Hotel's storied past unveiled
Portland writer Shawn Levy's fascinating and fun new book "The Castle on Sunset" ($28.95, Knopf Doubleday) is about the Chateau Marmont, the great hotel in the heart of Hollywood that has hovered over the strip for nearly a century, seen but not seen.
So pack a bag and check in for a few nights. Enter through the back door, where you will bump into all the directors, artists and actors who took refuge there over the years from Hollywood's Golden Age to today.
The legendary hideaway for actors and artists was originally built as an apartment building inspired by a French chateau. It kept its aura of mystery and privacy far longer than seems possible, given its location smack dab in the heart of Hollywood.
A haven for some of Hollywood's biggest stars, the hotel was always ""hiding in plain sight," he writes. Levy explains that while other places were more debauched, more raucous, none were as intimate, subtle or discreet as Chateau Marmont.
The sexpot Jean Harlow lived there in the 1930s with the director Harold Rosson. On the lam from the Bel Air mansion that housed her meddling mom, the young bombshell, age 22 and on her third marriage, had all the rooms redone in "Harlow White," and had torrid affairs with visitors who accessed her rooms through side doors.
The Chateau Marmont also is where the actor Anthony Perkins met Tab Hunter. The pool (built later, in the 1940s) would became a meeting place for gay actors and artists. The children of Rip Torn and Geraldine Page raised a good amount of hell in the rooms. A young Sofia Coppola visited there many times throughout her childhood.
Most famously, perhaps, it was where the actor John Belushi overdosed in 1982 at the age of 32. The sad event pulled Chateau Marmont from the shadows and earned it an unwelcome place on the star map.
Levy gives new details about the hours leading up to Belushi's death and writes how his death, described in the film "Wired" as happening "in a sleazy bungalow," didn't reflect the varied history and grandeur of Chateau Marmont.
"His OD made it notorious and it started attracting people with a morbid fascination of the place," Levy says. "The artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and singer Rick James requested the room for this reason."
But this was never really its story.
"The Chateau Marmont is a great bohemian hotel like the Chelsea Hotel is for New York City," Levy says. "And for over a century, it's been a kind of open secret. And it's always been a place that's been open to all races and to all lifestyles. It was, for example, the first L.A. hotel to welcome black artists and entertainers."
Adds Levy: "Duke Ellington stayed here. And in 1960, the actor Sidney Poitier told The New York Times that he couldn't find anyone to rent a house for himself and his family in Hollywood. They stayed at Chateau Marmont and he made it his base of operations for years. "
The director Nicholas Ray lived there for eight years in the '50s.
"He created several great films while living there," including "Rebel Without a Cause," Levy says. "And he created this environment there in his home for his cast, including sleeping with two of the underage actors in the film, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. It's probably the greatest work of art created there."
Is this the film to watch after reading the book, then?
"If you want a film to match the book," Levy says, "it's 'Somewhere,' the 2010 film by Sofia Coppola. She stayed there many times growing up and at one point her father Frances Coppola almost bought it. In 'Somewhere,' the hotel is really the co-star. All her films have been about hotels in a way."
Levy had wanted to write about the Sunset Strip in the '50s for some time.
"I had nurtured this idea for a while and I had been gathering string for the project for years, but I couldn't get it launched," he says. "And in 2016, I was discussing it with my editors, and one said, 'What about the Chateau Marmont?' And this has only happened to me once before but I knew right then, at that moment, the shape of the book, the beginning, the middle and the end."
Today, the Chateau Marmont is more luxurious and elegant and expensive than it ever was, Levy says.
"In 1992, Andre Balazs bought it and did something very clever. In a cunning way, he made it look as if it had been restored to this '30s-'40s glamorous heyday, when in fact it was never really, so it's a trick of restoration," Levy says. "He knew he had gotten a very good deal on an undervalued property. It had gone through hell in the '70s and the prior owner had considered tearing it down. It became a real dive. The actress Carol Lindy said she'd go downstairs and the furniture from the lobby would have been stolen."
But, Balazs changed all that.
Asked if any place in Portland might draw a comparison, Levy says, "probably the only equivalent place in Portland would be The Ringside (restaurant), where you know that every Trail Blazer, every Oregon governor and every visiting actor has probably been there. And they did a remodel a few years ago that also makes you feel as if, 'Oh this is exactly what it must have been like in the past.'"
Shawn Levy will make an author appearance at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at Powell's City of Books.