César Ritz (2)
THE SAVOY - 1889–1900
From our research work at The Savoy, London
See also: César Ritz (1)
In the late 1880s, London’s new hotel The Savoy was the most important stepping stone in Ritz’s magnificent career.
Here he met the British ‘at home’, the Brits he had welcomed on the continent in the spa cities of Baden Baden, Bad Homburg, or at the Cote d’Azur, in Cannes and Monte Carlo.
We meet him at the Savoy, a new highlight in his unbelievable journey from tending goats at home in Niederwald, Switzerland to becoming a global synonym for hospitality. César Ritz’s originality and creativity were matched only by his driving ambition and a flair for self-promotion.
The man behind The Savoy was Richard D’Oyly Carte, a theatre impressario. He was the driving force behind the genius operetta duo Gilbert and Sullivan, the composer Sullivan was even a shareholder of the hotel. Ritz could easily impress Carte, the man who had no idea how to run a hotel. For Ritz, this was the perfect stage to test his talent.
In December 1889, Ritz arrived to take over. He immediately brought in
his own team. There was already the brilliant maître d’hôtel, François
Rinjoux from Monte Carlo. Now M. Echenard became the head of the new Ritz
Relief Army in October 1889 at a salary of £500 per year, assisted by
William Autor; another deeply Ritz devoted Agostini took up the
important position of cashier. A Mr Elles became restaurant
manager. The last piece of the jigsaw slotted into place in March 1890,
when Ritz persuaded his friend, chef Auguste Escoffier, to come and take over
the ranges at The Savoy.
Now the show was really on. Energies were focused on conquering London’s dining habits. It was not at all common to dine outside one’s home unless it was in one’s club. Dining in public was also a male affair.
Ritz was determined to create a continental ambiance in London. He had been to Vienna, the city of music and imperial splendour, where people dined after having been to the theatre. He had seen the regal magnificence of Paris, where society went to the restaurants after the final curtain at the Opera, and he benefited from the gaiety of the atmosphere of the Côte d’Azur, where Europe’s aristocracy gathered to amuse themselves during the summer. He was used to men dining out with women (even their own wives!). He had seen the Prince of Wales and the Marlborough Set (as his followers were called) enjoying a much more relaxed society atmosphere at Baden-Baden or at the Côte.
There seemed to be a sort of an ethical iron curtain drawn over the Channel. In London, it was considered ‘absolutely immoral’ to dine out in public on Sunday nights. Notorious for disregarding traditions and with a keen sense for business, Ritz did everything he could to abolish these attitudes. With the support of the press and even members of parliament, he introduced Sunday evening dinners and made it fashionable to attend them*.Conspiring with some of the leading lights of female society, Ritz and D’Oyly Carte paved the way for ladies to attend dinners after the theatre and late in the evening.
Sunday night dinner became the highpoint of the week and after theatre suppers became all the rage. If anybody expected members of the fair sex to disappear long before Cinderella’s magic hour, they were mistaken. The female clientele stayed on and it became clear how much the ladies enjoyed this welcome bridge to a new self-awareness. In 1896, Elizabeth de Grammont was reputed to be the first woman in London to smoke a cigarette in public. This she did in The Savoy Restaurant. She was on honeymoon with her husband, the Duc de Clermont-Tonnerre, who talked a lot, while she smoked a lot. The other guests stared shamelessly at this astonishing performance, expecting something extraordinary to happen. However, Elizabeth de Grammont neither exploded nor went up in flames, or even burn her lips.
Guests enjoyed the presence of leading actors who came in after the
performance of The Yeomen of the Guard from The Savoy Theatre, often
gathering around the celebrated composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and
sometimes the more serious William Gilbert, whose wit amazed generations
Marie Ritz remembered in her memoirs: ‘Society in London was still ostentatious. It showed itself, dressed to the nines, at the theatre, the opera, the park, and even thanks to the drawing power of Ritz’s name, in the public restaurant of The Savoy.’
D’Oyly Carte and Ritz welcomed the stars of the stage, among them Sarah Bernhardt, who spent her time in London at The Savoy, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Beerbohm Tree.
Here at The Savoy they found both atmosphere and food very congenial. However, if an English guest wanted to speak to the chef, he was advised that Escoffier did not speak his language. Escoffier feared that he might then start to cook like the English. Even luncheons at the hotel became a daily ritual, but not one – the hotel was eager to point out – that need break the bank. ‘Here you can be as moderate as a monk or as luxurious as Lucullus; can feast or fast with equal pleasure at your will, and play the Spartan or the Sybarite as your conscience and your appetite dictate.’Under the theatrical presidency of D’Oyly Carte and the perfectionism of César Ritz,
The Savoy launched itself as a London society meeting point and as a world-class hotel It soon had ‘a reputation as being unrivalled for luxury and perfect comfort, the cuisine acknowledged to be the finest in London, and second to none in the world,’ as D’Oyly Carte was pleased to report at the company’s first general meeting, held on 26 September 1890. At this very meeting D’Oyly Carte admitted that it had also been necessary to make numerous ‘very costly’ alterations to the building and its management. The list included converting what had been intended as a private banqueting room on the mezzanine floor into a table d’hôte room, moving the restaurant lavatories and making alterations to the kitchens and to Beaufort House, as well as the construction of two shops and a new entrance in the courtyard. In addition to this were estimate overruns on the purchase of everything from furniture and linen to the myriad crockery, cutlery and glassware items. The hotel also acquired four pianos at £22 each from Chappell & Co and ‘a variety of things which had not been included in the original estimates.’ As a consequence, the company had to raise an extra £30,000 to cover costs. He carefully added: ‘The early months have seen a steady increase in receipts.’The salaries paid to heads of departments are simply absurd ...
Ritz adhered strictly to his contract and was absent from England for six months in the first year. During his absence, Echenard took over. The reaction of the press was scathing. The Echo opined: ‘We have no wish to blame Mr R D’Oyly Carte for this disastrous state of affairs. We admit, openly, that he knows no more about hotel management than an ordinary hotel manager knows about the management of a theatre. The salaries paid to heads of departments are simply absurd, and prove in themselves the entire ignorance of the directorate’s knowledge of hotel management. We have not one word to say against the distinguished foreigner who enjoys the position of manager, but if we are rightly informed, he has never before had the management of a large hotel, but it would be ridiculous to pay him £1,200 (sic) per annum, and a commission on profits, even had he been proprietor or manager of the largest and most successful hotel in the universe.’
This was pure envy, of course, as business improved steadily after this shaky start but, like any other hotel, The Savoy was a barometer of events in the world at large. In 1891, the directors highlighted the adverse effect of ‘three months’ fog and frost, the general depression and the subsequent epidemic of influenza upon the receipts of the Hotel and Restaurant.’ In 1893, a commercial slump and the lure of the World Fair in Chicago ‘kept away from this country very many American and Continental visitors who frequent this hotel.’Conversely, in 1894, the hotel’s net profit was £23,661 on receipts of £170,436 and the directors’ report noted ‘a legitimate satisfaction in drawing attention to the large increase in receipts and profits obtained, under the skilful management of Monsieur C Ritz.’ However, beneath this congratulatory surface, tensions were beginning to emerge between Ritz and D’Oyly Carte.
The Swiss manager’s attention did not remain focused in one place for long. Once Ritz had conquered London’s Society, he began casting a covetous eye around Europe in search of the next challenge. His gaze fell on two properties. One was the unfinished Grand Hotel in Rome, whose original promoter, Mr Cavallini, had run out of funds; the other was London’s elegant Claridge’s. Ritz had renewed his original one-year contract until the end of 1893, but he now made any further offer of his services conditional on D’Oyly Carte sinking funds into these new enterprises. Carte had no interest in becoming entangled in these projects for their own sake, but did so as the price of re-engaging Ritz for The Savoy. A five-year agreement was finally signed. This led ultimately to the acquisition of the Grand Hotel in Rome (which Ritz personally opened in January 1894) and Claridge’s (reborn in its current guise in 1898) becoming part of The Savoy family.
Lady de Grey laid the foundation stone of the new Claridge’s in Brook Street in 1894. Ritz, who would also oversee the running of these new additions, was to be paid his usual £1,000 a year for managing The Savoy, plus a sliding commission on the profits, which gave him a strong incentive to see it do well. Now, Ritz agreed to dispose of his hotel in Cannes and he assured D’Oyly Carte that: ‘You can count on my devotion being given equally to The Savoy as to our new enterprises.’ There the matter rested for the time being. Envy joins the team: 1895 was a record year for profits at The Savoy. And on 1 March 1895, Ritz took over the hotel Frankfurter Hof in Frankfurt, Germany, leading a team of hoteliers to run it for the next years. Our book Frankfurter Hof tells you a few stories about the Ritzi years..
The directors were delighted and Ritz and Echenard – thanks to their lucrative five-year contracts – ‘received the emoluments of Prime Ministers’. In 1895 alone their combined earnings were no less than £9,698. Now little envy joined its big brother success. According to a contemporary report, Ritz and Echenard increasingly ‘forgot that they were servants and assumed the attitude of masters and proprietors.’ Ritz was given enormous autonomy in the running of the hotel, and his new-found power and success removed the final restraints on his ambitions. Even opera star Dame Nellie Melba (we will meet her later), a Ritz devotee, noticed the difference: ‘Success turned his head. He grew bloated. He lost his keen sense of responsibility, and though things were still done beautifully, it was not he who saw to them as of old.’
In 1897, Queen Victoria’s memorable 60th jubilee produced a succession of dinners and balls, pre- and post-jubilee. The Savoy was again the glittering meeting point for international society. In the meantime, Marie Louise Ritz was expecting her second child. The family decided to move out of The Savoy. They took a house at Hampstead, a move very much detested by son Charles, who had enjoyed the size of The Savoy, a size no private house would be able to match. ‘There will not be so many beautiful people in it, either,’ he explained to his mother, ‘and Simone (Sarah Bernhardt’s grandchild) will not be there to play with.’
But times had changed. Sarah Bernhardt was moving back to Paris in any case and at The Savoy things weren’t going too well for Ritz and his team. The half-year accounts showed a dramatic drop in net profits as a percentage of receipts, from 24 per cent in 1895 to just 13 per cent in 1897. When Ritz’s explanation proved unsatisfactory, an embarrassing five-month audit and investigation were set up.
What emerged was common knowledge: Ritz’s energies had not been firmly focused on The Savoy at all but rather on his own external business dealings. The long litany of schemes, often in association with Echenard and Escoffier, included selling patents for milk sterilisation to the Bernese Alpine Milk Company, promoting the Riviera Hotel in Maidenhead and taking over the hotel Frankfurter Hof. ‘So occupied was Ritz . . .’Ritz became ‘Advisory Expert to the Board’ of the newly founded ‘Egyptian Hotels Limited’ and succeeded in setting up his own syndicate, which was behind the Ritz Hotels in Paris and later London.
In 1897, at the age of 47, he agreed to act as Managing director of the Ritz Hotels Development Company for 10 years.‘So occupied was Ritz with all these things that I should have died of loneliness had it not been for my mother’s presence,’ complained Marie Ritz retrospectively. ‘From all over Europe he was besieged with requests to start hotels and run them if only for a number of months. America offered him fantastic sums to teach inn-keeping de luxe to the New World. Even the famous Herr Adlon was not above asking his advice. Ritz went over the plans for his new hotel in Berlin, made suggestions, and dashed off to Palermo at the appeal of a wealthy Italian speculator who was opening a hotel there.’
The report also disclosed that on many occasions Ritz had solicited backing for schemes from customers and trades people. Subsequently, Ritz and Echenard were accused of using the hotel to accommodate and entertain friends. Potential partners of their own businesses had been allowed to run up large bills which had never been settled. Presents which had been paid for by the company and had nothing to do with The Savoy’s business had been sent to outside parties with the ‘Manager’s compliments.’ Provisions charged to The Savoy’s account had been delivered to Ritz’s new home in Hampstead. Business was given to firms in which the managers had an interest. All this would have been written off as extravagant manager’s expenses, if business had been doing well. But since Ritz’s attention had been firmly focused on his extracurricular business dealings, he had neglected his managerial duties at The Savoy.
The directors put the matter to Ritz bluntly: ‘When in London you are hardly ever in the hotel except to eat and sleep. You have latterly been simply using The Savoy as a place to live in, a pied-à-terre, an office, from which to carry on your other schemes and as a lever to float a number of other projects in which The Savoy has no interest whatever.’ The investigation also concentrated on maître chef, Auguste Escoffier. He had been left to his own devices without any restraints or controls. As well as a host of his own corporate involvements, he had appointed his own store controller, responsible for checking the weight and quantity of deliveries. As a result, he was able to take commissions and gifts from tradesmen and – it had been discovered – set up his own companies to supply goods to The Savoy at inflated prices without revealing his own involvement.
Mr Ritz, You have been dismissed
All this – even with the respectful extra portion of tolerance for the genius of César Ritz – proved to be too much for The Savoy company. Armed with a detailed dossier regarding these malpractices, the directors took action. The note of dismissal delivered to Messrs Ritz, Echenard and Escoffier on 7 March 1898 was uncompromising:‘By a resolution passed this morning you have been dismissed from the service of the Hotel for, among other serious reasons, gross negligence and breaches of duty and mismanagement. I am also directed to request that you will be good enough to leave the Hotel at once.’How embarrassing for Ritz. Of course the triumvirate did not leave quietly. Writs started to fly, with suits brought for wrongful dismissal and breach of contract.
A whispering campaign began, with Ritz and his colleagues painting themselves as the wronged party. Richard D’Oyly Carte, who by now was more or less an invalid and not allowed to walk, elegantly refused to disclose the details of the managerial ‘abuses’, as they brought no credit to the hotel either. This helped an atmosphere of conspiracy to develop. Ritz had friends in high places who were willing to take his side. They included Edward, Prince of Wales, who declared: ‘Where Ritz goes, I go.’
Newspapers reported ‘A Kitchen Revolt at The Savoy’, ‘Savoy Hotel Sensation’ and ‘The Savoy Hotel Mystery’. On 8 March 1898, The Star wrote: ‘During the last 24-hours The Savoy Hotel has been the scene of disturbances which in a South American Republic would be dignified by the name of revolution. Three managers have been dismissed and 16 fiery French and Swiss cooks (some of them took their long knives and placed themselves in a position of defiance) have been bundled out by the aid of a strong force of Metropolitan police.’
It took an entire day – during which the hotel was guarded by a strong police force – until the situation was under control.Shares in the company plummeted overnight. Four days later, the dismissed management team announced that they would be bringing action against the company for wrongful dismissal. They all were immediately employed by the Ritz Development Company and did not need to worry about their personal or professional future. The unpleasant matter was not finally laid to rest until two years later. In 1900, with neither side standing to gain from a public court case, the sacked triumvirate dropped their legal action and signed a mea culpa statement. Echenard and Ritz together repaid £4,173 and Ritz himself had to repay £6,377 to cover the cost of ‘certain wine supplies’. Escoffier, consenting to a verdict against him on the counterclaim of The Savoy Hotel, was to repay £8,000. All was settled amicably and the emperor of chefs, notoriously out of pocket, had to refund only £500 to his previous employers.
This brings the Ritz part of The Savoy story to an end. The Ritz story
continued successfully across the channel in Paris and later again in
London, in Budapest, in Madrid and in Barcelona. It also resulted in a
corporation called Ritz-Carlton, which spread throughout the major
cities of North America and the old world.
In 1902, Ritz had a nervous breakdown.
In 1912, his family brought him to a hospital in Lausanne and two years later they moved him to a clinic near Kuessnacht near Lucerne.
In October 1918, his family received word that he was dying but due to the war and travel restrictions his wife Marie-Louise did not reach him until 28 October, by which time he was already dead.
Marie continued the expansion of hotels bearing his name. In the United States, The Ritz-Carlton Investing Company was established by Albert Keller who bought and franchised the name.
In 1927 The Ritz-Carlton, Boston, opened and other hotels followed in New York (at Madison and 54th), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlantic City and Boca Raton.
However, by 1940 none of the hotels were operating except The Ritz-Carlton, Boston. The hotel embodies the vision of Cesar Ritz, Yankee ingenuity and Boston social sensibilities.
Andreas Augustin / Andrew Williamson