April 27 2010
Ernest Hemingway, as much a connoisseur of horse racing and gambling as of good food and drink, loved going to Auteuil racecourse in Paris. The leafy figure-of-eight track on the edges of the Bois de Boulogne thrives to this day, and is home to the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris in May and to a succession of competitive and high-stakes meetings in autumn and early winter.
In December 1949 Hemingway and his friend and subsequent posthumous biographer, the journalist AE Hotchner, spent a memorable few weeks in Paris, making regular sorties to Auteuil to enjoy what Hotchner called “Degas horses against a Renoir landscape”. They contributed to a betting fund entitled “the Hemhotch Syndicate”, and each outing was prefaced by research. “Our routine was to meet in the Little Bar of The Ritz every day at noon,” wrote Hotchner in his 1966 Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, “and while Bertin, the maestro of that boîte, made us his non-pareil Bloody Marys, we would study the form sheets and make our selections.”
What a pleasure that must have been – and what a pleasure it can still be. Without proper homework winners can be hard to find but the Sporting Life is always more agreeable with a drink in your hand and the favourite watering hole of Papa, long since renamed The Hemingway Bar, continues to entice.
If you are entering The Ritz from Place Vendôme, you ignore the main bar and carry on past the Pool Bar and the Vendôme until you are almost at the hotel’s discreet rear exit on Rue Cambon. The Hemingway Bar – small, intimate and gloriously old school – is on your left. The interior features dark brown leather chairs and bar stools and pale brown wooden panelling on the walls, along with 25 black-and-white photographs that Hemingway took himself. Some of the pictures are of celebrated friends of the author, including Ingrid Bergman; there are also photos of Hemingway with his fourth wife, Mary Walsh, whom he met while they were working as correspondents in Europe during the second world war. Indeed, Hemingway famously claimed to have liberated The Ritz, or at least the bar, when he was one of the first Americans to enter the city on August 25 1944 and, in later life, he drank and stayed there whenever he could. He’s even credited with inventing the Bloody Mary after asking The Ritz barman to mix him an odourless cocktail so that his wife, “Bloody Mary”, wouldn’t be able to smell alcohol on his breath.
The bar is a perfect setting for a romantic assignation, though single men and women would feel equally comfortable nursing a good book and a malt whisky or a glass of champagne. By all accounts, Hemingway and Hotchner put away a few before and after their Auteuil expeditions. Hemingway once described racing as a “demanding friend” but that friendship was never more rewarding than on the December afternoon when an outsider called Bataclan 111, carrying the entire Hemhotch fund plus the wagers of just about every waiter, barman and concierge at The Ritz, came home at odds of 27-1. The winnings were divided up in Hemingway’s room and the celebrations continued throughout Christmas.
The next big meeting at Auteuil is Grand Steeple-Chase day on May 30 but, before then, I hope to see the crack French filly Special Duty win the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket on May 2, albeit at the slightly more conservative odds of 7-2 with Coral.