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They say that Los Angeles doesn’t treasure its past.
How, then, to explain Chateau Marmont?
For nearly ninety years, as a city and a world changed utterly around it, this unique building, perched above a famous road in West Hollywood, has stood steadily as an oasis of quiet, gentility, privacy, and bohemian charm, a clubhouse for people too rich and famous to belong to clubs, a bolt-hole, a trysting place, a recovery room, a hideaway, an opium den, an atelier, a last resort.
A snow-white fairy castle with slate-gray roofs, a dozen or so gables, and a dominating turret, it sits on a hill overlooking one of Southern California’s busiest and most famous streets and has appeared, from the day it opened, as if it came from another world entirely. “The Chateau is a fluke, a marvelous fluke,” according to the architecture critic Edgardo Contini. “In the midst of endless low-rise, it is a striking high-rise, like a cathedral in a medieval town.” And its singular appearance houses an equally singular history.
From Greta Garbo to Howard Hughes, Bette Davis to Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison to Tony Randall, Johnny Depp to Lindsay Lohan, Chateau Marmont has drawn the most iconoclastic and outlandish personalities from the worlds of film, music, and other creative arts. It has been the site of wild parties and scandalous liaisons, of creative breakthroughs and marital breakdowns, of one-night stands and days-long parties, of famous triumphs and untimely deaths.
It was built with a mind toward luxury, status, permanence; it became known for privacy, discretion, transience. It began as a dream of high living, settled into a steady hum of quiet gentility, then slipped into something more like practical value, gradually devolving into shabbiness, nearly becoming a dive, its arc mirroring the rise, plateau, and fall of the neighborhood in which it sat. But the Chateau never lost its place near the heart of the cultural story of the day, even as the tenor of that day changed again and again. And in the twenty-first century, when, by the arithmetic of Hollywood, it ought to have become anathema simply by virtue of its age, it turned out to be more robust than ever, chic and glamorous and glowing as never before, lifting its environs along with it into a prosperous new era.
People from all walks of life have found in Chateau Marmont a place to get their bearings while navigating the unfathomable depths of Los Angeles or, in particular, the shark-infested shallows of Hollywood. And people who know those waters well have relied on the Chateau as a patch of dry land—private, quiet, undemanding, even serene—where they could recuperate, revive, create, cavort, or otherwise behave in ways that they wouldn’t necessarily at home.
Over the years, the Chateau has responded to this need for restorative isolation with tolerance and comfort, provided by a staff that could be relied upon to say nothing of what went on before their eyes or under their noses. “You can have a very, um, elaborate social life there, if you like,” said the actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, “or you can live the nun’s life, very monastic.” Or, as another frequent visitor put it, “Just check in at the desk, and nobody ever need see you again. You could die here if you wanted, and they wouldn’t always be bothering you, sticking notes under your door.”
Hollywood has hotels that are more luxurious, handsome, exclusive, and prestigious, with bigger rooms and grounds, with finer restaurants, with shops and tennis courts and day spas and nightclubs and VIP services and other amenities. But it has only one Chateau Marmont, its castle on a hill, guarding secrets since before movies could talk or Sunset Boulevard was completely paved.
The Chateau has spent nearly a century perched on the eastern edge of the Sunset Strip like the Rock of Gibraltar, a landmark defining a transition, a way station giving harbor to vagabonds, a milestone, a sentinel, a keep. For all that, the building long managed a kind of anonymity. Everyone has heard about it; everyone knows it on sight; everyone has trafficked rumors about it; and everyone who is anyone has at one time or another visited it. But until John Belushi’s tabloid-feeding death-by-misadventure on the premises, more than fifty years after the hotel opened, relatively few Los Angeles residents outside the world of show business could say exactly where the Chateau was or precisely name the castle-like edifice on the hillside where Sunset Boulevard melts into the Sunset Strip. People who commuted past it daily for years recognized it and knew it was . . . a mansion, maybe, or a dormitory, or something to do with the movies or Scientology or some cult. It was an architectural curiosity even in a town where the vernacular building style was as coherent as a salad bar, seemingly parachuted into the most modern of streets from some other place and time. It barely announced its presence, sporting a minimal sign that passersby might even mistake as pointing to some other building. It didn’t advertise. It simply was. All of which made it, to a certain way of viewing luxury, privacy, celebrity, and Hollywood . . . perfect: a place of secrets standing right out in the open, hidden in plain sight like Poe’s purloined letter.
Perhaps that’s why it has been such a magnet for legends, whispers, half-truths, gossip, suspicion. The stories that center on the Marmont—real and fictitious—span generations: Greta Garbo owned the place in secret (not true); Jean Harlow took lovers while resident with husband number three not long after the suicide of husband number two (pretty much true); Howard Hughes leased a suite simply to spy on the flesh available at poolside (true-true); F. Scott Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack there during a midday tryst (not true); Vivien Leigh mourned the end of her marriage to Laurence Olivier in a suite plastered with photos of him (true); Rock Hudson met his first live-in lover there, the nephew of the hotel manager (not true); James Dean met Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray by entering his bungalow via the window rather than the door (not quite); Anthony Perkins used the phone booth in the lobby because he didn’t want the switchboard operator to listen in on his personal calls (sadly true); Jim Morrison climbed the ornate balconies and rooftops in drug-fueled antics (mostly, sorta); Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the lobby (nuh-uh); Scarlett Johansson and Benicio Del Toro hooked up in the elevator on Oscar night (Who can say?); Lindsay Lohan got the boot after racking up—and failing to pay—nearly $50,000 in charges in less than two months (all too true); and so on.
Over the decades, the chance to steep in the atmosphere that generated these stories, apocryphal or not, has drawn visitors as reliably as any advertising campaign ever could. Chateau Marmont is the ultimate Hollywood hotel because it is, like Hollywood itself, bigger than life even when it is obviously fake.
The story of Chateau Marmont parallels the story of Hollywood so thoroughly as to be inseparable from it: the silent era, the golden age of the studios, the rise of television, the influx of foreign cinema, the rebel heyday of the sixties and seventies, the blockbuster era, the indie movie upsurge, and the current mingling of film and digital media. At desks in various of its suites and bungalows, Hollywood screenwriters have produced scripts for films as diverse as The Music Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Day of the Locust, The Color Purple, and Wild Palms. And at least one cinematic masterpiece and cultural landmark—Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause—might not have been made at all if its creators hadn’t had the Chateau as a laboratory and workshop. Likewise, the chronology of the music business, from the era of the big bands and crooners to the many generations of rock and pop and hip-hop, has been tied to the hotel’s history. Key figures from every era have slept, worked, and partied there, from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis to the Velvet Underground to Carly Simon to Rick James to Bono, and many of them have composed material at the hotel that they went on to record and release. So too painters, photographers, fashion designers, advertising executives: Sometimes they have created works of genius while in residence, sometimes flops. In some cases they’ve checked into the place to indulge in clandestine appetites, in some to escape persecution, in some because their homes were no longer open to them, in some because they needed a home away from home while they tried to get themselves—or their careers—back together, in some because great opportunities were spread out before them in the Southern California sun.
But the story of Chateau Marmont is even more than the story of a century of popular creativity. It is also the story of a very specific place, namely Hollywood and, even more precisely, the Sunset Strip. When the Chateau opened in 1929, the Strip was a dream, with only a few low-slung buildings dotting a rutted dirt road that connected the edges of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. As the Strip added paving and showbiz agencies and swank nightspots, the Chateau became known as a reliably quiet and comfortable place for out-of-towners who didn’t want to succumb to the glitz and tinsel of the movie colony, as Hollywood was called. After World War II, when the Strip became a haunt of rebels and teens and the fashionably countercultural, so did the Chateau, opening its doors to all—straight, gay, sober, addled, black, white, from all walks of life, at reasonable prices, making up with discretion and tolerance what it might have lacked in luxurious touches. When the Strip exploded in unrest in the sixties, and, soon after, when the action along it slowed, the Chateau entered a period of decline, finding rescue in an owner who fell in love with it and kept it alive when the idea of demolishing it altogether seemed tenable. And then a visionary came along, seeing in the Chateau and the surrounding Strip undervalued assets that, with patient restoration and a certain sense of style and, yes, some sizable investment, could bloom again into something glamorous, chic, and exclusive—more so, indeed, than at any time in their existence. Other Hollywood hotels have great claims to history: the Beverly Hills, the Beverly Wilshire, the Hollywood Roosevelt, the Beverly Hilton, and the Bel-Air, as well as such bygone icons as the Garden of Allah and the Ambassador. But among them all, Chateau Marmont has most perfectly mirrored its setting, and its setting has long been one of the shining mirrors of the culture of the entire world.
The tale of Chateau Marmont is a tale of investment and risk, bum luck, and great good fortune, visionaries and myopics, capitalists and laborers, celebrities and hangers-on, aspirants and has-beens, creators and sybarites, those who made and those who took—the gamut of a century’s worth of American dreamers, schemers, and strivers within the parameters of a few acres. It’s the story of the rise of Los Angeles and a roiling history of show business, a real estate saga and a string of simple human vignettes, a scrapbook of headlines and a junk heap of curiosities.
Everyone who has ever checked in to Chateau Marmont has had one thing in common: He or she has become part of the vital pulse of an inanimate object that hasn’t aged—indeed, has gotten more vibrant—even as everyone attached to it has grown old or passed away. The lifeblood of a hotel is the people who have stayed in it, who have worked in it, who have used it as a base from which to satisfy private desires or to pursue great public acclaim. Actors and writers, musicians and deal makers, desk clerks and maids and parking valets and waiters, the stars and the investors and the people who’ve not been inside the walls but have always wished they could be: They live and they die as they pass through Chateau Marmont, and the Chateau gives them all what they need from it when their needs arise, a never-ending source of shelter, privacy, convenience, and stability for wanderers, speculators, and visionaries.
The Chateau has managed all this despite being small—only sixty-three rooms, including its (in)famous bungalows, at its current largest—and despite not providing, for most of its existence, some of the primary amenities expected of a swank hostelry: a restaurant, a bar, shops, salons, a spa, fitness facilities, a full-scale room service operation, even a swimming pool—they only dug one after World War II. To some, the lack of these tokens of luxury living made the Marmont seem déclassé and undesirable. But through another lens, these absences gave the place a special air: It seemed like a residence and not a way station, like an old European pensione and not some jazzed-up American mega-resort. The lack of high-end amenities in what was otherwise a high-end hotel was a quirk—and a litmus test: If you needed to be surrounded by the trappings of wealth, you went elsewhere; if you were a little more self-contained, low-key, modest, Chateau Marmont suited you just fine. “The Chateau is the only cheap hotel here that one can stay in and people don’t say, ‘Poor guy, he’s broke,’ you know?” explained playwright Burt Shevelove, a regular guest of the place. “And because of this you meet friends, stage people from New York. There’s a tendency to think that if an actor is staying here, he must be quite good.”
The combination of high-profile location and modest appointments meant that the Marmont occupied a special place in Hollywood’s geography. On the one hand, if you stayed there you were really in the middle of everything. On the other, you had to be near so much because your hotel offered (relative to its deluxe competitors) so little. For the pampered and status conscious, Chateau Marmont, however charming and central, was a no-go. Which, of course, made it perfect for other sorts. Among the hundreds of famous names that have been entered into the hotel’s guest registry, many belonged to Europeans (especially Britons) who don’t necessarily expect every hotel to be an all-inclusive resort. Many as well have belonged to creative artists lured to Hollywood to work but determined not to go Hollywood. For decades, the hotel’s shabby-chic furnishings and creature discomforts gave them the sense of resisting the sirens’ call . . . even as they cozied right up to the sirens’ rocky outpost and made a nest for themselves. It was, ironically, an icon for iconoclasts, a comfortable hideaway that you stayed in to prove that you didn’t care about comfort, a spot famous for being obscure, treasured for its scruff, sworn to by those allergic to allegiances.
A hotel can signal a getaway, a holiday, a spree, but it is also a vault of secrets, a haven, a port in a storm, a home away from home. People come and go from hotels all day every day for weeks, months, years. But a great hotel gives the impression of always being there, of having always been there, of being there forevermore. You can trust the Plaza, the Ritz, the Connaught, the Drake, the St. Francis, because their long histories include personages and episodes and scandals grander than anything the present day can serve up; they’re almost natural phenomena, like canyons or waterfalls. Chateau Marmont, from the start, was intended to impart that sensation in its very structure, in the walls and floors and windowpanes. Its success in doing so for almost a century can be credited, in part, to ownership that did its utmost to cater to its clients’ preferences and to stalwart employees who worked in the shadows, serving celebrities whose needs and privacy they respected as their own.
But in part, too, it can be credited to the very bones of the building. The Marmont offered advantages that few other hotels could match. The small scale means a more select clientele—and arguably one less likely to gawp at celebrities than folks might elsewhere. Because it was built as an apartment house and not as a hotel, there were aspects of the very layout that abetted anyone wishing to keep a low profile. It wasn’t necessary to walk through the lobby to get to your room, for example; you could park in the basement garage and head right upstairs in an elevator. And if you stay in one of the famous bungalows on the property, you don’t have to enter the hotel proper at all; you come and go through a back entrance as if you truly live there and aren’t just a temporary guest, perhaps the best arrangement of all for someone—a movie actor, say—who needs to be in Southern California to work for a month or two but wants, in some portion of his or her brain, to deny it. For practitioners of the most public of businesses, living the most public of lives, it is ideal, at once well-known and anonymous, just like a movie star trying to pass for an ordinary civilian at a coffee shop.
To tell the story of an institution—to write the biography of a thing—it’s useful to speak of the humans whose lives have crossed it. In the case of Chateau Marmont, that means three sets of people. First, and most of all, there are the many thousands of guests whose passage through the halls and grounds has supported the hotel and given it life and purpose, in particular the ones who, through their connection to the popular or fine arts, have names—and creations attached to those names—that make us all curious about the details of their lives. Next come the employees, frequently anonymous but often crucial and even definitive of the place, whether they’ve been general managers who set the tone for guest relations, or switchboard operators who protect (or, sometimes, invade) privacy, or parking valets who inhabit a subterranean world where some of the hotel’s most incredible secrets are bared. Finally, but perhaps most important, we have the owners, the men (and they have all been men) who built and transformed and expanded and restored and bought and sold and defined the place, the kings of this not-quite-a-castle, more royal within its confines than even the most exalted celebrities who have taken rooms in it.
Among this most select line, five stand out: the unlikely dreamer who envisioned and built the place; the venturesome businessman who turned it into a hotel; the canny investor who held it in an impersonal grip but fostered it and added to it and gave it some important aspects of its character; the gruff contractor who thought he’d found a tax write-off and fell in love with and rescued it; and the slick East Coast hotelier, a man who brought a never-before-known level of polish, sophistication, cachet, and allure to the place and, to date, has held it longer than any previous owner.
These five—plus perhaps half a dozen others whose hands the Chateau passed through as a financial asset, sometimes for long enough for them to do some ruinous harm to it out of indifference—have been guardians of a trust, wittingly or not, insurers of a kind of cultural continuity rare in Southern California. They have sometimes been tempted to liquidate, level, or abandon the hotel, but something in it has made them persist. And the result of their doggedness, their vision, their belief, is a legend now entering its tenth decade of existence with an energy more robust, a business model more lucrative, and a name more famous than it has ever enjoyed.
One of the great aspects of the Chateau today is that it connects people to the past, to simpler, grander, brighter, perhaps naughtier times. But that, like so much of what passes for reality in Hollywood, is illusory. Chateau Marmont is made of stone, steel, wood, glass, and iron, not “aura” or “mystique” or “je ne sais quoi.” And to the extent it possesses any of those characteristics, it has accrued them through hard work, dodgy times, lucky breaks, quirks of history, and dashes of wildness, recklessness, determination, endurance, and happenstance.
This is the story of all that.