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The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont

The Chateau Marmont has never been one of Hollywood’s splashiest hotels. For a long while it was noted more for its infamy, being the place where comic John Belushi died. Until the 1990s it was considered a dive with peeling paint and rotten furniture. But the Chateau Marmont has cultivated and maintained an air of exclusivity and cool for decades. You’re a Hollywood insider if you know it’s existence alongside bigger names like the Beverly Hills Hotel or Four Seasons. Author Shawn Levy’s history of the hotel, The Castle on Sunset, provides an impressive overview of the hotel’s allure, though he often becomes sidetracked by some of the famous names tangentially connected to its past.

Straddling the boundary between opulence and the primitive, where the paved sidewalks of Beverly Hills transferred to the dirt roads leading to what would become West Hollywood, Fred Horowitz created a Gothic Chateau in the middle of Hollywood. Named after the street that runs in front of it, Marmont Lane, the Chateau opened in 1929 as an apartment building similar to the burgeoning Garden of Allah apartments which were right down the street. Horowitz saw the potential of giving the wealthy a beautiful home in a residence of the same stature. But high rents and the Depression forced Horowitz to sell and in 1931 the Chateau Marmont apartments became a hotel.

It’s where the Chateau’s history starts to blossom, with new owner Albert Smith, himself ensconced in the Hollywood scene, turned the hotel into something special. Levy, an author whose written about the Rat Pack and Paul Newman, encapsulates what made the Chateau elegant and mysterious. Stars like Jean Harlow and Clark Gable routinely stayed at the hotel, enchanted by the mismatched furniture and lack of hotel amenities that made it feel more like you were staying in someone’s home. Levy lays out every single thing you could think to ask about the Chateau, from how the furniture was decided to spotlighting the famous employees who came to be friends with the celebrities. People like the “Marmont girls,” telephone operators and managers, who became synonymous with the hotel.

Every bit of history associated with the hotel before it’s decline in the late-’80s is fascinating. In 1957 the Sahara Hotel erected a giant rotating showgirl statue across the street from the hotel, inspiring the likes of Gore Vidal to become fascinated with its spinning gaudiness. For many, that’s what appealed to people staying at the Chateau: that it was seedy, chintzy, but unique. Looky loos didn’t know about the Chateau, or the people who stayed there, because celebrities were treated differently. In fact, when the furnishings were changed and the hotel cleaned up in the early-’90s, many long-term tenants felt the hotel had lost its appeal. Of course, it’s most infamously known for being the place where John Belushi died, and that finally lifted the veil on the Marmont. That, coupled with a well-reported decline in the ’80s, threatened to shut the hotel down for good before it was saved by hotelier Andre Balazs and turned into the picture of celebrity exclusivity it is today.

The Castle on Sunset can certainly read like an advertisement for a hotel, and it is. But it’s hard to deny the location’s history and when it’s focused on that it’s a page-turner for the Hollywood aficionado. Levy’s biggest hurdle is balancing a story about architecture and the minutiae of a hotel with the famous people those without a background in L.A. lore will want to read. So Levy segues heavily into giving mini-biographies on certain stars like Jean Harlow and Roman Polanski. These sections always feel incongruous to the main narrative, the hotel itself, and would be better served in individual biographies on those people. And several sections feel like Levy is making heavy connections to the hotel that don’t exist. Case in point, the section on Polanski goes heavily into his background, the death of Sharon Tate, and Polanski’s infamous court case and exile from the U.S., all because he stayed at the hotel for a few months. Other divergences, like discussing Nicholas Ray’s writing of Rebel Without a Cause while staying at the hotel make sense, but run away with the book in a negative way.

Compared to former owner Ray Sarlot’s book, Life at the Marmont (which I’ve also read), The Castle on Sunset details the fine points of the hotel’s transformation over the decades and how it’s stayed up in spite of a changing Sunset Strip. The book blends Hollywood history with a look at what makes Los Angeles so beguiling to people. The Castle on Sunset will make you want to check in.

The Castle on Sunset hits shelves May 7th

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

3 thoughts on “The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont Leave a comment

  1. I read Shawn Levy’s biography of Paul Newman last summer and I absolutely LOVED it. It was easily one of the best books I read last year. When I heard this one was coming out, I added it to my wish list right away because Levy has since become an auto-buy author for me. I can’t say I’m all that keen to read it now after having read your review. It sounds like a bit of a let-down. Thanks so much for your honest review – I think I’ll borrow this book from the library instead of purchasing it.

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