- - Monday, July 8, 2019



By Shawn Levy

Doubleday, $28.95, 284 pages

Hollywood has never lacked for luxurious hotels or restaurants. Stars that are in town to shoot a film have a choice of opulent homes to rent. However, one hotel has the reputation of providing denizens of the film industry with privacy, as well as nonjudgment for behaviors that might be frowned upon in other establishments.

For 90 years, the Chateau Marmont has been a reliable haven of privacy and escape from the hurly-burly of show business. Famed Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn advised up-and-coming actors Glenn Ford and William Holden, “If you must get in trouble, go to the Marmont.”

The Chateau Marmont, perched above the Sunset Strip, has been the home away from home for actors and many others in the industry, including those in between marriages. In his latest book, “The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Art, Sex and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont,” film critic and historian Shawn Levy examines the establishment and importance one hotel has had over the entertainment industry.

In 1929, attorney Fred Horowitz had the idea to develop a luxury apartment building with the look of a European castle. As the Great Depression set in, luxury apartments were no longer economically viable. Following the stock market crash, the Chateau Marmont became a hotel, especially for those who needed to stay for extended periods of time in Hollywood. The mismatched furniture used to decorate the Chateau was obtained at estate sales. Many said the spare decor lent to the hotel’s charm.

Despite the French-sounding name, the Chateau Marmont took its name from its position on Marmont Lane, which itself was named for a British actor of the Silent Film era. As the Chateau became a favorite of celebrities, fabled Schwab’s Pharmacy became the unofficial delivery service of the Chateau Marmont.

Jean Harlow was among the first to use the Chateau Marmont as a temporary residence between marriages. Humphrey Bogart moved his mother into the Marmont. An accomplished artist in New York; his mother used her room as a studio. Desi Arnaz stayed at the Marmont during one of his numerous separations from actress Lucille Ball. Mr. Levy describes a heated argument between Arnaz and Ball that resulted in a briefcase full of money being thrown and cash raining from the balcony. Who threw the case at who remains a mystery.

The Chateau Marmont also attracted the new breed of method actors from New York, including Montgomery Clift. Staying at the Marmont was a way of saying that they were successful without having been trapped by celebrity.

Mr. Levy traces the various owners of the Chateau Marmont and describes the changes each instituted. Erwin Brettauer installed a swimming pool in 1947. There was a single telephone attached to a long cord. The guests, nearly all actors, would jump when it rang, anticipating news of their next role. For extra privacy, individual bungalows were added.

Despite its ominous subtitle, “The Castle on Sunset” is hardly salacious and never gratuitous. One of the most notorious events to happen at the Chateau Marmont — the death of comedic actor John Belushi from a drug overdose — is covered in only 15 pages. The book is divided into sections that chronicle its construction and its rising and falling fortunes over subsequent decades and different owners.

Shawn Levy, whose other books include a biography of Robert DeNiro, is a passionate authority on all things relating to Hollywood. His prose are attractive and at times philosophical.

He neatly sums up the importance of the Chateau Marmont this way: “It is the Castle that Hollywood and the Sunset Strip have always needed, a place outside time, indifferent, dependable immutable, permanent, a man-made thing that couldn’t be more ordinary at the same time, a thing of dreams and aspirations that couldn’t possibly be real, providing a grounding materiality to a business and a street that often seems apt to waft off into the ether out of sheer weightlessness and evanescence.”

Mr. Levy could have selected a more posh hotel to write about, but it is unlikely it would have been as interesting. This book shows the Chateau Marmont as a reliable supporting character. It will please fans of classic Hollywood and will show why the Chateau Marmont is as popular as ever.

• Kevin P. McVicker is a writer in Alexandria, Va.

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