Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

No Jacket Required

The Ritz Rorschach test

Self-esteem hasn’t always been my strong suit, so when I was kicked out of Montreal’s fabled Ritz Bar in the fall of 1990, I was bound to blame myself.

Not just myself, though. I also blamed John Updike.

We’d met for an interview when a waiter politely but firmly asked us to leave. The reason: I was wearing jeans, a violation of the bar’s dress code. Ignorance of the rules, my only excuse, was no excuse. Meanwhile, Updike, innocent in seersucker, was guilty by association. Do you know who this is? I wanted to ask the waiter who was just doing his job, antiquated though it may have been. Have you read Rabbit is Rich or Self-Consciousness? Are you familiar with his prose style—exquisite but crystal clear?

I didn’t say any of this. Instead I waited for Updike to speak on his own behalf and mine. But he just left, sheepishly, like me. I realize now that he understood what I had yet to: that in the grand scheme of things, writers—even John Updike, for heaven’s sake—don’t cut much ice at a place like the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It was a lesson in literature and prestige and how the two are mutually exclusive.

I am, like most writers, inclined to hold a grudge; still, I never blamed the Ritz for embarrassing me in the company of the man I probably admired most in the world. How could I? It was just being, well, ritzy. The place has a long tradition of catering to celebrities and is, as a result, unfazed by them. “It’s not so much a question of who has stayed at the Ritz,” a head porter says in Adrian Waller’s 1989 book No Ordinary Hotel: The Ritz-Carlton’s First Seventy-Five Years. “Much more to the point is who hasn’t.”

Quite. A short but eclectic list includes Queen Elizabeth II, the King of Siam, John Wayne, David Bowie, Sarah Bernhardt, Angelina Jolie, Jerry Lewis and Winston Churchill. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were married for the first time in the hotel’s Royal Suite, in 1964, and in the 1970s Mick Jagger, Keith Richards et al. rolled into the Ritz Bar and were informed, in keeping with the dress code at the time, that they would require sports jackets.

The dress code has been a matter of contention over the years. When the black-tie requirement was finally dispensed with in the 1950s, the general manager of the hotel resigned in protest. Now, the only restriction in the Ritz Bar—as well as in the dining room and garden—is that “gentlemen are requested to remove their hats.” Even so, at the Ritz, rules are made to be rigidly enforced and two years ago, when Tiger Woods dropped in, he was asked to lose the baseball cap. Just do it, indeed.

Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel—the only Ritz-Carlton in Canada and the oldest one in North America—celebrates its ninetieth anniversary this year, though it doesn’t look a day over eighty. Still, a famous institution, like a famous person, is entitled to its vanity, and so the Ritz is undergoing a top-to-bottom refurbishing to the tune of $25 million. But if it’s improved—with high-speed elevators and access to high-speed Internet in all the rooms—it’s hardly new. It will never be that. In No Ordinary Hotel, one observer snottily sums up the place’s appeal: “Chances are you have never stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal. Most people don’t. Most people can’t afford it. But then that’s what is so nice about the old Ritz. It isn’t for most people, is it?” In 2003, the Ritz remains what it has always been—a Rorschach test of self-esteem. Find yourself in its luxurious surroundings and your unconscious will inevitably ask itself, do I belong here?

That question was, I’m sure, in the back of my mind when I returned recently to the Ritz Bar to check out what my press kit described as “a total make-over.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t compare the bar before and the bar after since I hadn’t been in it in thirteen years and, even then, I only had a moment to soak up the atmosphere before being bounced.

I did remember it was blue, a fact the bartender confirmed. Royal blue. Now, according to my press kit, “the walls are dressed in fabric of a shimmering ‘champagne’ tone” and the chairs are “newly covered in handsome stripes of earth tones—taupe, sand, ivory, with the light sheen of pewter and bronze … the lustrous colours of brandy, cognac, whisky and white port.” Beige, in other words.

The friend I met this time, another writer, had never been in the Ritz Bar before but he’d heard about the renovations. He assumed the point was to attract a newer, younger crowd. Jazzier, he supposed. “But I guess not,” he said, commenting on the velvet wallpaper. Clubbier is more like it—a place the term power lunch was invented for. Legend has it that in the early 1980s, Brian Mulroney and his cronies mapped out the entire Conservative game plan for the country from the Ritz Bar; it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Mulroney at a corner table, still up to something.

I was welcome, too, even though I was wearing jeans, quite deliberately this time. On some unconscious level, I suppose I expected to get kicked out again. Proof, finally, that I didn’t belong. “You’re fine,” the bartender said as he informed me of the new dress code. I had my drink and left disappointed. But in whom? The Ritz? Or myself?

Which is where Rochelle Lash, the hotel’s plucky director of communications, came in. I had emailed her with a few questions and she phoned me from her hospital bed—nothing serious, she assured me, just an orthopaedic procedure—to invite me back to the Ritz as her guest. How was Saturday night: six thirty in the bar, then dinner with my wife in the dining room?

“All people should be elitists,” Jonathan Franzen advises, “and keep it to themselves.” But, frankly, what’s the point of that? For my next trip to the Ritz I put on my most elegant (my only) suit and a silk tie and polished my shoes; it made all the difference. I think I comported myself well. My only gauche moment—calculating the two hundred dollars or so the whole thing would have cost if I had to pay for it—I kept to myself. I also rationalized my high-class freeloading by telling myself that what I was having was a genuine Ritz experience. Does anyone believe famous people ever pay for anything?

“We have better eyes for the old world than the new,” John Updike once wrote, “because the old world is the one we know.” Now that I know the Ritz better I’m inclined to agree. Here’s hoping they reinstate the black-tie rule and spring for my tux.