Book Review: Life at the Marmont: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Legendary Hotel of the Stars

By Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

Few L.A. hotels are as legendary as the Chateau Marmont, 8221 Sunset Blvd. It opened its doors in 1929 on what then was an unincorporated no-man’s land between the cities of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.

Unfortunately, LIFE AT THE MARMONT: THE INSIDE STORY OF HOLLYWOOD’S LEGENDARY HOTEL OF THE STARS by Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten never brings the hotel’s glory to life on its pages.

Real estate developer Sarlot and his partner Karl Kantarjian owned the hotel from 1975 to 1991. They purchased the hotel after it had been sitting on the market for two years, badly in need of repair and renovation after the wild 1960s and ’70s.

Damaged wallpaper was repaired with Scotch tape. Hallways were lit with plastic fixtures worthy of a Tiki party. In 1975, published rates were as low as $12 for a single room and $26 for a two-bedroom suite. Deals could be made from there.

During their ownership, the hotel was gently renovated in keeping with its glorious past; it was named a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument; and its 50th anniversary was celebrated with a $10,000 gala.

What this book does well is recount the history of the hotel.

It was built as luxury apartments by attorney Fred Horowitz; designed by architect Arnold A. Weitzman and William Douglas based on the Château d’Amboise in the Loire Valley. (Horowitz had seen and fallen in love with the chateau on a visit to France.)

Eight months after it opened, the stock market crashed. Few people wanted a long-term commitment to a luxury apartment.

In 1931, Albert E. Smith, a cofounder of Vitagraph, a pioneer movie production company, looking ahead to the 1932 Summer Olympics, bought the building and turned it into a hotel.

Smith haunted auction houses and estate sales, picking up quality antiques during the early years of the Depression. He stored them in a large warehouse on Western Avenue. From there, pieces were moved into Chateau Marmont as needed or as selected by guests from a photographic catalog.

In 1942, the hotel was sold to Erwin Brettauer, a German banker who financed movies in Weimar Germany. He was noted for his frugality and for welcoming black guests to the chateau, when they were banned from most Hollywood and Beverly Hills hotels.

Chateau Marmont always appealed to Hollywood’s stars. But its appeal grew after 1930. As the Depression squeezed the movie-going public, studios tried to lure them in with films featuring sex, violence, drinking and the grotesque. Gangsters were glamorized, and sexually liberated women spotlighted.

Real scandals such as the 1922, still-unsolved murder of director and actor William Desmond Taylor and the death and alleged rape of Virginia Rappe by popular Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle set off a backlash that reined in the industry.

William H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), wrote the 1930 Hays Code, a self-imposed set of industry guidelines that banned “profanity, suggestive nudity, graphic or realistic violence, sexual persuasions and rape,” according to Chelsey O’Brien, curator of ACMI, a museum of screen culture in Melbourne, Australia.

The Hays Code pressured studios into taking greater responsibility for morality in movies. Morality clauses appeared in players’ contracts. Shenanigans had to be kept secret.

Chateau Marmont was perfect for hiding extra curricular activities. “You would drive into the garage, get in the elevator, go upstairs and nobody would see you. People would come and go, in and out, and no questions were asked,” according to actor Glen Ford.

Harry Cohn, Columbia co-founder, president and production director, had heard more than he wanted to about two rising stars, William Holden and Ford. In movies, they were clean-cu, boys next door. Off-screen they were a wild and randy pair.

Ford recalled, “One day he sent for us and said, ‘If you must get into trouble, go to the Marmont.” He made it clear that he had rented the small penthouse there just for us, to protect us.”

Too often, Sarlot’s and Basten’s story sinks into long lists of celebrities who visited, lived in or terrorized the hotel through the decades.

“Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Marmont guest list read like the Manhattan phone directory,” they wrote. Fortunately, they didn’t start at the “A”s listing East Coast visitors.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the guests were more aspirational than in the past. Warren Beatty, then 22, stayed there, as did the hardly known actor Dustin Hoffman just after finishing his role in “The Graduate (1967).” The hotel became a favorite of rock groups in the late 1960s. Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young checked in for a night and stayed five months.

The chateau was always a haven for writers. William Goldman wrote “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) at the Marmont; Graham Ferguson wrote “Downhill Racer” (1969) there as well.

Yes, he writes about the drug-overdose death of actor John Belushi in March 1982. But with the discretion of a hotelier, the report is blander than a newspaper.

The hotel was sold in 1991 to André Balazs, who gave it a multimillion dollar makeover. He also added elements the hotel had never had: a full gym; a secluded dining room; a garden terrace; and new and adjacent to the hotel, Bar Marmont. In 2020, plans to turn it into a members-only hotel were announced.

Today, with the pandemic, the famed Chateau Marmont is temporarily closed.

Jeannette Hartman is the creator of and reviewer for Book-Reviews-by-Jeannette.com and Jewish-books-reviewed.com.

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