When the world remembers the 25th of August, 1944, the day the Allied troops liberated Paris from the Nazis, it seldom thinks of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was a Francophile American expatriate who wrote such classics as ‘The Man and the Sea’ and my personal favorite, ‘A Moveable Feast.’ Unbeknownst to most, he was also the first American to enter Paris on that legendary summer day.
In 1944, Hemingway was working as a war correspondent attached to the American Fifth Infantry Division in Rambouillet, in the South West of Paris. When he got word of the Allies’ imminent march into the capital, headed by the illustrious General Leclerc, Hemingway jumped into a jeep with a small group of fighters he called his irréguliers, drove straight into the city, through the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Élysées, skidded to a halt in the Place Vendôme, jumped out and liberated… the Paris Ritz.
In the glorious 20s that preceded the ugly Great Depression and later, the big war, Paris was a glittering place to be, and no institution more completely embodied its glamor and majesty than the legendary Hôtel Ritz. The royal, the famous, the brilliant, and the simply wealthy flocked to it from all around the world and made it their home. It was, as Sophia Loren rightfully put it, ‘the most romantic hotel in the world.’
But there was more to the Ritz than pumas on gold leashes and Cartier-engraved diamond place cards, outrageous and luscious caviar plates and bottomless flutes of champagne. The hotel had a philosophy that ran deeper than money: it provided the setting for the ultimate, refined life.
It is interesting that the creator and owner of this pinnacle of luxury, César Ritz, started off poor. Very poor. He was the youngest of thirteen children in a Swiss family of peasants, and had very little schooling. At sixteen, he started out as a busboy, and moved unsuccessfully from job to job in the restaurant business. He was told he had no aptitude for it:
‘It takes a special knack, a special flair, and it's only right that I tell you the truth—you haven't got it.’
César Ritz did not have it; he redefined it. He did not create a hotel; he created a lifestyle, a charmed one in which money was the enabler, not the answer. Instant success: his philosophy produced a following of bons vivants that remain loyal to this day.
The passing of time, the prevalence of inaccurate translations, and possibly also the sobering reality of economic inequality and insufficiency, have muddled our distinction between the terms bon vivant and bon viveur. We use the words interchangeably to describe one same, derogatory thing: a self-centered pleasure seeker who leads a hedonistic life of waste and overindulgence.
That is not what a bon vivant is. Bon vivant is French for ‘one who lives well.’ In the epicurean sense of the term, it goes beyond simply seeking physical comfort and pleasure in the frivolous. It is experiencing the joy of being alive in its purest form:
A bon vivant takes pleasure in good wine, good food, and satin sheets, not because they are expensive, but because life is too precious not to. Because of the rattling realization that we have only so many breaths at our disposal, and the urgency to make the most of them. The Italians, of course, have a saying for that:
La vita è troppo breve per sprecarla bevendo vino cattivo.
Life is too short to be spent drinking bad wine.
Proust said he went to his house at 102 Boulevard Haussman to write, but he went to the Ritz to live. Coco Chanel remained faithful to her beloved hotel even as the bombs were falling on Paris, because it was her home; it is rumored her maid followed her with her gas mask on a cushion whenever she was forced into the air-raid shelter. And Hemingway… Hemingway burst into the bar on liberation day and ordered champagne for everyone, because champagne meant they were alive and that life was beautiful, and that nothing, not even World War II, could take that away. To me, it was as heroic a statement as any other made that day.
When I was younger I thought my life would only be complete when I was rich enough to stay at the Ritz. Well, I still think that would be nice, but I now know that you can live well anywhere. Even in Saint Louis, Missouri.
A bon vivant is not a vain, superficial glutton. A bon vivant is not a snob, a nymphomaniac, or a drunk. A bon vivant is someone who will open a bottle of champagne on a Thursday morning for no other reason than that the sun is out. And really, what other reason does one need?
A bon vivant is simply one who chooses, who dares to live a charmed life.
Here’s to living well, dear reader, and here’s to you. And if, like me, you cannot afford a bottle of champagne just yet, a glass of Prosecco will do.