For decades, Chateau Marmont was known to those who knew it…and relatively anonymous to the rest of the world, even lifelong Angelinos who drove past it every day. The Chateau barely advertised, it was tiny enough to subsist on a show biz clientele, and its reputation for discretion was actually enhanced by its being more obscure than other celebrity haunts.
All that changed on the morning of March 5, 1982.
It began with a few people walking hurriedly from the main building to one of the bungalows in the back of the property. It reached a crescendo with the hotel surrounded by paparazzi, news vans, and helicopters. And it ended with a body on a gurney being loaded into an ambulance.
The body was that of comedian John Belushi, who’d been renting that bungalow, dead of a drug overdose at age 33.
There is much to be said about Belushi’s untimely and unseemly demise, his alcohol and drug consumption, his career difficulties, his gradual and, ultimately, fatal loss of control, and the willing blindness of some of his friends — including Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, who were with him hours before he died.
But for today, the focus is on the hotel.
Prior to Belushi’s death, Chateau Marmont was almost like a speakeasy: known by those to whom it should have been known, an open mystery to those who didn’t necessarily need to be familiar with it.
In the days following the comedian’s overdose– and, really, forever after — that changed. The press and lookey-loos of March 5 were replaced by daily drive-bys of tourist busses: ghoul tours of celebrity death sites. The hotel featured prominently in Bob Woodward’s Belushi bio Wired (and the film made from it), and for decades Belushi’s death was mentioned in every newspaper and magazine travel story about LA hotels or article based on an interview conducted on the hotel’s grounds.
Management completely renovated the bungalow after that awful day, but some guests actually requested the “Belushi bungalow” when making reservations, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Rick James, to name two pointed examples.
Indeed, as dark as the association was, the hotel had to accept and even find nourishment in it.
As novelist Jay McInerney told it, on his first movie-related trip to Hollywood, the production company that paid for his visit mentioned that they were putting him up at Chateau Marmont.
McInerney had never heard the name.
“Is that good?” he asked.
“Good?!” came the startled reply, “John Belushi died there!“
(A fuller version of this story, and many like it, is to be found in the pages of my new book, The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, coming on May 7 from Doubleday and Orion.