The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont by Shawn Levy
Published by Doubleday Books
Publication date: May 7, 2019
Everyone knows I’m not a big fan of non-fiction. It’s not that I think it’s all bad—I know it’s no different than fiction with lots of great stuff out there. It’s just that reading it makes me drowsy. I can’t get more than 10 pages in most non-fiction without wanting a nap. So, it’s got to have a big hook for me to bite and The Castle on Sunset does. It’s Shawn Levy’s history of one of the most iconic hotels in America: the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. And if you don’t know about it, all the more reason to read this book. For those of us in the know, it is where much of the scandal-soaked history in the entertainment world happened (and probably still does).
The hotel began as the dream of a Francophile lawyer in the 1920s. Sunset Boulevard was nothing more than a stretch of road with farms and grocery stores stretching along it. He envisioned a Gothic-style castle of apartments for the wealthy of Southern California. From then to now Chateau Marmont has gone from being apartments to a hotel, has had six owners, and as the subtitle states has been the site of love, art, death, and scandal.
Let’s jump right in with a bit of the gossip—of which I’m only giving you a few tidbits. That’s because The Castle on Sunset is a scintillating scrapbook stuffed full of Hollywood gossip you never heard before. You have to read it to believe it.
- One famous director from the 1950s found his actress wife in bed with his 13-year-old son from his first marriage.
- James Taylor, in love with Carly Simon but also using heroin heavily at the time, ‘proved’ his love to her in a highly unsettling scene while both were staying there.
- Roman Polanski hid out there while avoiding the press after being accused of sexual assault of a 13-year-old in 1977.
- Society chronicler turned journalist Dominick Dunne lived there while reporting on the O.J. Simpson trial for Vanity Fair in 1994.
For each decade Chateau Marmont meant something different to a different group. Its beginnings in the 1920s as a pied-a-terre for Southern California’s wealthy led to its heyday in the 1950s as a movie star hideaway, then a place to crash for rock groups in the 1960s, right up until its ultimate infamy as the place where John Belushi died of a drug overdose in the 1980s. At this point both the hotel itself and its reputation were as rundown as they would ever be. Marmont languished there until its current owner, Andre Balazs, bought it in 1990 and rebuilt it beyond anything any of its previous owners had envisioned. It’s now one of the most chic and hottest places to see and be seen in Hollywood.
Given that the Chateau Marmont has been around for almost 90 years, a book about it is going to be pretty dense. Which is a bit problematic—Castle on Sunset is almost too chewy. Levy includes so much of the early history, down to converting pricing to modern day equivalents that the book weighs in at almost 400 narrow-margin pages. He exhaustively researches the hotel’s history from the landmarks that rose and fell around it, the numerous owners, the staff, the buildings’ issues, and the cultural shifts in Los Angeles and Hollywood. 90 years of all that. Is it worth it? Yes, but while I appreciate a real-life accounting of wealthy people behaving badly this was not a book I read straight through. It’s a fascinating book, but I’d suggest reading it the way Levy wrote it—sections divided by defining periods in the hotel’s history.