César Ritz: The Legacy of the 'King of Hoteliers'

The Ritz, Paris
The Ritz, Paris | © CROLLALANZA / REX / Shutterstock
Chiara Assi

César Ritz coined the phrase ‘the customer is always right’, helping to transform the hospitality industry forevermore. 100 years after his death, César Ritz’s legacy lives on.

Known as ‘king of hoteliers, and hotelier to kings’, César Ritz is a legend in the world of hospitality and his last name is synonymous with luxury in many countries around the world. 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of his death, but this incredibly creative and legendary pioneer of the hospitality industry won’t be easily forgotten. Here is his incredible life story.

Off to a rocky start

César Ritz’s origins are quite distant from the glitz and glitter that characterise the Ritz hotels. The youngest of 13 children, César was born in 1850 in the Swiss village of Niederwald to a family of poor peasants and his success was the result of a long and continuous effort. Despite the humble condition of his family, Ritz’s sharpness didn’t go unnoticed – his mother saw in him a lot of creative potential and insisted that he continue with his education. At the age of 12, Ritz was sent to a French-speaking boarding school in Sion run by Jesuit Fathers, but the young César showed little interest in the subjects that were taught by his professors. At 15, Ritz’s father decided to move him to Brig, to apprentice as a sommelier at a hotel. Unfortunately, César didn’t seem to be much appreciated by his superiors and was dismissed by the patron of the hotel who declared:
You’ll never make anything of yourself in the hotel business. It takes a special knack, a special flair, and it’s only right that I tell you the truth – you haven’t got it.

The Paris years

However, his luck was about to change. Ritz left Switzerland to seek his fortune in Paris at the time of the 1867 Universal Exhibition and was employed by several restaurants and hotels, working his way up from waiter to manager. By the time he turned 19, he was known for being an exceptional server, fast on his feet and attentive to his guests. During this time, he also met famous French chef Auguste Escoffier, who became an indispensable mentor and advisor, as well as one of his best friends. Ritz’s life and career were finally on the right track and he was about to make a name for himself in the world of luxury hospitality.

Conquering Europe

Ritz moved a lot in the following years, as he was asked to manage some of the most prestigious hotels in Europe. During the world exhibition in 1873 in Vienna, he rubbed elbows with the most prominent political figures of the time, such as the Prince of Wales; in 1874 he travelled to the stunning Rigi Kulm Hotel on Lake Lucerne, where he amazed guests with his avant-garde and extravagant ideas, like making brass plant pots into radiators when the heating stopped working or saving the Grand National Hotel from bankruptcy by motivating the staff with an innovative performance and reward system.

The Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly, London

From manager to owner to saviour

In the 1880s, César Ritz’s life further changed and evolved: he met Marie-Louise Beck, the daughter of a hotelier, who became his loving wife and the mother of his two sons. He also bought two businesses, the Restaurant de la Conversation in Baden-Baden, Germany and the Hôtel de Provence in Cannes, France. Thanks to his experience, intuition and creativity he quickly attracted important guests, such as the German Kaiser and the Italian Prime Minister, and with them came great success and international recognition, to the point that he was called to hotels of the highest calibre, such as The Savoy in London when the structure was undergoing a difficult time and was fearing bankruptcy. Needless to say, Ritz saved it and brought it back to its former glory.

Hotel expert extraordinaire

Between 1890 and 1900, Ritz reached the peak of his success as the number one hotel expert in the world. He was appointed the first president of the Ritz Hotel Development Company in London and designed plans for stunning and avant-garde hotels in Cairo, Madrid and Johannesburg, as well as managing eight hotels with more than 2,000 beds across Europe: not an easy job, but one that Ritz excelled at, nonetheless.

Back to his first love

Despite all his travels, César Ritz had never forgotten his early years in Paris and always dreamed of owning his own hotel in his favourite city. In 1898, his dream came true: he opened the Hotel Ritz Paris in a former prince’s residence in Place Vendôme. Here, Ritz could finally apply all his ideas. Every detail was carefully planned, his staff worked towards satisfying the desires of every guest and the cuisine was creative and followed the latest trends. Everything was done exactly how Ritz had always dreamed:
The hotel Ritz is a small house of which I am very proud to see my name attached to.

The Ritz, Paris

His final years

Unfortunately, shortly after crowning his dream, Ritz started to suffer from inexplicable breakdowns and depression, so much so that his wife had to take charge of the business, becoming the first hotel manageress in the world. César moved back to Lucerne and then, to his home village of Niederwald and never travelled again. He died on October 24, 1918, leaving a large void in the world of luxury hospitality. His wife had him buried in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, next to their unfortunate son, René, who had also died that year. In 1961, when Marie-Louise Ritz died as well, the last surviving member of the family, her and César’s son Charles, had the three of them moved to Niederwald, where Ritz originally came from. To this day, the plain grave of this great man can be visited in the small mountain town.

Bust of César Ritz, inside the Ritz Hotel

Gone but not forgotten

The legacy of this pioneering hotelier lives on: his visions and ideas are, to this day, important in the catering and hotel business. It is thanks to Ritz that the guest has become the centre, the pivotal point around which everything in modern hospitality moves.

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