Makes a convincing case for Chateau Marmont as an accidental myth: an institution that acquired its current patina of glamour and romance as much from savvy marketing as from its genuinely colorful history.
“They say that Los Angeles doesn’t treasure its past,” Shawn Levy writes in the introduction to The Castle on Sunset. “How, then, to explain Chateau Marmont?” The answer, as it turns out, is more complicated than it seems. Tracing the history of the infamous apartment-turned-hotel from its 1929 construction to the present day, the book makes a convincing case for Chateau Marmont as an accidental myth: an institution that acquired its current patina of glamour and romance as much from savvy marketing as from its genuinely colorful history.
Indeed, for the first few chapters, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Levy—a former film critic for The Oregonian and author of books on Fellini, Paul Newman, the Rat Pack and other pop culture figures—had chosen the wrong hotel for his subject. During Hollywood’s Golden Age in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the more happening locale was right down Sunset at the Garden of Allah, of which Levy writes, “All of the clichés attached to Chateau Marmont about celebrities boozing, drugging, sexing, indulging, flaunting and otherwise not giving a rip about propriety were true… before ground was even broken in the Chateau.” Despite notable cameo appearances from Jean Harlow and Billy Wilder among others, it isn’t until the mid-‘50s, when one of the bungalows commissioned by third owner Erwin Brettauer becomes the gestating place for Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, that the Chateau steps into the spotlight of its own story. Readers in search of the truly salacious will have to wait even longer—until March 5, 1982, when comedian John Belushi’s death by misadventure in another, more ill-fated bungalow transforms the Chateau from a haven for itinerant artists into a bona fide household name.
It’s the three-decade stretch in-between that inspires the most engrossing part of the book. While Chateau Marmont was never quite as famous as its contemporary reputation suggests, everyone from Greta Garbo and Gore Vidal to Led Zeppelin and Helmut Newton spent time in its hallowed halls. Its imposing location, looming fortress-like above the Sunset Strip, gives Levy an ideal perch from which to document the ever-shifting face of West Hollywood: from the end of the gilded silent film era to the explosions of youth culture in the late ‘60s and early ‘80s. Some of the most compelling stories are in fact peripheral to the Chateau itself: Led Zeppelin, for example, left the hotel early on their second visit in 1969 because they were spooked by its proximity to the Tate-LaBianca murders just days earlier.
The great irony of The Castle on Sunset is that as the Chateau’s star rises, the stories it hosts grow more banal. Levy does his best with the last chapter, describing the hotel’s current “Golden Age” as a luxury property under owner-operator André Balazs, but even the breathless tale of an “ultrasecret” Oscars party hosted by Beyoncé and Jay-Z can’t disguise the comparative hollowness of the Chateau in its current form. The addition of some genuine drama in the form of 2017 sexual assault accusations against Balazs feels rushed, giving the impression of having come up late in Levy’s drafting—and the recounting of the mogul’s alleged crimes against four women, including two former Chateau employees, sits awkwardly against an earlier passage describing him as “as much a magician as… a hotelier.”
The final chapter of The Castle on Sunset traces how the Chateau in its current form “has credibly been cast by its current keepers into a repository of the past that didn’t seem so grand when it was happening but has taken on the sheen and glow of gold through the remove of time.” Put less diplomatically, it’s a story of the replacement of culture by capital—a myth of bohemian glamour, packaged and sold for up to $3,000 a night to a clientele that wouldn’t have set foot in the place during its actual bohemian era. That Chateau Marmont still stands after almost a century in a city not known for its historical reverence is certainly worthy of note; but its 21st-century transformation into yet another luxury hotel for the leisure class is a tale more lurid than any that took place within its walls.