Best-selling author Melanie Benjamin will speak about her latest book, “Mistress of the Ritz” at the New Canaan Library on May 21 at 6:30 p.m. Her novel, which takes place at the infamous Ritz in Paris during World War II, will be available on May 21.
Benjamin is a historical fiction author known for her books “Alice I Have Been,” “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb,” “The Aviator’s Wife,” “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” and “The Girls in the Picture.”
Before she heads to New Canaan the Arts & Leisure editor spoke with Benjamin about “Mistress of the Ritz” and how she chooses her book subjects.
TinaMarie Craven: How would you describe “Mistress of the Ritz”?
Melanie Benjamin: Well “Mistress of the Ritz” is a World War II story set at the iconic hotel, the Ritz in Paris, which had a really unique role during the German occupation that I don’t think a lot of people know about. It kind of reminded me of “Casablanca” in a way because half the hotel was home to the German high command and half the hotel was home to paying guests, like Coco Chanel, and overseeing it all was an American woman named Blanche who had married a Frenchman named Claude Auzello, who was director of the Ritz. So Blanche and Claude were forced to navigate this unusual path of playing host to the Nazis and also trying to figure out how to strike a blow against them. It’s a love story about Claude and Blanche’s amazing love story and it’s a really unique tale of intrigue, espionage and heroism.
TC: What inspired you to write this particular book?
MB: I read a book about the Ritz; I knew nothing about the role of Ritz and other hotels like it during the German occupation of Paris. I hadn’t understood that the Germans really took over all of the fancy hotels and that’s where they housed their high ranking officers. The Ritz was unique in that it was the only hotel that was still allowed to operate as a hotel for paying guests as well. I read about it in a book, “Hotel on the Place Vendome” which is a nonfiction history of what happened at the Ritz during the war. In that book, Blanche and Claude — their story was told along with many other stories of true intrigue and I was really captivated by what Blanche did during the war and the history of her heritage and her marriage with the Frenchman and how lucky she was and I thought their story deserved a novel of its own.
TC: How would you describe Claude and Blanche’s relationship?
MB: I think they’re a tale of opposites attract but it’s also a rocky relationship between such opposites. She was an American flapper and he was a very typical Frenchman who didn’t understand why she didn’t understand why he would have a weekly mistress. Certainly there was a lot of passion that brought them together, it was a very fiery passion that brought them together, but it also made their marriage prior to the war, a very volatile one. I think it took the war for them to see each other truly as they were and not just the typical harpy wife and the man who cheats on me. The war showed each other who they were, the heroism, the bravery and the love that was there.
TC: What inspired you to make the Ritz it’s own character?
MB: I just thought it should be because of its unique role and it’s also so famous, everybody knows the Ritz in song or phrase. The Ritz deserves to be its own character, it’s such a unique, amazing place and the history its witnessed is unparalleled.
TC: What would you like people to take away from your novel?
MB: They were true heroes of the resistance and we don’t know their story. I’m always, always trying to unearth those stories that deserve to be told and deserve to be known. I absolutely think Blanche and Claude’s story deserves to be known. Also, I think, the story of their marriage — the fact that in a war during the worst that mankind can do to itself — that love can still flourish, people [can] find the noblest parts of their characters and they rise to the times and in doing so, you can find love amid the horrors of war and I thought that was a really important thing I want people to take away.
TC: Any new projects on the horizons?
MB: I can’t share exactly what it’s about. It’s not about a real person in history — which is unusual for me; all my novels have been historical fiction based on real people who we know somewhat — and this one is about a real incident of history that is kind of forgotten but, this time I am imagining the characters in the story. And that’s all I can tell you.
TC: What is it about history that really captivates you?
MB: I truly find the past a lot more interesting than the present. I also find parallels between the past and the present that are very interesting and intriguing that people need to know history repeats itself, always. Particularly writing about the German occupation of Paris during the war, it was really frightening to see the parallels with some of the things that are going on today. And I always find that in all of my novels that there are themes that transcend time. I’m just more interested in things that are different to me, things that I don’t see in my everyday life.
For more information about Benjamin’s author talk, visit newcanaanlibrary.org.