CELLULOID HERO

La-La Land’s Hotel

The Chateau Marmont Hotel is perched on a hill looking down over Sunset Boulevard.
GETTY IMAGES
Completed in 1929, the Chateau Marmont Hotel served as a Hollywood gathering place for A-list celebrities.
The Chateau Marmont had a starring role in Hollywood history.

A friend from my newspaper days in D.C., a former CIA operative who now advises private-sector companies on cybersecurity matters, visited a client in L.A. recently and wanted a crash course on the entertainment biz. So I took him to lunch at the Chateau Marmont and told him a story.

I was staying at the hotel in March of 1982, working on an article about the imminent June release of the movie E.T. and its director, Steven Spielberg, whom I had first met eight years earlier when he was making The Sugarland Express. We became friends because, according to Spielberg, I was the only person he’d ever met who had seen more movies than he had. (Wrong: Marty Scorsese by a landslide. Although I have seen literally thousands of movies.)

Spielberg and I were in his car, on Thursday, March 4th, heading to lunch at Musso & Frank, the definitive old-Hollywood watering hole, where Bogart and Monroe and Fitzgerald regularly downed the signature martini. On Highland Avenue, we got rear-ended; Spielberg reached around behind the driver’s seat, extracted his Bell & Howell Eyemo movie camera, and started shooting a 360 of the accident. (The first portable video camera for consumers wouldn’t be introduced until the following year…in Betamax format!)

While he did this, I mentioned that the great western director John Ford, whom I had interviewed shortly before he died in 1973, had vociferously complained that the sole experience of young directors was film; “not a god-damn thing else they can think or talk about,” he had said. “Ford had my number,” Spielberg quipped. 

I’m sure that was literally true: Ford almost certainly had had Spielberg’s phone number. But my friend wasn’t talking about landlines, all that existed then. At that stage in his career, all Spielberg could think or talk about was the film biz; even a car accident was an opportunity to use a movie camera. 

When we got to Musso’s, we ran into Robert De Niro, for whom, three years earlier, I had rewritten a never-shot David Rabe script about my friend the late Bob Leuci, an NYPD detective. Prince of the City, which Brian De Palma was to direct and De Niro to star in, was ultimately directed by Sidney Lumet, with Treat Williams in the lead role and a script by Jay Presson Allen that was much better than Rabe’s or mine. 

De Niro mentioned that he was staying at the Chateau—of course—and that Robin Williams, then shooting the final season of his hit TV show Mork & Mindy, was going to be doing a late-night stand-up set at The Comedy Store, a couple of blocks from the hotel: why didn’t we both come? Spielberg couldn’t. Williams was, and remains, the funniest person I had ever met; I told De Niro I wouldn’t miss it, even if there was an earthquake. I had met Williams several times through Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize–winning TV critic. I myself was a Pulitzer loser, nominated but trumped. 

I walked over to the club later that night. Didn’t find De Niro, but hung around after the show to say hi to Williams. He said he was heading over to—is this starting to sound repetitive?—the Chateau to visit John Belushi. 

Yikes! I had known Belushi for almost 10 years, had even taken a definitive portrait of him. And though I was staying at the hotel, I hadn’t known he was there. It’s that kind of place: you can disappear. 

Williams and I wandered into Bungalow 3. Stayed very briefly. It reeked of old food and body odor. Maybe dirty clothes. Belushi was with Cathy Smith, a woman I had once met when she was the girlfriend of either Levon Helm or Rick Danko—respectively, the late drummer and the late bass player of the Band—I don’t remember which. 

“This place smells like death,” Williams whispered to me, before he climbed into his car and headed off to his home in Topanga Canyon. 

I went up to my room, awakened the next day by sirens: Belushi was dead; he’d ODed on the combination of heroin and cocaine that Smith had injected into him, a crime for which she was ultimately sentenced to three years in jail.

Comic actor John Belushi's body is taken from a small house behind the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood to the coroner's office after his death.GETTY IMAGES
Comic actor John Belushi’s body is removed from a Chateau Marmont bungalow to the coroner’s office in 1982.

That was but one of many days I spent at the Chateau Marmont, a place that Shawn Levy notes, in his book The Castle on Sunset, is “the ultimate Hollywood hotel because it is, like Hollywood itself, bigger than life even when it is obviously fake.” With that sentence, Levy seems to ask, Are we all just prisoners here, of our own device? That’s a slightly inverted Eagles lyric, often interpreted as an allusion to the Chateau…wrongly. But it’s true about L.A.: if you don’t buy into the illusion, it’s a tough town.  

The Chateau had been recommended by Shales in advance of my first visit to L.A., in 1972, as a good place for a journalist: the rooms were cheap; nobody bothered you; no room service to run up your bill; interesting people hung out in the lobby (I met Gore Vidal and Jackson Browne and Jack Nicholson, to name a few); in the morning you’d walk across Sunset to Schwab’s Pharmacy and snatch the trade papers off the newsstand to read over a very inexpensive breakfast at the lunch counter—something every out-of-work actor also seemed to be doing. You’d pass beneath a 50-foot-tall, two-dimensional cutout of a cowboy in a Stetson and duster, lighting a smoke: a Marlboro Man billboard. Off to the left, just east of Schwab’s, was a giant statue of Bullwinkle, the cartoon moose. Los Angeles was—and still very much is—a company town. If you thrived in the entertainment business, or practiced entertainment law, it was the greatest place on earth; if you didn’t, it could easily seem like a sprawling, kitschy, traffic-laden, jaded, status-conscious nightmare.  

Even if you operated on the periphery of the entertainment world, which I did as a journalist, you never quite felt like you belonged—something I shared with my fellow stiffs at Schwab’s. In June 1975, for a story about how a newspaper reacts to being projected onto the big screen, I had to visit the Warner lot, where, on two connected soundstages, an exact replica of the Washington Post’s newsroom had been constructed for the filming of All the President’s Men. There was my desk, my chair, my nameplate, even trash from my garbage can! Director Alan Pakula had insisted on buying our trash to enhance the realism. Dream factory…or nightmare?! I still felt like a stranger. 

On that same trip, on the day before Jaws opened, Spielberg suggested we sneak onto the set of Family Plot, what would turn out to be Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, which he was finishing up at Universal. We were thrown off the soundstage after 10 minutes. Some big guy who looked like a disco bouncer came over and said, “Mr. Hitchcock would like you to leave.” Forget that I had interviewed him a month earlier in D.C. as he sat in his limo outside a Georgetown house where they were location-shooting the same film. I was long forgotten. Even Spielberg, who had an office on the lot, seemed a stranger, something that would change radically and forever the next day.

Schwab's Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard, a hangout of Hollywood stars for 50 years, closed in 1983 and was razed.GETTY IMAGES
Schwab’s Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard, a hangout of Hollywood stars for 50 years, closed in 1983 and was razed.

The Chateau was almost a secret handshake in the entertainment biz, a monster metaphor attached to the business’s rib, which is exactly why I brought my D.C. friend there for lunch, rather than to Musso & Frank.  

In Ann Beattie’s new novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, a character named Aqua meets someone “at a comedy club near the Chateau.” Enough said. There’s everything you need to know about Aqua: she’s gone Hollywood. 

A profile in the New York Times of the two young stars of the movie Booksmart quotes one of them saying that they first met at “the Chateau.” That’s the quote; the actor expects you to understand what it means. If you’re an insider, you do; the Times, ever painfully literal, a newspaper that actually second-referenced the singer Meat Loaf as “Mr. Loaf,” inserted context within brackets to explain to its square readers what “the Chateau” meant.  

This would not be necessary in the Los Angeles Times, the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, or even Vanity Fair, which held many parties there. As Eve Babitz, the great chronicler of L.A., once noted, “Who knows, when you go into the Chateau, in what condition you’ll leave…never mind what day.” 

My condition was always feeling like a stranger—at least until 1995, when I moved into the Chateau for six months while a company I had cofounded, Digital Pictures, was shooting several low-budget films that would ultimately become live-action video games. All of a sudden, I was peripherally part of the biz! 

But, weirdly to me, now that I was almost in the club, the delightful, engaging guy in the room next door, who had become a big star the year before, with the success of Speed, had little interest in talking about movies and was far more keen to discuss Buddhism, motorcycles (he’d cofound Arch Motorcycles in 2011), philosophy, and martial arts. Much bigger success—and everything in Hollywood is measured by the enormity of your last success—would come five years later, with The Matrix. Typically, Keanu Reeves was coming home early in the morning when I was heading out, parking his motorcycle in the garage while I was climbing into my jeep. We’d salute each other, and he’d say, “I’ve got the place covered while you’re away.”

The luxe lobby of the Chateau Marmont is a magnet for show business bold names.
The lobby of the Chateau Marmont oozes glamor and nostalgia for old Hollywood.

The Chateau, as Levy chronicles well, began its existence as an apartment building, constructed in 1928 for $350,000 on an unpaved road (Sunset) that sat roughly between the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel and the campus of UCLA, both also under construction at the time. The principal owner and visionary, Fred Horowitz, a lawyer by training and trade, wanted and got something that looked like the Château d’Amboise, a Gothic castle he had stumbled across in the Loire Valley. God only knows what fascinated him about that place. Perhaps that da Vinci had died and was buried there—the end of great art? The owner struggled with the second part of the name, eventually settling on Marmont, for the small dirt lane next to the property. 

Little did Horowitz know he was already linking the building to Hollywood: the lane had been named for Percy Marmont, a silent-film star. When the stock market crashed the next year, the building fell on hard times; it was eventually bought, in 1932, by Albert Smith, an owner of Vitagraph, one of the earliest motion picture studios that had made movies with…Percy Marmont. 

Smith believed that the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles would bring hordes of visitors, and he transitioned the Chateau into a hotel. He was right. Bette Davis nearly burned the place down when she fell asleep while smoking as she watched a TV rerun of one of her films. Nick Ray kept a bungalow as a permanent residence while directing Rebel Without a Cause, bedding the 16-year-old Natalie Wood there. And apparently she wasn’t the only one. According to Levy, Confidential magazine ran a story about Ray and Marilyn Monroe having sex there, which infuriated the director. A friend of Ray’s recalled: “Nick’s really teed off about it, and he says, ‘I’ll sue the sonofabitch,’ and so forth.… I said, ‘Hey, it’s not a bad article. There’s thirty million guys in America who want to go to bed with Marilyn Monroe, and you’re written up.’”

On that note, and ignoring the question of how many women also might have wanted to climb into that bed, I’ll mention a March 1977 visit to the Chateau, where I had once again been sent by the Washington Post, this time to write about the entertainment world’s reaction to Roman Polanski, who had been charged with providing drugs to and raping a 13-year-old girl.

Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, had lived at the Chateau until she became pregnant in 1969; they moved into a rented house on Cielo Drive, where six months later Tate would be murdered…on the mistaken order of Charles Manson, who was really after the music producer Terry Melcher, a former renter of the same house (with girlfriend Candice Bergen) who had stopped catering to Manson’s songwriting delusions. 

What I experienced sitting in the lobby of the hotel is almost unimaginable in the #MeToo era. I was chatting with an actress who said: “Isn’t this classic sexist behavior? If I took a 15-year-old boy to bed with me, and he went home and told his father, he’d get a big high five. But because it’s an older man with a young girl, it’s not OK.” 

As the father of a 15-year-old boy, I’m here to say, there would have been no high five; I would have called the police in a flash.

The Chateau ultimately got too expensive for me. As Babitz wrote last year, “It’s another fancy L.A. hotel. It’s great, but it’s not mine anymore.” The last time I stayed there, in 1999, the Marlboro man had been replaced by a different cowboy, whose cigarette dangled flaccidly above a warning label that said, “Smoking Causes Impotence.”

Tom Zito wrote about the legacy of Steve Jobs for Alta, Spring 2019.

 

BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE:

THE CASTLE ON SUNSET: LIFE, DEATH, LOVE, ART, AND SCANDAL AT HOLLYWOOD’S CHATEAU MARMONT

• By Shawn Levy
Doubleday
• 
384 pages, $28.95

A WONDERFUL STROKE OF LUCK: A NOVEL

• By Ann Beattie
• 
Viking
• 
288 pages, $25

SLOW DAYS, FAST COMPANY: THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND L.A. 

• By Eve Babitz
NYRB Classics
184 pages, 15.95