Last Call at the Ritz

For 80 years it has been a playground for Brahmins and boldface names, a repository of tall tales and fierce loyalties. This month, the Arlington Street landmark is rechristened the Taj Boston, and we have to ask: By any other name, will the Ritz still be the Ritz?

MAY 17, 1927. It’s an elegant evening at the Ritz-Carlton. Around 200 guests convene beneath cobalt-blue chandeliers in the dining room of Edward N. Wyner’s just-completed hotel on the corner of Arlington and Newbury streets. The seven-course dinner—at a whopping $10 a plate—includes caviar imperial d’Astrakan and soufflé glacé Cyrano. And although it is a celebration for Boston, even the mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker, is there.

Eighty years ago, the Ritz in Boston—the oldest continuously operating Ritz in the country—began its life with all the formal splendor we’ve since come to expect. But starting this month, the Ritz will be the Ritz no more. New York–based Millennium Partners has sold the property for $170 million to a subsidiary of India’s Tata Group, which owns or operates 75 hotels worldwide. On January 11, a new name will appear on the awnings—Taj Boston—marking the beginning of a new era at 15 Arlington Street.

Bostonians, as they are wont to do in such situations, have uttered a collective groan of mortification.

What is it about the Ritz that makes us love it so? For one thing, history: As people who celebrate a 234-year-old tea imbroglio and a silversmith’s midnight ride to Concord, we’re rather fond of the stories and legends that bind us to a place.

The jewelry shop Firestone and Parson resided at the Ritz for 40 years, providing owner Edwin I. Firestone a front-row seat to the parade of VIPs who checked into the hotel on a regular basis. In its heyday, the Ritz hosted stars of film and stage, heads of state, famous authors, and royalty. “We had ’em all,” says Firestone.

Publicist Jan Saragoni remembers how her father, Urano, an Italian immigrant who got his first job in Boston as an overnight room service waiter at the Ritz, would come home with his pockets full of tips and his head full of stories. There were tales of a tipsy Judy Garland, of playing cards with the actress Mitzi Gaynor and the king of Belgium. During a visit in the 1950s, Agnes Moorehead, who later became known for playing Endora in the TV series Bewitched, went to a Bonwit Teller store and bought Urano a set of striped demitasse cups.

Another time, Saragoni’s father got into a scrap with Frank Sinatra over a girl. Urano, the story goes, was dating an Argentine chambermaid, an Ava Gardner look-alike; Sinatra made a pass at her. So the offended beau went knocking. Saragoni laughs as she recalls the incident, and allows that the story might have been embellished through the years. “But I can just see it,” she adds, “the white jacket and black tie. Rolling around the corridor with Frank Sinatra.” Luckily, Wyner had a soft spot for chivalry and didn’t give Urano the ax.

“Everything was run with this attitude of giving the client an experience he didn’t get anywhere else,” says Firestone. Certainly, Wyner knew the importance of catering to his upper-crust guests. Joan Crawford’s room, it’s said, was always stocked with her favorite treat, peppermint LifeSavers. Firestone recalls a three-room suite outfitted with a piano for Broadway hit makers Rodgers and Hammerstein. (The latter reportedly wrote the lyrics to “Edelweiss,” for The Sound of Music, while staying at the Ritz.)

“In those days, all the major theater shows opened in Boston, and then went to New York,” Firestone says, “so the hotel would get the stars and the writers for months at a time.” Tennessee Williams, legend has it, penned material for A Streetcar Named Desire while staying on Arlington Street. Neil Simon reportedly rewrote the third act of The Odd Couple, which debuted in Boston before its Broadway run, from his room at the hotel.

Marilyn Riseman, a former Newbury Street shop owner who’s lived in Boston most of her life, boasts of having spied not one but two Kennedys during her decades of visits to the Ritz. When she was a child, her father took her to the rooftop, where they rubbed elbows with a young JFK. Fifty years later, she shared an elevator ride with John Jr. “I didn’t even realize it was him until later,” she says. “He went off jogging, and I remember thinking, Oh my God, is he handsome!”

Staff and patrons, for the most part, tended to adopt a nonchalant, seen-it-all attitude with regard to the celebrities who came through the Ritz’s doors. Every now and then, though, eyebrows would be raised—as when frequent guest Gene Autry rode his trusted horse, Champion, into the lobby as a treat for Wyner’s young children. Both Lassie and Rin Tin Tin visited. Morris the Cat came, too, while in town to attend the Boston run of the musical Cats (no kidding).

The dedication of the Ritz staff has long been one of the hotel’s secret weapons. Norman Pashoian, beloved doorman and something of a local celebrity, has worked there since 1947. Carlos Villalobos has tended the Ritz bar for nearly 35 years, and is renowned for his martini, famously stirred “12 times—not 11, not 13.” (The last time I nursed a martini at the bar, Carlos wasn’t in, and I was instead served by Nicola, who hails from a town not far from Naples. A newcomer, Nicola Pecorara has been at the Ritz for only 19 years.)

Estrellita Karsh, who lives in the Ritz condos next door, began frequenting the hotel in the ’50s when she traveled to Boston as a medical journalist. Back then, she would stay in what she describes as a “little convent room” with a twin bed and a makeup stand with just enough space for her Royal typewriter. Mostly, she says, it was the small, homey gestures that made the Ritz so special. “I would be traveling alone, so the elevator attendant would escort me to my door late at night,” she says. “That was a lovely touch.”

Later, after she married the illustrious photographer Yousuf Karsh and they had settled in Canada, the Ritz became their home away from home.

When her husband passed away in 2002, Karsh gave the hotel a signed archival print of his famed portrait of Winston Churchill, who had slept there in 1949. Yousuf Karsh had coaxed the legendarily defiant, we-shall-fight-them-on-the-beaches expression from Churchill by snatching the cigar from his mouth (with a respectful “Forgive me, sir”). Guests staying in the Ritz’s Winston Churchill Suite, where the portrait now hangs, know how he felt: In October the hotel ended its tradition of equipping the room with a silver tray bearing one of the wartime leader’s favorite smokes.

For most of us who live in Boston, there’s no need to stay at the Ritz; stopping by, though, has become one of the city’s most enduring traditions. Tim Kirwan, GM of the new InterContinental hotel, says that in the ’50s and ’60s, the Ritz had “power breakfast before there was such a thing.” At the time, the Ritz was the standard for developing a clientele; it was a “step beyond” what other hotels were doing.

Beth Gallagher, who grew up in Dedham, recalls her 95-year-old mother’s stories of dancing to big bands on the Ritz rooftop in the ’40s. “That always sounded magical to us children,” she says. Her own first Ritz memory is of having lunch in the café with her mother and two sisters, then going to a play at the Shubert.

For generations of women, “tea at the Ritz” conjures up memories of petticoats, black patent-leather shoes, and the joy of being a little girl in the big city. “People come in with their daughters of all ages, saying, ‘This is her first tea at the Ritz!’” says Nancy Hurrell, who for four years has played harp during afternoon tea. “Once this woman brought her baby up to me and said, ‘My baby’s favorite composer is Mozart. Do you know anything by Mozart?’”

When her mother was in her eighties, Gallagher took her and an aunt to tea at the café. The fire alarm went off, but there was no budging the two elderly women: Nothing was going to take them away from their cucumber sandwiches. “They were evacuating the hotel, there was all this activity out on Newbury Street, and there I was with these two white-haired ladies,” says Gallagher. Before long, a fireman came in and, sensing the need for propriety, allowed the trio to finish in peace.

The Ritz bar has a special appeal, perhaps because it embodies all that people love about the hotel: classy décor, fine service, a stunning view of the Public Garden, and that longing, so keenly felt in Boston, for the civility of another era. “It didn’t matter if you were the ambassador to Egypt or if it was your first time visiting,” says etiquette expert Judith Ré. “Even now, you know when you walk in you’ll be special. I don’t know if you can put a price tag on that.”

Horst Schulze was president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, which managed the Ritz at Arlington through most of the ’80s and ’90s. He reminisces about finding a three-page memo that Wyner had written to his bar manager at least a half century ago. “Mr. Wyner had walked through the bar and found that there were young men wearing ‘odd’ coats. He was appalled that the Ritz would let these young men in.” Wyner went on to wonder whether these men might have actually been students—an idea that further dismayed him. “Even though the letter seemed silly,” Schulze says, “it also made a statement about the history of the hotel, of an excellence that was perceived and pursued at the time.”

Today, that quest for excellence might be perceived as stuffiness, or even chauvinism. Boston has changed. The old Ritz, meanwhile, is just that: old. It’s an old building, with an old-fashioned, European style, and people these days often go for something a little more contemporary, like Kirwan’s swanky new InterContinental and the soon-to-open Mandarin Oriental, or the newer Ritz on Avery Street. The Ritz was once the best hotel in what amounted to a two-hotel city (the other one being the Copley Plaza, now the Fairmont Copley). These days, luxury hotels seem to open up by the week.

Which is not to say the old hotel won’t be missed. Salon owner Mario Russo, who has kept shop next door to the Ritz for more than 15 years and is a regular at the bar, says many people have been emotional about the change. “You can’t pinpoint in one sentence what makes it important,” he says. “It’s really been an anchor of Boston, going back years and years and years.” Former Ritz-Carlton president Schulze, for his part, likens the name change to “throwing away your birth certificate.”

Although it may feel unorthodox for an Indian conglomerate to come sweeping into town to “save” a beloved local landmark—think about it: tea at the Taj?—many locals hold out hope that not too much will change. After all, as Estrellita Karsh says, “A hotel is the people who work in it, no matter what name is on the door.”