1950s Archive

The Ritz in Retrospect

Originally Published January 1951

On December 15, 1910, the New York Times announced: "The first dinner at the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Forty-sixth Street and Madison Avenue, was served last night to 120 newspaper men and friends of the management." The speeches were quoted, the distinguished guests, international as well as New York celebrities, were listed, and the following menu appeared:

· Caviar d'Astrakhan
· Blinis à la Russe
· Tortus Verte en Tasse
· Sticky à la Polonaise
· Mousseline de Homard au Chablis
· Crevettes Rosés à l'Américaine
· Velouté Ducbesse
· Selle d'Agneau à la Broche
· Pommes Mireilles
· Flageolets au Beurre
· Neige au Clicquot
· Cailles de New York sur Croustades
· Salade Japonaise
· Parfait de Foie Gras au Porto
· Soufflé Walkyrie
· Feuilles Viennoises
· Mignardises
· Corbeilles de Fruits

· Amontillado Dry
· Saarburger Moselle Extra
· Ponset Canet 1900
· Giesler Brut 1904
· Martinez Old Port
· Denis Mounié 1865
· Grandes Liqueurs

That was on the fourteenth. On the fifteenth, the Oval Room, resplendent with its mirrors, soft green walls, and decorations in the architectural style of the Adams Brothers, served its first dinner to the public. Every table had been reserved months in advance; the long menu and carefully selected wine list left nothing to be desired. This was a gala night for the globe-trotting elite who now had one of their beloved Ritz Hotels in New York.

Few men, I suppose, have the opportunity of living through the entire life, from its very beginning to the final end, of a celebrated establishment. But when the Ritz-Carlton in New York closes its famous doors—as it will shortly—that will be my status. I am the only department head who has remained steadily at his post during all those forty crowded years. Older men, for the most part, guided the early days and. one by one, have passed on or retired to quieter ways of living. But I was pretty young in 1910, the youngest chef, they told me, ever to be handed such responsibility.

Anyone who has ever prepared to move into smaller quarters by clearing out the attic of a big house where the family was raised will understand how I feel. Familiar objects, now that they will be dispersed this way and that, evoke reminiscences, amusing, wistful, often sad, that are suddenly etched on the mind as sharply as a photograph. My memories of the Ritz are involved, as you might expect, with cooking and menus, with recipes and eating customs, but also with how they reflect the changing scene in New York and in the world. The unhurried elegance before World War I, the years of riotous spending after it, the Depression years, Prohibition and the lowered standards of eating and drinking that it brought about, the rationing of World War II—all bring back their own pictures that lead from an era of fine food leisurely enjoyed to the quickened meal tempo and the don't-waste-time-on-cooking ideas that are so prevalent today.

When the closing was announced some months ago, a gasp went around the circle of Ritz devotees. This couldn't be, they said, What would New York be without the Ritz? It was to them an institution, not just a hotel. The news made many stop to wonder how the Ritz had achieved this intangible but very definite connotation which makes even the word itself or any of its colloquial forms—Ritzy, à la Ritz, putting On the Ritz—a symbol of luxury and sophistication. To understand this, you have to understand the philosophy and ideals of one-man, César Ritz.

Ritz dreamed of a hotel, duplicated in important world centers, that would offer the ultimate in fine living to those who could afford and appreciate such luxury. Beautiful surroundings, unexcelled and unusual service, unsurpassed food and wine regardless of the cost in time, effort, and money, anticipation of the whims of the fortunate guests as well as satisfaction, an uncommonly careful selection and training of staff to give meticulous attention to the smallest details. All these ideals formed the keystone of the Ritz tradition of elegance and quality. César Ritz, of course, had no monopoly on dreams or ideas but he was unique because he managed to bring them to such splendid fruition.

It was Mr. Robert Walton Goelet, because he so appreciated the Ritz Hotels in Europe, who decided to give his own New York the last word in this type of luxury establishment. He and his friend Mr. William Harris, the president of the London Ritz and Carlton Hotels, later president of the New York Ritz-Carlton, put their heads together on plans for the new hotel. Fortunately, Mr. Whitney Warren, America's great architect, whose firm built the Grand Central Station and many buildings in that area, was an uncle of Mr. Goelet. So When his services were obtained, he took a personal as well as a professional interest in the project.

Mr. Goelet spared no expense on the construction, equipment, and furnishings, and during the ensuing years made every change and addition required for the needs of the growing establishment. For example, by 1912 it became obvious that the important social functions were all coming to the Ritz, which had been designed not so much for large functions as for serving a very restricted clientele. So the Crystal Room and Ballroom were added in such a way that a wall composed of doors could be opened at one end of the Oval Room onto a wide, curving staircase down to the Crystal Room and up to the Ballroom, making a tremendously impressive setting for any huge affair. I remember that when Queen Marie of Rumania visited this country in the twenties, she said on seeing it. "Why, this is as beautiful as my palace."

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