Shawn Levy is the author of the new book The Castle on Sunset: Life, Death, Love, Art, and Scandal at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont. His other books include Rat Pack Confidential and Paul Newman: A Life, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Sight and Sound and Film Comment. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Q: You write that your editor first came up with the idea of a book about Chateau Marmont. What appealed to you about the topic?
A: I had long been wanting to write a book about the Sunset Strip and its iconic role in popular culture: movies, music, fashion, sexual mores, and so on, have emerged on that bit of road and spread around the world for more than 80 years. But I never quite got the handle on the subject.
And when the Chateau was suggested as a book topic, not only did I immediately sense the overall shape and tenor of the book, but I knew I could meld my Sunset Strip thoughts into it. So it was a kind of once-in-a-lifetime moment: a whole thing popping into my head at once.
Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the hotel?
A: As for the latter, a lot of people think that the hotel has a long history of celebrity deaths when in fact there are only two of real note: John Belushi in 1982 and Helmut Newton in 2004.
It's also assumed that the Chateau is a rock-n-roll hotel, and while it certainly has a history to go with that thought, it pales in comparison to several other hotels on the Strip, most notably the Sunset Marquis, which is a bigger version of the Chateau and was specifically designed to encourage a party lifestyle.
As for perceptions that are true: it is a celebrity magnet, it is exclusive, it is pricey, and you really do feel the weight of Hollywood history as you stroll the grounds and corridors. And the views from the terraces are fabulous.
Q: Jean Harlow, you write, was the "first truly famous celebrity to call Chateau Marmont home." How would you describe the time she spent there?
A: Harlow was honeymooning with husband number three soon after the suicide of husband number two -- and she entertained men, often overnight, during that honeymoon. She was only there for a couple of months (this was when the Chateau was still seen by many as an apartment house rather than a hotel) and redecorated her suites in her signature “Harlow white.”
She nearly died of appendicitis -- her mother was a Christian Scientist who eschewed modern medicine, but her husband was more secular and really did save her life.
And when her husband finally left her after just a few months, Harlow continued on at the hotel, often accompanied by her frequent co-star Clark Gable. They were fabulously hot together -- kind of like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in more recent times; a true movieworld dream couple. As I say, Harlow only stayed at the Chateau for a few months, but she blazed quite a trail!
Q: You write, "At age ninety, the Chateau is more youthful, polished, famous, and chic than it has ever been." What do you see looking ahead for the building?
A: It can't grow physically, either upward or outward, and the current owner, who has been a superb steward of the traditions and the physical plant of the hotel, has shown no desire to dilute it with, say, a Chateau Marmont in every city.
So I think it will continue to be what it is: a glistening avatar of the past, modernized for contemporary needs and tastes, with a sense of history behind every door. And, of course, a prime feeding ground for paparazzi and looky-loos.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm finishing a book of poems based on obituaries in The New York Times from the year 2016 (that was when everybody seemed to die, from David Bowie and Prince to Nancy Reagan and John Glenn to Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer to Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds). It will be published in 2020.
And the following year I'll have a book from Doubleday about the women pioneers of standup comedy: Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Elaine May, Anne Meara, etc.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb