Stars checked in so they couldn’t be checked out.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, movie stars soon learned an essential rule of publicity: If you want to be seen, go to the Beverly Hills Hotel. If you don’t want to be seen, go to the Chateau Marmont.
The former was famous for its elegant digs and constant leaks to the gossip columns. The latter was known for being slightly run-down but definitely discreet.
Still, some stories did get out. And “The Castle on Sunset,” by Shawn Levy, reports them all while refuting a few.
“Howard Hughes leased a suite simply to spy on the flesh available at poolside (true-true),” Levy writes. “Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the hallway (nuh-uh). Scarlett Johansson and Benicio Del Toro hooked up in the elevator on Oscar night (Who can say?).”
Actually, Del Toro can.
“The Chateau Marmont only has eight floors,” he pointed out after the raunchy rumor began. “I would still be struggling out of my leather jacket by the second floor.”
It’s a good story, though. And like Hollywood itself, the Sunset Strip inn has plenty of them.
It’s been through a few remakes, too. Modeled after a French castle, it opened Feb. 1, 1929, as apartments. Penthouses rented for $750 a month, nearly $11,000 today, adjusted for inflation. There weren’t many takers. After the stock market crashed, they were even fewer.
A new owner arrived in 1932 and converted the building into a hotel, hoping to draw tourists for the Summer Olympics. They came and left. But then the stars began to wander in. They liked its casual vibe and prized its privacy even more.
Sex symbol Jean Harlow met her boyfriends there, even during her third marriage to cinematographer Harold Rosson. Although they shared a suite, Rosson slept on a Murphy bed in the living room. Harlow commandeered the bedroom, which had a separate, private entrance.
Not so private, though, that the staff didn’t notice a constant parade of male visitors. Harlow’s frequent co-star Clark Gable was a regular visitor. But being the Chateau Marmont, that gossip never made the papers.
The hotel might not know much about housekeeping, but it knew how to keep secrets.
“If you must get into trouble,” mogul Harry Cohn advised actors, “do it at the Chateau Marmont.” He even rented the penthouse for Glenn Ford and William Holden, to keep their bachelor hijinks hidden.
Desi Arnaz stayed there when he wanted to get away from Lucy. One day she tracked him down. No one knew what the argument was about, or who threw his attaché case, but when it burst open a shower of currency floated down from the balcony.
Angry wives regularly made unexpected appearances at the hotel. One day, when hubby Tony Franciosa was late coming home, Shelly Winters found him in co-star Anna Magnani’s room. Winters chased her out and down the stairs, cursing her in Italian.
For gays, who still faced arrest if they partied publicly, the Chateau Marmont provided fun and safety. Writer Gore Vidal boy-watched by the pool, while a long line of young men wore down the carpet on their way to Roddy McDowall’s room. Tony Perkins and Tab Hunter used the place for regular rendezvous.
Occasionally, some people even got work done.
Nicholas Ray moved there after his divorce from Gloria Grahame, distraught and depressed. Finding out your wife is sleeping with your 13-year-old son can do that to you. But soon he turned his attention to a new project, a story about teenage angst called “Rebel Without a Cause.”
The script took a while to come together. The casting took longer.
Young James Dean was a natural choice for the lead, but who to pick for his co-star? Natalie Wood, 16, desperately wanted the part. She wanted it so badly she started hanging around the Marmont pool in a leopard-print bikini. Even after Ray seduced her, though, he still thought she was too innocent.
One boozy night, she was in a car crash with a teenage Dennis Hopper. When the hospital asked for a relative’s number, she gave them Ray’s.
“They called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent,” she told the director when he showed up. “Now do I get the part?”
Saying yes was easy, but keeping track of who was sleeping with whom during rehearsals was difficult. Wood was involved with both Ray and Hopper. Ray was with Wood “and the adolescent Sal Mineo while the sallow Jimmy Dean skulked in and out,” Vidal noted.
Vidal probably had a good view of Ray’s bungalow from the pool. He certainly had an appreciation of the Chateau Marmont, which he would later feature in his campy, acidic Hollywood send-up, “Myra Breckinridge.”
The novel wasn’t in the best of taste. But neither were the ’60s, and they were changing the hotel, too. Soon a different kind of celebrity guest began showing up. Graham Nash, James Taylor, and Jim Morrison were among the new regulars. The scent of Chanel in the hallways was slowly replaced by something a little more herbal.
It was definitely a different age, but the Chateau couldn’t quite keep up. Other, larger, gaudier hotels grabbed the big business. The Chateau, always a bit down-at-the-heels, began to get dilapidated, even dangerous. Once, Susan Sarandon’s room was burglarized while she slept in her bed.
There were darker days ahead.
On Feb. 28, 1982, John Belushi checked into one of the bungalows. He was there, ostensibly, to work on a script. But he was clearly out of control, drunk, drugged and self-destructive. And what was cozier for someone on the edge than a place where there were no limits?
His rooms soon became a sty, littered with leftover food and dirty clothes. Stars like Robin Williams and Robert De Niro dropped by. So did drug dealers. One of them obligingly shot up Belushi with a fatal speedball of heroin and cocaine.
After Bob Woodward recounted the comic’s last days in his book, “Wired,” the hotel’s owners filed an $18 million defamation suit. Their big objection was Woodward describing Belushi’s bungalow as “seedy.” The publisher changed the wording for subsequent printings.
Since Belushi’s death, the hotel has undergone facelifts to rival any of its guests’. In 1990, it was taken over by celebrity hotelier André Balazs. Interiors were remodeled; amenities were added; prices were raised. A new clientele was sought.
If the old Chateau had been a sort of Hotel Chelsea west, the new one felt like a slightly classier Trump resort.
Quirky residents like Tuesday Weld were replaced by grasping celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, who was booted when she refused to pay her bill. Jay-Z and Beyoncé gave a to-die-for party in the garage. Edgy fashion photographers used the terrific architecture for spreads. Now even the tourists came to gawk.
The Chateau Marmont was back, but was it even still the Chateau Marmont? The place where stars went not to be seen was now the place where would-be stars went to be noticed. Being written about wasn’t the problem anymore; it was the point.