One of the historical figures guests might be reminded of is Charles de Gaulle, holed up in the Lutetia in early June 1940, as German forces bore down on Paris. De Gaulle had been a regular in the salon and dining room before the war. He banked at the branch of the Banque de France across the road and was rumoured to have spent his wedding night in the hotel. He would have rubbed shoulders in that prewar period with the Left Bank’s literary demi-monde. The writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a regular guest, as was James Joyce, who played Irish ballads on the piano in the bar. The night I met a friend for cocktails in the Bar Josephine, named after the Franco-American performer Josephine Baker, young musicians were doing a very passable impression of the Quintette du Hot Club de France.
The Lutetia remained a favourite meeting place for literary Paris after the war. Many of the big publishing houses, notably Gallimard and Grasset, are nearby in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The hotel has also doubled as an office for academics from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales just down the road. I remember, when I was a student there in the mid-1990s, the philosopher Jacques Derrida holding court in the Lutetia bar on more than one occasion.
On the evening of June 10 1940, de Gaulle was summoned by a gendarme who told him that a car was waiting outside the hotel to take him to a château near Tours in the Loire, where the prime minister Paul Reynaud and other members of the government had sought refuge. According to Assouline, who talked to several people who’d worked in the Lutetia at the time, the general insisted on settling his bill before leaving.
The Germans reached Paris on June 14. For the next four years, the Lutetia, like the other grand hotels in the city, was requisitioned by the occupying power. It became the headquarters of the Abwehr, the German counter-intelligence service, not the Gestapo as is sometimes mistakenly believed. (Among the palace hotels of the Right Bank, the Crillon became the headquarters of the military command for greater Paris; the top brass installed themselves at the Georges V; and the Continental was home to the military tribunal.)
Assouline says that there is something “profoundly unjust” about the reputation that the Lutetia had during these dark years. It wasn’t the only hotel in Paris to be taken over by the Germans, after all, but it was the only one to find “redemption” after the war. It was de Gaulle who decreed in 1945 that the returning deportees should be received at the Lutetia, on account of its being “luxurious yet sober”, a description that could easily be applied to the hotel today, with the subtle blue and grey colour scheme and polished parquet in the rooms, and service that is discreetly attentive rather than obsequious.
Concentrating on the dark years also obscures the story of the hotel’s origins, a tale that goes some way to explaining one of its distinctive features compared with its competitors on the Right Bank: that, as Bouvier puts it, “you have always found Parisians at the Lutetia”. And if the queue of locals waiting to get in to the bar on the Saturday night I was there is anything to go by, that’s still the case.
When you love the Lutetia as if it were a person, it is hard to fight off a certain nostalgia at its reawakening
The Lutetia was the brainchild of the Boucicauts, owners of Le Bon Marché department store in the 7th arrondissement. In the early 20th century, they noticed the bulk of their clientele were families from the provincial bourgeoisie, who would come to the capital twice a year to stock up on sheets and kitchen utensils. Why not offer these visitors somewhere to stay close to the store?
The hotel opened in December 1910, on a site across the Boulevard Raspail from Le Bon Marché. The architects were Henri Tauzin and Louis-Hippolyte Boileau, who used the latest glass-and-steel construction techniques. Soon the hotel was a regular destination not only for customers at Le Bon Marché, but also members of the National Assembly, a shortish walk away, and civil servants in the colonial service who traditionally spent summer holidays in Paris.