The Chateau Marmont: A Brief Cultural History

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Any project with both Aaron Sorkin and John Krasinski behind it has our attention. But we were especially intrigued to learn last week that the pair are working with HBO on a miniseries about Hollywood’s most famous (and perhaps its most notorious) hotel, the Chateau Marmont. With its lavish bungalows and soundproof rooms, it’s long been a haven for celebrities behaving badly. Built in 1929 as an apartment complex and transformed into a hotel in 1931, the Chateau’s racy reputation was set by 1939, when Columbia Pictures honcho advised his talent,”If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” In anticipation of Sorkin and Krasinski’s miniseries, we’ve put together a brief cultural history of the hotel, from funny stories to tragic deaths.

Nathanael West writes The Day of the Locust (1939)

The Chateau Marmont was a haven for Hollywood types from the beginning, so it makes sense that Nathanael West checked into the hotel to write The Day of the Locust, his novel about eccentric wannabe stars during the Great Depression. Donald Sutherland and Karen Black starred in the 1975 big-screen adaptation.

A Rebel read-through at Chateau Marmont, via Jack Grinnage

James Dean auditions for Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Nicholas Ray had a room in the Chateau in the ’50s, and that’s where James Dean showed up to audition for Rebel Without a Cause. That’s the day he met Natalie Wood — and he made a big impression by jumping in through the window of Bungalow Two.

Elizabeth Taylor nurses a wounded Montgomery Clift (1956)

During the filming of Raintree County, Montgomery Clift crashed his car into a telephone pole after leaving a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s house. When she heard that he was injured, Taylor rescued him from the site of the smash-up, saving him from choking on his own tooth. She then took Clift to the safe haven of the Chateau Marmont, where she nursed him as he recovered from several facial wounds and fractures.

Jim Morrison in his closet at the Chateau Marmont. Photo by Art Kane, via NME

Jim Morrison hurts himself (late ’60s)

James Dean wasn’t the only bad boy who tried to enter a hotel room through the window — although he did have more success than Jim Morrison, who permanently injured his back attempting swing in from the roof via a drain pipe. He later said that incident used up “the eighth of my nine lives.”

The Chateau inspires California’s rock stars (’70s)

Throughout the ’70s, as the Chateau sank into disrepair, it became a clubhouse for California’s many debauched musicians. Gram Parsons shot the cover photo for his debut solo album, 1973’s GP, in the hotel lobby. Although it’s never been confirmed, the consensus is that The Eagles’ “Hotel California” is about the Chateau, and it popped up in the lyrics (“I’m looking for a chateau, 21 rooms but one will do”) to the Grateful Dead’s “West L.A. Fadeaway,” off of their 1987 album, In the Dark. Led Zeppelin, meanwhile, rode their motorcycles through the lobby one (inevitably substance-influenced) night.

The death of John Belushi (1982)

Among the Chateau’s many dark tales, none is sadder than John Belushi’s. The legendary comedian died on March 5, 1982 in Bungalow 3, after a night of partying that included Robin Williams, Robert Deniro — and a speedball overdose.

Annie Leibowitz shoots Demi Moore’s “birthday suit” Vanity Fair cover (1992)

Glance at this cover for a moment and you may see Demi Moore wearing a man’s suit. But give it a real once over and you’ll see she’s only wearing head-to-toe body paint, expertly applied by the makeup artist Joanne Gair. The shoot took an entire week at the Chateau; the suit took 15 hours to paint, and Moore had to sleep in the paint.

A.M. Homes’s Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill (2002)

The Chateau’s influence on literature has extended well into the 21st century, with A.M. Homes (best known for her fiction) checking into the hotel and using it as a backdrop for her exploration of the strange world that is Los Angeles — and what the city says about America as a whole. You can read an excerpt of the book at Homes’s website.

Helmut Newton at the Chateau

The death of Helmut Newton (2004)

Sadly, John Belushi wasn’t the only celebrity to take his last breath at the Chateau. Helmut Newton, who lived at the hotel for several years at the end of his life, died on January 23, 2004, when he lost control of his Cadillac and smashed into a wall in the hotel’s driveway. The renowned fashion photographer was 83.

Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010)

The Chateau Marmont served as the setting for Coppola’s latest film, which stars Stephen Dorff as Johnny Marco, a jaded and disconnected actor whose young daughter comes to live with him in the hotel. The filmmaker and her team often referred to the Chateau as the “third character” in the movie. Coppola, meanwhile, had a great deal of experience with the place going into the project — she celebrated her 21st birthday there.