Travel and Transformation–Bronze Winner: Becoming Coco

By Ginny Horton

I have been Maria Von Trapp on many a mountainside. Isak Denisen eating on fine china

in Kenya by day. Ernest Hemingway smoking cigars and drinking warm scotch around the campfire by night. I have yet to be diagnosed as schizophrenic but have undergone distinct personality changes while traveling. It begins with the accent, spreads to the appetite, the look, the lifestyle, the worldview. I have been Spanish, English, Ecuadorian, Galapagos Islandian, Australian and just once, a Maasai.

In Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes this phenomenon while witnessing a group of Americans in Paris “undergoing a sea-change, a shifting about of atoms to form the essential molecules of a new people.” It’s one of the ways travel literally changes us.

It happened to me recently at the Ritz in Paris.

This was my second visit and I have to admit, being the seasoned Ritz veteran did not ease my front-desk anxiety–that extremely long moment when I clearly expect one of the staff to look at me and say, “Madame, your passport lists your place of birth as Ohio USA, which is, shall we say, declassé at l’hotel Ritz.”

Even though I managed to pass inspection I secretly wished I were someone else.

Someone with jewels and a little pooch in a little-pooch-bag, smelling of Joy and reeking with attitude. But, la-di-dah, la-di-dah, I was Annie Hall at best (must’ve happened on the flight over) and determined to feel a part of this hotel. I gave the staff a gee-whiz grin hoping that my hearty thanks would make up for every snub they had ever suffered. The clerk looked at me as if I had spoken to someone else and the bellman actually backed away, just a hair, as if something had fallen out of my nose.

Was it too much to ask if I could be Coco Chanel for just five minutes? I suddenly craved oversized glasses with dark frames and cigarettes in cigarette holders. I wanted mannish clothes with white piping. I needed style. Coco had after all lived at the Ritz for over thirty fabulous years, from the thirties into the seventies. In fact, it was she who said, “How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone”.

Indeed.

I followed the bellman through this bastion of elegance where even the noise is moneyed and fights with cigarette smoke for air space. Inspired by the palaces at Versailles and Fontainebleu I wondered what it would do to one’s head to walk through here day after day for thirty years. My walk was wrong, my hair was worse, my clothes stood out likea maraschino cherry in a martini.

The room did not disappoint with its crystal chandeliers and tapestries on the walls amid much molding and gilt. The bathroom was peach, an ingenious touch by Cesar Ritz to make whomever we are at the moment look gorgeous above the golden swan faucets. His was also the first hotel to not only have bathrooms but to install them with bells for assistance after the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, became stuck in his bathtub. Or maybe it was just someone pretending to be him.

I changed out of my orange Patagonia trail-hikers and went straight for “the little black dress” which Coco made famous and which I had brought for an evening out. As I slid it on Coco began to crystallize. The shoulders went back, the chin up. The hair went both back and up.

The Bar Hemingway was waiting. Rumor has it that Mr. Hemingway came to the Ritz during the liberation of Paris, fired his pistol into the air, came to the bar, ordered martinis and said that he personally had liberated the hotel. Okay, not what Proust, another regular, would have done, but then he didn’t have Idaho USA stamped on his passport. Proust also dined in a fur coat.

The bar has a British club feel to it with rich paneling and books, newspaper memorabilia and photos of Mr. Hemingway watching the patrons at the tables in front of the bar transforming into Oxford grads or Tony Blairs, perhaps. My champagne cocktail had an orchid floating in the preferred-sized bubbles. According to Ritz lore Scott Fitzgerald, there with Mr. Hemingway, saw a beautiful woman in one of the bars, unfortunately not alone, and sent over a bouquet of orchids. When she returned them promptly, Mr. Fitzgerald began eating them and wouldn’t stop until she agreed to meet him. Apparently, even the rich and famous are occasionally out of character.

My first crystal goblet of champagne cost 23 euros or roughly forty American dollars. I would imagine that Coco preferred Dom Perignon but then again she worked at Chanel. I work on a computer next to my clothes dryer.

Leaving the Bar Hemingway is a hallway lined with 120 glass cases of objects that you can actually buy. I developed Coco’s eye, tsking at the more opulent items. I don’t think I had ever really tsked before in my whole life but it’s wonderful when you don’t speak the language. It was Coco herself who said, “Elegance is refusal,” so I refused every multi-thousand-euro piece of jewelry that caught my eye. She also said that “a woman who refuses perfume has no future.” I was at the Chanel case and yes, I was an imposter but I was determined to have a future so I popped for a quarter of an ounce of No. 5.

In my future I would buy faux pearls and a cigarette holder in the Paris flea markets. I would wear red lipstick and leave smears of it on small espresso cups and champagne flutes. I would order thick slabs of pate and garlicky escargot. In my head Fred Astaire would sing “Putting on the Ritz”.

I also vowed to one day occupy Coco’s suite even if it meant just standing it in with an armed guard and a tour guide. Her apartment at the hotel has been recreated by an art historian and advisor to the great designer Karl Lagerfeld, who once worked at the House of Chanel.

But this was only day one. As I crossed the lobby stuffed with history’s furniture, a mouse shot out from underneath a Louis XVI sofa and high-tailed it across the sumptuous carpet. Yes, it was beginning to feel like home.

I walked slowly in my heels, my shoulders back, trying to look bored and aloof. I have never walked so well or on better carpeting. I was an amoeba and my one-cell was brimming with sophistication. I stopped by the front desk and asked for my room key and then, because I thought I, Coco, lived there, I also asked for my mail.

“Is there any mail for me today, monsieur?” I made my voice deep. The desk clerk looked at me like Halloween was over. And then, not because he was truly professional, I think, but because he believed Coco had returned, he actually looked for it. Then he said, “I’m so sorry Madame, the postal service must be on holiday today,” he paused and met my Coco eyes, “but I do not think so.”

It took everything I had not to apologize and say just kidding. My gaze held his as my body turned toward the elevator and I left him with a whiff of my expensive perfume.

As sleep hovered I wondered what if every famous guest could be gathered together for just one more evening at the Ritz. Cole Porter. Colette. Jean Cocteau. Arthur Miller. Pablo Picasso. Maria Callas. Princess Di. Winston Churchill. Who knows, I thought. Their transmutations may be checking in right now.


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