Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ritzy Books! The Hotel on Place Vendôme, Arrigo Cipriani's latest, and The Garden of Eden in Venice Revealed

(Venice, Italy) The Hotel Ritz is in the heart of Paris, not Venice, but when Harper Collins offered me a review copy of The Hôtel on Place Vendôme by Tilar J. Mazzeo, I readily agreed. If you are a longtime reader of my Venice blog, you will know that I have written about many of the fascinating denizens of the Hotel Ritz, who also made Venice part of their theatrical production. The Ritz was the glamorous setting for many of the major players of the time, who lived, loved and betrayed one another during the Second World War.

Ernest Hemingway and a couple of his wives, journalist Mary Welsh and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn were there; Gellhorn's rival, Marlene Dietrich, was there, peeved when another star, Ingrid Bergman, entered the scene and fell in love with Hemingway's friend and rival, Robert Capa -- whom Gellhorn considered to be "her real brother." Pablo Picasso and his surrealist lover, Dora Maar, Coco Chanel and her younger German lover, Hans von Dincklage, and an abundance of glitterati and literati made the Ritz their living room. Aristocrats and politicians, movie stars and celebrity writers played a deadly game of intrigue while carrying on illicit affairs under the eyes of the hotel staff, who added a deeper dimension to the schemes.

Before delving into WWII, Mazzeo starts with a pivotal event before the First World War: The Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish artillery officer, had been falsely charged with passing secrets to the German embassy in Paris. The Hotel Ritz opened its doors on June 1, 1898, a week after Emile Zola went on trial for writing his scathing letter-to-the-editor in support of Alfred Dreyfus, directed to President of France. Zola accused the French government of framing an innocent man, forcing them to put Zola on trial for libel "...literary and intellectual France broke ranks with the aristocracy, and came to the aid of Alfred Dreyfus." The story is told from Marcel Proust's point of view, touching upon how Sarah Bernhardt, the longtime lover of Aguste Escoffier, legendary chef and one of the partners in the Hotel Ritz enterprise, dined together every year on her birthday.

Ritz regular, Luisa, the Marquise Casati "a living work of art" then makes an appearance -- when Picasso attended a party at her palazzo on the Grand Canal here in Venice (the next grande dame to move in would be Peggy Guggenheim) he was astonished, and we can imagine he was not easily surprised. Luisa wore a drugged, gold-painted snake around her neck as a living necklace, and dyed her hair the color of flames. Her naked, gilded footmen tossed copper filings into the fires so they burned green and blue while the guests smoked opium, as she openly carried on with her lover, Gabriele D'Annunzio. (The 2014 Autumn at Palazzo Fortuny exhibition will be devoted to Luisa and the atmosphere of fin-de-siècle Venice, so mark your calendars -- October 3, 2014 to March 8, 2015.)

I devoured the book in two days, and think it is an excellent history lesson told in terms of giant personalities and the personal relationships they had under one roof during one of the most devastating challenges this planet has ever faced. Told in a series of vignettes with gossipy titles -- "The French Actress and Her Nazi Lover," "The Jewish Bartender and the German Resistance," "The American Wife and the Swiss Director," "Coco's War and Other Dirty Linen," "The Blond Bombshell and the Nuclear Scientists" -- Mazzeo uses a format that indulges the reader's thirst for scandal while imparting well-researched information that has been suppressed for too many years. 

During World War II, when the Germans occupied Paris, many high-ranking officers, such as Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Adolf Hitler's second-in-command, made the Ritz their home, causing many of the famous residents -- like Coco Chanel -- to change their suites.The image of Chanel dramatically descending into an air raid shelter, a servant trailing behind, carrying her gas mask on a satin pillow, is priceless. When challenged about her German lover, Hans von Dincklage, Chanel quipped, "at my age you don't ask to see the gentleman's passport."

As in life, Ernest Hemingway and his outrageous antics dominate the story as he races to be the first writer to "liberate" the Ritz -- and its wine cellar -- from the occupation. He leaves a immense imprint -- as he did here in Venice when he lived at the Hotel Gritti Palace and frequented Harry's Bar; the bar in the Ritz is now named Bar Hemingway.

In the prologue, Mazzeo writes that "we live in the long shadow of this history," and I agree. Here in Europe, you can still feel the echoes of the World Wars, something that only a handful of today's Americans understand. The wars touched the lives of everyone in Europe, many of whom are still alive today. The pain of 9/11 shook the world, Americans in particular, but the event itself was isolated to a section of New York. The World Wars were anguish ramped up to the umpteenth power as country after country fell under the control of the Nazis and Fascists. It is almost unimaginable that such a short time ago France was under German rule; the Nazis were bombing Great Britain, and the US and the Soviet Union were allies -- the Soviets were the first to liberate the Jews from Auschwitz. A fascinating bit of history, not in the book, is that Hitler and Mussolini first met each other in Venice

Mazzeo writes: 'On at least one occasion, I was warned that I should not attempt to tell this story. The warning came from an elderly Frenchwoman... she said, ..."The truth you are looking for, it was lost to history the moment the war ended. Perhaps it was lost even before that. The questions you are asking are more treacherous than you think. This book about the Hotel Ritz and the story of the occupation, you should not write it. I am sorry."'

Thankfully, Mazzeo ignored that advice, and wrote The Hôtel on Place Vendôme. Read it, and bring yourself up to speed.

Review from the New York Journal of Books

Review from The Toronto Star

Review from Book Reporter 

Amazon: The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris

Arrigo Cipriani, the owner of Harry's Bar in Venice and many other exclusive properties around the globe, has written a new book -- not about Ernest Hemingway -- called Stupdt. O l'arte di rialzarsi da terra, which translates to Stupdt. Or the Art of Getting up off the Ground. It is the third of a trilogy, where Cipriani, a man with a vivid and wonderful imagination, leaves the world of Harry's Bar and brings us to a whimsical universe where a sleep-walking wife has sex with her neighbor, returns to bed, and complains about her husband's snoring, and God argues with Buddha, takes it out on Adam, who, in turn, takes it out on Cain. The always-entertaining Marino Folin, who has gone back to his long-haired style, presented Arrigo's novel.

For those of you who are wondering what happened to the book launches that were formerly on the top floor of Mondadori bookstore by Piazza San Marco -- which is now Louis Vuitton -- you can find them at the Casinò in the elegant piano nobile on Wednesdays at 6:00 PM, still hosted by the delightful
Giovanni Pelizzato. 

If you're in Venice, you can find the Italian edition at Giovanni's bookstore La Toletta over in Dorsoduro. And I'm sure they have some copies over at Harry's Bar:)

Amazon: Stupdt: o l'arte di rialzarsi da terra (Varia) (Italian Edition)

Completely closed to the public, everybody in Venice wants to know what is behind the immense walls of the Garden of Eden on the island of Giudecca, and Annemette Fogh finally takes us behind that solitary gate. Bought by an English couple, Frederic and Caroline Eden in 1884, the nine-acre garden was the hub for some of the international elite that we will find later at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. Marcel Proust was there in the garden, as were Rilke, Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Robert Browning and Claude Monet, along with members of the Anglo-American colony living in Venice. During the presentation at the Bauer Hotel, Fogh spoke about the secrecy surrounding the Eden family, and how difficult it had been to gather information.

Frederic Eden, a great-uncle of Sir Anthony Eden, the future prime minister, and Caroline, the elder sister of the well-known garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, lived in Venice for 50 years. After wearying of life on the Grand Canal, Eden purchased the huge plot of land on the Giudecca, and created an English garden complete with milk cow. "What scope for planting," Eden declared when he first saw the plot, "what an escape from constant idleness, what a relief from my lately loved mistress the lagoon, from whom my soul now turned in the ungrateful satiety of too long possession."

In 1928 the garden was sold to Major James Horlick, who gave it to Aspasia Manos, the ex-Princess of Greece and Denmark. For the rest of her life she lived in the small palazzina in the garden, often together with her daughter, Alexandra, the former Queen of Yugoslavia. 

In 1979 Friedensreich Hundertwasser, one of the best-known contemporary Austrian artists, took over the garden. During WWII, he and his Jewish mother posed as Christians; he went so far as to join the Hitler Youth. His experience under the Nazi regime made him yearn for rule by a constitutional monarchy: 

"...While the rationalist way of thinking has given us in this century an ephemeral, higher American standard of living at the expense of nature and creation, which has now come to an end, but our heart, our quality of life destroyed, our desires, without which an Austrian does not want to live. It is outrageous that Austria has an emperor who did no evil to anyone, but is still treated like a leper. Austria needs a crown! Long live Austria! Long live the constitutional monarchy! Long live Otto von Habsburg!"

Hundertwasser had his own ideas about gardening, which was to let nature take its course. The Garden of Eden is now owned by the Hundertwasser Foundation in Vienna and is completely closed to the public. Hundertwasser's possessions are still there, just as he left them when he died at sea in 2000, and the Garden of Eden is now growing wild, as nature, true to his wishes, takes its course. 

In May 2012, the Danish author, Annemette Fogh, was granted exclusive admission to the garden to take photos with the help of Mimmo Fabrizi. Her pricey paperback (€45) is the only opportunity we have to get a glimpse into this garden where phantoms of the past still roam.

The Garden of Eden at

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. Told in a series of vignettes with gossipy titles -- "The French Actress and Her Nazi Lover," "The Jewish Bartender and the German Resistance," "The American Wife and the Swiss Director," "Coco's War and Other Dirty Linen," "The Blond Bombshell and the Nuclear Scientists" -- Mazzeo uses a format that indulges the reader's thirst for scandal while imparting well-researched information that has been suppressed for too many years.