When it comes to Los Angeles lodgings, there’s an old saying: “If you want to be seen, go to the Beverly Hills Hotel. If you don’t want to be seen, go to Chateau Marmont.” In his new book, The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, Shawn Levy shows just how true that is. His gossipy book, years in the making, delves into the dramatic ups and downs of the uniquely private institution over its 90-year lifespan, from its early days as an apartment building when the Sunset Strip was nothing more than a dirt road to its current glossy, André Balazs incarnation (Aaron Sorkin and John Krasinski are already adapting it into an HBO series). Levy, a Portland, Oregon-based author, has written eight previous books, from a bio of Paul Newman to a history of swinging 1950s Rome. He spoke to us about the book, the hotel, and the Chateau’s decades of debauchery.
There are many hotels in the city that have storied pasts. What makes the Chateau so special?
It’s got an incredible location right at the gateway to the Sunset Strip. It’s small, only 63 rooms—there might be more rooms than that on one floor of the Hollywood Roosevelt. It was originally built as an apartment house, which meant that every unit was self-enclosed and that there was no lobby, restaurant, or bar. They didn’t add a restaurant or bar until the ’90s. It always had a lot of privacy. There were units that you can enter and leave without being in the building at all. There are stories of people working on the same film—like Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll on Porgy and Bess—and both staying at the Chateau and not realizing it for weeks.
How important has the Chateau’s famous discretion been to its success?
It’s shaped the hotel. The Chateau couldn’t offer you luxury, but it could offer you a good location, and it could offer you quiet and privacy. That started in the 1940s when the owner at the time, German anti-fascist Erwin Oskar Brettauer, decided that everyone would be welcome. Black, white, gay, straight—so long as they paid their bill, they were welcome guests. That policy has held all this time.
What was one of the most surprising things you came across in your research?
Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate got pregnant there and left because Sharon didn’t want to bring a baby back to a hotel. [A pregnant Tate was later brutally murdered by the Manson family in the Benedict Canyon home she and Polanski rented.] That struck me as very awful and poignant. Even telling you the story now after having written it and read it a million times I find myself appalled.
Jean Harlow was the first truly famous star that stayed at the hotel. How did she shape its affinity for celebrities?
Harlow was an outlier because at the time she stayed there, the hotel was much more popular with society people from Pasadena. It seems crazy today, but going from Pasadena to West Hollywood back in the ’30s was a real schlep, so they would keep a little pied-à-terre at the Chateau. Harlow, a young woman and a bona fide movie star, was on her third marriage when she moved in. She took two suites. Then she carried on affairs during the early months of her marriage to cinematographer Harold Rosson, which was pretty much arranged by the studio because she was so out of control. But she wasn’t having it. Very quickly the household staff realized that when she and her husband were in residence, they had to make beds in two different rooms. The marriage lasted a few months before they began divorce proceedings. She just outright brought her dates home with her, particularly Clark Gable, who was her frequent costar. Then she moved out, and she didn’t live very long after that.
What’s your favorite little juicy detail in the book?
In the ’50s, the hotel had a service where if you were out drinking and you didn’t want to drive home, they would send two carhops. One of them would drive your car, and the other would drive you. These writers were drinking one night and they realized they were too smashed to drive, so they called the hotel to let them know they needed a ride—only to find out they were in the hotel.
Did you use any accounts from hotel staff for your research?
I did. The majority of people who I was able to talk to worked there under the current ownership and signed nondisclosure agreements when they took their jobs. I’m talking about valets in the parking garage and busboys. People are wary of sharing the stories, but they do, and they’re exactly the stories you would think they’d be. Someone showing up at 4 in the morning glassy-eyed. Somebody being fellated in a nook off the kitchen. It was stuff that confirmed what I understood, but it didn’t always rise to the point of me being able to include it in the book.
Who is your favorite of the Chateau’s long-term residents over the years?
[Author] Dominick Dunne. He had the right character for Chateau Marmont of the current era. He enjoyed being around famous people, but he was also gimlet-eyed. He saw through a lot of pretense and bad behavior. He wasn’t above telling stories on himself. I think it was after staying there during the Menendez brothers trial that he realized on the flight back to New York that he had left a porn tape in the player in his room. He phoned and said, “My God, I’ve done something terrible.” He felt bad because he thought the maid was going to find it. The assistant manager of the hotel found it and said, “Shall I mail it to you?” He says, “Good God, no.”
How did John Belushi’s 1982 death from a drug overdose at the hotel change how people perceived the Chateau?
It always had this reputation as a shack-up place or a place where people went to wait out the end of a marriage or for out-of-town actors who wanted to be in Hollywood but not go Hollywood. With Belushi’s death, you started getting the ghoul tours that drive around and show you where Bugsy Siegel got shot and this is where Belushi OD’d. This was almost the Brat Pack era. There were these young actors who wanted to prove their bona fides by being bad boys. They started gravitating toward the place. John Cusack, Robert Downey Jr., they dug it. That gave the place some cachet. Rick James requested Belushi’s bungalow. Jean-Michel Basquiat requested Belushi’s bungalow.
You write that many people used the hotel as an escape from a troubled marriage.
Like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Desi kept moving in and out. He would be at Chateau Marmont kind of semi-regularly. There’s a story, unprovable, of them having a fight at the hotel over an attache case filled with money. The dollar bills supposedly went raining down on the Strip. He was very frequently at the hotel as their marriage disintegrated. They separated long before they were on television and reconciled. That happened again and again.
What was the Sunset Strip and the surrounding area like when Fred Horowitz first built the Chateau in the late 1920s?
It was a dirt road. There were a couple of buildings to the west: the Sunset Plaza and the Hacienda Arms, which is still there. Then there was a bridle trail connecting Los Angeles to Beverly Hills. West Hollywood wasn’t given a name until 1925. It had a unique character. One of the reasons that Horowitz built it 300 yards past Laurel Canyon Boulevard is that he was now on county land and not city land. The taxes were lower, and the hoops you had to go through for the building inspector were fewer. You have many of the advantages of being right in Los Angeles without many of the sort of bureaucratic disadvantages—and land was cheaper. It was close to Beverly Hills, it was close to Hollywood, but it partook of neither. It was policed by the county and the sheriff, not by a police department. It was kind of a lawless spot, just like the Las Vegas Strip is outside the city.
You write about how there’s long been a real sense of freedom at the hotel and how that was especially true in the ’50s. Who really demonstrates that freedom?
Director Nicholas Ray and the making of Rebel Without a Cause. Ray was living in Malibu in the early ’50s when he caught his wife in bed with his son from a previous marriage. He wound up living at Chateau Marmont for about seven years. During that time he was conceiving, casting, writing, rehearsing, and shooting Rebel Without a Cause, he had open houses every Sunday where Hollywood people mixed with West Side Story gang member kids from Hollywood High and young actors. He was fucking Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, who were both underage. He was in his 40s. Gore Vidal, who stayed at the hotel many times during that period, saw what was going on. He wrote about it. James Dean would come in at 2 in the morning and want to rehearse a scene. It was just this crazy time of invention. If this had been going on at the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Beverly Wilshire, I think he would have gotten a letter from management. But at Chateau Marmont, people were like, “He pays the bill every week. So he’s good.”