Doubleday, 366 pages, $28.95
Psychics say the Chateau Marmont was built on an energy vortex. If you don’t know what that means, reading Shawn Levy’s The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont may give you an idea. The 90-year-old hotel/apartment complex is the sort of place that brings to mind the line in the Eagles’ song “Hotel California”: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
And the way Levy — an astute chronicler of America’s pop culture and Hollywood history — describes the imposing citadel on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Marmont Lane, it may make you wish you had lived — or now live — at the chateau. Not nearly as well known as some of the high-profile Hollywood hotels around it, the Marmont became the sort of place celebrities used to hide out and shield their shenanigans from the public and media. Built in 1929 and modeled after European-style castles, the chateau attracted all sorts of characters: On various nights, Doors frontman Jim Morrison scrambled around the upper balconies like a monkey; actress Lindsay Lohan got thrown out of the joint (sort of); and Jean Harlow, one of the original blonde bombshells, slept there (as did her lovers, for $250 a month in rent). Director Nicholas Ray is credited with creating the framework for his 1955 cult film Rebel Without a Cause there.
Levy weaves these stories and others into a Grand Hotel-like tapestry, allowing us to meet, greet, and get to know the extensive cast of characters, most of whom come and go as if caught up in a perpetual revolving door. He also turns the spotlight on the owners, front-desk clerks, parking valets, and managers — no-nonsense types who nonetheless put up with a lot of nonsense, all in the name of maintaining the guests’ reputations and that of the chateau as well.
The Chateau Marmont itself is a character in the piece, anchoring the ever-rocking ship known as Sunset Boulevard and surviving earthquakes and a bomb scare (one wag quoted by Levy notes that artists often came to the place to make bombs of the artistic type). Levy describes the Marmont as “slightly off to the side and slightly ill-suited for the scene,” but deftly notes that somehow or other, it not only survived but thrived, because a lot of eccentric types stopped there. The chateau, Levy writes, “became part of the show,” a circus of freaks hidden behind a curtain controlled by a seemingly invisible ringmaster.
All the same, even Levy has a tough time defining the appeal of the place. Reading along, you can understand that the mismatched furniture and sometimes peeling paint added a sense of artistic indifference to the place, and the fact that there was no main entrance for so long and most guests had to come in through the garage gave it an attractive sense of grunge noir and secrecy. But as it moved through the decades with different owners and different looks, the apartment complex-turned hotel seemed to take on the characteristics of the times it was experiencing. “The hotel had been built in the twenties, flourished in the forties and fifties, gone to seed in the sixties and seventies, and only became truly famous and iconic in the eighties when John Belushi died there,” Levy writes. “If you were going to give the place a face-lift, which of its faces would you choose to restore?” The book’s final sentence speaks to the mystery enveloping the place and suggests that the puzzle will never be solved. “It hasn’t always been there, the castle on the Strip, and yet it has,” he writes.
Here and there Levy goes off track, taking unnecessary side trips to discuss the careers and legacies of people who didn’t stay at the chateau and sometimes turning the tome into something akin to a name-dropping game. But his joy in telling the story is infectious, and his love for the weird and wacky things and movements that America loves — for example, Jerry Lewis and the Rat Pack (both subjects of previous Levy books) — comes through on every page.
The Marmont may have been built with a European aesthetic in mind, but when it comes down to it, the place is quintessentially American for one reason: It lets you do what you want there. So who wouldn’t want to check in, and maybe never check out?