As much as any of the characters in the book, Paris has her own story to tell. During WW2, her citizens suffered enormously under German occupation, with food being severely restricted and even the leather for their shoes reserved for German troops so they had to make do with wooden clogs. In the face of this, many Parisians were magnificently defiant, especially the women who insisted on dressing and looking their best at all times to show the occupiers they were not cowed.
This took some ingenuity but they were more than up to the task, slashing on red lipstick and curling their hair into elaborate styles while coping with the daily grind of finding enough food to feed their families. Some coped by resorting to what was euphemistically termed ‘horizontal collaboration’ while others worked for the Resistance, transporting weapons across the city hidden in their babies’ prams or shooting German soldiers in broad daylight, as 19 year-old Madeleine Riffaud did, to send a message to their fellow citizens.
It was a complicated time full of difficult choices. Some chose to welcome their German occupiers with open arms, as did infamous collaborators such as Coco Chanel, who was the lover of a Nazi officer called Hans Günther von Dincklage. Chanel was not simply a passive friend of the Nazis – she worked for the Abwehr under the codename Westminster, had the agent no. F-7124 and went around Europe with von Dincklage actively recruiting agents for them. A known anti-Semite, Chanel lived in the Ritz during the occupation along with several other society figures whose beliefs echoed her own, apparently unaware that a number of staff there were active members of the Resistance, among them the head barman, Frank Meier.
I based Meier in the book on him as a tribute and he was truly remarkable, passing messages for Allied spies as well as members of the Resistance and procuring fake IDs for the Jewish people he helped hide within the hotel along with downed Allied pilots and other fugitives, all under the nose of Herman Goring who was also living at the hotel, having taken over the Imperial Suite. Meier managed to juggle all this with serving up cocktails for the likes of Ernest Hemingway who was practically a permanent fixture in his bar and once infamously ordered 50 martinis there for himself and his men. No surprise that the bar was renamed after him.
While the Hemingway Bar might still exist today, little to nothing is known of what happened to Frank Meier after the war. He was rumoured to have Jewish ancestry and was kept under surveillance by the Gestapo who suspected him of aiding the Resistance. It could be that he met with some horrible fate although, as the hotel’s records were destroyed, it is difficult to know for certain. What we do know is that he not only helped save many lives but was a consummate professional, a man with a passion for his work that transcended the ordinary, even writing a seminal work entitled The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, while remaining the soul of discretion. It was no doubt that discretion that enabled him to act as he did and I can only hope that it saved him in the end, allowing him perhaps to melt into another life far away from the Ritz and the memories he created.
That the Ritz maintained its iconic status throughout the war is thanks to men like him and all those whose ghosts still wander the plush corridors, for good or ill. It was one reason I set much of Paris at First Light there, to recreate that sense of history being made within its walls. There were, of course, other great hotels that were requisitioned by the Germans, among them the Georges V and the Lutetia. The Lutetia, the once faded grande dame of the Left Bank, was de Gaulle’s favourite hotel, so much so that he spent his honeymoon there. That affection for it, and the fact he felt it was less imposing than some of the other grand hotels, led to him to designating it a centre for displaced persons, or DPs, after liberation.
At first, those people who were brought to the Lutetia were returned forced labourers from Germany and others who were refugees from the war, homeless and destitute. Later, ex-inmates from concentration camps such as Auschwitz started to arrive, often still in their striped uniforms. There, they were cared for by volunteers who poured them champagne and tried to help them find their families, many of whom came to the hotel searching for their loved ones.
Some of the photographs I have seen of the Lutetia at this time haunted me so much that I knew I had to include in the book too and have gone on to write about it some more in the third book in the series which I am currently writing. It was stories such as these, juxtaposing the unimaginable suffering those camp inmates had gone through with a grand Parisian hotel, that summed up for me the city’s part in the war.
It was never simple and great names that we still know today are forever tainted by Nazi association. There are other names too, less well-known ones such as Meier, that are almost lost to the mists of time and memory although their impact was, in many ways, far more profound. If you walk the streets of Paris today you might have to search for the marks left by the occupation but they are there on almost every street and within every family that remembers someone who did their bit to defy the Germans. They are there, too, in the consciences of those who made vast profits from their associations with the Nazis. While some choose to forget, we should always remember people like Frank Meier, a quiet hero who did what he thought was right in the face of so much that was wrong.