Mark Z. Danielewski is the National Book Award nominated author of House of Leaves and Only Revolutions. His latest book, The Fifty Year Sword, is out this fall from Pantheon.
Erik Morse: Here’s the wonderful beginning to James Clifford’s essay, “Traveling Culture.” I thought perhaps this was an appropriate epigram to our conversation about the history of the hotel in Los Angeles and its particular design of dwelling.
To begin, a quotation from C.L.R. James in Beyond a Boundary: “Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place. The relations of classes had to change before I discovered that it's not quality of goods and utility that matter, but movement, not where you are or what you have, but where you come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.”
Or begin again with hotels: Joseph Conrad, in the pages of Victory: “The age in which we are encamped like bewildered travelers in a garish, unrestful hotel.” In Tristes Tropiques, Levi-Strauss evokes an out-of-scale concrete cube sitting in the midst of the new Brazillian city of Goiania in 1937. It's his symbol of civilization's barbarity, “a place of transit, not of residence.” The hotel as station, airport terminal, hospital: a place you pass through, where the encounters are fleeting, arbitrary.
Mark Z. Danielewski: I think what fascinates me about your exploration of the hotel in Los Angeles is that despite particular places or transitory residences, there is something about the city itself that acts like a hotel. What strikes me about this quote, and had, for a moment, an electrical presence in my mind, was a way of differentiating between a historical presence in a residence and a historical presence in a hotel. Some hotels might be defined or eclipsed or signified by a particular resident who inhabited a room for a certain period of time, however long or cut short, whether, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hunter S. Thompson, Dorothy Parker or Bret Easton Ellis at the Chateau Marmont. Yet we are at the same time dimly aware of all the nameless faces that flow in and out, their stays brief, their departures marked by little more than the numerics of cost. While hardly a summation, this strikes me at least as a way of opening up some doors and windows to the whole thing. Even to observe that Los Angeles itself is more harmonic with the hotel than other cities I have lived in — something garish and horrific and yet inspiring. And though not unique, at least in this city more evident: a pursuit of permanence constantly haunted by the threat of erasure. Or better: the dream of residing hunted by the certainty of eviction.
EM: That’s very relevant to what I want to talk to you about. I was thinking about how best to get into the topic of the Los Angeles hotel for this interview, and as I re-read some of your work, I was also simultaneously reading Bruce Bégout’s Lieu Common. In Bégout’s phenomenology of the American motel, specifically its appearance in the American West, there is an implicit comparison made between the motel and the home, the motel as a kind of disorienting, hypermodern counterpart to the more authentic shelter of the home, the dominant space of traditional Western values and a place of permanent, rooted, meaningful repose. Bégout refers to the motel as a home without qualities. This obviously got me to thinking about your own descriptions of the Navidson house’s haunting in House of Leaves. How do you think our relationship to home dwelling has changed in this technologized and global era, and how has it mutated as we have become more rootless? Do you think we have become more a population of motel/hotel dwellers rather than home dwellers?
MZD: One thing that immediately strikes me: the motel necessitates only one, maybe two, interactions of commerce and observance. And this grants a near-solitary right of transition, unlimited even, between vehicle and the experience of the room. The hotel, however, often requires numerous interactions with someone — for example, the valets overseeing your entrance. Additionally, there is always a sense of monitoring even though it may not apply to every single person entering. There is at least the awareness of the probability of observance — a receptionist at the front desk, housekeeping, some sort of security.
The home, though, is different because in some ways we want to retain the marvels that the motel still promises: a place where one can anonymously explore what one wants to explore without witness (something often highlighted in noir films). In those confines can easily bloom erotic fantasies, criminal fantasies, even artistic and suicidal fantasies.
In a home, as much as we want to extend to ourselves — outside of the responsibility of and to ourselves — a certain privacy to our thoughts, whims, impulses, we at the same time — and here arises the conflict — also want to live communally enough to guarantee our safety. That means knowing the neighbor, the watch service, the police.
In this city, that conflict is frequently apparent: in some homes windows wait unbarred, undraped, and at night you can drive by, easily Rear Windowing all the action within; in other homes, all views inside have been blocked off by gardens, fences, trees, ficus —plenty of ficus around here. Long lawns, gated driveways, all the enclosed atria. Perhaps such privacy is enviable, even inevitable, but it’s also frightening because the one within is now cut off from those outside, beyond help, because distress can now escape unnoticed.
Technology then might facilitate this play between opacity and transparency, the high stone wall rendering invisible the qualities within, made immediately diaphanous though with mobile phones, alarm buttons, mechanisms of alert.
EM: Banham writes something similar in The Architecture of Four Ecologies. This noir we associate with Los Angeles is often a result of the foliage, which lends these natural shelters and shadows that are part of the aesthetic. It’s not just the flophouses in Bunker Hill, it’s the garden mansions in Beverly Hills too.
MZD: Yes, that’s very nice.
EM: If we look less at the social and architectural implications of the modern house and hotel, and more at the psychological meanings, they are quite different. Bégout says that the motel has “neither interiority nor anteriority. It is the interior space that traps us, the exterior movement that is our comfort.” Again, I immediately think of the Navidson house, with its hidden hallway and incongruous interior and exterior, where there are so many resonances of meaning. My interest is trying to analyze the difference between the interiorities of hotel dwelling and house dwelling. So that in literature the house is often as a site of family, childhood, trauma and psychological destruction, while the hotel is seen as a site of anonymity, adulthood, pleasure and physical destruction.
MZD: What comes to mind is that there is a gravity to the resonances of where we originated. And this remains an implacable presence in our lives. The hotel, however, promises us a place bereft of permanence. It is not going to activate the kind of neural infrastructure that our early residences, such as the proverbial home, will. But that the hotel can grant us one day and one night of experimentation, of adult errancy, of adult digression, and in the anonymity or generality of those walls — these are rooms that are created for everyone — we can actually for an instant shed the autocracy of the home and invest ourselves in a tabula rasa, tabula stanza, tabula camera, for a free moment of verse where we can design a destruction, a pleasure, an instant of contemplation, soft annihilation. I think that’s always been part of the promise the hotel makes. And in Los Angeles, in particular, for writers, the hotel was a place where we could live and create.
EM: I’m a huge follower of “house literature:” Bachelard, Heidegger, Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables, Henry James’s The Jolly Corner, Blanchot’s Aminadab; I’ve always been fascinated, though, by the more central role the hotel plays in the literature of the American West, beginning with the descriptions of rooming houses in Upton Sinclair’s Oil! to the flophouses in Raymond Chandler, Nathaniel West, John Fante, Jim Thompson, Sam Shepherd and Bukowski, to the cipher motels in Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, and the unseemly descriptions of hotel carnage and drugs in Bret Easton Ellis. We see it less in literature of the East Coast, although Nabokov and Burroughs are rare exceptions. Why is there such a recurring emphasis on the hotel both as an architectural space and a cultural experience throughout Los Angeles literature, more so than in other American regional or urban literatures?
MZD: Have you ever heard of the Spider Pool?
MZD: I’m not sure why it comes to mind. Maybe because it’s here in Los Angeles somewhere. The exact location is unknown to most. It was a house in the twenties, owned by Jack McDermott, famed for its pool with a spider mosaic. There were a lot of parties there. People like Harold Lloyd apparently frequented the place. Eventually McDermott died and then the house burned down and, well, it became a ruin. There was a period when people would go and hold these photograph parties in front of this pool, what was left of it, the rubble, and I believe a tradition started where bondage pictures of pin-up girls were taken up against the decorative tiles. And I know I’m wandering here, but there’s something about the appeal of transience, particularly potent in Los Angeles: the search for a place — off the map or at least very private — to reinvent or explore a part of ourselves that isn’t public, or isn’t public yet. Part of the old Western mythos to go forth and reinvent yourself. Movies have always embodied that. The old story: someone arrives here, changes their name, then takes a part with an entirely different name. Name upon name upon name. The grammar of self-reinvention. Certainly that’s the appeal of the hotel: a place to temporarily reimagine the self. Or if we’re getting perverse: a place to temporarily remember the self.
EM: Since House of Leaves was so influenced by cinema, particularly horror films, I’m interested in what you think the genre’s perspective is of the hotel/motel as this place of interior transformation and destruction. Hitchcock’s Psycho was likely the first horror film to feature the motel so prominently, but other directors like David Lynch, dePalma, Almodovar, Polanski, the Coen Brothers, as well as lots of slasher/Saw/Hostel/gore-porn directors have consistently used the setting of the hotel as a site of terror. Do you see this trope as an extension of the popularity of the Old Dark House genre, and how do you think house horror and hotel horror affect us differently?
MZD: What first comes to mind is The Shining. Because there is a huge hotel but also because it’s made into a home by the Torrance family.
EM: So much new horror is based on the experience of the tourist, the outlier, the transient. Horror doesn’t really seem to occur in the home anymore. They’re always on vacation. Of course, there are counterexamples.
MZD: Well, they did remake Amityville recently. And there’s American Horror Story.
MZD: What I’m wondering is how is our relationship to the home changing? There are people, generally older people, who have lived in the same home for generations. Younger generations, however, move more frequently — can we say more freely? — to different locations, with different roommates. My instinct is that it still has something to do with history — personal and collective — and how we run from it or embrace it.
EM: But is watching hotel horror versus house horror different experientially? I recently saw that American remake of the Uruguayan film The Silent House, where the entire film is one continuous take. I thought it was a compelling film to watch and much of that was a result of investigating all the spaces of the house.
MZD: One of the reasons I think The Shining is still so successful is that it traces so well the tensions between the anonymous and the historical. We face the blankness of the generic in all those rooms, those long hallways, and yet we are also constantly reminded of the past through historical markers — the Apollo rocket, for example, on Danny Torrance’s sweater. By the very end, Jack Nicholson’s character is even devoured by history, subsumed, placed now in these black and white photographs on the wall. The film accomplishes this weird oscillation between absence and record.
EM: Where does Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” fit in a discussion about hotel movies?
MZD: What we have to agree on is that habitat demands a spectral definition. On one end there’s a New Jerusalem that doesn’t exist, some kind of immutable, heavenly city on an ur-hill that survives outside of time; on the other end — and just as unreal in some ways — there are those iconic tumbleweeds and dust devils deprived of place, on their ur-plain, and if anything, persecuted by time. Between those two extremes, we have homes, apartments, hotels, motels, campsites, scenic views.
Another aspect we haven’t touched on, germane to a lot of Los Angeles culture and concerning hotels: there exists what one corporate enthusiast might call a brand and another consumer might call a vibe. An example: when you stay at the Chateau Marmont, there is a certain tradition of artists who are, or were, very successful there. So by steeping yourself in that history and present-day commotion of fame and stature, you yourself also feel famous, more important — the elevation of stature through the illegitimate fantasy of association.
EM: Sort of the haunting fantasies of hotels in L.A.
MZD: Yes, the cultivation of particular histories. If you go down Sunset, just west of Sunset Junction, there’s an old hotel on the verge of demolition. It’s boarded up. What happened there? What scenes of denigration, excess, or surprising insight? What’s happening with it now? Maybe the history is just too thick to restore? Of course not, but there still hangs in the air the question of what exactly those walls and window frames will force builders to contend with. What’s its vibe? And then there’s another beautiful motel on La Cienega south of Pico. It has a very colorful neon sign with pastel colors. I’ve always wondered about its history or backstory. What’s its brand? With the Roosevelt, the brand is obvious: you have almost a tourist’s ghost hotel. It’s Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift.
EM: Last question, and this is somewhat related: In Los Angeles there seems to be a lot of urban legends and popular history made in hotels like the Biltmore, Roosevelt, the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Ambassador, the Bonaventure, the Chateau Marmont. The nomination of JFK in 1960, the shooting of RFK in 1968, the first Oscar ceremonies, the overdoses of numerous celebrities, the disappearance of the Black Dahlia, the first development of Beverly Hills. What is it about the hotel in Los Angeles that continues to fascinate us as this site of fantasy and magic? Is it predominantly its link to Hollywood or something more? Can you take Hollywood out of the equation?
MZD: Sure, Los Angeles offers the glitter of past pop phenomena, but I would still maintain hotels in general promise something temporary. But I think Los Angeles only gilds the edges of this topic. The city just brings it more into relief. No matter where we are, we long for a stay there, the way we long for melancholy. Even if we have a great time, we know it will come to an end. The hotel’s an escape, it’s a tryst, it’s a chance to sleep or read or get away from domestic life.
In a slightly alternate sense, it offers a temporary break from the self. But then again, it can also offer you an exclusive date with the self. I think the reason the hotel room makes available a number of phantastical narrative lines is that the primary promise of its frame emphasizes the provisional. Perhaps it’s most terrifying when it’s suddenly not temporary. When someone wakes up in a motel room with a dead hooker beside her. Suddenly a story has occurred that now goes beyond the boundary of the room.
Temporary versus permanent: both illusions of a different sort. But there you have it, this city’s accent. People often come to Los Angeles. to indulge in a temporary moment — to walk in the sand, trace a star on a sidewalk, take a shot at fame. They know they’ll probably go home but they also know some won’t. However often this city and its hotels offer a brief reprieve from life as usual, there are exceptions. Embraced entirely, this city also has the power to reverse the claim of mayfly dreams and quite conversely suddenly render past realities (and traumas) insignificant — to institute the present fantasy over the seemingly incontrovertible hierarchy of one’s origin. Sometimes Los Angeles serves as just that portal to a much different kind of life. But so do all cities, all places, all times. Though perhaps not so evidently . . .
Sid Krofft of Sid & Marty Krofft fame, is the creator of puppet and live-action children’s programs from H.R. Pufnstuf to The Bugaloos and Land Of The Lost, among numerous others.
Erik Morse: As a Hollywood entertainer and producer who has spent most of his career living here, you must have some fascinating stories about hotel life in Los Angeles. I understand you spent quite a bit of time at the Chateau Marmont. What are some of your fondest memories of the hotel?
Sid Krofft: I’ll give you the back story of how I ended up living at the Chateau Marmont. This was 28 years before I started doing Pufnstuf. I was working in a show in London and Jack Benny and his producer Ralph Levy came to see it and I sat with them afterwards. Jack Benny said, “You know, once a month we do an hour special called The Shower of Stars and I’d love you to join — are you coming back to America?” I didn’t have plans to, so he said, “Well, we’ll bring you back, because in one of our shows coming up we’re having Jacques d'Amboise,” who was the star dancer with the New York City Ballet. He was booked on the show with Hedy Lamarr. Jack Benny said, “You know that ballerina puppet that you have?” (Her name was Madame Kickintheshinska and she was sort of an ugly ballerina), “Oh, my god if I could get Jacques d’Amboise to dance with her and do a portion of Swan Lake, that would be a killer.” So I agreed to come back and do that, and they put me up in a pretty nice room at the Chateau Marmont. After that show I still wasn’t booked in Europe for another couple of months. I hadn’t been back in America in a long time, and I was having trouble finding work. You know, in those days you just lived paycheck to paycheck, and I really couldn’t afford the incredible room that I had. So they moved me into the cheapest room. As a matter of fact, in the bathroom there was a hotplate, so you could take a crap and boil an egg at the same time. It was in the back alley or whatever. I used to go across the street like everybody else, all the actors, to Schwab’s drugstore. They had a counter and everybody went there for breakfast. One day Henry Wilson, who was Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter’s manager, came up to me and asked, “Are you an actor?” I said no. He said, “Well what do you do?” I said, “I’m a puppeteer.” He said, “What the hell is that? Do you have any pictures?” I said, “No, just of my act.” He said, “No, we need headshots, I could send you to this photographer on Sunset.” I said, “Well what’s it gonna cost?” and he said, “Probably a couple of hundred dollars. You’ve got a great face.” So I did go take the pictures, turned them in to Henry Wilson and I never heard from him again. At one point I was thinking of being a butler, giving up show business. I used to walk up to Jack Cole’s house. He lived on a lookout on Stanley Road. Marilyn Monroe was always there. She would never make a move without him. Every time I went up it seemed like she was there. The other thing is that Liberace lived over on King’s Road. I used to walk up there to his house and one day he was sitting on the floor with all his newspapers all spread out and he had a chandelier all pulled apart and he was gold leafing it. James Dean was helping him, because he loved Liberace. But back to the Chateau Marmont, I was there one day at the pool, and this guy appeared in a bathing suit. Everyone said, “Oh my god, who the hell is that?” It was Paul Newman who had just arrived to do his first screen test. We all saw him and the other people that lived there. Carol Channing was a permanent guest at the cottages out at the pool. And next door to me were Boris Karloff and Bette Davis. All the stars that lived on the East coast used to stay at the Chateau. There were so many — Anthony Perkins was a permanent guest there, I remember that. Tab Hunter. I understand that Howard Hughes lived in that penthouse, right?
EM: Yeah, that’s what I’ve always heard.
SK: So many months go by, and I get a phone call from Sid Luft, who was Judy Garland’s husband. He said, “We just had dinner with Jack Benny and he told us about your act. I never heard of you, but can you audition for us? Judy Garland is going to open at the Flamingo hotel in Vegas." And I said, “Audition?” You know, I did command performances for the Queen, I worked at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, Radio City Music Hall, I was on Broadway with Sonja Henning. And he said, “We can’t just hire you because Jack Benny says your act is wonderful. But we’re looking for a novelty act for her opening.” So I told him to come and meet me. He said, “Oh, how about two o’clock today because we’re on our way to record at Columbia.” I said, “What do you mean ‘we’?” And he said Judy Garland. I’m living in this room that was hideous. Ralph Levy lived on the second floor as a permanent guest, and I ran down there and said, “What am I going to do? Judy Garland is coming over at two o’clock. Where the hell am I going to meet here?” The hotel was sold out but the penthouse was available and I could have it for an hour. Sophia Loren was coming to stay the next day. So Ralph Levy gave me his houseboy and sent up a tray of booze and stuff. Judy Garland arrives with Sid Luft and I’m staying in this three thousand dollar a day penthouse. They’re wondering, who the hell is this? Sid Luft was the biggest bullshiter of all time. So I looked at my watch and I knew I had the room only for an hour. I finally said, “I’m going to have to ask you both to leave, because I’m expecting someone.” And Judy Garland got up, and I’ll never forget this, she grabbed my arm and she put her nose right up against mine and said, “I love that you’re throwing us out!” An hour later I got a phone call from Sid Luft. He gave me an offer.
SK: And Sofia Loren. I told her about the Judy Garland story after she checked in. And she said, “Oh, you have to come up. I make the best spaghetti!” I never took her up on it.
But anyway, in Los Angeles, I worked at the Ambassador Hotel at the Coconut Grove many, many times.
EM: And when was this?
SK: It had to be between ‘58, ‘59, and ‘60. I worked there with Gisele MacKenzie, Tony Martin, Cyd Charisse. There was always a big band there, Sammy Kaye and Tommy Dorsey or whoever. At the Coconut Grove you came really dressed up. Almost like black tie and the women wore evening gowns. I was a Hilton act so I played all the Hilton hotels back in the fifties. When you played a Hilton hotel that was the ultimate. That was like when you were a hell of an act. You were a star.
EM: Did you live in any hotels after the Marmont in Los Angeles?
SK: In Los Angeles? No, no. When I was at the Chateau I met this hippie couple, who brought me up to the old Rudolph Valentino house. It’s on Grace off Hollywood Boulevard. There was a little cottage in the back under a big rubber tree. I rented that cottage and lived there. I paid $75 per month until I bought the main house. Then I moved right off of Hollywood Boulevard up on Fairfax to the old Lon Chaney house. They said it was haunted and I got to tell you I don’t believe in that, but it was.
EM: So how long did you live in the Chateau Marmont?
SK: I would say a good year and a half. I was paying probably no more than $250 a month. They couldn’t rent that room, it was like for the janitor. But it was cool, because I got to go to the pool. Everybody out there went over to Schwab’s and the Garden of Allah was over across the street. You know about that?
EM: No, what was that?
SK: That was a whorehouse. I never went over there, but we’d always walk by and everybody knew what it was with all the hookers. And all the movie stars used to sneak in there. It had a lot of history.
EM: Was the pool where everyone socialized in the hotel?
SK: Everybody went there to socialize. That day when Paul Newman came, I mean in those days, people didn’t work out as much. And he had the worst body. But this face, nobody could believe it. He came out in boxer shorts with these little, skinny legs and this milk fed body. But this face, everybody was like “Oh, my god.” He was there to do a screen test. That was his first screen test. That memory always sticks in my mind. And it was through the Chateau Marmont that I met Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Judy Garland. And I was staying at the Chateau when I played the Hollywood Bowl on family night. Johnny Green and the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra and I were the show.
EM: Do you have any particular memory of the craziest party or run-in at the Chateau?
SK: You know, you lived in the moment and there are so many moments in my life. I traveled all over the world. I started in the Ringling Brothers circus. I got the job for 75 bucks a week, and that was a fortune. This was 1946. And I found out later the reason they hired me was because there were thousands of people out on the midway and you had to pay an extra 50 cents to go into the sideshow. But families would be scared to bring their kids. Because of the freaks. But they would put me out on the bally stage many times a day, this little kid with his marionettes, and it would suck the kids in. I only discovered this years later when the Doll family, the little people from the Wizard of Oz, told me about it. I made more money than any of the other freaks did. People now don’t realize that when the circus came to town, the menagerie was bigger than any zoo in the world. And the Big Top held fifteen thousand people, like Madison Square Garden. The schools would close when we came. When we were in Los Angeles, we set up where the Grove is now, because it was all woods at the time. I rode a float in 1946 with Lassie and Mickey Rooney. Lassie was the biggest star in the world at that time. That’s the first time I came to Hollywood.
EM: How old were you?
SK: Sixteen. There was only one company with Ringling in those days. And we’d go all over. We’d only play one night. In the big cities maybe two. Then that whole world of 1800 people would pick up and move to the next city.
EM: And you traveled by train?
SK: Yeah. You lived on a train. No air-conditioning. And everyone had a berth. I was always on the top berth, in the train with all the freaks.
EM: During the 1960s and ‘70s, the Chateau became more famous for all the rock musicians that lived there. Was the earlier generation of jazz and pop musicians living there as well?
SK: There were always musicians staying there. But the musicians never came out to the pool because they slept during the day.
EM: Did you ever meet any ghosts or experience any supernatural hauntings in the Chateau Marmont or other Hollywood hotels?
SK: Not in the hotel. But in the Lon Chaney house, yeah.
EM: What happened?
SK: They claimed that Chaney buried his cats in the wall of the fireplace. That house was bizarre. Things would move around, even furniture. Doors would slam. The windows in the master bedroom were painted shut, but one night there was a cat that jumped on my chest from somewhere on the ceiling. He woke me up. So I picked him up and put him out. I don’t know how he would have gotten into the house. And I realized what I had done, because I was half-asleep, and then I opened up the door again and he was gone. And that happened a couple of times. It wasn’t a dream. This cat would show up and seem to jump out of the ceiling onto my bed. So I would just pick him up and take him out. It wasn’t scary like the ghosts were out to harm. But it was weird.
With the Chateau Marmont, I’ve always heard that it’s haunted by all the famous people who lived there. But I never experienced anything. It was such a strange place, the long hallways, the stairways, and the elevator. The elevator always scared me. I thought it was going to break down.
EM: Did you spend any time at the Biltmore, the Roosevelt, or the Hotel Bel-Air?
SK: I spent time in all of them. I didn’t live in them. But it was in the Beverly Hills Hotel, in the Polo Lounge, that I was having lunch when I met Walt Disney. I had never met him. And he came over to introduce himself. And he said to my brother and me, “Can I give you some advice? Always put your name above everything you create because one day it will be worth something.” So that’s why everything we do now says “Sid and Marty Krofft.” Boy, was that a mistake.