Good morning again from Los Angeles ? one of the strangest, most surrealistic and deeply American cities I can think of. The American Dream thrives here, people come from all over the world to make it here. But it's also a lonely city if you are on your own. Unlike New York where there's an enormous amount of street life, you don't "accidentally" meet people here, it all happens behind closed doors. That said, there is one place where behind those doors there lies a paradise, a true home away from home and that's the hotel, Chateau Marmont. I like it because it's deeply low key, the people who work here are really nice and it's just not like a hotel, it's not trying hard to be something, it just is! Originally built as an apartment building, you enter through the garage, its extreme privacy is part of what makes it perfect. And it's the ONLY Los Angeles hotel where I'd dare go to the swimming pool, i.e. in a city obsessed with plastic surgery, a pale, lumpy, middle-aged East Coaster is frowned upon everywhere ? except here. And more often than not when you're at the pool, "Somebody" happens to jump in. "Somebody" is a famous face (and body) like Matthew McConaughey or Hilary Swank, or Geoffrey Rush, or Stiller and Meara (the ancient comedy couple also know as Ben Stiller's Mom and Dad) or yesterday, clothing designer Heidi Silmane. Thankfully there's a big pile of large white towels nearby ? so one can make a semi-graceful exit as a large white cloud.
Last night I gave a reading at USC organized by my old friend M. G. Lord (Forever Barbie and Astro Turf). She's now living out here and working on a book about Elizabeth Taylor which I can't wait to read. Judith Freeman ? whose new book, The Long Embrace, an exploration of her obsession with Raymond Chandler and his marriage, came out recently ? also joined us. Judith's book sounds fascinating, and coincidently, another friend of mine was just telling me about Chandler's wonderful letters. I'm off to get a copy today ? meanwhile, here's what Janet Fitch already said about it:
Part biography, part detective story, part love story, and part séance, The Long Embrace takes us on Judith Freeman's journey to discover the private Raymond Chandler through the lens of his marriage to a woman eighteen years older than himself, a woman he adored and yet whose every scrap of correspondence he destroyed following her death. Lively, quirky, revealing of both author and subject, this is a welcome addition to any Chandler addict's library.
Also with us was photographer Anthony Hernandez, born and raised here in LA. Tony is soft spoken and very much the Real Deal. He's seen Los Angeles evolve and has spent years capturing almost every inch of it, from Rodeo Drive to the demolition of Aliso Village, the East LA housing project where he was born.
One of the things that was so nice about our conversation after the reading was the incredible affection everyone has for this city. We talked about how it's changed over the years ? the evolution of the downtown area, which has been amazing. En route back to the hotel, we drove past the site of the Ambassador Hotel, the infamous spot where Robert Kennedy was shot (a few years ago I was taken on a fantastic tour of the building, the kitchen was still considered an "open crime" scene and access to that area was limited, but the rest of the place was frozen in time ? old phone booths, empty ballrooms, all too wild and weird). Anyway, the building has finally been razed and soon will become a new school.
Back to the hotel ? there was a plate of cookies waiting for me in my room ? what could be nicer. This place is incredibly special to me ? I feel protected here, taken care of, and since often when I come out to Los Angeles, I'm on my own, it's nice to feel someone is watching over me.
Oh, and speaking of Los Angeles and the endless fascination with HOLLYWOOD ? the place is perpetually crawling with celebrities (though according to my sources both Britney and Lindsey are currently off the list). The hotel is one of Los Angeles' "it" places for actors and other entertainment folks to have meetings, which is exactly what they do when they're not working, because #1 the person they're meeting with pays for their meal, and #2 what else are they going to do all day besides go to the gym and get more botox? Several years ago I was giving a benefit reading for Poets and Writers in the "den" of the hotel, basically the lobby/living room, when an older man came through and started making remarks, about "the poets being at it again." Thank you, Jack Nicholson; it was all I could do not to just stop reading and run up and give him a big kiss. This time around it's more the Lindsey/Britney/Paris bunch, with lots of skinny smoldering others. I also like the fact that I get a LOT of writing done here ? the other night I went down to the "hot" restaurant with my computer as my date and asked if they could seat me at the most depressing table in the place ? they did. I sat next to a wall by the kitchen, I saw no one, and no one saw me and I wrote for hours.
I've spend a lot of time here and have written quite a bit about the history of hotel in a book I did for National Geographic called Los Angeles: People, Places and the Castle on the Hill. It's noon time here, I've managed to hide out all morning, but the fresh air, the birds chirping right out my window are irresistible. I'm heading out ? but for the moment, here's a little piece I wrote about Travel and the Chateau Marmont for a newspaper in England.
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I am a morning traveler ? if I'm going, I want to go early ? before weather fronts move in, before a full day of delay and difficulty throws things off track and while, in the full glory of the rising sun, the pilot can see where he's going. I enjoy waking while it is still dark, kissing a sleeping child goodbye and tiptoeing out ? a sweet and swift escape. A shiny black car waits downstairs. The car slips towards the Midtown Tunnel and out of the city with ease that one-hour from now will be impossible. En route, the sun peeks over the edge of the horizon. Kennedy Airport's new $1.3bn, 2.2m sq ft terminal is a cavernous testament to the high hopes for the future of air travel.
I click into my Buddhist-in-training mode ? breathe deeply and surrender to the environment ? the postmodern, post-9/11 experience of travel. Who are you, where are you going, where have you been? Did you pack your bags yourself? In an effort to minimize the stress and feeling of being cross-examined, I have worn shoes easy to take off, have my computer at the top of my carry-on and, the night before, I emptied my pockets of loose change.
Despite the tension, the inescapable anxiety, there is still a romance to flight, a sense of adventure, of stepping outside of one's life. Up in the clouds one relaxes, drifts. The view of the land below is majestic; one has a sense of the scale and scope of the country ? the red rock of the Grand Canyon as seen from 35,000ft.
Preparing to land, I find myself thinking I'm not ready yet. I want to circle the globe or at least go on for another hour or two. Landing, we've arrived 15 minutes early, traveling from the extreme sophistication and elegance of New York's skyscrapers, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the inescapable absence of the Twin Towers to a landscape that, while flanked by mountainous terrain and canyons, feels flat ? single-family homes, backyard pools, shopping centers, sun-bleached surfaces ? the textures and tones akin to corrugated cardboard. Exiting, a man waits for me, holding a piece of paper ? a sign with my name misspelt. "You bring bags?" he asks.
Los Angeles is like a mistress who cannot be fully possessed ? beautiful, elusive, ever changing; the most thrilling of seductions. Languid, laconic, especially in summer, the humid haze lulls me into a stupor of attraction and desire. It can be experienced in a seemingly inexhaustible number of ways ? think of the noirish world of James Ellroy, the decadence of Bret Easton Ellis, the urbane insight of Mike Davis and Joan Didion. It is a city of many cities, vast in its sprawl with great depth of cultures and fast becoming an international destination for art, music, architecture.
Arriving, the car pulls into the nondescript driveway of the Chateau Marmont ? I am instantly relaxed. "Welcome back." Admittedly, this is my preferred home away from home ? not just the city but the Chateau Marmont in particular. I come here for meetings with various film and television executives in an ongoing effort to sell my soul ? for income and health insurance purposes ? to Hollywood. And I come here to think and to write. I've been able to dig deep into my imagination in these rooms. Built in 1929 as LA's first earthquake-proof apartments ? modeled after Chateau Amboise in France's Loire Valley, this "residence" hotel has quite a history ? everybody who is anybody has stayed here. Infamous for being the spot where John Belushi died of a drug overdose and where long before that Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures, uttered the infamous and accurate phrase: "If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont." And they did, all of them: Howard Hughes lived in the penthouse, Elizabeth Taylor brought Montgomery Clift here after his car accident, James Dean hopped in through a window to audition for Rebel Without a Cause. More recently, the Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded most of an album while in residence.
The hotel is a well-known hideaway for both those who live here and those who come in from around the world, and with all that comes an oxymoron ? privacy and exposure in equal doses. The rooms and public spaces are a safe haven for people who are perpetually over-exposed, the building's architecture and decor like a heavy drape to cloak oneself. The hotel is a little bit of paradise, a perfect stage set for the fantasy narrative we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are doing in this place.
In a city without a centre, you could call this spot the epicenter: this is where deals are made ? where love is won or lost ? sometimes all in one night. And now the adjacent Bar Marmont has reopened. An expatriate outpost complete with butterflies mounted on the ceiling and a stuffed peacock, the bar is reminiscent of places long ago and far away ? think Bogart in Casablanca. A secret passageway leading from the hotel past the pool and bungalows, past the ping-pong table and plants, through a maze of outbuildings and in the back door ? makes even the least famous of us feel like a star. And meanwhile, back at the "big house", as the main building is called, a strange summer phenomenon has overtaken the "lawn", as the small but distinct patch of green in the centre of the garden dining area is called. Parker Posey and Keanu Reeves have taken to picnicking here among the Canary Island palms, purple plum trees and boxwood ? acting nonchalant as though this patch of green is somewhere deep in Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood and not just a few yards off Sunset Strip. They picnic, using a picnic hamper and a hotel blanket, and familiar faces traipse through ? it's like a tableau, a diorama, like some private club or country house.
In the morning, I go down to the lobby/living room for breakfast and settle in at my table, two newspapers, a bowl of homemade granola and fresh fruit. A man in tattered jeans appears, sits at the grand piano that is just inches from me, and begins to play. It's not quite 8am and I'm not ready for music but I can't tell him to stop because he's really good and he's obviously enjoying himself. I look at him thinking, who is he? I know him from somewhere.
A little while later, map in hand, I drive to a meeting. It's not a visit to Los Angeles without driving to a meeting ? reading the street numbers while behind you people beep incessantly, knowing you are from elsewhere. And these "meetings" are what? Auditions for jobs that don't exist? An opportunity for film and TV folks to feel "literary"? And always someone calls me Anne instead of A.M. and another proudly declares that he's read a review of my most recent book ? as though reading a review is equal to reading the actual book. And then they tell me how much they love me and that they really want to work with me ? on what is never clear. In the end we hug, we kiss and I leave feeling kind of depressed. To clear my head, I do what I do in cities all around the world ? I go to museums. They are calming, familiar, food for the soul.
In Los Angeles, I go to the Hammer, LACMA, the Getty ? all on its own, high on a hill ? or MOCA ? downtown, near Disney Concert Hall and the new Raphael Moneao, Cathedral, near Chinatown with a vibrant art scene and delicious lunch at Hop Louie restaurant. En route back to the hotel, I dash to Fred Segal on Crescent Heights, shopping for unusual clothes, house wares and great shoes. At the end of the day I make my way back to the hotel, where lunch has segued into tea and then drinks. I sit in the lobby, order an Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade) and watch the stars coming out, the deals being made. Soon, the sky fades into twilight and the bar and restaurant are full, there is laughter, the sound of popping corks and bubbly filling champagne glasses. The glow from Sunset Boulevard seeps over hedges; it is night in Los Angeles and the dance has begun again.