April 2, 2014

Author hitches her star to champagne glass

Posted by WARREN PERLEY – Editor, BestStory.ca
Writing from Montreal

Tilar J. Mazzeo, a self-described “scavenger for details,” has the kind of tenacity that can pay big dividends for a best-selling author of non-fiction.

In her most recent book, titled The Hotel on Place Vendôme, published by HarperCollins, Tilar scours the Hôtel Ritz under a magnifying glass to reveal, in the words of former New York Times foreign correspondent Alan Riding, “a steamy world of sex, drugs, partying and political intrigue” during the Nazi occupation of France between September 1940 and August 1944. The sub-title of her book reveals all: Life, Death and Betrayal at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris.

Few, if any, cultural icons of the 20th century have denoted more pretentious luxury than the Hôtel Ritz, which was the inspiration for the slang expression, “putting on the Ritz,” referring to a grand lifestyle, replete with sartorial splendor and fine food.

Just three decades after its founding by Swiss hotelier César Ritz in 1898, American songwriter Irving Berlin was inspired in 1929 to publish a song titled Putting On The Ritz, which made its debut as part of a musical of that name one year later.

In 1934, the National Biscuit Company (later known as Nabisco) took advantage of the international patina of the Ritz in order develop a round buttery cracker with scalloped edges, which it marketed under the brand Ritz Crackers.

Ritz has even made its way into the Oxford Dictionary as the noun “ritz” and “ritziness”, as well the adjectives “ritzy”, “ritzier” and “ritziest”, meaning flamboyant luxury. All derivatives of the word are attributed by the Oxford to the Hôtel Ritz founded by César Ritz.

Tilar’s book traces the history of the Hôtel Ritz from its founding through the Roaring 20s with its colony of European and American expatriate artists, including F. Scott Fitzgerald; through the war years and Ernest Hemingway’s claim that he liberated the Ritz from the Nazis in late August 1944; through and beyond the 1979 sale of the iconic hotel to Egyptian-born millionaire Mohamed Al Fayed whose son Dodi Fayed and Princess Di ate their last meals there on August 31, 1997 before succumbing to injuries sustained in a traffic accident while trying to flee paparazzi.

[According to eyewitnesses, the only thing Hemingway liberated at the Hôtel Ritz one late August day in 1944 was its fine wine collection, the Germans having fled from the hotel in advance of the American Army’s arrival.]

The majority of Tilar’s history of the Ritz concentrates on the war years and the collaboration between Nazi occupiers and the French elite of the business, entertainment and literary worlds in what was then still the cultural capital of the West. What they all had in common was a love of luxury and power.

As Editor of BestStory.ca, I feel fortunate that Tilar has treated us to not just one, but two examples of her writing, which you can find on our home page — www.beststory.ca. Her main piece is about the challenges she faced — almost seven decades after the war had ended — in conducting research into the cozy relationship between many Parisians living under the Vichy regime and their Nazi occupiers, who set up their headquarters in the Hôtel Ritz in September 1940.

In her typical understated style, Tilar, 42, told me in a telephone interview that she speaks French “imperfectly but courageously” having studied the language in high school in Camden, Maine and practiced it during teenage summers spent with family friends in Orleans, located 69 miles southwest of Paris and known for its magnificent chateaus, lush vineyards and succulent French cuisine.

Her language skills and determination have served well in her adult life, as she transitioned from the sedate world of New England writing and literature professor into a high-octane, non-fiction author who takes 12- to 18-month academic sabbaticals to trot the globe ferreting out secrets from earlier eras about luxury brands and their enduring influence on people’s self-identities.

In her BestStory.ca article, Tilar takes us behind the scenes of the blisteringly hot Paris summer of 2011 as she traipsed through archives and cobble-stoned streets searching for clues of collaborations which had occurred between occupiers and occupied a lifetime ago. She didn’t get much cooperation from the French bureaucrats, but that didn’t deter her.

For both writers and readers of non-fiction, her article is a primer on the serious, sustained effort and subtle approach required in researching a delicate subject. In total, she spent three years on research and one year to write the book.

“I learned at some point,” Tilar told me, “not to be so specific about what I was looking for.” The object of her desire was the Hôtel Ritz registry, which would have identified the list of guests staying there at the same time as the Nazis. “I didn’t realize how unpopular a subject wartime collaboration still is with the public there. They’re very sensitive about it.”

Of course, not all the French are, or were, sensitive about wartime fraternization. Take Arletty, described in Tilar’s book as a “sultry French film star and national celebrity” who “passed the war in luxury at the Hôtel Ritz” with her much younger German lover, Hans-Jürgen Soehring, a handsome, blonde lieutenant in the Luftwaffe and the son of a diplomat.

Arletty was imprisoned after the war, at age 47, for fraternizing with the enemy, but remained unchastened when released from her cell a few years later to resume her career as an actress. She is quoted by Geoffrey Nowell Smith in The Oxford History of World Cinema as saying of her scandalous love affair: “My heart is French, but my ass is international.”

The second treat offered by Tilar on the BestStory.ca site is an exclusive excerpt from her book’s Chapter 7 titled, The Jewish Bartender and The German Resistance. It revolves around Frank Meier, better known as Frank of The Ritz, a debonair Austrian of Jewish heritage who worked with the French Resistance while serving drinks to Nazi bar patrons.

During the course of her research, Tilar discovered that Frank was involved in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler with a bomb planted at his Rastenburg, Prussia command post known as “Wolf’s Lair.” The bomb was contained in a briefcase planted by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, chief of the army reserve. The assassination attempt became known as Operation Valkyrie, which was the German government’s code name for an emergency plan in case of a general breakdown in civil order.

Tilar’s Chapter 7 picks up at the Cambon bar at the Hôtel Ritz on Friday, July 21, 1944, the day after the bomb went off charring and temporarily paralyzing one of Hitler’s arms, but otherwise leaving him very much alive and bent on revenge against those who had plotted his death.

Tilar engulfs her readers with dramatic alacrity:

“The storm troopers at the Ritz that day [July 21, 1944] weren’t looking for wounded gunmen or members of the French resistance. It was the German plot they were working to uncover. The Ritz bar — Frank’s domain — had been a center of the German resistance in Paris almost since the war began.”

Tilar told me that Frank was the “mailbox,” passing messages to and from Resistance fighters at his bar. During her research of archives, Tilar discovered that German police in Berlin knew that Frank was a conduit, but decided not to arrest him. She never found out why they let him continue to operate, but speculates that perhaps they were hoping he would lead them to “bigger fish.”

[A big thank-you to Andreas Augustin, president of The Most Famous Hotels In The World, an Austrian-based publishing company which writes about historic hotels, for allowing BestStory.ca to reproduce one of their photos of Frank Meier as part of Tilar’s excerpt: www.famoushotels.org ]

If you were to conclude that Frank’s main claim to fame was as a spy, you would be wrong. He’s one of the best-known barmen of the 20th century, having concocted multiple cocktails in honor of Hôtel Ritz bar patrons starting in 1921 through 1947. His 1934 book titled, The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, contains 300 of his recipes and went through three limited edition printings. It’s still available on amazon.com.

And if you were to assume that Tilar Mazzeo is a shy bookworm and writer who cherishes her solitude [See her Contributor’s Profile at www.beststory.ca], you would likely be wrong, once again. All her photos depict a wispy, ethereal presence with a toothy, luminous smile framed by a stylish bob of blonde hair, perhaps a vestige of the 11th century conquest of Sicily by the Normans, also known as Norsemen, themselves descendents of the Vikings. Tilar looks as though she would have been totally in her element hoisting libations with the literati who frequented the Hôtel Ritz bar between the two world wars.

Even the name, Tilar J. Mazzeo — J. stands for Jenon — has a patina of exoticism, a flash of her Sicilian and Finnish heritage (the Finnish is on her mother’s side mixed with American Puritan). She alights as a social butterfly to imbibe a pungent glass of wine while regaling new acquaintances with stimulating conversation in fluent English and French, buttressed by some Italian and German, and just a smidge of naughty Finnish to shock.

In fact, wine and writing seem to have played symbiotic roles in her life, according to a September 2011 interview she gave to Judy MacMahon of My French Life magazine. Her first job as a professor was in Oregon’s wine country in her early 20s. But her then-husband, also an academic, couldn’t find a job in Oregon. So they moved to the Midwest, where they both secured teaching positions. But there was no wine industry there, which left Tilar less than rosy.

To console herself, she studied the history of French champagne and made some new girlfriends who were also passionate about their wine. At some point, they graduated to sharing bottles of champagne amid girl talk as to whether there really was a Widow Clicquot behind the French champagne brand Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. (Veuve in French means widow.)

That led to her first book about luxury brands published in 2009 by HarperCollins and titled, The Widow Clicquot, a New York Times bestselling business biography of the visionary young widow who built a champagne empire.

One year later, HarperCollins published her second such book, The Secret of Chanel No. 5, an unauthorized biography of the world’s most famous perfume. In fact, the idea for her next book came to mind while researching British and American government documents about the wartime activities of fashion designer Coco Chanel: the name of the Hôtel Ritz kept popping up with its list of famous and infamous residents.

[You can find her most recent HarperCollins book about the Hôtel Ritz at: www.harpercollins.com ]

Describing herself as an “energetic, nomadic optimist,” Tilar said in the My French Life magazine interview that “the best ideas come from talking over champagne with girlfriends.”

She confided to me that she is a woman of “eclectic intellectual interests.” And she doesn’t seem to stay in one place very long. Every time I contacted her by phone or email over a one-week period, she was in a hotel or airport at Dallas, Boston, Tel Aviv and New York City, either to promote her new book or to research her next one.

Travel has been her passion since as a 17-year-old leaving high school she saved $10,000 working part-time as a waitress and took off several months, visiting France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and what was then Yugoslavia. She stayed in England, while a student at Cambridge, with stints living in Berlin, Paris and the south of France.

As a child growing up in the seaside town of Camden, Maine, she and her three younger brothers (a banker, a lawyer and a diplomat turned teacher) received art and dance lessons. Tilar’s mother and father, an engineer, also made sure that she received instruction in violin. But Tilar always had her eye on writing, announcing that career choice to her parents with the precocious self-confidence that only a 6-year-old can muster.

Of course, writing was already in her genes through a 13th century ancestor, troubadour Mazzeo di Ricco da Messina, one of the Italian Trecentisti/Sicilian school poets. The family lived in the Sicilian province of Messina until the devastating earthquake of 1908, which wiped out Tilar’s entire family there, except for her great-grandfather. On the boat to America, he met his wife-to-be, who was also the only one of her family to survive.

As befits someone who comes from a family which has worked diligently for all they have achieved, Tilar is humble…with an ever so quirky sense of humor. On ratemyprofessors.com, one student from Colby College in Maine wrote of her: “She made the required and dreaded class my favourite class. She’s fun and has a great sense of humor.” Another student wrote: “This travel writing class rocks. Tilar is witty and funny and damned smart and my head is buzzing when I get out of class. Awesome.”

But make sure you complete your lesson plans because she’s no pushover, according to a third student who wrote: “Mazzeo is cool. Slackers beware, but otherwise she rocks. Class discussions are intense.”

Somewhere between the Midwest, Maine and Paris, Tilar lost her first husband (divorce), but ended up remarrying in February 2013 another academic, Professor Robert Miles, chairman of the Department of English Literature at the University of Victoria. In 2014, she emigrated to Saanichton, British Columbia as a permanent Canadian resident. (The cost of cross-border tax accountants? “Bloody frightful,” she told me.)

To make sure her second marriage got off to a rollicking start, Tilar headed for Las Vegas where a justice of the peace dressed as Elvis pronounced the vows and then drove husband and wife down the Vegas strip in a pink Cadillac convertible while people cheered and horns honked.

In an interview with journalists Sarah Boland and Genevieve Liston-Oakden of The Colby Echo college newspaper, Tilar described her second marriage ceremony as “really sweet, a ton of fun.”

Happy to have you in Canada, Tilar, where your blithe spirit and literary talent are a welcome addition!

[See teaser below]

Published: APRIL 2014
World War II wounds still fester on subject of French collaboration

Reporting from Paris

Almost 70 years after the Second World War ended, the subject of collaboration with the Nazis by the elite of Parisian society is still a verboten subject. On at least one occasion, author Tilar Mazzeo was warned not to write about it. What happened at the Hôtel Ritz, where the German High Command set up headquarters in September 1940, should have been an easy story to tell in her new book titled, The Hotel on Place Vendôme. Instead French bureaucrats blocked her every attempt to find the hotel registry with the names of guests who had wined, dined and bed their Nazi captors. Now a best-selling, non-fiction author gives us a glimpse into the challenges of researching the dirty secrets of war.

Barman’s cocktail mix: Nazis on the rocks

Frank of the Ritz looked elegant and suave in his white bar coat and pince-nez, but he wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty when it came to working with the French Resistance against Nazi occupiers of his beloved Paris. Known to be a gambler, Frank, who was an Austrian of Jewish heritage, would both take and place bets on everything from horses races to current events, such as Charles Lindbergh’s first solo trans-Atlantic flight in May 1927. But that was nothing compared to the biggest gamble of his life when he got involved with the July 20, 1944 plot by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg to assassinate Adolph Hitler by planting a bomb at his command post in Prussia.


We have included an exclusive excerpt from Chapter 7 of The Hotel On Place Vendôme — The Jewish Bartender and The German Resistance — courtesy of TILAR MAZZEO and HarperCollins Publishers.

3,774 Words | 14 Photos | 1 Illustration

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