Inn Hollywood

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One man's baby grand piano is another man's sculpture pedestal. Whatever you call it, Matthew Marks was surprised to find one in his hotel room.

"If I'd known," said the boyish New York art dealer, "I would have brought all the yellow madonnas. I could have brought 20 of them for the black lacquered piano. Next year."

Who knew?

Even at the eccentric Chateau Marmont Hotel, yellow madonnas are not exactly de rigueur traveling companions. But on this particular day, the hotel wasn't exactly a hotel. More than 50 rooms had been festively transformed into quasi-art galleries, and scores of black-leathered people were tromping from room to room for the third annual Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair, a New York import that's already a December staple of L.A.'s art calendar.

When is a hotel not a hotel? When it turns into a strip of SoHo, or a dorm for creative people of note. People like Dominick Dunne, who immortalized the Chateau in his dispatches on the O.J. Simpson trial for Vanity Fair.

"I remember once I was walking out of my room to go to dinner and Keanu [Reeves] came out at the same time," Dunne says. "We each headed for the elevator, and after the door closed, he said to me, 'How's the trial?' He knew what I was there for. And I'd just read he'd played Hamlet in Canada, so I said, 'What was it like?'

"Where else could you have a conversation like that?"

In, say, a great hotel, one steeped in Hollywood history and the ambitions of its latest keeper, the SoHo-based Andre Balazs, who brings a veneer of East Coast sophistication to the 63-room castle at 8221 Sunset Blvd.

"Andre tends to know the kind of people in New York and L.A. who make for a happening scene," says Chateau regular and novelist Jay McInerney. "Certainly any of the beautiful people who weren't already staying at the Chateau have probably switched allegiance."

Indeed, Balazs' idea of a great hotel is much like his idea of a great dinner party--and not a power breakfast. Dunne signed on for the long haul, for example, after Balazs recruited him at a party in New York. The hotelier had read Dunne's book "An Inconvenient Woman," whose narrator stays at the Chateau Marmont.

"Which is curious in that I myself later did the same thing as the narrator in that book," Dunne says.

Not long after the party, Vanity Fair assigned Dunne to cover the Menendez trial, and voila.

"I used to live in Beverly Hills for many years and sometimes my swell friends would come. You know that thing when the smart folk go to see how the artists live," Dunne says and hoots. (Dunne is mum on his reduced long-term rate, but the Washington Post estimated his tab for room 48 at $36,000 nearly nine months into Simpson's criminal trial.)

It's been like that on Marmont Lane, ever since Hollywood's funky idea of a Loire Valley chateau sprang up there nearly 70 years ago. The Chateau's flash-bohemian pedigree meshes nicely with that of downtown New York notable Balazs, who bought the hotel in 1990 and quietly launched a gradual renovation.

Most recently, the erudite Balazs edited the "Hollywood Handbook" (Rizzoli), an anthology by such Chateau aficionados as Dunne, Gore Vidal, Lillian Ross and Mike Davis. Some of the pieces are about Chateau life, some about its location--Hollywood--but all have Chateau attitude, Balazs says.

"It's very knowing. It's not star-struck. It's playful. It's a little contrarian. It's very much people who love the film industry and at the same time see it for what it is."

That generally does not include the power breakfasters that be.

"If you're a hyperactive producer with 10 projects going and you need to be on your phone three lines at once, you'd never consider staying at the Chateau," McInerney says.

"This was the sort of place where you'd expect to see Boris Karloff loom out of the shadows. In a city of bright sunshine, this was sort of a dark corner, a place where it always seemed to be vaguely twilight somehow, even at the pool. For that reason, it was the home of the night people--New Yorkers, Europeans and rock 'n' rollers, people who deplore the very concept of breakfast meetings."

Out on the Chateau's lawn, dusk falls lightly on Balazs' shoulders as he considers his constituency.

"The community for this hotel has always clearly been the creative heart of the film and music industry," says Balazs, 39. "I don't think it's ever been a hotel where producers particularly hung out. I think the Beverly Hills Hotel played that role."

The Beverly Hills has not only played host to many a Hollywood power breakfast, but it also took a more elaborate approach to its own recent renovation. The sprawling hostelry was shut down for four years while power architects oversaw a plush $100-million overhaul that retained iconic bits such as the Polo Lounge and banana-leaf wallpaper.

Balazs' regulars would never have tolerated such a massive make-over.

"I remember sitting with [photographer] Helmut Newton, who's been coming here for a long time," says the soft-spoken hotelier. "And despite everything falling apart, I remember Helmut saying, 'Andre, whatever you do, don't [screw] this up. It's really great.'

"And as he's sitting back, a spring literally pops out of the sofa. It was that decrepit."

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By the time Balazs took over, the hotel was awash in orange-and-yellow carpet, broken air-conditioning and haphazard message delivery. But the building itself still charmed with its incongruous suggestion of European decorousness.

Balazs introduced such amenities of 20th century life as room service, a liquor license and scripts in every room instead of a Bible. But he says he never had any intention of violating the spirit of the place.

"I just always felt it was an incredibly unique building that had all this pent-up aura," he says. "I thought it was a great challenge to see if we could renovate it and not lose whatever it was that was speaking to Helmut emotionally, and yet make the changes that anybody else immediately saw were necessary to make."

That meant "renovating" with a small r, in a style that cleaved to the Chateau's spirit instead of imposing a designer's statement. Set designer Shawn Hausman and assistant Fernando Santangelo worked closely with Balazs, uprooting shag carpets, recovering vintage furniture and commissioning copies, and mixing up pieces from the '20s through the '50s.

In the cottages by the pool, Hausman echoed their late '20s pedigree by furnishing them with Mission oak and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired fabrics. For the 1956 bungalows designed by Craig Ellwood, Santangelo removed fussy moldings and Spanish tile to restore Ellwood's simple vision with pieces by contemporaries such as George Nelson.

While the hotel was gussied up gradually over six years, the fastidious Balazs retained the old bedspreads because he liked their unexpected grandmother-ish feel. "Sometimes in design, it's nice to have something a little off," he says. The results were showcased in December's Architectural Digest.

Balazs' subtle approach has won admirers in the L.A. design community, among them Tim Street-Porter, whose Chateau photographs were included in the book.

"We're very lucky the Chateau still has its idiosyncrasies and has been updated to the point where it's more comfortable, more stylish and has a fresh look that retains the old ambience," he says.

Of course, every silver lining has its dark cloud.

"[Novelist] Eve Babitz came by shortly after we'd just done a room, and I was finally happy after about two years of trying to get a room to look right," Balazs says. "I was very nervous about whether she'd like it because I was curious about how people who had a history with the hotel would react. She said, 'It's really beautiful. I just can't see committing suicide here.' "

Fortunately, the Chateau's face-lift apparently hasn't scared anyone off. As McInerney puts it, "It's still the kind of place where you feel overdressed in a tie and underdressed without a cigarette."

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The Chateau was the brainchild of L.A. attorney Fred Horowitz, who'd returned from France with photographs of the Cha^teau Amboise, a gothic retreat for royalty along the Loire River. He commissioned his brother-in-law, architect Arnold Weitzman, to design a seven-story apartment building based on the photos as a fashionable Hollywood residence. Horowitz left his permanent mark in an ornamental shield emblazoned with a baroque H on an exterior tower wall.

When the Chateau opened in February 1929, it was billed as L.A.'s first earthquake-proof building. It was not, however, Depression-proof. Two years after the stock market crash, Horowitz sold the building to Albert E. Smith for $750,000.

The new owner refurbished the Chateau with Beverly Hills antiques culled from Depression sales. What's more, he cultivated the hotel's link to Hollywood as a card-carrying member himself. Smith was a 30-year film industry veteran and co-founder of Vitagraph, a production company that launched Rudolph Valentino and Adolphe Menjou.

To make the Chateau an easier sell during hard times, Smith retooled it as a hotel and installed as manager Ann Little, a retired actress who'd starred as an Indian maiden in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Squaw Man."

The Chateau always prided itself on providing privacy. In 1939, Columbia founder Harry Cohn protected his stars' boy-next-door reputations by renting the small penthouse for their raunchy adventures. The happy guests were William Holden and Glenn Ford, whom Cohn admonished with the much quoted: "If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont." They obliged.

"The place is dark and mysterious and romantic," Babitz says. "It just has a Jeanne Moreau-committing-adultery edge to it."

The Chateau was where Greta Garbo went when she wanted to be alone and scandalously smoke cigarillos. She registered as "Harriet Brown" in 1955, natch. Hedy Lamarr had had a tougher time signing her own faux name nearly 20 years earlier. Born Hedwig Kiesler but newly re-christened by Louis B. Mayer in 1937, she registered at the Marmont in her new incarnation. She just didn't know how to spell it, signing in as Hedy Lamar.

With so many creative people around, the Chateau has been the backdrop for some famous creations. Among them is Myra Breckenridge, the literary transsexual whose maker, Gore Vidal, holed up there in the '60s.

"Rebel Without a Cause" had its launch in Bungalow 2, the mid-'50s quarters of director Nicholas Ray, whose tenure inspired the suite's sobriquet, "the Director's bungalow." That's where Natalie Wood first laid eyes on James Dean in 1955 during an early script session. He made his late entrance climbing through a living room window. She was not impressed.

"He looked a sight," Wood said in "Life at the Marmont" (Roundtable, 1987) by Fred Basten and former co-owner Raymond Sarlot. "The rest of us were dressed nicely . . . but Jimmy had on a dirty sports shirt and jeans, with a big safety pin across the front to hold them up."

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By the late '60s, many of old-school movie stars had moved on.

"This was the age of the hippie, the freak, and it was an ethos to which the Chateau subscribed totally," habitue Anthony Haden-Guest wrote in Australia's Mode magazine. "It became the haunt of actors, writers and movie-makers who made a point of the fact that they were just birds of passage in California and that where they really lived was New York, or London, or Rome."

Among the New Yorkers who felt at home in the Chateau's hoary surroundings were the "Saturday Night Live" crew, and in the hotel's most notorious incident, John Belushi died in one of the bungalows of a drug overdose in 1982. Two years later, McInerney was being courted by Paramount to write the screenplay of his novel "Bright Lights, Big City" in Los Angeles.

"Not knowing the name of even a single hotel in Los Angeles," McInerney wrote in the "Hollywood Handbook," "I threw the ball right back to the exec-vice. 'I don't know, what do you suggest,' I asked.

" 'How about the Chateau Marmont?'

" 'Is that good?' I asked.

" 'Is that good,' he repeated, somewhat stunned. 'Well, John Belushi died there,' he said, triumphantly."

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People say that when Balazs arrived, he boosted the Chateau's glamour quotient, bringing with him the philosophy that the most interesting hotels are the ones in which "you sense the personality of someone behind it."

The son of two erstwhile Harvard professors, Balazs studied architecture and writing at Cornell and earned master's degrees from Columbia in journalism and business. Both artistic and entrepreneurial, Balazs used to sculpt and while still at Cornell he started Onstage, a rock concert playbill that he later sold. Onstage has since morphed into a playbill for Off-Broadway.

Balazs, who speaks Hungarian and Swedish, flirted with politics in New York, working on Bess Myerson's Senate campaign. He started a biotechnology company, which is now publicly traded. Nightclubs M.K. in New York and the disastrous b.c. in Los Angeles followed.

"It was a good lesson in how not to do something," Balazs says. "Even without a liquor license it was a great hit for about six months. Then it simply shut down."

Balazs is having better luck with the trendy Bar Marmont, which he opened with Sean MacPherson just below the hotel last year. Back in New York, where he lives with his wife, Ford Models CEO Kate Ford, and their two young daughters, Balazs is planning a Chateau equivalent in SoHo for the fashion and art world. The Mercer Hotel is scheduled to open next fall.

And last month, Balazs bought the Golden Crest Retirement Hotel 200 yards down Sunset from the Chateau, which he's planning to convert into a hotel. He hired the cutting-edge Miami firm Architectonica to do the plans, and he's hoping to open by the fall.

But the jewel of Balazs' empire is the Chateau. And his redesign of the hotel didn't stop at the visuals. Reflecting his broad interests, Balazs introduced readings sponsored by the Poetry Society of America and Buzz magazine, as well as the art fair and other gatherings.

"I just think Andre is bringing class back to the strip," says Marmont neighbor and preservationist Betty Wagner, "and he's going to be an inspiration for a lot of people."

Some observers eyeing the renewal along the Sunset Strip have cast the Mondrian, newly renovated by Ian Shrager, in the villainous role of competitor for the sleepy chic. Such comparisons raise Balazs' hackles.

"The Chateau is so unique and it's so specific and it's so small," he says.

But where the Chateau links arms with other great hotels in Balazs' view is in its ability to stir one's passions.

"They all have their disproportionate share of romances, illicit affairs, suicides, great successes," he says. "You leave the familiar behind yet you're encouraged to feel safe. It's exciting."

Exciting even if it's discarded its raffish youth for an elegant, renovated dotage.

Says McInerney: "It's a little more respectable, which no one worries about, but hell, I'm a little more respectable myself. I suppose it's inevitable."

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Chateau Marmont

Age: 67, gently renovated since 1990.

Owner: Andre Balazs, 39, a New Yorker married to Ford Models CEO Kate Ford. They have two children, Alessandra, 7, and Isabel, 2 1/2.

Tariff: From $195 to $1,400 (for the two-bedroom penthouse with a 1,250-square-foot terrace).

Balazs on the Chateau's Je Ne Sais Quoi: "It's what they thought European elegance was in the late 1920s, which is not real European elegance. It's always important to filter it through the Hollywood perspective, which always made it a little over the top."

More Je Ne Sais Quoi: "It's an insider's hotel. By hotel standards it's very small. We have 63 keys as they say. . . . It is much more difficult to do a 400-room hotel and have the same sense of familiarity."

Who Cares: "When the European intellectual was brought here to write a screenplay, they probably stayed here. It's Billy Wilder versus a Columbia executive out of New York."

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