The Chateau Marmont's Place In Hollywood History NPR's Scott Simon discusses the glamorous LA hotel Chateau Marmont with Shawn Levy, author of The Castle on Sunset.
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The Chateau Marmont's Place In Hollywood History

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The Chateau Marmont's Place In Hollywood History

The Chateau Marmont's Place In Hollywood History

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What happens at the Chateau Marmont stays at the Chateau Marmont until Shawn Levy's new book, "The Castle On Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, And Scandal At Hollywood's Chateau Marmont" rolls out the history of Hollywood's most storied hideaway, the scene of innumerable assignations, binges, debaucheries involving some of the film industry's most famous names, Jean Harlow, Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Johnny Depp, Lindsay Lohan, BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music, and I'm just getting started.

Shawn Levy, an accomplished biographer and film critic, joins us now. Shawn, thanks so much for being with us.

SHAWN LEVY: Thank you.

SIMON: How does the chateau both fit into and stand above the Hollywood landscape?

LEVY: Well, physically, it actually stands above the Sunset Strip. It's right on the eastern edge of the strip on a rise, and it's situated at a curve. So if you come toward it from the east - from Hollywood into West Hollywood - it kind of disappears. The road takes you away from it before you quite register it.

Spiritually, it's been sort of a hideaway. It was built as an apartment house, so for decades, it didn't have the amenities and public spaces of a hotel. And each unit was very self-enclosed, with a kitchen and your own private entrance in some cases. So it's been sort of an open secret. It's right there in plain sight, but yet, it's a very private locale.

SIMON: Let me ask you about one of the names from the early days, too. Nicholas Ray, the film director - I have always thought of him as kind of aloof and moody, almost prohibitively cerebral. But he was a party animal, wasn't he?

LEVY: He lived at Chateau Marmont for six years. And during that time, he made a lot of films, and he also entertained a lot of guests. He threw a regular Sunday afternoon soiree that began at the swimming pool and ended in his bungalow with, you know, bongos and reefer, it being the mid-'50s. And during that time, he wrote, cast, rehearsed and directed "Rebel Without A Cause." And much of his cast came around to his hotel. He was sexually involved with his stars Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, both of whom were underage. And what's amazing to me in this day and age is that people knew what was going on in 1954, and nobody sort of blinked at it.

SIMON: Yeah. Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins met by the pool in the days when it would've been dangerous for both of their careers to meet almost anywhere.

LEVY: Yeah. The swimming pool was built in 1948, and it was the only public place at the hotel. Again, it didn't have a restaurant or bar. And it became sort of a hardy spot for gay Hollywood. The hotel had this reputation for discretion, so when Tony Perkins was staying there, he was introduced to Tab Hunter, and they began a two-year relationship. They double dated. They had starlets on their arms, but they were sitting next to each other at all these events.

And it was kind of a bittersweet romance. I think Tab was really in love, and Tony was kind of a career guy. And when a role came up that they both wanted, Tony took it and ran.

SIMON: The sad story of John Belushi, I think, is essential to the legend of this hotel. And it raised some sharp questions for me. He checked into the hotel, I gather, the last day of February 1982. He wanted to work on a film but was kind of coming apart, wasn't he?

LEVY: He was using cocaine, and he had started using heroin because he was, in his words, researching the role as a punk rocker and wanted to do the method thing. I don't know if he was enabled by people, but the people who were best able to control, or at least protect, him were back East. And they were trying to get him back East. But he was working on at least two film projects.

And he was sort of running amok. He was not shaving or bathing. He wasn't eating properly. People like Robert De Niro, Robin Williams, Harry Dean Stanton were in and out of his bungalow, using drugs with him. And he was administered by a woman who pled guilty to the crime, a fatal dose of heroin and cocaine.

SIMON: And this raises questions to me about the, you know, what happens at the Chateau Marmont stays at the Chateau Marmont because famous names were coming and going. Everyone knew that John Belushi was doing hard drugs in his bungalow. By the way, those are illegal, as well as self-destructive. Is there a point when leaving guests to their own business becomes negligent?

LEVY: You know, the hotel was not charged with negligence. And the LA district attorney was certainly out for scalps at the time. We don't even know what happens when someone is overserved in a bar and goes out and wrecks their car. We're still not holding bartenders responsible. I think it's a similar case. And in the hospitality business, if you're seen to be monitoring the activities of your guests, you might wind up bankrupt because people won't stay there.

SIMON: Ironically or incongruously, is it Belushi's death that fixed the chateau's reputation in the firmament of Hollywood misbehavior?

LEVY: Absolutely. When Belushi died, suddenly, people who had driven past it every day for their whole lives and not quite known what it was knew exactly what it was. And some people requested to stay in Belushi's bungalow - the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who himself died of an overdose; Rick James, who was always seemingly in trouble with drugs and alcohol. So for - to the chagrin of ownership and yet to their financial security, because the hotel was kind of wobbly in its finances at that time, it wound up cementing the place in the public consciousness, and business boomed.

SIMON: Relatively few rooms at the Chateau Marmont. What's it like to stay there if, say, you're a proctologist from Springfield, Ill.?

LEVY: There are 63 rooms, and they start at about 600 bucks a night so...

SIMON: A successful proctologist...

LEVY: (Laughter) Yes.

SIMON: ...From Springfield, Ill.

LEVY: And the $600 room is barely big enough for the bed and the legs that you need to walk around it. They've done a wonderful job of suggesting a luxurious past from the 1940s or '50s that actually never existed. Back in those days, it was a cheap hotel. Today, it's a luxury hotel. Screenwriters used to stay there for months at a time. No screenwriter could afford to do that today. And it is quite opulent and very beautiful.

SIMON: And any reason to think that BJ Leiderman, who wrote our theme music, has ever been a guest there?

LEVY: I can't see why not. It's for the creatives as well as the bohemians.

SIMON: (Laughter) Shawn Levy - his book "The Castle On Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, And Scandal At Hollywood's Chateau Marmont" - thanks so much for being with us.

LEVY: Thank you.

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