Goodbye to the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead and the celebrity gossip I used to uncover there

Longtime Atlanta entertainment journalist Richard L. Eldredge pens an ode to the opulent hotel, which this month was rebranded as the Whitley
Ritz-Carlton Buckhead
A T.J. Martell Foundation event at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in 2009. The hotel became the Whitley in December after operating as the Ritz-Carlton since 1983.

Photograph by Rick Diamond/Getty Images

It was ground zero for gossip, celebrity sightings, and the city’s social scene. And when you were responsible for banging out 30 inches of Atlanta’s bold-faced names for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s popular “Peach Buzz” column, located on the upper left column on Page Two of the Living Section six times a week, you scoured for scoop 24/7.

For the better part of 20 years, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Buckhead on Peachtree Road was my second office. Just as the denizens of New York City’s Stork Club once smoked and swilled juicy tidbits to newspaper columnist Walter Winchell at his appointed table nightly, I could poke my head inside the right Ritz ballroom and an hour later, emerge with a week’s worth of dish.

On December 1, the Buckhead Ritz’s iconic lion roared for the final time as parent company, the Marriott International renovates the property, readying the Whitley, a more millennial friendly rebrand.

The 22-floor, 510-bed exercise in social finery first opened in Buckhead in 1983. In Ronald Reagan’s America, no brass ring felt out of reach, even if you were taking out a second mortgage to keep your Rolls on the road. More was more and luxury was lucrative as everyone in the country valiantly attempted to emulate the Ewings from Dallas and the Carringtons from Dynasty.

The Ritz Buckhead was once the hot spot for galas and balls. From left: The 1984 Crescendo Ball publicity chair Maizie Hale, Ball chair Carol Knapp, and Tiffany & Co. Atlanta vice president John Tipton.

Photograph courtesy of Maizie Hale

By the time I hit the city in 1990, the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead was firmly established as the preferred sleeping sanctuary for the rich and famous. The hotel’s regal corridors and ornate dark paneled walls, massive fireplace, crystal chandeliers, and marble floors commanded respect. The opulent furniture ordered you to sit up straight. Staff addressed all guests as “ladies and gentlemen.” The valets wore bow ties and top hats. One veteran valet could recall your name and the make and model of your car, even as you idled, waiting to make that left turn from Lenox Road. (If you slipped him a $20, your vehicle was handily stored an elbow’s length away, too.)

I got to know my way around the hotel so well that during the 1996 Centennial Summer Olympics, I wrangled my way into a private Coca-Cola reception and minutes later pulled out the newfangled cell phone I’d been issued for the games and relayed the complete party menu and the closely guarded super-secret identity of the opening ceremony performer (Celine Dion) to my editor downtown.

Understandably, movie stars preferred the pampering of the Ritz, so the hotel’s upstairs luxury spaces were natural locales for countless press interactions. John Travolta told me about the rigors of making The General’s Daughter there. Djimon Hounsou discussed Guardians of the Galaxy and the loss of his Furious 7 co-star Paul Walker. I had a spirited conversation about race and roles for women in Hollywood with The Help actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Seth Rogan chatted about how to make cancer funny. In his suite, director Garry Marshall praised the acting abilities of Lindsay Lohan one afternoon as his wife burst through the door, weighed down with Phipps Plaza purchases. Without missing a beat, Marshall leaned in and riffed, “Looks like shooting starts Monday on Pretty Woman 2!”

Downstairs in the bar, I had scholarly conversations with authors Christopher Rice and A. Scott Berg and learned the limitations of 1960s sitcom syndication salaries when “Brady Bunch” mom-turned-DampRid spokesperson Florence Henderson extolled to me the virtues of the moisture absorption product.

During a Sunday brunch, Food Network phenomenon Paula Deen momentarily excused herself from our table in order to coax a barren lamb leg bone from a carving station server, only to bring it back to the table and gnaw on it mid-interview. When he was launching his California vineyard, The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola threw a lavish five-course media dinner paired with his wines in the Ritz’s famed Dining Room. The man himself, however, was absent. Each member of the media was summoned separately upstairs to his suite for a 10-minute one-on-one with him. And much to the annoyance of her publicist, a breakfast interview once threatened to turn into a lunch conversation as actress Pam Grier traced the real-life inspirations for her gutsy feminist 1970s Blaxploitation characters.

Inside the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead

Photograph courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead

Under the tutelage of executive chef Guenter Seegar, The Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead Dining Room became an international sensation, hiring Shaun Doty and other future Atlanta star chefs. Over the years, the city’s socialites raised millions of dollars inside the Buckhead Ritz’s chandelier-dripping ballrooms for countless charitable causes. The hotel’s New Year’s Eve ball was a particular endurance test as dinner and dancing eventually made way for a post-midnight breakfast buffet. And when live auction bidding occasionally stalled, as it did one night during a Meals on Wheels benefit, the city’s civic minded steel magnolias instinctively knew how to get the money spigots flowing again. As one incomparable ball co-chair once exclaimed into a microphone, “Y’all, our seniors are gonna be eatin’ cat food!” Such quotes became the lifeblood of “Peach Buzz.”

But when the St. Regis Hotel opened its fashionably adorned five-star doors down the street in 2009, it siphoned many of the Ritz’s charitable balls and other events to its freshly painted luxurious digs. That same year, the Dining Room closed and made way for a less rigid dining concept as modern hotel guests rejected the Buckhead Ritz’s staid formalities.

My escort for many memorable evenings at the Ritz was the AJC’s longtime fashion editor Marylin Johnson, who tried her best over the years to teach me which fork to use with what course and to fix my forever-wayward cummerbund. While I was still in journalism school, she was busy interviewing designers Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein at the Ritz and nibbling on the tiny egg salad and watercress sandwiches at the hotel’s fabled silver platter accented afternoon teas.

I rang Johnson up this week to discuss the passing of our old friend. “In Atlanta, you always have to look forward,” she advised. “The Ritz held its own for a long, long time. It was iconic.”

After a brief stroll down memory lane together, Marylin added wistfully, “It was just a magical place. That’s what the Ritz was all about. How lucky were we? It was a fabulous time!”

And just for a moment, we were strolling into one last cocktail reception together as a formally attired server gallantly offered us a final bubbling flute of champagne, complete with a white three-ply blue lion and crown accented Ritz cocktail napkin.

Richard L. Eldredge has been an Atlanta magazine contributing editor since 2010 and is the editor of Eldredge ATL. He began contributing to the AJC’s “Peach Buzz” in 1993 and was its head writer from 1996-2009.