For the Love of the Madding Crowd

By: Serena Marotta

“If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont.” – Harry Cohn, Founder of Columbia Pictures, 1939 

“On some days it seems like I have lived at the Chateau Marmont for half my life. There is blood on these walls, and some of it is mine.” – Hunter S. Thompson

“There’s another energy within that building. It sounds cliché, and everybody says it’s haunted, but we felt like the building was talking to us on a minute-to-minute basis.” – Death Grips

On a muggy Thursday morning late in August, I lay sheltered in the shade of a Lemon-Scented Gum tree beside the small oval pool in the garden, awash with familiar calm. I was with my boyfriend of forty-seven days, whom I’d known previously for far fewer. I let lingering apprehension for our impromptu trip fade into the background of the moment, like the silver cloud of my Marlboro smoke in the wind. Doubt for our fledgling relationship dissipated, until completely lost in the comforting echo of rustling Queen Palms, the splash of clear water on the smooth, sun-bleached bricks, and the distant chorus of car horns on Sunset Boulevard below. We silently waited for our room with a view of the Hollywood Hills. Nothing had changed at the Chateau Marmont.

We were, of course, in love. But something else had brought me back.

In that secret garden, surrounded by a screen of Seabreeze Bamboo and a low white-brick wall veiled in ivy, hidden among ancient Chinese elms, Italian cypresses, and California Pepper trees, I could still smell that spice – that signature scent I never forgot. It lingers in the Chateau’s dim, narrow, white-stuccoed halls, like it lives in the floorboards and feeds on the faded threads of the red oriental rugs. The potent aroma of tarnished glamour – not stale, yet seemingly born of time – welcomes you in, as if saying: You’re Here. You Made It. Half-asleep on the wicker recliner, I recalled a line from Patti Smith’s Devotion:

The interior of our imaginations glowed, as we walked back and forth before these places synonymous with poets. Just to be near where they had written, sparred, and slept.

I closed my eyes to dream of those who’d visited and called this hillside castle home – like Patti in Her Paris – and the myths they bore to life, simply in existing, however briefly, in the confines of a single structure: Led Zeppelin riding motorcycles through the lobby, Dennis Hopper’s orgies with 50 women (or more!), and Clark Gable’s love affair with the just-married Jean Harlow, facilitated by secret messages passed through the perennially discreet and obliging front desk. Johnny Depp and Kate Moss admittedly “did it in every room.” Did they do it in ours?

I remembered John Belushi, who died of an overdose alone in Bungalow 3 – the olive-green cottage we’d passed walking to the pool. I saw James Dean leaping from a window, Elizabeth Taylor nursing a wounded Montgomery Clift, and Hunter S. Thompson, writing by the pool, undisturbed. I thought of a luminous Natalie Wood at 16 years old, and many like her, discovering here the “casting couch.” I wondered if these ghosts of the Chateau’s past could identify that smell I can’t quite describe. I heard Natalie’s bitter whisper: It’s fear. Or was that just the wind? I shivered in the heat of the white sun.

Three days later, caressing a chocolate coloured teacup Chihuahua, I lay sleepy again and drunk on a dusty-blue velvet tufted sofa in Room 64 – The Howard Hughes Penthouse. My boyfriend somewhere unseen, I watched my new friends – a nightclub owner in a gold silk kaftan, an aging Oscar winner with young children, an internet-famous model and her billionaire boyfriend, and a prominent lawyer – as they turned into artists, sculpting thick lines of white powder atop shiny mirrored canvasses, beneath a wall littered with Warhols. I understood clearly the nature of my love affair with the Chateau Marmont. This wasn’t the plan, and I certainly didn’t fit in, but no one gave a damn. It was surreal, yet somehow none of it strange.

There, in the land of the free and absurd, where the lives of celebrities, wannabes, and nobodies inevitably collide, intimate gatherings of strangers are natural, even preferred. Friendships, if fleeting, forge fast. The assurance of uncertainty, allure of anonymous adventure, and the distinctly gritty aura of old-Hollywood glamour, that routinely eclipses like a blinding spotlight the actual mundanity of fame, is addictive poison to anyone who loves a good story.

We’re sometimes drawn to things and can’t explain. We love fairy tales, even when there is no happy ending. We keep chasing magic: that intoxicating sense of familiarity and hope in newness combined, which only certain people and places conjure. We know it when we feel it.

The boyfriend didn’t last the winter, but the stories are mine forever.