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Inn Hollywood

Touched With Scandal and Commemorated in Literature, Chateau Marmont--These Days a Little More Elegant--Has Earned Its Place in History

December 29, 1996|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One man's baby grand piano is another man's sculpture pedestal. Whatever you call it, Matthew Marks was surprised to find one in his hotel room.

"If I'd known," said the boyish New York art dealer, "I would have brought all the yellow madonnas. I could have brought 20 of them for the black lacquered piano. Next year."

Who knew?

Even at the eccentric Chateau Marmont Hotel, yellow madonnas are not exactly de rigueur traveling companions. But on this particular day, the hotel wasn't exactly a hotel. More than 50 rooms had been festively transformed into quasi-art galleries, and scores of black-leathered people were tromping from room to room for the third annual Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair, a New York import that's already a December staple of L.A.'s art calendar.

When is a hotel not a hotel? When it turns into a strip of SoHo, or a dorm for creative people of note. People like Dominick Dunne, who immortalized the Chateau in his dispatches on the O.J. Simpson trial for Vanity Fair.

"I remember once I was walking out of my room to go to dinner and Keanu [Reeves] came out at the same time," Dunne says. "We each headed for the elevator, and after the door closed, he said to me, 'How's the trial?' He knew what I was there for. And I'd just read he'd played Hamlet in Canada, so I said, 'What was it like?'

"Where else could you have a conversation like that?"

In, say, a great hotel, one steeped in Hollywood history and the ambitions of its latest keeper, the SoHo-based Andre Balazs, who brings a veneer of East Coast sophistication to the 63-room castle at 8221 Sunset Blvd.

"Andre tends to know the kind of people in New York and L.A. who make for a happening scene," says Chateau regular and novelist Jay McInerney. "Certainly any of the beautiful people who weren't already staying at the Chateau have probably switched allegiance."

Indeed, Balazs' idea of a great hotel is much like his idea of a great dinner party--and not a power breakfast. Dunne signed on for the long haul, for example, after Balazs recruited him at a party in New York. The hotelier had read Dunne's book "An Inconvenient Woman," whose narrator stays at the Chateau Marmont.

"Which is curious in that I myself later did the same thing as the narrator in that book," Dunne says.

Not long after the party, Vanity Fair assigned Dunne to cover the Menendez trial, and voila.

"I used to live in Beverly Hills for many years and sometimes my swell friends would come. You know that thing when the smart folk go to see how the artists live," Dunne says and hoots. (Dunne is mum on his reduced long-term rate, but the Washington Post estimated his tab for room 48 at $36,000 nearly nine months into Simpson's criminal trial.)

It's been like that on Marmont Lane, ever since Hollywood's funky idea of a Loire Valley chateau sprang up there nearly 70 years ago. The Chateau's flash-bohemian pedigree meshes nicely with that of downtown New York notable Balazs, who bought the hotel in 1990 and quietly launched a gradual renovation.

Most recently, the erudite Balazs edited the "Hollywood Handbook" (Rizzoli), an anthology by such Chateau aficionados as Dunne, Gore Vidal, Lillian Ross and Mike Davis. Some of the pieces are about Chateau life, some about its location--Hollywood--but all have Chateau attitude, Balazs says.

"It's very knowing. It's not star-struck. It's playful. It's a little contrarian. It's very much people who love the film industry and at the same time see it for what it is."

That generally does not include the power breakfasters that be.

"If you're a hyperactive producer with 10 projects going and you need to be on your phone three lines at once, you'd never consider staying at the Chateau," McInerney says.

"This was the sort of place where you'd expect to see Boris Karloff loom out of the shadows. In a city of bright sunshine, this was sort of a dark corner, a place where it always seemed to be vaguely twilight somehow, even at the pool. For that reason, it was the home of the night people--New Yorkers, Europeans and rock 'n' rollers, people who deplore the very concept of breakfast meetings."

Out on the Chateau's lawn, dusk falls lightly on Balazs' shoulders as he considers his constituency.

"The community for this hotel has always clearly been the creative heart of the film and music industry," says Balazs, 39. "I don't think it's ever been a hotel where producers particularly hung out. I think the Beverly Hills Hotel played that role."

The Beverly Hills has not only played host to many a Hollywood power breakfast, but it also took a more elaborate approach to its own recent renovation. The sprawling hostelry was shut down for four years while power architects oversaw a plush $100-million overhaul that retained iconic bits such as the Polo Lounge and banana-leaf wallpaper.

Balazs' regulars would never have tolerated such a massive make-over.

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