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Tales of the Chateau : Garbo Slept Here. Belushi Died Here. The Chateau Marmont Has Always Attracted a Certain Kind of Hollywood Crowd.

September 14, 1986|CHRIS HODENFIELD | Chris Hodenfield is a writer based in Los Angeles.

There've been so many scenes at the Chateau, between rock 'n' roll parties and people dying and people having a good time and songs being written and books being written. Just a big cloud of memories at the Chateau.

--Graham Nash

The Chateau Marmont feels anchored to the ground by an immense gravity field. There is a solidity, a heaviness about the old hotel. The cathedral-like arches looming over the entry arcade, the cool red tiles of the lobby floor, the robust blue furniture, the darkened oil paintings--all provide a safe, eternal feeling. Neither flood nor earthquake could shiver the fortress. If the city were under siege, the Hollywood rabble would likely gather at the steps of the Chateau to hear reports from the front. There are faithful guests of the hotel who--never mind its curious reputation--view it as the last flickering light of civilization, a stronghold of virtue surrounded by modern callowness. Certainly, if you stand on the small round front lawn and gaze down Sunset Boulevard, you will see scant evidence of the gaudy hubbub that once charmed this neighborhood. This is the regrettable aspect of our town's history--the memorable scenes have been so easily planed down and forgotten.

But there, up the graceful loop of Marmont Lane, is a crusty old edifice that has survived, relatively unchanged, from the era when this intersection was the hub and the nexus of movieland, through a coarsened epoch when the ragged flotsam padded by barefoot, to today's era of rebuilding along the battered Sunset Strip.

Visually out of sync with its surroundings, the Chateau Marmont's combination of Norman and Moorish lines gives it a faint hint of chintz, a touch of old Hollywood madcap. But the years have also awarded it substance, as if it were a movie prop that became three-dimensional, where the actors assumed their characters' names and went on living their roles.

The years have also awarded the place with a raft of legends. It is where, up top at the penthouse railing, Howard Hughes stood at a telescope, peering down at the women at poolside. Where Edith Piaf warbled a little melody in a hideaway that reminded her of Paris, and where today Sting may wander down to the lobby and try out a song on the piano.

A guest rolls into the dark and dignified manor--looking either for a room that is quiet, sober and substantial, or a room redolent of old times and the stale cigarette smoke of Duke Ellington. The guest might wonder, who has been in this bed? Greta Garbo or Marilyn Monroe? Pink Floyd? Is this the bungalow where John Belushi died, or the one where Jean Harlow enjoyed her honeymoon?

Check into the Chateau Marmont sometime and open the windows onto the Sunset Strip. Drink in the view, look for the remaining relics of bygone Hollywood. Think back to a time when no man would dare to go out into the morning without his hat. The straw boater was the snappy hat of distinction in 1927, the year the Chateau was constructed on an empty hillside.

IN 1927, MARMONT LANE STOOD AT THE HINGE OF NO PLACE. IT WAS not even in Hollywood proper, standing a few hundred yards west of the boundary line of Crescent Heights Boulevard. The trolley line went no farther. The citizens of the westerly precinct had only recently decided to give the little area called Sherman Township the new handle of West Hollywood. West of La Cienega, Sunset Boulevard was not even paved. Behind the streetside shops were rolling fields. A man on horseback had his choice of bridle trails into Beverly Hills.

Fueled by the movie business and by huge oil strikes, Hollywood's population had jumped from 36,000 in 1920 to 157,000 at decade's end. Mind you, Los Angeles was another city entirely. That's where the big department stores were. If you wanted to telephone New York, you took the streetcar down to Los Angeles. In that year 1927, City Hall was going up downtown, and over in the empty fields of Westwood ground was being broken on UCLA's new campus. Grauman's Chinese Theatre opened that year.

Lots of people were walking around with fresh money. They needed proper hotel rooms. The Roosevelt Hotel went up on Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from the sumptuous Garden Court apartments. And in 1927 one of the town's most notorious hostelries opened on the southwest corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights: the Garden of Allah.

Across Sunset, a lawyer named Fred Horowitz wanted to build a hotel, and he wanted to give it an authentic European grandeur. He sent his architect, Arnold A. Weitzman, to France to capture a certain rugged look. There was a lot of this sentiment going around America after World War I. Americans had taken the fallen European nobility into a sudden embrace. Hollywood, in need of a quick shot of class and having the gelt to make it happen, was a natural lair for high strutters. Many takeoffs of weighty European architecture were dropped into the sunny lap of Southern California.

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