The Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz has just closed its doors for a refurb, so we profile Frank Meier, "Frank of the Ritz", a man of mystery, talent and great personal bravery.
Known, simply, as "Frank of the Ritz", Frank Meier was the ultimate host, fronting the bar at the Paris Ritz from 1921 to 1947. His book, The Artistry of Mixing Drinks, a curious miscellany of cocktail recipes and wine info with information a young man should know - from antidotes to poison to nautical mile conversions through to stain-removing tips, hangover cures and racing tips - remains a cult classic. He was named honorary president of the French Bartenders' Association.
Yet of the drinks he is known to have created, only a couple are regularly made today: the Pompadour and the Bee's Knees. A substantial chap, with ruddy cheeks, a proud moustache and a set of pince nez, Frank was a craftsman par excellence. "A cocktail should always be perfect," he wrote. "There is no reason ever to drink a bad one. Almost any of the ingredients of which Cocktails are composed might better be consumed 'straight' rather than just carelessly poured together."
Yet he was also a man of wit, humour, immense discretion, great bravery and, one feels, a bit of a naughty streak, even though he closed his bar at 9pm sharp. Meier was a gambler, playing backgammon with his customers, and both taking and placing bets on horse racing and current events.
When Charles Lindbergh made the first solo trans-Atlantic flight, Meier took bets from customers on the outcome (he must have lost a packet). And, when the demands of the working day prevented him and other bar staff from getting to the betting shops, no less a man than Ernest Hemingway was happy to run down and place their bets.
Meier served drinks to Roosevelt, NoÃ«l Coward, Hemingway, a million-and-one aristocrats, plus the lyricist Cole Porter, who seems to have been a personal friend. Meier created a cocktail called SeaPea (C.P.) for Porter; Porter, in turn, parodied him in his musical comedy Fifty Million Frenchmen, with a scene set in the Paris Ritz.
Endlessly suave, Meier wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty. On one memorable occasion, after a fight spilled into his bar, he removed his trademark white jacket, put on his blue one and offered to sort the matter out himself.
Born in Germany, Frank Meier cut his bartending chops at the Hoffman House in New York, where he probably worked under Harry Craddock, and returned to the city at least once for a stint behind the bar at the New York Ritz, after the repeal of Prohibition.
He seems to have married a French woman (their son was called Jean-Jacques), with whom he lived in what one newspaper calls a chateau in the suburb of Neuilly - this writer asserts that Frank was a French franc millionaire before the war. When World War II came and the Germans took Paris, the Ritz was divided in two. Half remained a luxury hotel, home to folk including Coco Chanel, while half was reserved for Nazi highfliers and senior officers including Goering, Heydrich and Albert Speer.
Frank remained employed at the bar throughout this time, a perilous position for a man who at least one friend believed was Jewish, and made more perilous by his resistance activities. Frank's book is known to have saved the life of the anti-Nazi Pierre-André Chavannes, a customer for whom he had created the Happy Honey Annie. When German officers visited Chavannes' apartment, they saw the book on the table, had a few drinks from it, and were sufficiently distracted to allow their victim to escape when their car got stuck in traffic. Frank himself saved the life of a Jewish-American woman at the Ritz by helping to forge a passport for her.
And, while other Ritz staff members passed coded troop movements to the French Resistance via Switzerland, Frank seems to have used his German nationality to protect him as he held messages between the anti-Nazi officers behind the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler, on July 20, 1944.
Tilar Mazzeo, whose book Paris and the Ritz at War comes out next autumn, confirms, "There are indications in OSS and British files that Frank was a mailbox for the German Resistance during the war, a significant element of which was based out of Paris."
Frank was still working at the Ritz when he died, only a couple of years after the war. And, though the hotel is currently closed, and his bar is no more, his memory will, we hope, live on.