If the Hotel Ritz in Paris was not the most famous hotel in the world before Sunday, it is now.
So renowned for setting standards of decor, service and cuisine that "ritzy" has become a lower-case adjective for the ultimate in what only money can buy, the Ritz likely will be linked for a long time in the public mind with the death of Princess Diana and the nascent scandal of how she died in a Ritz automobile driven by a Ritz employee who was, tests show, drunk.
The Ritz might have been only a historical footnote had Diana simply had her last dinner there, a fact no more interesting than Marcel Proust's dying wish for a glass of beer to be sent over from the hotel.
But the suffocatingly posh hotel, which will celebrate its 100th birthday next year, is so thoroughly implicated in last Saturday and Sunday's shattering events that the Ritz management has been laboring much of this week to produce a chronology to set out the facts and dispel the rumors that have abounded.
Its promised release was delayed yet again today as lawyers continue to review the document's potential use in court proceedings against the photographers who followed the car -- or conceivably against the hotel itself.
Some facts already are well known. The friend who died with Diana in the car accident early Sunday morning, Dodi Fayed, was the son of the hotel's owner since 1979, Mohamed Fayed. The elder Fayed, an Egyptian businessman who also owns a symbol of British luxury, Harrods department store in London, was described by his lawyer Monday as "deeply preoccupied with Lady Diana's safety for several weeks" before the accident, when her relationship with Dodi Fayed became apparent during their well-photographed sojourn in the waters off St.-Tropez, France.
The third victim of the accident, Henri Paul, the man driving the Ritz-leased Mercedes S-280, was the assistant chief of security at a hotel vaunted for offering its guests the ultimate in safety and security.
Paul, off duty and called from his nearby apartment for the midnight ride from the Ritz to Dodi's Paris residence, took the wheel with a blood-alcohol level more than three times the maximum permissible under French law, prosecutors announced. French police added to the embarrassment today by confirming that Paul did not have the permit required to chauffeur passengers.
Like Diana, Paul will be buried Saturday, in a private ceremony in his home town of Lorient, in the Brittany region of France.
The Ritz spokeswoman today denied press reports that the Mercedes had been involved in an accident shortly before it was leased by the hotel.
She said that from the moment of their arrival at the heavily guarded Ritz entrance on the Place Vendome, Diana and Dodi Fayed were "swamped" by the press photographers who later were accused of triggering the accident.
The elder Fayed's lawyer has asserted that the crush of photographers outside the hotel created an atmosphere of "panic" that led to the fateful decisions later that night: to use a decoy vehicle to lure photographers away from the couple's real getaway car, to put Fayed's regular driver at the wheel of the decoy and to enlist Paul at the last minute to drive the car the couple would die in.
The Ritz gives the impression of an understated fortress of luxury. The parking area on the Place Vendome could be a Mercedes sales lot. Men in dark glasses and dark suits, some with walkie-talkies, eye every arrival carefully. A visitor in the hotel's hushed corridors who acts the least bit uncertain of where he is going is accosted immediately with an offer of assistance. And hotel employees who are asked about the sad fate of Princess Diana stiffen their shoulders and shake their heads.
"No, monsieur, I know nothing about it," declared a clerk tending a boutique in the Ritz's famed gallery of expensive jewelry and handbags.
Discretion has been the soul of the Ritz ever since Cesar Ritz opened its doors in a 17th-century mansion on June 1, 1898. Employees are there to serve, not to gossip. When a young doorman described his work to an American reporter in a mid-1970s newspaper profile titled "A Doorman as Big as the Ritz," he was fired.
Even its architectural exterior, undifferentiated from the plain gray facades that encircle the Place Vendome, screams anonymity. But within, from the start, the Ritz proclaimed itself extraordinary -- the first hotel in Europe with electricity, the first with telephones and baths for every room, although Oscar Wilde insisted on having his hot bath water delivered to his room.
The Hotel Ritz and British royalty, now entwined in the public consciousness again, have had a symbiotic relationship from the start. Ritz designed the hotel for his most important patron, the future King Edward VII, and allegedly enjoyed his blessing as "the hotelkeeper of kings and the king of hotelkeepers."
The Swiss-born Ritz threw himself into a tizzy of micromanagement as he prepared the hotel for a celebration of Edward's coronation in 1902. But when the king-to-be had to postpone the coronation because of a peritonitis attack, a crestfallen Ritz suffered a nervous breakdown, followed by another the year after, and then a slow decline into ashtray-throwing madness before his death in 1918.
Up-to-date as Kansas City in its day, the Ritz also was a studied antique warehouse of Louis XV chairs, marble busts and oriental carpets. That remains its apparent charm. When Mohamed Fayed bought the hotel for $30 million in 1979 -- from the founder's heirs -- and poured another $150 million into refurbishing, it was to restore the hotel's grandeur by replicating the original furnishings.
Mohamed Fayed also excavated the nether regions of the Ritz to build a cooking school named after its legendary first chef, Auguste Escoffier, and a frescoed swimming pool and gold-encrusted health club where Placido Domingo and Hugh Grant, among others, have tried to stay in fighting trim.
It was in the health club pool last February that Pamela Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to France, a frequent guest over the decades and a workout habitue, suffered the stroke from which she would die three days later, attracting once more to the Ritz a glancing wash of history's spotlight.
Ritz legend was fanned vigorously by his exacting widow, Marie-Louise, who ran the hotel for more than 50 years, and more recently by the Fayed brothers as they seek the respect that seems to be denied them.
A lavish coffee-table history of the hotel declares that because the Fayeds are "intensively private men" who make "awesome contributions to charity," their behavior "begets suspicion." The book says, "Fear among lovers of the hotel that the brothers might permanently alter its character . . . has proved to be totally unfounded."
The roster of the rich and famous whose names are inscribed on the hotel's "gold list" of patrons includes Igor Stravinsky, Greta Garbo, Henry Kissinger, Cole Porter -- who may have written "Begin the Beguine" there -- Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Dame Barbara Cartland, kings, queens, dukes, sultans, maharajahs and several incarnations of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Prince and Princess of Wales. Nazi leader Hermann Goering, another onetime resident, is not on the list.
Fashion designer Coco Chanel lived at the Ritz from 1934 until her death in 1971. She launched a tradition that continues to this day, when the hotel becomes the nerve center of the seasonal Paris fashion shows, creating an unavoidable crush of humanity -- and very welcome photographers -- in its staid and imposing surroundings.
Although today's better-known guests tend to be movie stars, in the hotel's earlier days their counterparts were writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story, memorably titled though little-read, called "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz."
The hotel's best-known literary guest, Ernest Hemingway, did not actually liberate the Ritz bar when the Allies retook Paris in August 1944, as legend persistently has it. But he was one of the first to rush there for a drink after the liberation. To capture that piece of history, Fayed named a little Papa-theme bar in the back of the hotel the Hemingway Bar, and in 1985 endowed one of the richest literary prizes in the world, the $50,000 Ritz Hemingway Paris Award for the best novel of the year.