Sidney Poitier — SIR Sidney Poitier, KBE, that is — turns 92 today, and if you think you can name another living actor of such talent, accomplishment, impact, dignity, and cultural significance, I’ll wait….
Anyhow: In 1960, when he came to Hollywood to film A Raisin in the Sun, Poitier wanted to rent a house in Beverly Hills or environs where his family, who were based in New York, could live for the duration of the shoot. He found, however, that nobody was willing to give a lease to a black family. Poitier, his wife, their three kids, and their household staff wound up instead living in three adjacent units at Chateau Marmont. He spoke of his experience and his frustrations with The New York Times — the first time, by the way, that that newspaper ever mentioned the hotel by name.
As it happened, Poitier had stayed at the Chateau previously — in 1958, when he was filming Porgy and Bess. At that time, he chose it because it was the first quality hotel in Hollywood or Beverly Hills to open its doors fully to black guests. Under the ownership of Erwin Brettauer, nobody was denied access to the Marmont on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, or even lifestyle (provided said lifestyle wasn’t too destructive of the property….).
The color line at the Chateau had first been broken by Duke Ellington — he composed an album of jazz variations on Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites while walking through the hotel’s corridors at night — and after that the Marmont quickly became the favored hostelry for black musicians, actors, artists, and celebrities.
During Poitier’s first stay, he began a romance with his Porgy co-star Diahann Carroll who, like him, was married to a spouse who’d stayed back in New York. Their affair began quietly, with candlelit dinners in Poitier’s suite. But it eventually proved to be more than just a fling: It cost them both their marriages, and it ended nearly a decade later…without the fairy tale wedding that everyone supposed would occur.
It was, in the end, a fabulous liaison — one of an infinity of such couplings that the Chateau was famous for — and one made possible by the Chateau’s well-earned reputation as a safe and welcoming harbor for all.
(This post is based on portions of my upcoming book — The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont — which will be published on May 7 by Doubleday and Orion.)