The darkest days in history sometimes hide a few hopeful moments—like that time Ernest Hemingway, automatic rifle in hand, chased the last Nazis from the Ritz Paris and its famous bar, even before the 2nd armoured division of General Leclerc made its entry into Paris.
This heroic act of the liberation of Paris in August 1944 is more myth than fact (though the American author and his compatriot F Scott Fitzgerald were certainly said to be more or less stationed at the Ritz bar). Today, this anecdote continues to add to the folklore around the legendary locale. Fifty years after the episode, the Ritz renamed its famous "Little Bar" as "Bar Hemingway." It certainly has a nice ring to it.
While Hemingway's adventures are well known, we tend to forget another very important character in the story of the Ritz under the German occupation: the bartender at the time, Frank Meier. When he wasn't busy shaking cocktails at the five-star-hotel-turned-Luftwaffe-headquarters, he held an active role in the French Resistance. He passed fake IDs to the hotel's Jewish clients, and is believed to have served as a kind of messenger for Nazi officers who planned to assassinate Hitler.
Under the occupation, the Ritz harboured Germans—including Hermann Göring—but also hid Allied pilots, fugitives, Jews, and members of the Resistance, thanks to schemes rolled out by hotel personnel. Tilar Mazzeo, author of The Hotel on Place Vendôme: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, writes that "most members of the Ritz staff were involved in acts of resistance." Mazzeo even believes that the 20 July plot, led in part by officers Hans Speidel and Carl Von Stülpnagel, was planned inside the hotel. And Frank Meier may have played a role.
"The primary sources confirming this theory are documents from the German police force in Berlin. Having your name listed anywhere on these documents meant that you were in danger," Mazzeo explains. "Frank Meier was under Gestapo surveillance—they suspected him of being a kind of mailbox, transferring messages from the Ritz to the German Resistance. They knew he had distant Jewish roots, and was working against the interests of Nazi Germany."
Mazzeo writes that Meier served as a sort of liaison officer for the conspirators—even though he must not have known exactly what kind of information the messages contained. In addition, he provided fake IDs to people who were looking to flee occupied France.
François Monti, author of 101 Cocktails to Try Before You Die, a reference book on the history of cocktails, also thinks that Meier played a role in the resistance: "We have yet to determine the exact nature of his involvement, but the portrait is credible. Since the Ritz was one of the only Parisian hotels that could still welcome civilians, and was simultaneously being used by the occupying forces, the bartender's role was crucial: he could hear all."
The Ritz was also the backdrop for many other historical anecdotes since opening in 1898. "As soon as it opened—in the midst of Emile Zola's second trial, during the Dreyfus Affair—the hotel became a second home to Parisian artists and intellectuals. This reputation was further solidified in the 1920s," Mazzeo says.
At that time, hotel management opened up a new space—the Parisian Café—on the ground floor, and it became a favourite hangout for expats. "The Ritz was synonymous with all that was exciting and modern in the capital. During the German Occupation, it was an icon, and probably the world's most famous hotel. This is also why the Germans wanted to keep it open—so that they, too, could live the legend," says Mazzeo.
Meier's past does not tell us much about the personal motivations behind his activism. Before he started working at the Ritz, all we know is that he was born in Austria and was trained at the bar at the Hoffman House Hotel in New York.
Monti gives us a few details about this first job: "At the time, this was one of the city's most prestigious establishments, serving an upper-class clientele. People went for the mural that decorated the bar—a scandalous depiction of nude nymphs and satyrs—but most of all, they went there to enjoy the city's most sophisticated cocktails."
"We don't know exactly how Meier landed there, what kind of work he did, or what led a young Austrian to New York, but there certainly was no better place to receive training and strengthen one's resume," Monti adds. After establishing his reputation in America, Meier crossed the Atlantic to flee prohibition. Paris became his El Dorado.
Rich American tourists quickly understood that Paris was the place to go to drink legally, Monti reminds us. The Ritz flowed with the tide: "Meier was likely recruited because of his name and experience in New York. He was charged with opening the hotel's first American bar.
In 1936, at the peak of his career, Meier published The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, a guide that outlined cocktail recipes and good manners. This is where he documented his creations, including his most famous, the Bees' Knees.
"It's a sour gin with honey," explains Monti. "The use of honey instead of simple syrup is worthy of note. While it's underutilised in cocktail recipes, it is capable of lending incredible subtlety to even the simplest mixtures. It is rarely seen on bar menus, but most good bartenders make use of it. Meier showed us the merits of the ingredient."
"But the one I always point out is the Seapea Fizz—a fizz made with Pernod. It doesn't sound that exciting on paper, but it's an excellent drink, and I like what its name and ingredients represent: Pernod representing France, and Cole Porter representing America (Seapea refers to the initials CP). It's the entire story of Frank Meier, Austrian bartender, in a single cocktail."
After the war, there are no traces of Meier. Did his time at the Ritz have a disastrous ending? Mazzeo, who points out that many of the documents that listed the identities and nationalities of the hotel's clients were destroyed, making research into the matter particularly complex.
Meier's legacy, nonetheless, is immeasurable.
In the introduction of a reprint of The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, Colin Peter Field, head bartender at the Ritz today, writes that Frank Meier was a man with a passion, not just a job. He was someone who could talk cocktails and wine, but also knew a thing or two about good manners and good living.
Monti concludes: "Frank Meier is a sacred figure, even if most bartenders have forgotten him. He is a founding member and former president of the ABF (Association of Bartenders of France), and represents the professionalisation of bartending in France. For a time, his students, who succeeded him at the Ritz, kept his philosophy alive. Frank Meier was a very 1930s character: colourful but discreet, a mix of folklore and professionalism."
That is the recipe that makes history, and turns a bartender into a legend.
This story previously appeared in French on MUNCHIES FR.