Photography by Nicolas Koenig and Stephanie Diani
Celebrating its 90th anniversary this year, Hollywood’s iconic Chateau Marmont has lost none of its Tinseltown glamour as a destination for the world’s A-Listers seeking refuge from prying eyes. Never one to kiss and tell, famed hotelier André Balazs—the Chateau’s current owner—reflects on the importance of privacy in the hotel’s history and continuing allure.
Mention to someone that you’re staying at the Chateau Marmont and their first response is likely to involve a celebrity—more specifically, a celebrity sighting. A celebrity spotted eating at the Chateau’s al fresco patio restaurant or sunning themselves by the canopy-lined, guests-only pool. A celebrity seen, in passing, along one of the cloistered hallways or huddled among the hotel’s intimate nooks that seem made for hushed, high-powered meetings. Indeed, it would seem that the very design of the Chateau—intimate, walled-off, sequestered—lends itself to these brushes with cultural elites and industry moguls, which only adds to the destination’s mythical status, a veritable Shangri-La on Sunset Boulevard where anyone can, if even for the briefest of moments, brush shoulders with the icons of an age. After all, Hollywood is where the aspiring come to make it big. And, if they are the moths, the Chateau continues to be one of the brightest of flames.
If anyone knows about the ins-and-outs of the Chateau—its best kept, juiciest secrets, the celebrity lore that would make must-read headlines—it would be the hotel’s current owner, storied hotelier André Balazs. But any hopes of learning those tales are, much to the chagrin of reporters, dashed from the outset. “Anecdotes are kind of difficult for me,” Balazs notes, “they're impossible for me to share. Other than ones that people have put out there themselves.” Discretion, for Balazs, is not just the better part of valor, it’s the key to the Chateau’s success: “The commitment and the dedication to not talking about what our guests do or sharing anecdotes is an absolute requirement,” he continues. But it is the Chateau’s steadfast mission to protect the privacy of its guests and their activities behind closed doors that is, perhaps paradoxically, the source of the hotel’s larger-than-life reputation in the public’s mind. Secrecy is, after all, the spring from which fantasy flows. “The hotel passes no judgments,” Balazs notes, “it’s there to protect you.” It is that “sense of protection and security, coupled with the fact that you aren't at home,” Balazs he goes on to say, that “unleashes all sort of various extremes, all kinds of human behavior.”
That behavior—and not on the part of Balazs or his team—is nonetheless well-documented and highly mythologized in the ether of popular culture. Several dozen books and novels have centered around the hotel, from former owner Raymond Sarlot’s tell-all Life at the Marmont to Aris Janigian’s send-up of Hollywood in Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont, with more to come, including The Castle on the Sunset by Shawn Levy. And who can forget Sofia Coppola’s 2010 film Somewhere, the story of an actor (played by Stephen Dorff) gone astray, who recuperates at the Chateau. Add to that the prodigious output of photographer Helmut Newton, who called the Chateau home and made it the backdrop to many of his iconic erotically charged images, and one can see that there is more than enough material to feed the imagination of a celebrity-obsessed culture.
Indeed, a brief search of “Chateau Marmont” online brings back a litany of accounts that are the stuff of legend. There’s the time Led Zeppelin reportedly rode their motorcycles through the Chateau’s lobby in the ’70s. James Dean is rumored to have jumped through the window of director Nicolas Ray’s bungalow to audition for a part in Rebel Without a Cause. Not to mention that Jim Morrison, front man of the Doors, is reported to have walked-away unscathed after leaping from a fourth-floor window, apparently in a drug-fueled haze.
The list goes on, reaching back to the earliest days of the hotel. As A. M. Homes notes in Los Angeles, her 2004 history of Hollywood told through the lens of the Chateau, the grandee and co-founder of Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn once told his more ribald stars, including William Holden and Glenn Ford, "If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont."
Now, as the Chateau celebrates its 90th anniversary, many of the hotel’s greatest moments have become the stuff of history. For Balazs, who purchased the hotel in 1990, preserving—and saving—the Chateau’s legacy as Hollywood’s colony dégagé was his mission from the outset. At the time that he purchased it, the Chateau was on the road to demolition. “The two owners of it were fighting, and they wanted to tear it down and build a new condominium,” Balazs recalls, “but I feel so in love with it.” For his part, Balazs keenly understood that the continued success of the Chateau would rely on his ability to perfect the balance of exclusivity and acceptance that the hotel had come to embody: “The Chateau was always a place to go to that seemed familiar.” With an eye to its legacy, Balazs set about ensuring that the DNA of the hotel remained, eschewing radical changes for a subtler approach. “It's what it feels like it should be,” he observes, before noting, “It has been undergoing renovation for 30 years nonstop.” It’s a mix of the nostalgia that guests crave and the modern-day necessities that they require. The familiarity, that sense of home, is ultimately what makes the Chateau so inviting. A home to retreat to—albeit, to do things one may not necessarily do at home. For Balazs, the success of the Chateau adheres to a very simple formula: “What makes any hotel a great hotel is: First, everyone has to feel safe and second, they have to feel welcomed—that no one is judging them, in other words, anything goes—and that is the philosophy at the Chateau.”