Mixing It Up

Frank Meier, The Paris Ritz’s Mysterious Bartender Spy

The enigmatic Frank Meier was not just a brilliant cocktail-maker, he also helped the French Resistance when the Germans occupied Paris.

The Hôtel Ritz Paris is famous for its Bar Hemingway, which is a top destination for cocktail lovers around the world.

In 1994, the establishment was named for—you guessed it—famed author and noted bon vivant Ernest Hemingway because of his patronage of the hotel and his epic drinking sessions there. But Papa and his larger than life personality have overshadowed the Ritz’s true hero behind the bar: a man named Frank Meier.

Very little is known about his early life (and his late life, come to that). Meier, Austrian-born and part Jewish, was the hotel’s first head bartender and began working there in 1921, when its Cafe Parisian opened its doors.

According to David Wondrich, noted cocktail historian and author of the newly revised book Imbibe!, he trained at the legendary bar in New York’s Hoffman House hotel, which was on Madison Square, in 1903.

Meier had a talent for creating and mixing up delicious drinks—he created the classic Bees’ Knees, a combination of lemon, honey and gin (the full recipe is below)—but he also had an innate sense of hospitality.

Colin Field, current head bartender at the Ritz, reports that Meier greeted favorite guests in the lobby before they checked in and helped them carry their bags.

“He was the first head bartender to say that the role of the head bartender is not to be behind the bar, but in front of the bar as a host,” explains Field. As a result, “It wasn’t necessarily Frank that was making the cocktails at that time.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Meier’s beautifully ornate, art deco book from 1936, The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, features not only his favorite cocktail recipes, but a whole chapter on “Useful Formulas,” as well.

The section includes everything from cleaning tips (for stains on alabaster he recommends “strong soap and water”) to first aid advice to a short history of horse racing.

Though just 1,026 copies of the first edition were printed (26 were reserved for Meier), online barware emporium Cocktail Kingdom now sells a faithful reprint with an introduction by Field.

Though Meier’s bar-related contributions are more than notable, his escapades during World War II are truly fascinating and paint a picture of a multifaceted man with an enterprising and brave disposition.

He continued to run his bar even after the Germans occupied Paris and the hotel became popular with many Nazis and their sympathizers, including Hermann Göring and Coco Chanel, who both lived there.

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Meier did more than survive the war and avoid deportation.

According to Tilar J. Mazzeo’s fascinating study of the war-time Ritz, The Hotel on Place Vendôme, Meier helped both the French resistance and British spies.

On top of that, he assisted some of the Jewish residents of the hotel in obtaining fake documents that allowed them to dodge the Vichy government’s concentration-camp round-ups.

“He was under Gestapo surveillance and was known to be very anti-German,” says Mazzeo, who has examined his German police file while researching her book. He wasn’t alone: “There were very few people, who were staff at the Ritz, who were not actively engaged in some kind of resistance.”

Meier also passed notes for Hans Speidel and Carl von Stülpnagel as they were planning the failed assassination of Adolph Hitler and Göring in 1944.

Mazzeo says the idea was partially hatched in Meier’s bar while the principals were enjoying his tasty concoctions. Meier was the perfect courier since he ran a notorious gambling operation out of the hotel. “It was under the guise of placing bets,” says Mazzeo. “That guise only would have been believable if there had been a history of placing bets at the Ritz.”

However exciting Meier’s actions during World War II were, they ultimately cost him his job—but not for the reasons one might think. According to Field, he had taken to instructing some of his clients to pay their tabs to his private London bank account.

Subsequently, he was supposed to pay off their debts. He never did. “When the hotel found out about this, that was the end of Frank,” says Field. “He disappeared.” Like a spy, he melted away into the night. Some claim that he popped up later in the South of France and passed away in 1947.

“If one were to speculate, you can see that if you were risking your life engaging in resistance to the degree that the Gestapo was watching you, thinking of ways to make more money for a Swiss family, who were certainly German sympathizers on the face of it, it would be hard to be like, ‘I’m going to pass them more money,’” postulates Mazzeo. “You could see why somebody might embezzle.”

Before the war, according to a story in a 1930 edition of The New York Sun unearthed by Wondrich, Meier also received a percentage of the bar’s sales. Perhaps that arrangement ended after the start of the German occupation of Paris and this was Meier’s attempt to even the score. The truth is, we may never know exactly what happened.

One thing we do know is that the Ritz is nearly finished with its epic multi-year renovation and will reopen this December. If you find yourself in Paris around that time, visit the hotel, order a Bees’ Knees, and toast to the many lives of Frank Meier.

Bees’ Knees

In shaker: the juice of one-quarter Lemon, a teaspoon of Honey, one-half glass [one-ounce] of Gin; shake well and serve.

Recipe courtesy of The Artistry of Mixing Drinks.