Harry Cohn had a problem. Two problems, in fact: Glenn Ford and William Holden, the young–and very badly behaved–actors signed to Columbia Pictures,the film company that Cohn ran with an iron fist. The year was 1939, and Hollywood was in the grip of a moral crisis. The stars of that era had to be immaculate in public, even if privately they were getting up to all kinds of debaucherous nonsense. Which was exactly what Ford and Holden were doing.
Cohn’s solution was to put his party-starting stars out of sight and out of mind. “If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont,” he intoned, handing over the keys to a decadent suite at the Los Angeles hotel, hailed for its intimate and, crucially, isolated location at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, where Laurel Canyon spills into the Sunset Strip. Ford and Holden were thrilled. For three years they, along with their pals Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, David Niven and John Barrymore (yes, Drew’s grandfather), threw parties at their bacchanalian bachelor pad, entirely on the company dime.
Chateau Marmont opened in 1929, and its 91-year history spans almost as long as Hollywood itself. The sultry seven-storey building, modelled on a French castle, had a turreted, fairytale atmosphere with plenty of cosy nooks and crannies in which to get up to no good. From the beginning, the hotel was known for two things, causally linked: misbehaviour and privacy. Staff were famously discreet, walls were infamously thick, paparazzi were banned, and there were plenty of secluded exits through which to nip into, or out of, the premises.
As the years progressed, the hotel only grew in roguish reputation. It was the kind of place, writer Eve Babitz once noted, where people “like to spill things, things like wine, blood, whiskey, cocaine, ashes and bodily fluid”. Name a star of the stage or screen and they have probably let their hair down at the Chateau, from rock idols (Mick Jagger, Courtney Love) to screen sirens (Marilyn Monroe, Michelle Pfeiffer) and leading lotharios (Keanu Reeves,
But as all good things must end, this halcyon era is coming to a close. Owner André Balazs intends to turn the hotel into a private club, with just a restaurant and the gardens open to non-members. While the Chateau may be shutting (most of) its doors to the public, there’s no doubt the scandals, sexcapades and spectacular soirees will forever live on as legend.
Between The Sheets
The hotel’s louche interior design, all antique furniture and velvet carpet, proved to be a fertile ground for naughty behaviour. “It has an incredibly seductive atmosphere,” Sandra Bullock once said. “No wonder people come here to have affairs.” Jean Harlow is said to have done just that, with Clark Gable, while on honeymoon with her third husband. Alan Cumming once boasted that he had sex on top of a grand piano at the Chateau. Johnny Depp claimed that he and Kate Moss had made love in each of the hotel’s 63 rooms. Lily Allen said she once walked in on James Blunt, mid-romp, in the foyer to her suite.
The most infamous sexcapade at Chateau Marmont, though, might never have happened. In 2004, Scarlett Johansson was living at the hotel – she found it “less lonely” than her house – when she reportedly hooked up with Sicario star Benicio del Toro. In an elevator. “We were making out or having sex or something – which I think is very unsanitary,” Johansson joked at the time. Later, she would deny that anything happened between the pair, insisting that the rumour was just that. But del Toro kept fanning the flames. “Did I have sex with Scarlett Johansson after an awards show? I kind of like, you know, well, I don’t know,” he mused. “Let’s leave that to somebody’s imagination. I’m sure it has happened before. It might not be the last time, either.” Though he did point out that, logistically, there were some chinks in the tale’s veracity, given that the hotel elevator is quite compact and only travels for seven floors. “I would still be struggling out of my jacket by the second floor,” he noted sagely.
Down and Out in Hollywood Hills
In recent years, a stay at Chateau Marmont could cost you in the vicinity of $1000 a night, evidence of both the legendary hotel’s renown and respect. Yet back in 1959, a room cost $8, which is how much an unknown Hollywood hopeful called Warren Beatty paid when he stayed there on one of his first trips to town. But when it came to paying the tab, Beatty couldn’t front the cash and was locked out of his room by management. He was only allowed back in when he offered up his sole possession – an enormous old-fashioned radio – as collateral. He wasn’t the only almost-celebrity to haunt the hallways. In the ’60s, a young carpenter named Harrison Ford was drafted in to board up some rooms. A pre-The Graduate Dustin Hoffman once cashed his unemployment cheques to pay his hotel bill. In 1974, fresh from The Godfather: Part II, Robert De Niro approached the front desk to enquire about the penthouse when a manager shooed him away, mistaking him for “a bum”. The misunderstanding was cleared up and De Niro went on to make the Chateau his second home, storing his car in the garage and having all his laundry done in-house, free of charge.
The Party to End All Parties
In 2018, Beyoncé and Jay-Z hosted one of the biggest parties the hotel had ever seen, transforming its windowless parking lot into a bass-reverberating club. The inaugural Gold Party, thrown on Oscars night for 150 select guests, was kept a total secret until that evening. Those who made the guestlist were warned not to breathe a word about the festivities, not to bring bodyguards – if they arrived with muscle, they were politely asked to leave them outside – and not to share the location. After entering through the kitchen, celebrities including Jamie Foxx, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling and Daniel Kaluuya descended into the basement car park, bedecked in silk and lit by crystal chandeliers. Eleven Madison Park – at the time the world’s best restaurant – catered the event, serving caviar and truffle quesadillas. Magnums of Jay-Z’s Armand de Brignac champagne were in full flow, and guests were offered slippers to ensure they danced all night. The theme was clear: “No sitting, only dancing.”
Stars Behaving Badly
The hotel’s “anything goes” nature meant that, over the years, misbehaviour was rarely met with outright discipline. Billy Idol trashed his room. Jim Morrison trashed his room and leapt from the roof or his window (depending on who’s telling the story), and dangled from a drainpipe. One Christmas, actor Rupert Everett came upon a bounty of wrapped presents in an unoccupied room and so, naturally, the prankster switched out the gifts for sex toys.
In 2012, Lindsay Lohan did receive a strongly worded note from hotel management asking her to settle her bill immediately and leave. The actor was a Chateau veteran, having stayed there on multiple occasions. But this sojourn was different. An itemised receipt addressed to the actor’s supposed hotel pseudonym was leaked to the media. It showed that during a 47-night stay, she racked up $US46,350.04 in charges, including more than $3000 on room service, $400 on pay-per-view films and $200 on magazines, phone chargers and a scented candle. The Chateau had been left out-of-pocket before. When Motown superstar Marvin Gaye died in 1984 he left behind $US14,000 on a tab. (“What were we to do?” former owner Raymond Sarlot once lamented. “Say we sued Marvin Gaye?”)
One of the only stars to actually be barred was Britney Spears, after she began smearing food all over her face at the hotel’s restaurant in 2007. Fellow diner Victoria Beckham informed staff that the singer was “acting weird” and she was escorted from the grounds. The ban lasted for two years.
Deaths and Marriages
By the time she spent three weeks at the Chateau Marmont in 2009, blocking off an entire floor to film her movie Somewhere, director Sofia Coppola was a regular. “You could do things, and nothing was being recorded, except in the hotel log,” she has said.
From the age of 11, Coppola was a frequent visitor to the hotel, where her father, director Francis Ford Coppola, would go to write. She recalled one of her sleepovers was crashed by Colin Farrell, whom she discovered sitting on the floor, smoking cigarettes. She loved the hotel so much she threw a raucous 21st birthday party there. “Back then, everything wasn’t documented – thankfully,” she said.
Birthday parties were common at Chateau Marmont: Lohan, Zac Efron and Elton John have all celebrated there.
Tragically, there have also been deaths. In 1982, comedian John Belushi was found dead of an accidental drug overdose in his room. In 2004, legendary fashion photographer Helmut Newton died after having a heart attack behind the wheel and crashing his car into a wall as he came out of the driveway.
As for romances, there were plenty of those. Many couples either met, courted each other or married at the hotel, including Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, Jeff Goldblum was married at the Chateau to gymnast Emilie Livingston, and Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn tied the knot with author Emma Forrest on the terrace.
Hollywood chronicler Eve Babitz would have sympathised. The writer once lamented that leaving the hotel was harder than leaving a lover. “I had almost a year frequenting the Chateau Marmont as the girlfriend of someone who lived there,” she wrote. “In fact, breaking up with him, my worst regret was that I’d broken up with the Chateau Marmont too.”
This story originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of marie claire.