Watch specialist Rebecca Ross recounts the remarkable story of the writer's long association with the Ritz in Paris, and the watch he was presented by the hotel's owner as a wedding gift
For Christie’s specialists, the most incredible discoveries are often the ones that have been hiding in plain sight for years. ‘The husband of a client recently passed away, and it turns out he had been very good friends with the famous hotelier Charles Ritz,’ recounts Rebecca Ross, a watch specialist at Christie’s New York.
Years earlier, the husband of Ross’s client had been given a special gift from Ritz himself: two watches along with a signed photograph that reads ‘With warm regards and great friendship, Charles C. Ritz’.
‘My client called me and said they were in a frame that had been hanging in one of their homes for years,’ says Ross. ‘She also informed me that she had come across a photo of Charles Ritz and two pocket watches — and one of them had belonged to Ernest Hemingway.’
When the watches were brought into Christie’s they arrived in a gold frame with a red velvet background. Digging into their history, the specialist says, was ‘like a time capsule, going back to the Art Deco era of glitz and glamour’.
Hemingway's watch is a 53mm diameter, manual movement split seconds chronograph made by L. Leroy & Cie., circa 1920. As Ross would discover, Charles Ritz gave the watch to Hemingway on the occasion of the writer’s fourth — and final — wedding, to journalist Mary Welsh in 1946 in Cuba. The wedding gift cemented what was by the 1940s a deep friendship between the two men. When Hemingway died in 1961, Welsh returned the watch to Ritz.
Charles C. Ritz (1891-1976) was the son of Swiss hotelier Cesar Ritz, founder of the Ritz empire. Having moved to the United States during World War I, he returned to Paris in the late 1920s where he assumed leadership of the Ritz Paris.
Hemingway, who was born in Chicago in 1899, spent time on the Italian front during World War I. At the age of 20 he was hired as foreign correspondent, and headed to Paris the following year with his first wife, Hadley Richardson.
For Hemingway, the French capital was a place to develop his creative talents, and he exchanged ideas with the likes of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. The city also served as inspiration for the novels and autobiographical writings, such as A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises, that would make him a sensation and earn him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
‘When you look at the back of the watch, you see that it has scratches and markings. It was definitely used’ — Rebecca Ross
In the roaring Art Deco period following World War I, Paris attracted the best and the brightest. The Ritz was their epicentre, hosting Coco Chanel, President Roosevelt, Cole Porter and countless others.
But it was Hemingway who would be the most closely associated with the hotel in those years. Though he had settled into an apartment in Paris’s 5th arrondissement, he famously frequented the Ritz for weeks at a time, spending many alcohol-fuelled evenings at the hotel bar with F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In 1940, the Germans occupied Paris and the Ritz was used as Nazi headquarters. Four years later, with the Nazis retreating from the city, Hemingway, then a war correspondent, hopped in a jeep and drove a group of stragglers to the Ritz, whereupon he famously commandeered his beloved bar and ordered champagne for all. Hemingway’s ‘liberation’ of the Ritz would ensure he would be forever linked to his former home away from home.
If the dramatic stories surrounding Hemingway’s time at the hotel eventually became the stuff of legend, Ross notes that Ritz’s wedding gift to Hemingway was quite practical, and well-suited to the writer’s needs: ‘The Hemingway pocket watch functions like a stopwatch: pressing the top allows you to time events.
‘Hemingway was a big horse racing enthusiast, and there’s no doubt he used the functionality of the watch to time horse races,’ Ross continues. ‘When you look at the back of the watch, you see that it has scratches and markings. It was definitely used. It’s not something that was sitting in a drawer for a decade.’
The Hemingway-Ritz relationship was memorialised in the 1980s with the establishment of the $50,000 Ritz Hemingway prize, whose recipients include Marguerite Duras and Mario Vargas Llosa.
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In 1994, Ritz formally changed the name of the hotel bar to honour Ernest Hemingway and his family, after they loaned the hotel many artefacts from the writer’s life. These can still be seen today at the newly restored Bar Hemingway.
It’s a tribute that Hemingway would no doubt find fitting. ‘When I dream of afterlife in heaven,’ he would tell a friend later in life, ‘the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz.’