Just a few weeks after André Balazs bought the Chateau Marmont — he reportedly paid a little over $12 million for the 61-year-old, 63-room hotel in 1990 — he ran into legendary photographer Helmut Newton and his wife, June, in the lobby. The couple had been living part-time at the hotel for about three years.
“I introduced myself as the new owner, and we sat down and Helmut leaned back in the sofa,” Balazs recalls in an exclusive interview with Variety from his farm in upstate New York. “He starts telling me, ‘André, I’m so delighted to meet you, but whatever you do, don’t f— it up. Don’t f— up the hotel. It’s perfect.’ And as he’s saying that the sofa seam rips and a spring pops out.”
While Newton may have been enamored with the Chateau’s history and old Hollywood charm, Balazs knew things had to change. “At that point, they had no liquor license and the only edible thing on the menu was the tuna fish melt. But I made it my mission not to ‘f— it up,’” says Balazs, whose portfolio also includes London’s Chiltern Firehouse, The Mercer in New York City and Sunset Beach on Shelter Island, N.Y.
For the next two decades, Newton (who died in an accident in 2004 when the car he was driving hit a wall on Sunset Boulevard just outside the hotel) would regularly praise Balazs. “He’d say, ‘André, I’m so glad you didn’t do anything,’” Balazs says. “Meanwhile, every single surface had been touched and redone. People still say, ‘This place has never changed.’ But everything has changed.”
Now the 63-year-old Balazs has plans to re-envision the Chateau in ways no one in Hollywood saw coming, announcing late last month that the hotel will be transformed into a private club by the end of 2020.
While Balazs will retain majority ownership, the hotel will now be member-owned in the form of property shares. Membership prices haven’t been announced, but perks will include personal butler service, extended-stay bookings and the option to store belongings at the hotel year-round.
As the pandemic decimated the hotel and travel business, the hotelier came under fire early on when he let go most of the Chateau staff, who were not contracted to receive severance packages or extended health insurance due to their nonunion status.
“The hotel industry as it’s been known is unlikely to come back for maybe two-and-a-half years,” says Balazs, who counters that he did nothing wrong except for being one of the first hoteliers to lay off staff. (He eventually donated $100,000 to be distributed among the former employees.)
Reducing the staff wasn’t just based on economics. No business decision is made today, no matter the industry, without considering health and safety precautions.
“Knowing who people are, encouraging proper social behavior, setting up a place physically that supports that social behavior and then training staff in an extremely disciplined way to support that, I think it’s the only way forward for this industry,” Balazs explains. “It just so happens that’s basically what we’ve been doing anyway, except the safety that we used to provide was discretion. Now it’s discretion and health.”
Balazs believes there is and there will be a demand for a members-owned Chateau. “So the business plan, as it were, is to recognize more and more people would rather live in a hotel, which is not atypical,” he explains. “I mean, this was also what the super-wealthy did at the turn of the century. You’d have your country house, and then you’d have your suite at the Pierre or the Carlyle in New York, for example. And that was also true in London and in other places in Europe…Howard Hughes, who certainly had plenty of other places to live, also lived at the Chateau for periods of time.”
However, that doesn’t mean that “regular” people will be barred from the premises. At least one restaurant will be available to nonmembers, and the lobby and garden will likely still be available to rent — when it’s safe to do so — for red carpet events and parties.
“Chateau Marmont is not going to be closed to the public,” Balazs says. “It’s not like we’re witnessing the closing of an era. What we’re witnessing is the opening of another era, where something that has always been private now just has an inner sanctum that’s even more private.”
The hotel never just an investment for Balazs. “I’ve never viewed myself as the owner of the Chateau,” he says. “I’m the custodian of an institution.”
That transformation is set to be captured in a documentary about the historic landmark, which Balazs began shooting about five years ago. “We’ve filmed hundreds of hours of footage with people like Gore Vidal,” he says. “Jane Fonda told me, ‘Oh, my God, André, let me give you all the footage I have. I used to live here. I’ve got film footage.” No director is attached. “I don’t know if it’s a movie or if it’s a series,” he says. “J.J. Abrams wanted to make it a Netflix series. I’m not sure what to do with it.”
He also said, “It’s almost safe to say, I think, that the Chateau Marmont has become somehow a living embodiment of Hollywood and a symbol of Hollywood, even more powerful than the Hollywood sign itself.”
For now, talk of the privatization inevitably turns to a walk down memory lane.
Lena Waithe recently recalled one of her favorite experiences at the Chateau. She was attending an Amazon post-Emmys party when Evan Ross told her someone wanted to meet her poolside. “It was Dave Chapelle,” Waithe tells Variety. “He was smoking a cigarette, and we chatted a little bit. I said something that made him laugh that I cannot repeat. I love the Chateau. I just hope they’ll still let me in.”