Charles Ritz, hotelier, trout fisherman, gourmet, author and miniature railroader, whipped his line high into the air and fired a cast 25 yards, smack on the upper lip of a brown trout, which thereupon did perish from the earth. "I don't believe in all this admiration for experts," Expert Ritz mused as he walked briskly along a French chalk stream looking for another victim. "Trout fishing is simple. But the men who write about it want to become so important, and the people throw them so many compliments, that they get like the Sphinx. They add all kinds of gimmicks to make their systems more mysterious, more fantastic. Now, I want to take all the mystery out of fly casting. I want to put an end to all that foolishness."
The 74-year-old Ritz paused as a freight train, pulled by a diesel and a steam engine in tandem, rattled by on the Rouen-Le Mans line along the stream. "People can say who am I?" he went on in a Continental accent ranging somewhere between Victor Borge's and the Little Old Winemaker's. "Well, I'm just a man with his father's name. They tell me Em supposed to be distinguished, but the only time I can be distinguished is when I'm drunk. Thank God, I'm not an expert. Experts make simple things complicated. That is how they survive."
The chairman of the board of the Hotel Ritz in Paris is a dink of a man—5 feet 6 inches, 145 pounds in his waders—with gray-black hair cut en brosse, darting brown eyes, brown-rimmed bifocals, an olive-brown complexion and a pencil-thin black moustache. With his natural rapidity of movement, his merry eyes and his swarthy coloring he puts one in mind of a tiny French mouse, a description with which he disagrees, "because I am Swiss." On behalf of his clientele, he has become an expert winetaster and student of foods; on behalf of himself, his tastes are simple, running to meals of spaghetti and beer. "The Ritz is not ritzy," he once pointed out—to which could be added, " Charles Ritz is not ritzy." He lives in a tiny room on the top floor of the hotel, leaving space for his six miniature trains in an adjoining room. Across the hall is the considerably more sumptuous suite of Coco Chanel. Ritz likes to boast that he is the liveliest resident of the floor. "Every night when I go to sleep," he explains, "I fight the legions of Julius Caesar and make love to the girls of the Lido. That is the noise you hear: 'oui, oui, oui, non, non, non' all night long."
The range of Charles Ritz's activities is encyclopedic; he is easily bored and must keep on moving from interest to interest. As the only living son of Cesar Ritz, founder of the hotel, the young Charles could have nested in the tight security of the Ritz chain for life. Instead, he has been a shoe peddler, a designer, a movie-theater entrepreneur, an importer, a customer's man in a brokerage firm, a writer, a tackle manufacturer, a sergeant major in the U.S. Army during World War I and a dozen other things, only returning to the relative stability of the family's hotel business about 10 years ago. But of all the multitudinous interests of his life one has remained constant: trout fishing or, more accurately, fly casting ("I tend to lose interest after the fish has been hooked"). He has written two books on the subject: A La Mouche in 1939 (in collaboration with Tony Burnand) and his magnum opus, A Fly Fisher's Life, which has been published in half a dozen countries and continues to sell steadily. "As the world is run now few people can fish as far as Monsieur Charles fishes," Ernest Hemingway wrote in the introduction. "No matter how it is run even fewer people could ever fish as well."
Ritz's long career as a hunter of trout began in 1911 on a stream in France. "I was 20 years old, and a friend gave me a rod and took me out," he recalls. "I horsewhipped the river all day long and got a handful of blisters and no fish. Then my host came along and took four or five trout, and I said to myself, 'This is not for you. This is something devilish, you poor sucker, keep away from this damned stuff, see?' Then around 1920, when I was working in New York, another friend took me to the Beaver Kill. The first trout I caught, it took the fly all by itself. I didn't even know what was going on. I dragged it on the sandbank and fell on it.
"Now all of a sudden I knew everything, I was an expert. I figured it was just a matter of knowing where the fish were. I noticed the fellows were catching trout every evening in the Junction Pool; so I had another conversation with myself. 'Now you're gonna get all the fish,' I said, 'because you're gonna get to the Junction Pool and get the best position before anybody else.' Two hours before the evening rise I took up my position. When the night hatch began, up came a fellow two feet away from me and he got 'em all and I got nothing. So that was the real beginning. Between that time and now I had to go through a lot of suffering. Where I finally learned how to fish for trout was on the Risle. When you can take fish there you can take fish anywhere. I first tried the Risle on May 21, 1927, the day Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget. Since then I have fished all over the world. But after you've been on a piece of water like the Aclou Reach of the Risle, any other place is lousy."
I was staying on the same floor of the Ritz where the "oui, oui, oui, non, non, non" was alleged to go on all night when written word came that I was invited to go to the Risle for a day with Ritz, who was already vacationing on the river. Awhile before the great day my telephone buzzed, and a faraway voice, faintly identifiable as that of the h�telier himself, told me: "I just wanted to remind you to wear a tie when you come up here. Let me suggest a tie and tweeds. We're having lunch with my host and hostess, and she won't let you in without a tie."
"All right," I said to M. Charles. "But what are they running up there on the river? It sounds like the Ritz."
"It's worse!" he said, laughing.
At 7 in the morning Ritz's friend, Guy Duchange, an electronics-equipment manufacturer, picked me up at the hotel for the 80-mile drive westward to the Normandy village of Valleville, where we would find the Risle and Ritz. "Bonsoir!" I said ebulliently, because I always get light-headed before a fishing trip and also because I had been told that the French appreciate one's trying to speak their language even if one is a Berlitz reject. "Bonjour" my new friend corrected gently and then continued in French, which turned out to be his only language.