PARIS—“It was no longer even a question of faded grandeur. It was just faded.”
This mildly snarky assessment of the Hôtel Lutetia—a Paris institution dating back to the Belle Époque—came from acquaintance who had stayed there before it closed in 2014 for an extensive revamp.
And while it’s true that the elevator was a bit cramped and the rooms somewhat weathered, the Lutetia’s numerous incarnations throughout history imbued it with a timeless mystique that made it easier to overlook the fraying carpets and gloomy lounges.
James Joyce wrote part of Ulysses here, and was fond of belting out Irish ballads at the piano in the bar. Josephine Baker kept a semi-permanent suite, and was such a fixture at the luxe Parisian lodging that one of the lounges bears her name. Ernest Hemingway was a regular, Picasso was a resident, and a young Charles de Gaulle checked in for his wedding night.
There were also the well-heeled French who came for month-long stays bearing myriad Hermès trunks, as well as the moneyed out-of-towners who traveled to Paris for shopping sprees at the neighboring Bon Marché. The champagne flowed at the Lutetia during the famed années folles (crazy years) of the 1920s, literary legends gathered in its salons through the 1930s, and jazz spilled out of the lounges late into the night.
Then the Gestapo moved in and the decades-long party came to an abrupt end.
“Had it been an ocean liner,” journalist Michel Grisolia wrote in L’Express in 2005, “the Lutetia would have resembled the Titanic sailing towards catastrophe in the wake of perfume, champagne, and insouciance.”
However, unlike the doomed ship that sank two years after the hotel opened, the Lutetia soldiered on through the postwar decades until it was finally shuttered in 2014 for what many agreed was a much-needed overhaul.
And now, more than four years later, the onetime grand dame of the city’s Rive Gauche is set to begin a new incarnation as a Paris palace—the Left Bank’s answer to Hôtel de Crillon, Le Meurice, and other ultra-luxury lodgings on the other side of the Seine that cater to wealthy foreign visitors.
According to the country’s official government tourism agency, Atout France, to achieve palace status a hotel property is required to have specific amenities, including a pool, a spa, a gym, a garden, 24-hour room service, trilingual personnel, and double rooms that are at least 30 square meters (roughly 325 square feet)—spacious by Paris standards.
As reported previously in The Daily Beast, there are currently nearly a dozen such hotels in the French capital, all of them located in the Right Bank’s so-called “Golden Triangle” near major landmarks, such as the Place de la Concorde and the Champs Elysées, and haute couture boutiques. Most of them were private mansions at one point, and although favored by affluent Americans, are largely avoided by the French save for an occasional drink at the bar.
The Lutetia, by contrast, has long been a fixture in the once-bohemian Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood where locals gathered in the lounges, and French was heard as often (or more so) than English. The sole grand hotel on the Left Bank, it was constructed on the initiative of Marguerite and Aristide Baucicaut, who owned the upscale Bon Marché department store, which is around the corner.
The Baucicaut’s envisioned chic quarters in which to lodge out-of-town shoppers and suppliers, and the hotel was constructed on the site of an onetime abbey with an Art Nouveau exterior and, later, an Art Deco interior. The architects even commissioned Paul Belmondo (the father of celebrated actor Jean-Paul Belmondo) as one of the façade’s decorators, and the Lutetia, which was the original Roman name for Paris, debuted in the winter of 1910.
While all of Paris’s palaces are dense with history—Marie Antoinette took music lessons at the mansion that would later become the Hôtel de Crillon, for instance—the echoes of the past ring louder at the Lutetia than at other grand hotels in the French capital because, like the hotel itself, its ghosts are more recent.
No one understands this better than the award-winning French writer and journalist Pierre Assouline, whose 2005 prize-winning novel, Lutetia, reveals the hotel’s many metamorphoses before, during, and after World War II—from its pre-war decadences to its occupation by the Gestapo’s counter-intelligence services to its post-war months as a repatriation center for concentration camp deportees.
Assouline meticulously researched the hotel’s history: combing through archives and gathering interviews as though preparing to write a work of nonfiction. And while the narrator is the author’s own invention, the detailed portrayal of the 1930s and 1940s-era Lutetia is anchored in fact—right down to the name of the hotel switchboard operator. Also factual are the series of events depicted during those turbulent years. At times, unsettling so. Page through Lutetia (unfortunately, it has yet to be translated into English) and you’ll discover it’s as much a biography of the hotel itself as it is a story of the adventures and misadventures of its hotel detective protagonist.
“Nothing enchanted me like allowing myself to be carried away by the delicious brouhaha of this intimate theater,” Assouline’s main character, Édouard Kiefer, muses during a lighthearted pre-war soirée. “This mélange of ashtrays clicking against each other and ice cubes falling into glasses, the long muffled whisper and bursts of conversations, the real interior music of the Lutetia. The murmur of the hotel.”
Like many other members of Paris’s writing and publishing set, Assouline, who is a literary star in France, spent a fair amount of time at the hotel.
“I wanted to write a book about a grand hotel,” Assouline told The Daily Beast. “The Lutetia was the hotel I knew the best and for the longest, but that is not the reason I chose to write about it. The hotel has a real story within the history of France.”
And, like the city in which it was built, the hotel’s history has some dark chapters.
Following the German invasion of France in the spring of 1940, the Lutetia, like all other grand hotels in the French capital, was swiftly requisitioned by Nazi troops. Hotel guests were sent packing and replaced by members of the Abwehr—the Gestapo’s military intelligence service—who holed up in guest rooms with typewriters, radio transmitters, telephones, and safes. Forced to cater to the hotel’s new occupants, the Lutetia’s staff saw the once-lavish space adopt a somber and menacing ambiance.
“If Europe had become a prison, if France was a prison within a prison, nobody would have believed that the hotel could have become a prison for the French who worked there.” Édouard Kiefer observes in Lutetia after the Nazi takeover. “A gilded cage.”
Even today, the stains from the hotel’s war-era past linger in the national consciousness, and for many in France its name is still synonymous with opulence and brutality. Assouline finds the singling out of the Lutetia puzzling because, as he pointed out, all the hotels in Paris were requisitioned and occupied by German forces during the war.
“Of all the palaces, the only one that experienced a redemption was the Lutetia, because it served as a place where the deportees returned to their lives,” he said. “But the paradox is when you say ‘Lutetia,’ you say ‘Gestapo,’ but we don’t know why. It is very curious.”
Charles de Gaulle himself chose the hotel to welcome returning deportees, Assouline explained, because of its understated grandeur.
“The Ritz and others were too luxurious, and almost insulting,” he said. “These were people who had lived in atrocious conditions and then to find themselves surrounded by marble and this kind of luxury was obscene.”
“It was also his hotel,” Assouline added. “Like many French from the provinces, he lived there when he was in Paris.”
Assouline details the hotel’s said redemption in the book’s third and final section, which is the most moving, and also the most jarring. In the chaotic weeks after of the war, busloads of concentration camp survivors and prisoners of war arrived at the hotel in search of family members from whom they had been separated. Photographs of the missing lined the walls, the anguished cries of children rang through the salons, and many deportees desperately tried to locate loved ones that would never return.
Among the returnees was Marceline Loridan-Ivens.
A Paris-based author and filmmaker, Loridan-Ivens, 90, was deported to Auschwitz at 15 with her father. Loridan-Ivens told The Daily Beast when she first walked into the Lutetia as a 17-year-old girl during the spring of 1945, she had grown so used to sleeping on the ground or on the floor that she continued to do so during her three-week stay at the hotel.
“There were a lot of people gathered outside the hotel who showed me pictures of their families—their children who had been deported, their parents,” she recalled. “And I told them that those who had not come back were all dead.”
The hotel was able to track down her mother, who had gone into hiding during the war. Loridan-Ivens spoke to her by phone from the hotel, and it was during this conversation that she learned that her father had not survived. Solomon Rosenberg, Loridan-Ivens’ father, died during the camp’s infamous “death march” from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Loslau in the winter of 1945.
“I didn’t want to come home after that,” Loridan-Ivens, who was close to her father, remembered. “But I couldn’t stay at the hotel either.”
Following the war, the Lutetia resumed its normal rhythm. The Taittinger family, of the storied Champagne brand, purchased the hotel in the 1950s, and artists, authors, and publishers gathered in its salons once again. The jazz concerts returned, Serge Gainsbourg and Catherine Deneuve visited, and fashion designer Sonia Rykiel opened an in-house boutique.
The Taittingers sold the hotel to Starwood Capital in 2005, and the Tel Aviv-based Alrov group—a real estate development company that specializes in luxury properties—purchased the hotel in 2010 for €150 million ($176 million). The Alrov group closed the hotel in 2014, auctioning off the building’s contents, including crystal champagne glasses and Art Deco furniture, and for more than four years the neighborhood grande dame fell silent.
On July 12, after a €200 million ($234 million) facelift, the Lutetia reopened, and yet a new incarnation began.
Arriving for the opening day, the first thing I noticed was how much brighter the new Lutetia is. One of architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte’s objectives was to “let the light” enter the hotel, and I was relieved to see that he had succeeded in doing so without transforming the place into a stark, ultra-modern monstrosity that smothered the hotel’s history. Instead, the place has maintained its Art Deco/Art Nouveau features while adding contemporary touches in the form of furnishings and light fixtures.
There is also a new open-air courtyard, a modern pool and spa (which, alas, doesn’t look much different from luxe hotel pools you’ll find in any major capital city), and a cigar bar, which has yet to open. The famed Brasserie Lutetia is also still shuttered, but is scheduled to open in September. During the renovation, workers spent 17,000 hours uncovering original Roman-style ceiling and wall frescoes buried under thick layers of plaster, and I could imagine happily zoning out to the harvest-like scenes of cattle, fruit trees, and grapes over Bordeaux and live jazz at the Bar Josephine.
And, despite its pending palace status, the Lutetia has maintained the streamlined, low-key luxury that appeals to the French, who tend to frown on the ostentatiousness and over-the-top bling. There isn’t any Versailles-esque gold leaf adorning the walls and ceilings, nor are there crystal chandeliers the size of small elephants hanging in the lobby. The number of rooms has been downsized from 233 to 184, including 47 suites, to make for larger quarters. The per-night rate has expanded along with the square footage, however, and an overnight stay in a standard 28 square-meter (roughly 301-square feet) room averages €850 ($995), which seems excessive for such a small space. Signature suites can fetch up to €20,000 ($23,400) a night.
Assouline visited before the reopening and agreed that his beloved hotel had needed a redesign.
“The Lutetia was very gloomy, very decrepit, and the décor was fairly ugly,” he said. “The architect brought it back to its Art Deco/Art Nouveau origins.”
A simple plaque mounted on an exterior wall pays homage to the hotel’s history and reads:
“Headquarters of German intelligence services before welcoming, in 1945, the survivors of the camps.” As for the survivors themselves, I was surprised to learn that up until a couple of years before the renovation, a group of them returned to the Lutetia every month to meet over dinner.
“There are two categories of deportees regarding the Lutetia,” explained Assouline, who joined in these unique dinners every month for a year while working on the book.
“There are those who can’t bear the idea, not only of returning to the interior, but also passing in front of it in the street because it brings back memories of Auschwitz. And there are those, for whom the Lutetia is a good memory, because returning from Auschwitz and to the Lutetia was returning to life.”
Marceline Loriden-Ivens falls into the latter camp.
“The hotel Lutetia… was a sort of liberation,” she said. “And at the same time, it was a transition. A brief visit.”
She was a member of the group who gathered in the dining room for monthly dinners, she said, but since the group that has grown ever smaller over the years, the revival of the dinner meetings at the revamped Lutetia is dubious.
Even so, she has no qualms about taking a peek inside.
“Since I am still alive, I would gladly go back,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a beautiful place and a beautiful hotel.”