The Haunted Chateau Marmont
Situated in the rolling, sunny hills of Southern California, the sprawling City of Angels is known as the beating heart and soul of the film industry. Beneath the iconic Hollywood sign perched on Mount Lee lie legendary studios like Paramount Pictures, Universal, and Warner Brothers. The legendary Hollywood walk of fame pays tribute to the stars both living and dead, and visitors can even trace over the handprints of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. In a city overflowing with stars, it’s no wonder some of them have stuck around long after their spotlights have gone out. The city of LA is said to be among the most haunted in the nation, and the infamously haunted Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard is no exception.
Constructed in 1929 at the dawn of the film industry, the Chateau Marmont is one of Hollywood’s most iconic staples. “Chateau” in French means “castle,” and that’s exactly what it looks like, a towering white fortress overlooking the city. The modern-day castle is framed by lush green palm trees and marked by a blazing red neon sign reading Chateau Marmont Hotel.
In the 1920s, Hollywood was drawing in every young starlet and wannabe actor in the country like moths to a flame and found itself increasingly in need of a place to house them. To meet the demand, the hotel was equipped with 63 rooms, including suites, cottages and bungalows, a small restaurant, and a cocktail bar. Architect Arnold A. Weitzman designed the Chateau to be “earthquake-proof,” and his design passed with flying colors when earthquakes rocked LA in 1933, 1953, 1971, 1987, and again in 1994.
In the 1930s, a cluster of quaint Spanish cottages complete with a swimming pool was built beside the hotel and was later acquired by it in the 1940s. This provided guests with not only a pool right outside their rooms, but a lot more privacy. By this time, the hotel had garnered a reputation as a discreet sanctum for Hollywood’s elite. Along with the private cottages and bungalows, the hotel offered exceedingly thick walls and exceptionally well-trained staff who knew not to ask, and more importantly, not to tell.
Hollywood’s golden age was tightly regulated by the Motion Picture Code, which controlled how celebrities could behave both in front of and off-camera. With so many regulations in place and reputations on the line, the stars were badly in need of a place to misbehave, and the ever-discreet Chateau Marmont fit the bill. As the president of Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn once said, “if you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” At the Chateau’s poolside cottages, Hollywood’s biggest stars enjoyed themselves in ways they never could have publicly—drinking, smoking, partying, and taking part in illicit affairs.
Some of Hollywood’s brightest screen legends enjoyed stays at the Chateau over the years, and many of them enjoyed themselves in ways the Motion Picture Association certainly would not approve of. Bette Davis, an unparalleled silver screen icon and star of films such as All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, was a frequent guest at the Chateau until she nearly burned it down—twice. In 1958, Davis booked a private bungalow at the hotel for a little R&R. On the first evening of her stay, she settled in, put on one of her own movies, lit a cigarette, and promptly fell asleep. In the next bungalow over, actor Lou Jacobi noticed a strange smell. Concerned, he left his room and followed the smell to Davis’s bungalow, where a thick cloud of smoke billowed out into the night. Jacobi dashed inside to wake the sleeping star, who had inadvertently set her whole room on fire. The fire was so bad the entire hotel had to be evacuated. Just a few years later, Davis checked into the Chateau once again, this time steering clear of the bungalow she destroyed. But her luck continued to sour when an electrical short in her room set off the fire alarm. That was apparently the last straw for Bette Davis, as she never returned to the Chateau Marmont again.
Along with Bette, quite a few other stars graced the halls of the Chateau Marmont for less than wholesome purposes. In the 1940s, power couple Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball starred alongside one another as husband and wife in the mega-popular sitcom “I Love Lucy”. But their relationship was far from perfect once the cameras cut. According to their contemporaries, Desi would cheat on Lucille almost constantly, she would inevitably find out, and a nasty fight would ensue. Rather than spend the night on the couch like most husbands, Desi would slink off to a suite at the Marmont for a night in solitary. The idea of a couple fighting, and worse, cheating, was too much for the general public or the Hays code to handle, so the Chateau made for the perfect discreet hideout. Lucille and Desi would eventually kiss and makeup, he would return home, and the cycle would repeat. According to legend, the couple was arguing on the balcony of Desi’s suite one night when Lucille tossed his briefcase over the edge. It popped open on the way down, raining cash all down Sunset Boulevard.
The hotel was also the birthplace of one of the most iconic films of the 1950s, Rebel Without a Cause. In 1952, director Nicholas Ray moved into a poolside bungalow after a fight with his wife. During his stay, Ray met with actors and screenwriters by the pool and used his bungalow as a rehearsal space. He also hosted a number of wild parties featuring stars like James Dean and Dennis Hopper as frequent guests. Most salacious of all, Ray engaged in an affair with Natalie Wood, the 16-year-old star of Rebel Without a Cause. At 43, he was 27 years her elder.
Today, the Chateau Marmont still offers luxury suites and old Hollywood glamour, but has recently declared plans to become more exclusive. In 2020, hotel owner André Balazs announced his plans to convert the notorious Hollywood hotspot into a private members-only club, giving loyal long-term guests the option to buy exclusive timeshares. Balazs feels that this new business model more closely suits the needs of his guests, who would undoubtedly feel more comfortable sharing space with one than with crowds of celebrity-crazed tourists. This philosophy also better suits the hotel’s original function as a safe haven to the stars, which is perhaps why some of them are rumored to lurk through the halls of the Chateau to this day.
The Chateau Marmont has been home to many lascivious goings-on over the years and has housed its fair share of famous guests. But some of these guests checked into the Marmont and never checked out again. The hotel has been the unfortunate site of a number of celebrity deaths, including comedian John Belushi and photographer Helmut Newton.
In March of 1982, Blues Brothers and Animal House star John Belushi arrived for a stay at Bungalow #3. On Friday, March 5th, Belushi’s fitness trainer and part-time bodyguard Bill Wallace arrived at the bungalow to deliver a typewriter and a tape recorder to the actor. Instead, he found Belushi dead at the scene. After struggling with substance abuse for years, Belushi had succumbed to his addiction and overdosed on a cocktail of cocaine, heroin, and a third drug known as a speedball. He was just 33 years old. Hollywood reeled over the tragic loss of the young actor, and fans all over the world mourned his loss.
But some claim Belushi never left the building. In fact, comedian turned politician Al Franken claims to have experienced an encounter with his late friend at the Marmont. According to Franken, a skeptic himself, he arrived at the Chateau a week after Belushi’s passing and stayed in the very same bungalow. He awoke late at night from a fitful sleep to see the ghostly figure of John Belushi standing over him. “John?” He called out, blinking. But by the time he got his glasses on, John had disappeared.
On January 3rd, 2004, Belushi was joined by another famous ghost. The famed German-American photographer Helmut Newton was driving back to the hotel when he suddenly lost control of his Cadillac, crashing into the wall of the driveway. He was killed instantly. Many claim that, like Belushi, Newton decided to stick around. Long-term guests of the hotel claim to have seen a man who looks remarkably like Newton wandering around by the bungalows looking dazed and confused, sometimes bleeding. Others have claimed to hear the click of a camera by the pool. Strangest of all, guests have made complaints of laughter and glasses clinking together late at night, but when security was sent to investigate, no one was there. Perhaps it was just Belushi and Newton, enjoying their extended stay at the Chateau in style.
As it turns out, the hotel’s slogan “always open, always a safe haven,” rings true for the dead as well as the living. The hotel boasts a reputation for fine dining, luxurious rooms, and glamorous guests, some of which still linger behind in its pool-side bungalows. So if you think you’re brave enough, why not stop by for a drink at the Marmont? You might just get to meet a Blues Brother!