In case you missed it, here’s part 1.
In September 1932 MGM film producer, Paul Bern, was found dead in his Beverly Hills home just two months after marrying Jean Harlow, the original “Platinum Blonde”. He had been shot.
At the time, Harlow was the most beautiful and glamorous superstar in motion pictures. Following a tip-off from Bern’s butler/chauffeur, MGM moguls, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, were the first on the scene. When the police arrived some time later, the position of Bern’s body and gun suggested that his death had been the result of suicide. This was supported when a bizarre note, allegedly written by Bern, was found addressed to Harlow, who apparently had spent the night at her mother’s house. The studio’s version that Bern had taken his own life because he was impotent was accepted at face value.
“The Marmont’s resident manager passed no comment when actor Clark Gable began calling on Jean Harlow during the day”
But rumours of a murder covered up by the studio to protect their most important star from scandal became rife throughout Hollywood. Several months later, Harlow, without any prior announcement, married top MGM cinematographer Harold Rosson and the couple moved into Suite 38C at the Chateau Marmont. It was, however, a sham marriage arranged by Mayer in an attempt to quell the scandalous rumours of Bern’s death, which continued to abound around the movie capital. Whilst still officially on honeymoon, Rosson left the Marmont each day at dawn for the MGM studios and would not return until late in the evening. Harlow, who was in between pictures – having just finished her latest film prior to the marriage – stayed in her suite.
The Marmont’s resident manager, Ann Little, always a paragon of discretion, passed no comment when actor Clark Gable began calling on Jean Harlow during the day. The amount of time that Harlow and Gable spent together at the Chateau Marmont led insiders to believe that the two stars were much more than just close friends. Indeed, her marriage to Rosson was short-lived when she announced plans to divorce him in May 1934 and moved out of the Marmont. Tragically, three years later, Jean Harlow would die of kidney failure during the filming of Saratoga (1937), in which she co-starred with Gable. She was just 26 years old. Saratoga was completed using a body double for Harlow.
With the advent of sound the Hollywood studio heads soon discovered that, just as certain silent movie stars failed in talking pictures, a vast amount of the industry’s scenario writers could not write dialogue. Consequently, the studios recruited playwrights, popular novelists and media journalists to write words for movie actors to speak.
“The Marmont’s reputation for discreet handling of movie celebrities, providing them with the utmost privacy, attracted many of Hollywood’s glitterati”
A young man arrived at the Chateau Marmont in early 1934 with virtually no money and little knowledge of English. His name was Samuel (Billy) Wilder, an Austrian Jew who had fled Germany following the rise of the Third Reich. He had written numerous film/play scripts for the German cinema/theatre and had been promised a writing job with Columbia Pictures. Wilder took the Marmont’s smallest, least expensive room at $75 per month (he later used it as a model for the apartment where Fred MacMurray’s character lived in the noir movie Double Indemnity, which Wilder wrote and directed in 1944). For a time he shared it with another refugee from Nazi Germany, the actor Peter Lorre, until he found that Lorre suffered from a debilitating drug addiction.
Wilder’s first project at Columbia fell through, due primarily to his poor English, which prompted him to take a crash course in the language by continually reading newspapers and listening to the radio in his room. Eventually he became a collaborative writer at Paramount, the studio with which he had his longest association. As Wilder’s fortunes improved as a scriptwriter and film director, his suites at the Marmont became larger and grander. When he moved into his sixth floor apartment, he now had a magnificent view of the Sunset Strip thoroughfare below which gave him the initial inspiration for his classic movie, Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Director Lloyd Bacon moved into the Chateau Marmont in 1937. Contracted to Warner Bros., his films included The Singing Fool (1928, 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936). Bacon was a party animal and every weekend he played host to his movie pals in his penthouse at the Marmont. His guest list was a veritable ‘who’s who’ of 1930s Hollywood. Amongst the many revellers were Richard Barthlemess, Joan Blondell, The Ritz Brothers, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Stan Laurel, Dick Powell and Bebe Daniels. The journalist and part-time actor Robert Benchley (grandfather of Jaws author Peter Benchley) was another regular attendee. Benchley lived directly across from the Marmont in the Garden of Allah apartments. Famously petrified of traffic on Sunset Boulevard, he would hail a taxi just to get him across the street to attend Bacon’s parties.
The Marmont’s reputation for discreet handling of movie celebrities, providing them with the utmost privacy, attracted many of Hollywood’s glitterati. When stars wanted to be seen they went to the Beverly Hills Hotel. When they wanted to keep out of the limelight, they stayed at the Marmont. The underground car-park had lifts that led directly to all the hotel floors, so no one could see who was on the arm of a famous actor. Some stayed for just a week while others made it their permanent home. Famous recluse Greta Garbo, who loved the hotel’s quiet solitude, regularly checked in, always under the name of Harriet Brown. So too did Howard Hughes, Hedy Lamarr and Boris Karloff.
Head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, rented Suite 54 as an insurance policy for his wayward young actors’ romantic dalliances. He wanted to ensure that their wild behaviour was kept within the confines of the Marmont and not in the gossip columns. The hotel also became a bolthole for errant movie husbands. Both Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart hid out there from their volatile wives whilst courting new lovers whom they later married. Throughout the 1940s the Marmont became a retreat for countless movie legends, from Bette Davis to Orson Welles. Following the success of Stagecoach (the film that made him a star), John Wayne booked himself into a penthouse at the Marmont stating, “I just wanna see how it feels to live like a star”– and he did for several weeks.
In the 1950s the Chateau Marmont became the West Coast headquarters for alumni from the New York Actors Studio. So-called method acting movies such as A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954) had taken Hollywood by storm. One morning in early 1955, a sullen bespectacled young man appeared at the Marmont’s reception desk and asked for director Nicholas Ray’s apartment. Guest privacy was always a core value of the hotel, so he was asked what business he had with Mr. Ray. He replied that he was reading for a part in the director’s next movie. When asked for his name he mumbled, “Jimmy Dean”.
To be continued…
Read Part 3 here.