to permanently define elegance and luxury; here are two: the Duesenberg - the classic 1930s motorcar that spawned the phrase, "It's a doozy," - and the Ritz, which has become synonymous with going first class.

If doozy was a car, then Ritz was a man, whose first name was Cesar, and whose friend, England's King Edward VII, described him as the "king of hoteliers and the hotelier of kings."

While Fred Astaire may be known for his singing and dancing rendition of Irving Berlin's "Puttin' On the Ritz," there are other generous applications of the word.

There is, of course, Ritz crackers, whose owners reportedly still pay a royalty to the Ritz family to use the name.

And then there was the famous 1930s-era Ritz Brothers comedy-singing team, brothers Al, Jimmy and Harry Joachim of Newark, N.J. They gave themselves the name, it's said, after seeing "Ritz" painted on a laundry delivery truck.

A check of the Greater Baltimore phone directory reveals four Ritz businesses, perhaps the most well-known being Ritz Camera Centers.

There's also a Ritz Realty in Owings Mills and a Ritz Motel in the 600 block of Washington Boulevard, and 30 Ritzes in the residential white pages.

Cesar Ritz was born in 1850 in the village of Niederwald in the Swiss Alps.

Because he was not a particularly good student, young Cesar was sent by his father to become an apprentice wine-waiter at the Hotel des Trois Couronnes in Brig, Switzerland. He mastered one skill: breaking dishes.

He earned the disdain of the hotel proprietor, who fired him, growling, "You will never make anything of yourself in the hotel business. It requires a special flair and I must be honest - you don't have it."

In 1867, Ritz traveled to Paris where he worked in a hotel polishing floors and shining shoes. He got a job as a waiter at the Voison, then the finest restaurant in the city.

Ritz continued to hone his skills while working as maitre d'hotel at the Hotel Splendide in Paris, and from 1877 to 1887, managing such plush resorts as the Grand Hotel National in Lucerne and the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo.

While at the latter, he became friends with famed chef Auguste Escoffier, and they combined efforts to design a hotel that would offer deluxe service to fashionable society, while stressing comfort and fine cuisine. Something of a health fanatic, Ritz insisted that each of his hotel rooms would have a private bathroom.

They opened a restaurant in Baden-Baden in 1887, which caught the attention of Richard D'Oyly Carte, who installed Ritz as manager in 1889 of the newly opened Savoy Hotel in London.

"Within a few months Ritz and Escoffier had conquered London from the Savoy. Noticing that in England unlike the Continent, people tended to fall silent while eating, he introduced orchestras at dinner. With music, they lingered over dinner and spent extra money on wine," said a 1991 SwissBusiness profile of Cesar Ritz.

The observant Ritz noticed that Americans liked ice water with their meals and made sure they got it without having to ask. He also is credited with getting his American guests to take red wine with meals, and he served the first order of frogs' legs to the Prince of Wales - later King Edward VII.

When the prince inquired as to the nature of the dish, Ritz smoothly replied, "Your Royal Highness has just been the first Englishman to eat frogs' legs."

Ritz and Escoffier opened the Hotel Ritz at the Place Vendome in Paris June 1, 1898, followed by the Hotel Carlton in London the next year. He expanded his hotel empire in 1906 with a London Ritz.

In 1902, though, Ritz had a nervous breakdown. He would spend the remainder of his life confined to sanitariums.

"He became moody, spending days in complete apathy and then exploding in sporadic fits of anger. Marie Louise (his wife whose 1938 book is a much massaged biography of her husband) isolated him from public view after he began shouting and hurling ashtrays at guests. He spent days writing pages of gibberish which he told his wife were his memoirs," said a 1993 article in The Montreal Gazette.

By the time of his death in 1918, there were Ritz-Carlton hotels in New York City, Rome, Madrid and Montreal.

It was said that Ritz, a well-known philanderer, most likely succumbed to the effects of syphilis at age 70 in a Swiss sanitarium.

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