Hotel Majestic: the renaissance of the mythical Paris landmark where Proust met Joyce and history was made

It’s where Proust met Joyce and Kissinger ended the Vietnam War. John Lichfield reports on a £350m facelift to restore the city landmark

Paris

On 18 May 1922, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, the two greatest novelists of the 20th century, met for the first and only time.

They did not get on well. Joyce described their conversation as “all questions whose answers were ‘No’.” He outraged the asthmatic French writer by lighting a cigarette as they shared a car home.

The soirée for modernist painters, musicians, dancers and writers had been arranged by a rich, eccentric British couple, Sydney and Violet Schiff. The other guests included Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. The dinner took place at the Hotel Majestic, 19 Avenue Kléber, in Paris.

Now fast-forward to May 1928. The American composer George Gershwin wrote the “blues” section of his orchestral poem An American in Paris while staying at the Hotel Majestic, 19 Avenue Kléber. He was influenced, he said, by the sound of cars honking as it they circumnavigated the Arc de Triomphe 200 metres away.

Fast-forward again to 27 January 1973. The peace agreement to end the Vietnam war was concluded by, inter alia, Henry Kissinger after four years of talks and mutual insults. The talks, insults and final signing took place in the French government’s international conference centre, formerly the Hotel Majestic, 19 Avenue Kléber.

An exterior shot of the Majestic Hotel An exterior shot of the Majestic Hotel
The Majestic, one of several long-lost, mythical hotels in Paris, will be reborn next Friday, 1 August.

After more than 70 years in other guises, the Hotel Majestic will rise again as the Peninsula, one of a new generation of super-luxury hotels in the French capital.

A partnership between the Qatari government and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Group has invested around €900m (£711m) – half to buy the building from the French government and about the same again to restore the hotel to its original 1908 splendour. With 200 rooms and suites, including five with their own roof-top gardens, this makes the Peninsula Paris, room for room, the most costly hotel ever created.

The new hotel – close to both the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower – has a breath-taking roof-top terrace and restaurant and an underground spa and swimming pool.

For decades, tourists and Parisians walked past 19 Avenue Kléber without knowing its extraordinary story. This was a place where the history of the French capital in the 20th century was made, both the light shades and the dark.

It was at the Majestic that the British government delegation (including the diplomat-politician-writer Harold Nicolson), lived in 1919 while negotiating the Versailles peace treaty which formally ended the First World War. It was in the ex-Majestic that the German army, the Wehrmacht, set up its headquarters after France’s conquest in June 1940.

After the war, the building was briefly the headquarters of Unesco before sinking into anonymity as a French government conference centre and then as offices.

The old Grand Hall The old Grand Hall

“By the 1990s, the building was, frankly, dull, dark and unattractive. You could walk past without seeing it,” Nicolas Béliard, the director-general of the new hotel, told The Independent. “We have spent a lot of time and money to uncover, study and recreate the original spirit and beauty of the building. It took two years to build the Majestic in 1906-08. We have taken four and a half years to recreate it as the Peninsula.”

The Independent was given a sneak preview this week. The results are stunning. The old ballroom of the hotel, where the Vietnam peace talks took place from 1969-73, has become a sweeping, light-filled breakfast room, tearoom and lobby, with the original stone mouldings and ceiling paintings beautifully restored. 

In January 1973, The New York Times wrote: “The agreement was signed at the gigantic round table, covered with a prairie of green baize, where the four parties to the Paris conference have been speechifying at each other, and often vilifying each other, almost weekly for four years.” 

“The great ballroom of the former Hotel Majestic, where the table stands, is crammed with crystal and gilt chandeliers, lush tapestries and ornate gilt mouldings. But the scene was as glum as the drizzly, grey Paris sky outside. The men all wore dark suits.”

Nearby is the small oak panelled room where, it is said, the archetypical “man in a dark suit”, Dr Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, initialled the final peace agreement. Each of the original, wooden panels has been sent away for meticulous restoration. The room has become the hotel’s main bar.

Henry Kissinger signs the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 Henry Kissinger signs the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 (Getty Images)
There will be no plaque on the wall to remind guests and visitors of the room’s place in 20th-century history. “But the chandelier is based on a typical Vietnamese style,” said Mr Béliard. “Just as a little wink and a nod to those who are interested in the story of the building.”

Also on the ground floor is the reborn hotel’s restaurant, LiLi, which will serve Cantonese cuisine. This space was also the original hotel’s restaurant. It is assumed that the Proust-Joyce (and Picasso and Stravinsky) encounter of May 1922 took place here.

Various accounts of the evening have been handed down, All agree that Marcel Proust, a recluse and only six months from the end of his life, arrived disgracefully late in white gloves and a fur coat. James Joyce arrived even later, apparently drunk, and fell asleep at the table.

Each said they had not read the other’s work (which in Joyce’s case was probably untrue). They discussed their ailments. “My eyes are terrible,” said Joyce. “My poor stomach,” said Proust. “It’s killing me.”

“Are you acquainted with the Comtesse of so-and-so,” asked the legendarily snobbish Proust. Joyce said: “No.”

The exterior of the hotel today The exterior of the hotel today
The dinner has gone down, all the same, as one of the cultural high watermarks of Paris of the 1920s when the city was the undisputed avant-garde capital of the world.

The Hotel Majestic closed in 1937 after only 29 years. The family which built it also owned two smaller luxury hotels nearby. For reasons unknown – possibly the great depression of the 1930s – they decided to sell their flagship hotel to the French government as a conference centre.

The original hotel had 400 rooms. The Peninsula Paris will have 200 rooms and suites, at prices ranging from €1,095 to €25,000 a night. For the month of August only, there is an “introductory” offer, a snip at €695 a night. 

Four of the top-class hotels in Paris, including the Ritz and the Crillon, are currently closed for extensive renovations. Two other, brand-new five-star hotels have opened in recent years. When all these hotels are open, will there not be a surfeit of top-of-the-range hotel rooms?

“We have no worries about that,” said Mr Béliard. “Everything suggests that there is plenty of demand. We are a small group, already well-known in Asia and the United States. This is our first hotel in Europe but an agreement has recently been signed to build a Peninsula in Grosvenor Square in London. We expect many Asian and American visitors but we are not targeting them specifically. We are confident that we will also appeal to people from Europe and the Middle East.”

The size of the Paris market for super-luxury hotels may, according to rumour, be tested even further. Another “lost, legendary” hotel of Paris, the Elysée Palace on the Champs Elysées, was closed in 1920, three years after the dancer Mata Hari was arrested there as an alleged German agent. The building is now the French headquarters of HSBC but is said to be coveted as a possible hotel by Middle Eastern investors.

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