Home Away

American Guests at Legendary French Hotels

From threadbare rooms in the Latin Quarter frequented by the Beat Generation to luxury palaces on the Riviera, French hotels have a special place in the collective imagination of the United States. Here are ten establishments whose history, legends, and scandals have and continue to leave their mark.
La Colombe d’Or, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. © Arian Jabbary

The Ritz, Paris

Five stars and 142 rooms – some with views over Place Vendôme. When it opened in 1898, the Ritz (with electricity and hot water on every floor) became a symbol of luxury and Parisian opulence. This gilded hotspot popular with American expats fleeing Prohibition is also the birthplace of the Sidecar, Mimosa, and Bloody Mary cocktails. The final tipple was co-opted by Hemingway, the hotel’s resident storyteller, who liberated the bar in August 1944. The writer showcased this life of luxury in a previously unknown short story, A Room on the Garden Side, published in 2018.

Tea time in the garden at the Ritz, ca. 1930. © Boris Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet

The Hôtel du Palais, Biarritz

On the site of Empress Eugenie’s former summer residence stands the only palace hotel on the Atlantic coast, a stone and brick building overlooking the ocean. Hemingway spent some time here during the 1920s, and the hotel features in his novel The Sun Also Rises and in the movie adaptation starring Ava Gardner, which was partly filmed on site. The seawater swimming pool, heated to 80°F, was inaugurated by Sinatra in 1959. Sixty years later, the Hôtel du Palais was completely renovated to welcome Emmanuel Macron, Donald Trump, and the national delegations for the G7 Summit.

© Hôtel du Palais Biarritz

The Beat Hotel, Paris

The Beat Generation took up residence in a dilapidated hotel in the Latin Quarter at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in 1957. Allen Ginsberg, a figurehead of the avant-garde literary movement, wrote his most renowned poem, Kaddish, while staying at the hotel. At the time, he paid ten francs (50 cents) per night for his room, and hung a photo of Arthur Rimbaud on the wall. The setting was hardly comfortable; sheets were changed once a month, and there was hot water only three days a week. William Burroughs finished his novel Naked Lunch at the bar on the ground floor in 1959. The establishment is now a four-star hotel, the Relais du Vieux Paris, but a plaque commemorates its previous penniless lodgers.

American poet Gregory Corso in his attic room, 1957. © Allen Ginsberg/Stanford University Libraries/Allen Ginsberg Estate
American writer William Burroughs in his room, 1958. © Loomis Dean/Getty Images

La Louisiane, Paris

“We are not a five-star palace, just an ancestral and quaint hotel [with] spartan rooms.” That says it all. The establishment, founded in 1823 by one of Napoleon’s colonels who later set out to try his luck in America, has become an icon ofthe Latin Quarter. It was long a hideaway for travelers, and Henry Miller, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Jim Morrison, Cy Twombly, and Keith Haring have all stayed in what has been compared to New York City’s Chelsea Hotel. A single room this summer will cost you around 104 euros.

The La Louisiane hotel in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, 1947. © Robert Doiseau/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

The Bristol, Paris

The palace hotel inaugurated in 1925 is the second of its name. The first Bristol, on the Place de la Concorde, was the “home of kings and emperors,” wrote Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence. The book’s main character, Newland Archer, stayed there in the final, heart-breaking scene in which he decides not to reunite with the Countess Olenska. Former U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant also spent five weeks at the hotel in 1877 during his world tour. The current Bristol on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré has hosted a similar clientele, including Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Josephine Baker – who celebrated her fiftieth anniversary as a performer there – and, more recently, Woody Allen, who used the hotel to film Midnight in Paris. In the movie, the main character (Owen Wilson) slips out after dark to wander the streets of Paris during the Roaring Twenties!

© Le Bristol Paris

The Peninsula, Paris

The site chosen by the Asian group Peninsula Hotels for its first European establishment is symbolically located at 19 Avenue Kleber. This is the address of the former Hôtel Majestic, considered to be one of the most modern palace hotels in Paris when it opened in 1908. It was there that George Gershwin composed An American in Paris in 1928, but the building was later bought by the French government. This is also where Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho signed major cease-fire agreements in 1973, which saw the end of America’s direct involvement in the Vietnam War. After a four-year renovation, the building was regranted its palace hotel status in 2014.

© Le Peninsula Paris

The Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, Antibes

The Aleppo pines lining the path guide visitors from the villa in the Napoleon III style down to the seawater swimming pool overlooking the Mediterranean. This former retreat for inspiration-hungry writers was transformed into a palace hotel in 1889, and has preserved its discreet charm. A certain F. Scott Fitzgerald set his novel Tender Is the Night within its walls, and many American stars are among the guests during the Cannes Film Festival. Madonna’s favorite room is 644, Kirk Douglas often goes water skiing nearby, and Naomi Campbell celebrated her 40th birthday there with a ten-foot-tall cake!

The seawater pool at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, Antibes, 1976. © Slim Aarons/Getty Images

La Colombe d’Or, Saint-Paul-de-Vence

In the hills of the Provençal hinterland, Paul and Baptistine “Titine” Roux made their café into a boutique hotel before its time. During the 1920s, guests would come to dance on the terrace to the sounds of a player piano. The Fitzgeralds were among them, and met famous dancer Isadora Duncan. The interior design was entrusted to artists passing through. A Picasso hangs in the lobby, the dining room is home to one of Chagall’s paintings, and a giant mobile by Calder is found by the pool. Writer James Baldwin, who lived nearby, regularly dined at the hotel. Today, stars such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Quentin Tarantino, and Uma Thurman are regulars.

© Léanne Ansar
© Ruby en Rose

Th Hôtel Belles Rives, Juan-les-Pins

F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda spent most of 1926 in this white stone villa on the shores of the Mediterranean. While there, he wrote his novel Tender Is the Night between champagne lunches, swimming in the sea, and trips along the coast in a Renault coupé. The Villa Saint-Louis was turned into a hotel in 1929. The Bar Fitzgerald with its grand piano and fancy cocktails, as well as the Fitzgerald literary prize awarded every June, are a testament to these carefree holidays.

The terrace at the Hôtel Belles Rives, 1950. © Hôtel Belles Rives

The Normandy, Deauville

The Americans have arrived in Deauville… by stagecoach! The year was 1975, and the mayor of the seaside resort in the Calvados département welcomed the crew from Robert Altman’s movie Nashville for the first edition of the American Film Festival. Movie stars and jury members alike poured into the Normandy, a half-timbered palace hotel in the Anglo-Norman style inaugurated in 1912. And the tradition has lived on. Today, celebrity guests include Kristen Stewart, who presented the biopic Seberg in 2019, Johnny Depp, lead in the movie Waiting for the Barbarians, and actresses Sienna Miller and Geena Davis.

The courtyard of the Normandy hotel, 1920. © Georges Chevalier/Collection Archives de la Planète/Musée départemental Albert Kahn

Article published in the April 2020 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.