THE PRINCE OF WALES suite in the Vienna Bristol is one of the most expensive and luxurious in the world today. It was named after Edward VIII, who stayed here while courting Wallis Simpson in the 1930s. In the previous century, the most luxurious suite in Europe was also named after the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII’s grandfather, Edward VII. The suite was also to be found in a Hotel Bristol. This one was in the Place Vendôme in Paris, for half a century the hotel of choice for visiting British aristocracy .
Place Vendôme had been laid out in the early 18th century as a one of the first examples of urban planing for the city's elite. No.1 Place Vendôme, the mansion block on the south-west corner, was built in 1723 by the royal architect Claude-Armand Mollet for Pierre Perrin, secretary to Louis XV, for whom Mollet had just finished building the nearby Élysée Palace.
Before the the end of the century, the French revolution rid the square of all of its wealthy occupants. And as the subsequent regime of Napoleon Bonaparte flourished, so the city developed: in the rebuilding programme convents were torn down and access to the Place Vendôme was increased. When the wars finally ended at Waterloo in 1815, the hôtel particulier at No. 1 was in search of a new rôle. It soon found its ideal niche as what was most probably the first Hotel Bristol in the world.
With Napoleon defeated, life in Europe could return to normal and people began travelling again. Apart from a brief peace in 1805, visits to Europe had been out of the question for almost a generation of Britons. The Grand Tour, which every English gentleman in the 18th century had been obliged to undertake between university and marriage, had been put on hold. Now the dam burst and visitors poured on to the continent by the boatload. and hotels were suddenly desperately needed.
In 1816, the first year of peace, more than 5,000 English tourists watched the fountains at Versailles being turned on. In spite it being one of the wettest summers on record, the city was en fête, particularly as the Duke de Berry, nephew of the restored Louis XVIII, had returned from exile in Edinburgh and was marrying Princess Caroline Ferdinande Louise of the Two Sicilies.
“Many English of distinction continue to arrive in Paris, or country houses, for the whole of the fine season,” ran an article in Gazette de France on July 6, reproduced in The Times. “They come to study our manners, our customs, our language, our urbanity and our arts, and do so like good neighbours, sincerely reconciled.”
There had to be reconciliation between revolutionaries and monarchists within France, too, and on the first anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Louis XVIII declared a cessation of festivities in memory of the fallen.
That same year the Hotel Bristol opened its doors. Taking up the whole original hôtel block, including its courtyard, it was one of the the biggest and most luxurious in the city, with all the latest comforts – a bath on each floor, plus gas lighting, which had just arrived. The choice of name had to be right. What was needed was one that would attract its most important customers, the English, and make them feel at home. But how does a defeated country appeal to the enemy nation of tourists who had brought it prosperity in the pre-war days of the Grand Tour without offending local feelings? Names such as Grande Bretagne, Londres or even Westminster would have stuck in their throats.
It was here that the scandalous Frederick Augustus Hervey, 4th Earl of Bristol, bon viveur and traveller par excellence, came to the rescue. Absent from England for most of his life, Lord Bristol might have provided gossip for his peers, but his fame would not spread until later. He died in a wayside Italian barn in 1803, at the height of the war. An earthly prelate, he had been one of many besotted with Emma, Lady Hamilton, the lover of Admiral Nelson. Now Nelson was dead and Emma, released from the "spunging house" where she had been detained for debt under the Rules of the King's Bench in London, found herself friendless after the publication of Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Hamilton. She had failed to follow Nelson's advice and destroy his letters, which had fallen into unscrupulous hands. Now, barely a week after the celebrations that saw Napoleon exiled to Elba, the public lapped up the book, which showed the nation's hero would rather dally with this low-born temptress than fight for his country, and in almost childish rages of jealousy about the advances the Prince of Wales. (It is strange how often a Prince of Wales crops up in the Bristol story.)
Emma fled to Calais, and the following year, which saw Napoleon's escape and final defeat at Waterloo, she died. But the public's appetite for the story of Emma and Horatio, once whetted, was insatiable. Memoirs of Lady Hamilton with Illustrated Anecdotes of Many of Her Most Particular Friends and Distinguished Contemporaries by an unknown author was the most talked about book of 1815. Many of its pages were given to the extraordinary friendship Emma had with the outrageous Earl Bishop, concluding:
"Such was the character and end of Frederick Hervey, earl of Bristol, who dissipated a long life, a princely fortune, and respectable talents, in the pursuit of pleasure, with all the eagerness, and on the same motive as that which actuated the Epicurean philosophers of old, whose creed and practice were comprehended in the resolution, ‘Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die’.”
Bristol, the epitome of luxury and good living, was thus exposed to a large and eager audience. Using his name, with the insistence that it applied to the Epicurean Irish peer, a prospective Parisian hotelier would have got round the tricky conundrum of appealing to the British without seeming unpatriotic. The self-exiled Earl-Bishop, who had nothing to do with the recent hostilities, would fit the bill nicely. And if anybody imagined the name referred to the transatlantic port of Bristol, they might think only of a town linked by historic trade with the Revolutionaries' friends in America.
For good measure, the hotelier could borrow the city’s convenient and freely available coat of arms. He would not have been entitled to use the coat of arms belonging to the Bristols of Ickworth – the 5th Earl had anyway been ostracized by his father and was hardly likely to do anything to enhance his memory. And few people would know where the coat of arms came from.
Other Parisian hotels were named after English towns – Bath, Dover, Winchester. But during the course of the 19th century it was the Bristol in the Place Vendôme that reinforced the idea that the name should be associated with the finest hospitality that money could buy. Europe's aristocracy and American millionaires headed here, and it was a favourite of the writers Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackery.
In Bleak House, written in installments in 1852–3, Dickens describes the hotel as Sir Leicester and his wife start home from Paris: "With a considerable amount of jingling and whip-cracking, and many plunging demonstrations on the part of two bare-backed horses and two centaurs with glazed hats, jack-boots, and flowing manes and tails, they rattle out of the yard of the Hôtel Bristol in the Place Vendôme and canter between the sun-and-shadow-chequered colonnade of the Rue de Rivoli and the garden of the ill-fated palace of a headless king and queen, off by the Place of Concord, and the Elysian Fields, and the Gate of the Star, out of Paris.”
In 1855 Queen Victoria arrived in Paris for the first time to a great fanfare. Her oldest son, the 13-year-old Prince of Wales, was instantly entranced by the city, and as soon as he was able, he returned, and would do so almost every year for the rest of his life. His chosen hotel was the Bristol, and he became a familiar figure, walking his dog around the Place Vendôme in the mornings, and, with his friends from the Jockey Club de Paris, chasing actresses in the evenings. His suite of apartments in the entresol floor of the hotel that was named after him became known as the best in town.
The Prince even installed a new owner in the hotel, named Bachmeyer. As the American Jane Stanford, wife of Leland Stanford, who grew to know the Prince during their visits, recalled: “The Bristol Hotel on the Place Vendôme was owned by a man who for many years had been a personal servant of the Prince’s father, on whose death [in 1861] the Royal Family had established their man in the hotel.”
The Bristol's nemesis was the Hotel Ritz, which opened in the Place Vendôme in 1898. The grand old Bristol could not compete with the world's first hotel to have a bath in each room, and over the following decade it slowly declined. [Of passing interest in this tale of Bristols, is the fact that Olivier Dabescat, for 40 years the Ritz’s famous head waiter, had previously worked at the Bristol Hotel just off Piccadilly in London.]
The effect of the Bristol hotel's decline is described by Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence:
It was the day after their arrival in Paris, and the spring sunshine held Archer in his open window, above the wide silvery prospect of the Place Vendôme. One of the things he had stipulated – almost the only one – when he had agreed to come abroad with Dallas, was that, in Paris, he shouldn’t be made to go to one of the newfangled “Palaces”.
“Oh, all right – of course,” Dallas good naturedly agreed. “I’ll take you to some jolly old-fashioned place – the Bristol say –” leaving his father speechless at hearing that the century-long home of king and emperors was now spoken of as an old-fashioned inn, where one went for its quaint inconveniences and lingering local colour.
Writing in 1904, the journalist W.T. Stead noted of the hotel: “Founded in 1816, it now only has 25 sets of rooms, varying in price.” But it was not quite done for. Ida Rubenstein, the wealthy, passionate Russian dancer, had a suite in the hotel, and in 1914 she threw a party there for Sarah Bernhardt when the actress received a Legion d’Honneur. Not long afterwards, the wounded of World War II began arriving from the Front and the dancer transformed the Prince of Wales suite – and her own – into hospital wards.
One of the last occupants of the hotel was a Japanese delegation that was in the city in 1919 to negotiate the Peace Treaty that ended the war. In 1921 the Bankers Trust Company of New York moved into the premises. The hotel was no longer on the map, though Hachette’s Paris en 8 Jours, published in 1923, shows how the Bristol’s address was Nos 2-3 Place Vendôme, though it stood on the corner plot that is today occupied by the Deluxe 4-star Hotel Vendôme at No.1. In the early 20th century, however, there a Hôtel Vendôme on the opposite side of Rue St-Honoré, which took the No.1 spot, so that the buildings flanking the entrance to the square were numbered 3-5 on the left (Hotel Bristol) and 2-4 on the right (Hotel du Rhin).
Although the Ritz gave its name to a new class of luxury, the name Bristol remained a byword in excellence and its bones were fought over long after its death.
Just 10 minutes’ walk away from Place Vendôme is Le Bristol, one of the most sumptuous hotels in the world today. It was founded by Hippolyte Jammet in 1925 and in Le Bristol: A 'Palace' Hotel in its Century, a handsome book about the hotel, his son, Pierre Jammet, recalls:
"The Bristol [in Place Vendôme] was on the point of closing just as Hippolyte Jammet's hotel was nearing completion in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The name was there for the taking, and Hippolyte found it perfectly well suited to the lofty idea he had of the hotel business.”
Unfortunately he was not the only one to have set his sights on the prestigious name. The owner of what was to become the Royal Monceau Hotel also wanted to use it. But Hippolyte proved he had got there first when he showed his orders for crockery from a Limoges porcelain manufacturer bearing Bristol city's coat of arms.
By this time there were at least two other hotels in Paris called Bristol, but because they were modest establishments some distance from Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré they did not seem worth worrying about. However, just to be sure that his hotel would not be confused with theirs, Hippolyte added “Le” in front of Bristol. And when another Hotel Bristol was proposed in the Champs Elysée Hippolyte took them to court. With the porcelain and by now all the monogrammed linen on the way, he proved that he was there first, and won his case.
By now Bristol the hotel and Bristol the high-living Earl had melded into one. The mythology had seeped into the fabric. When Le Bristol opened in March 1925, it did so, says Pierre Jammet, in the belief that it was “perpetuating a tradition common in the catering trade since the 18th-century, whereby hoteliers named their establishments after the Earl of Bristol, a tireless traveller who journeyed all over Europe, leaving his inimitable mark wherever he went. Lavish with money, eccentric and demanding, the grand gentleman made such a name for himself in the towns and cities where he stayed that many hotels adopted his name.”
© Roger Williams, 2008