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Raymond Sarlot, investor who restored Chateau Marmont, dies at 89

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Raymond Sarlot, former co-owner of the Chateau Marmont, dies at 89
Raymond Sarlot, 89, restored the landmark Chateau Marmont in the 1970s
Chateau Marmont co-owner Raymond Sarlot loved the Sunset Strip hotel "like a mistress."

Developer Raymond Sarlot was looking for a tax write-off when he and an associate paid $1 million for a down-on-its-luck Hollywood landmark, the Chateau Marmont, in 1975.

Long a haven for privacy-loving celebrities such as Greta Garbo and Roman Polanski, the old Normandy-style hotel was on the verge of foreclosure, with threadbare carpets, peeling wallpaper and falling plaster.

It still had loyal guests but was so dilapidated that one of them, actress Myrna Loy, called for a new room chair after the bottom fell out of the one she was using. "I was what you call shocked," Sarlot recalled later in The Times.

But the hotel quickly became more than just a business for Sarlot.

"He fell in love with the place," said his wife, Sally Rae Sarlot. "It became almost like a mistress."

Sarlot, who helped restore the Marmont's low-key elegance and secure its place as one of the city's cultural treasures, died April 27 in Los Angeles after a long illness, his wife said. He was 89.

A month after buying the Sunset Strip property with business partner Karl Kantarjian, Sarlot moved in and oversaw its renovation over the next few years. The walls and floors were redone, tacky plastic fixtures were banished, pilfered antiques were replaced, and the pool was rebuilt. The new owners also added more guest bungalows, including the one where actor John Belushi would later be found dead.

In 1976, the year after Sarlot and Kantarjian bought it, the Marmont was declared a historic-cultural monument by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission, which cited it as "one of the few remaining landmarks to remind us of the glitter of Hollywood's past."

"The big thing Ray did for the hotel was save it," said Fred Basten, who with Sarlot wrote an anecdotal history called "Life at the Marmont," published in 1987. "It was going to be destroyed. He bought the hotel and revitalized it."

Sarlot, who co-owned the landmark for 16 years until selling it to hotelier Andre Balazs in 1991, was also an early supporter of the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art, which featured prominent artists who were Marmont regulars, including Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

And although he was no athlete — 6 feet tall and burly, he was "forever popping a button on his shirt," his wife said — Sarlot helped launch another institution, the Los Angeles Marathon.

"Ray was one of the originators," Marathon founder and former President William Burke said in an interview last week, noting that Sarlot helped him sell the idea of the race to Mayor Tom Bradley and secure the financing for the first one in 1986.

Sarlot's main passion, however, was the Marmont.

Built in 1927, the Marmont was "practically a capsule history of Hollywood itself," Kantarjian wrote in the foreword to "Life at the Marmont." Modeled after a castle in the Loire Valley of France, it became a home away from home for writers, actors and others who earned livelihoods at the nearby studios. Among the early guests were Stan Laurel, Katharine Hepburn, Billy Wilder, Mary Astor and Jean Harlow.

In later decades, playwright Arthur Miller came for weekend trysts with Marilyn Monroe. Paul Newman met Joanne Woodward there, and their pal, Gore Vidal, used it as a setting for his novel "Myra Breckinridge." In the rock era, regular guests included Graham Nash, David Crosby and Pink Floyd. "Rosemary's Baby" director Polanski lived at the Marmont in 1968 with his wife, Sharon Tate, before they moved to the Benedict Canyon house where she was murdered by the Manson gang; several years later, Polanski took refuge at the hotel while facing charges of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl.

The most notorious event in the Marmont's history occurred in 1982, when Belushi was found dead of a drug overdose in Bungalow 3.

When the news broke, Sarlot was having lunch with Kantarjian in Beverly Hills and rushed back to the hotel. "It was bedlam," he said in his book. "The place was swarming with outsiders," not only police but reporters and scores of curiosity-seekers.

"What people don't realize about the night Belushi died," Sarlot told The Times several years later, "is that the whole time all that stuff was going on, Tony Randall was living right next door" in another bungalow. "Tony had no idea what was happening until he saw the coroner's wagon."

Sarlot was born in Chicago on Aug. 1, 1924. The son of a businessman who owned several meat markets, he studied engineering at what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology before serving as a mapmaker in the Army during World War II.

He moved to Los Angeles after the war, obtained his contractor's license and began doing remodeling, gradually working his way up to building tract homes and apartment complexes.

He moved into the Marmont during his divorce from his first wife, Regina Bragato. In addition to his wife Sally Rae, to whom he was married for 29 years, he is survived by his children from his first marriage, Debra Sarlot, Renee Knott and Joel Sarlot; two brothers, Roland and John; a sister, Rhoda; a granddaughter and a great-grandson.

After Belushi's death, the worst experience Sarlot may have had at his beloved hotel occurred in 1984, when he saw a copy of author Bob Woodward's newly published biography of the comic actor, "Wired."

On the inside flap, Woodward had written that Belushi died "in a seedy hotel bungalow off Sunset Boulevard."

Sarlot and Kantarjian sued Woodward's publisher for $18 million in damages. Woodward subsequently apologized, explaining that he had been referring to the squalid state of Belushi's room on the day he died, not the hotel itself. The lawsuit was dropped.

"Ray had spent so much time and effort bringing the hotel up to respectable condition that it was a blow to him to hear someone call it seedy," Sally Rae Sarlot said. "He was defending its honor."

elaine.woo@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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