Today The Hollywood Reporter published a big chunk of The Castle on Sunset, focusing on the final days of John Belushi, who died at Chateau Marmont in March, 1982. Here’s a link to their piece (and, for the record, yes, John Krasinski owns the TV rights to the book, but no, we’re not in business with Aaron Sorkin and/or HBO).
As ever, you can read all this and more in my new book, The Castle on Sunset, to be published on May 7 by Doubleday and June 13 by Orion.
After Duke Ellington integrated Chateau Marmont in the late 1950s, the hotel became a regular destination for the other black jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner, Quincy Jones, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone.
But none made an impression to compare with Miles Davis, who stayed at the hotel several times, including the spring of 1963, when he was recording the album Seven Steps to Heaven at Columbia studios in Los Angeles.
Miles was accompanied by his wife, the dancer Frances Taylor, who was depicted on the cover of his 1961 LP Someday My Prince Will Come . Frances was interested in starting a film career, and an extended stay in Hollywood was a big opportunity.
The couple socialized in the hotel — Miles went pheasant hunting in nearby canyons with actor Rip Torn, and Frances met a casting director named Michael Macdonald who was encouraging to her.
One evening, Macdonald phoned the Davises’ suite to invite Frances to a film screening. Miles answered in typical Miles fashion: “She’s not here, motherfucker.”
Macdonald wasn’t used to such language. He said goodbye, hung up the phone with a finger, turned to a companion to say, “Miles just called me ‘motherfucker,'” and started to make another call. He didn’t realize, though, that Miles was still on the line.
It was tiny — “a navel filled with sweat,” Gore Vidal once called it — and it didn’t offer high-end amenities such as cabanas. But for decades the pool at Chateau Marmont was the only public meeting area in a hotel that had no bar or restaurant or even much of a lobby. So it was a truly hot spot.
Indeed, it was even more than that. Per the dictates of Erwin Brettauer, the anti-Fascist German banker and film financier who bought the hotel in the 1940s and built the pool soon after, the Chateau was a place of tolerance and welcome for all. It would become Hollywood’s first racially-integrated hotel. And it was always welcoming to queer men and women. Meaning that, intentionally or not, the hotel’s tiny pool became a popular gathering place for Hollywood’s (largely closeted) gay community.
Among those gatherers was Anthony Perkins, born 87 years ago today, a New York prep school kid turned stage actor in the footsteps of his father, actor Osgood Perkins. Tony came to Hollywood in 1955 to star in the Civil War drama Friendly Persuasion. He took a small room at the Chateau and developed a reputation as a kook: hitchhiking to the studio, keeping a pet bird which he sported on a shoulder, walking Sunset Blvd. barefoot — harmeless, semi-bohemian stuff.
He dated starlets — it was practically a condition of a movie contract — and he also dated men. Perkins was bisexual his whole life, and he kept the part of himself that was attracted to men hidden from the press, his movie studio bosses, and anyone else who might use it to derail his career. He attended all-male social events at the Chateau, for instance, and, according to others, behaved in an aloof, faux-naive manner, as if pretending he didn’t know that everyone around him was gay.
So when Perkins met another young gay actor at the Chateau pool that summer, and they began an affair, he did everything he could to keep it secret.
His new lover was Tab Hunter, an even more popular young star, a heartthrob with a thriving big-screen career, a perennial spot on the covers of movie magazines, even a string of hit pop records. Hunter, like Perkins, dated women — for publicity purposes. In heart and practice, though, he was gay.
The two were introduced poolside and quickly began an intense affair — always keeping an eye peeled to ensure that the press didn’t learn of, or share, the true nature of their connection. They often double-dated, each with a starlet on his arm, per studio publicity dictates, but really out on the town together. Perkins was the more chary of the two — a real careerist, as Hunter later recalled. And you can see it in a number of photos of the two: Hunter is often captured staring at his beau; Perkins is looking around as if to see who’s watching them.
The relationship fizzled after a couple of years through unfortunately predictable circumstances: Perkins grabbed up the lead role in Fear Strikes Out — a baseball movie for which Hunter, who had become famous in Damn Yankees — was also being considered. When Hunter confronted his lover about it, Perkins shrugged it off. His career was his greatest love. The affair was over.
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!“
Among the myriad celebrities who called Chateau Marmont home over the years, the great actor James Dean, born on this day in 1931…wasn’t one of them.
But Dean’s connection to the hotel is deep and important.
One night in 1954, Dean showed up at a bungalow in the back of the hotel where director Nicholas Ray was living. Ray was working on a new movie about the traumas of modern youth that was to be called Rebel Without a Cause. It needed a star. And in Dean, who was just about to debut in East of Eden, Ray thought he found one.
Dean got the part, and he began to visit Chateau Marmont regularly for Ray’s famous Sunday salons, full days of swimming, bongo playing, boozing, chatting, a little sex, a little reefer — whatever the mood suggested.
Other of Ray’s Rebel stars began to frequent the Chateau, most notably Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, both of whom were underage and both of whom were bedded by their director. Less sensationally, Ray often invited the whole cast to his bungalow for read-throughs of the script, one of which is pictured above.
The last time Ray saw Dean was at the Chateau, when Dean came by to borrow a book about how to take care of a cat. (His Giant co-star Elizabeth Taylor had given him a kitten as a gift when that film wrapped.) Ray and Dean were planning to travel to Nicaragua to research a new movie idea. Dean was killed in a car wreck mere weeks later, and the prospective film was forgotten.
But the movie that resulted from their very first encounters at Chateau Marmont, Rebel Without a Cause, remains one of Hollywood’s classic melodramas, and much of the story of its making is indelibly connected to the grand old hotel.
In this great story about Chateau Marmont at 90, “Vanity Fair”‘s Mark Rozzo calls my upcoming book “fantastically fizzy” and quotes me several times on the hotel’s history and place in Hollywood lore. My book’s due May 7, but this’ll hold you till then.
On February 2, 1929, Fred Horowitz, a downtown Los Angeles attorney, officially cut the ribbon on a luxury apartment house alongside an unpaved stretch of Sunset Blvd.
Horowitz had the nutty idea that the area, a bridle path lined with onion and poinsettia fields that connected Beverly Hills and Los Angeles, would soon blossom. As he liked to point out, it sat 20 minutes from anywhere you’d want to be, it was convenient to movie studios in Hollywood and Burbank, and it was both governed not by the city but by the county, which meant taxes, licenses and building fees were relatively cheap.
The building, which Horowitz modeled on a chateau he’d admired in the Loire Valley of France, was anything but cheap. Horowitz insisted on steel reinforcement to make the building earthquake-resistant, on double-thick walls to keep noise down, and on maximizing the number of penthouses — large apartments with terraces that commanded stunning views from the mountains to the ocean to downtown. As a result, although it may have been situated in the middle of not much, it was durable, it was quiet, and it was, most of all, private.
He called the place Chateau Marmont.
And over the next nine decades, everyone would stay there, and everything would happen there.
“Fascinating, dishy, and glimmering with insight…a must-read for anyone interested in the rich and racy history of Tinseltown….This is the definitive book about Hollywood’s most storied hotel.” —Cheryl Strayed, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Wild
“I felt like I was sneaking around the hallways of the Chateau after midnight and peering through keyholes in history….Lovingly researched and wonderfully dishy.” —Joe Hagan, author of the national bestseller Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine
“Levy has managed to make the hotel itself a living, breathing, and wonderfully endearing character. The Castle on Sunset is thoughtfully researched and gorgeously executed.” —Jacob Tomsky, New York Times bestselling author of Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality
“As elegant and naughty as the hotel’s guests, The Castle on Sunset tells a secret history of American film, fame, and decadence. It’s a spellbinding read.” —Peter Ames Carlin, New York Times bestselling author of Bruce and Homeward Bound
“An irresistible, deliciously dishy deep-dive…told in prose so witty and alive, you feel you’re sitting at the bar with Dominick Dunne. This is a book worthy of its glamorous, alluring subject.” —Wednesday Martin, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Primates of Park Avenue and Untrue
“Filled with show business stories and lore, etched against the backdrop of an ever-changing L.A., The Castle on Sunset gives the Marmont the splendid biography it deserves.” —Steven Gaines, New York Times bestselling author of Philistines at the Hedgerow: Passion and Property in the Hamptons and The Sky’s the Limit: Passion and Property in Manhattan
“For years, Shawn Levy has been shaming the rest of us who write about movies with his contagious high spirits, elegant phrasemaking, Stakhanovite appetite for research, and maddeningly natural reader rapport….Check in, call room service, draw yourself a hot bath and luxuriate!” —David Kipen, author of Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters
“[An] engrossing account of the L.A. hotel’s 90-year history of decadence.…This eye-popping and entertainingly lurid tale of Hollywood scandal and intrigue will delight readers.”—Publishers Weekly
“Levy delivers all the goods on Hollywood’s iconic, storied, and scandalous hotel.” —The Portland Tribune
Shawn Levy is the former film critic of The Oregonian and KGW-TV. His writing has appeared in Sight and Sound, Film Comment, American Film, Interview, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Black Rock Beacon. His books include Rat Pack Confidential, Paul Newman: A Life,King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, and Dolce Vita Confidential. He jumps and claps and sings for victory in Portland, Oregon.