Life at the Marmont by Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten

Fans of Hollywood history will enjoy the gossipy  Life at the Marmont: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Legendary Hotel of the Stars Chateau Marmont by Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten–a book that was originally published in 1987 and was recently released. I’ll admit to a certain fascination with the Chateau Marmont for its architectural cheek–a seeming French château plonk on the fringes of West Hollywood. The book co-written by one-time owner Raymond Sarlot and Santa Monica author Fred E. Basten  goes back over the Marmont’s phenomenal history–a history that is seminal to the story of Hollywood itself.  The Marmont was the brain child of attorney Fred Horowitz who was inspired by a gorgeous château in the Loire. The Marmont was built in 1928, as it turns out an unfortunate time for speculative investments.  Horowitz chose the perfect location–a spot that seemed at the time out in the middle of nowhere:

Sandwiched between the city limits of Los Angeles to the east and Beverly Hills to the west. This portion of Sunset Boulevard and its environs constituted a tract of unincorporated county territory, unattached to either city and entirely independent of their codes and ordinances.

The site for The Chateau Marmont was actually very appropriate as it was built near “The Garden of Allah–a complex of villas owned by silent screen actress Alla Nazimova” which eventually had a reputation as a haven for writers. Horowitz knew that Hollywood would expand and that the seeming remoteness of the Marmont would, in the future, be removed. Once the location was chosen, the project was handed over to Horowitz’s brother-in-law, architect Arnold A. Weitzman, and using Horowitz’s photograph’s of the château he saw in the Loire, Weitzman was supposed to bring in the project for a budgeted $350,000. It was designed to have 43 apartments “of one to six rooms each, with living rooms ranging in size from fifteen by twenty to seventeen by thirty-two feet.” The building included a “revolutionary ventilating system,” and loaded with “decorative filigree masonry” along with “intricately designed murals” and various other “extravagances.” It should be no surprise that when the building was finished there wasn’t much left over for furnishing. The Marmont officially opened in February 1929 with rents “peaked at $750 a month.” In spite of the high price tag, within a few months, the Marmont was almost completely full, but in October the stock market crashed. Horowitz hired real estate developer and investor Ben Weingart to help save his investment, but the reprieve was short-lived. Horowitz, who very correctly predicted the growth of Hollywood and the need for rentals, only owned the Marmont until 1931 when it was sold for $750,000 to “former motion picture producer and investor,” Albert E. Smith. It was Smith who turned the fortunes of the Marmont around and saw the possibilities of turning the fabulous château into a hotel.

Life at the MarmontPart of the history concerns the owners of the Marmont, so we see Albert Smith and his wife loading up on antiques going for a song in the Depression marketplace. My vote for the most peculiar owner goes to Dr. Brethauer and “his diminutive friend, … Dr. Popper.”  More than a nod is given to long-term employees of the Marmont–those who became the face of the hotel beginning with retired actress Ann Little, employed by owner Albert E. Smith as hotel manager who lived at the hotel for decades.  The “legendary Marmont ladies” helped make the hotel a wonderful refuge in a town crazy for fame, notoriety, and gossip.  But the Marmont was not unassailable as Nellita Choate Thomsen, daughter of an “aristocratic Southern family” discovered when she “appointed herself to the unofficial position as the Marmont’s official greeter.”  This was a marvelous spot for the woman who moonlighted as a “crackerjack reporter” for the Hearst newspapers.

Naturally the guests take up a huge portion of the book, and the book traces the history of some of the guests (far too many to name here), so here’s Howard Hughes being peculiar long before he was noted for his many idiosyncrasies, and who exactly was “the matron,” a middle-aged woman who mysteriously appeared when young starlets arrived to keep an appointment with the reclusive millionaire? There’s a glimpse of a cantankerous Dorothy Parker, expensively dressed, mobster, Mickey Cohen, “hush-hush” weekends of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, and bickering celebrity spouses. One section describes the love triangle between Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, and director Nicholas Ray, and there are various poignant anecdotes about Natalie Wood. Another section covers Marlon Brando’s stay at the Marmont; he was surprisingly “quiet and withdrawn,” and very considerate to the hotel staff.

There’s a great section concerning Jean Harlow who stayed at the Marmont for her third honeymoon, and it was a honeymoon that was less than exciting according to various staff members. For this section, of great interest to fans of the Great Harlow (count me in), we read the gossipy impressions of those who worked in the hotel, as well as Jean Harlow’s near death by acute appendicitis (especially poignant considering how she died just a few years later in 1937). What’s so significant with this story is that Jean’s mother was  a Christian Scientist –a religion shared by the Marmont’s Ann Little. When Jean was deathly ill, Jean’s mother telephoned Ann at the Marmont expecting support in expelling any doctors who might arrive to treat Jean. She told Ann to “stall” any doctor who arrived at the Marmont as she didn’t “want any doctor touching my baby.” Luckily the doctor, summoned by Louis B. Mayer arrived in spite of Jean’s mother’s objections and Jean was whisked off to the hospital. 

Chateau marmontThere are many great stories here–perhaps the saddest is the view of the lovely Sharon Tate who lived at the Marmont until she moved into the home she rented with Roman Polanski. She didn’t want to give birth in a hotel, and so she moved to a  rented home in Benedict Canyon, and here she was slaughtered along with her friends and a young, passing visitor to the caretaker by the notorious Manson family.

Written in a chatty, breezy, anecdotal style, this gossipy history also covers those who were rejected by the Marmont (a young Robert De Niro) and those who couldn’t pay their bills (Warren Beatty) and the secret rendezvous suite, Suite 54 kept by Harry Cohn so that his stars could keep out of the gossip rags. This suite was enthusiastically used by Hollywood’s leading men, including: David Niven, Glenn Ford and William Holden. The Marmont also seemed to become the perfect sanctuary of those seeking divorces, so naturally the hotel became the backdrop of some dramatic fights and exchanges–including a drunken, enraged Errol Flynn, engaged to a 15-year-old and seeking a divorce, who stormed the Marmont in 1959 looking for his wife Patrice Wymore.

The Chateau Marmont is more than a West Hollywood landmark; it’s integral to the history of Hollywood, and the saying ‘if walls could talk” seems an apt term to apply to this entertaining book which offers an insider’s look at some of the stars and their private lives.

 Review copy.

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7 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction

7 responses to “Life at the Marmont by Raymond Sarlot and Fred E. Basten

  1. I am an old movie buff so this sounds really good to me. Terrible how this tied in to Sharon Tate.

    • The book is a lot of fun as it’s not focused on one person but a hotel that many many people passed through. Yes very sad about Sharon Tate when you think that she didn’t want her baby to born in a hotel–hence the move.

  2. I watched a documentary series a few years ago on the most interesting hotels of the world and remember clearly that the Château Marmont and the Adlon in Berlin were those that fascinated me the most.
    This is really a book I would love to read.
    That Sharon Tate story is so sad.

    • You’d like this I think. It’s weird the way the marmont featured in people’s lives. Polanski hid out there in 1977 after being released on bail, and he was still there when he was supposed to report for sentencing. Belushi died there, and there’s a section on the gardener who became the crime scene expert.

  3. leroyhunter

    Integral to Hollywood lore – and music. The first name that pops into my head when I hear Chateau Marmont is Led Zeppelin.

    Did you ever read David Niven’s biog(s)? Supposed to be very good – much more tasty than people imagine I believe.

    • The excesses of the wilder sides of rock are covered, but apparently the Marmont had a milder time of it overall. Perhaps they were all hanging out at the Chelsea instead…

      Funny you should mention David Niven. I wasn’t too surprised to read about Suite 54 being shared by some of the names mentioned, but then suddenly there’s Niven asking if it’s free for the night. I mentioned this to someone who told me that according to the bio she read Niven was a Casanova. I didn’t know that about him.

  4. Sounds a great read for a movie fan like you.

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