Chateau Marmont—what are you? A different kind of cocktail. One of fantasy, of barely recalled, half-forgotten memories. You are bitter. Not just a hotel fashioned after the Chateau d’Amboise in the Loire Valley, domineering a corner of Sunset Boulevard since 1927—filled with stories of Clark Gable romancing Jean Harlow in a suite, Dorothy Parker drunk in the lobby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Nathanael West, writing in a bungalow. Or even with its more modern mythology—John Belushi overdosing, Lindsay Lohan scandals, rock stars climbing the balconies—you are still a forgotten history, my forgotten history. A family ghost.
How many times have I passed you? How many times have I imagined what you might be like? Unlike Musso and Frank’s, unlike Trader Vic’s, you have remained a mystery to me. You remind me of a part of myself that is unknown, and I think I have always liked the idea that when I visited you again, thirty years after that first time, I might be able to reach back, discover some secret about myself.
My sister and I are four years old, brought to Chateau Marmont for a wake, which is held in one of the hotel suites. A specific suite, facing Monteel Road, the street behind the hotel—important because it overlooked where my father’s mother, my grandmother Susan, grew up playing, and this is her farewell party. I did not know my grandmother, only heard the stories of Ava Gardner and Artie Shaw picking her up from school, leaving her at the Chateau Marmont until her parents, the model Mary Oakes and her screenwriter husband, Frank Cavett, sobered up, and could collect her.
Get my father in his cups and he likes to say that I remind him of his mother, which I don’t think he means to be a compliment. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother left him in his mercurial father’s care, taking his sister to live—what must have seemed to him—a glamorous life in New York City. One summer, when my father was ten, he went to visit his mother. She was vacationing in the Bahamas with her new husband, a wealthy banker. My dad had to take three planes, and when he arrived he was told by her maid that his mother and stepfather had gone to Anguilla with friends. He spent the summer alone with the staff.
But this is what I am trying to say: her absence does not mean she had no presence. In fact, her absence might have carried more weight. She is surely in my dad’s drinking, in his love and hatred for the motion picture industry, in his inability to navigate between being a parent and behaving like a child. It is an inheritance of a different sort.
I want access to these women, my foremothers. What did my grandmother Susan drink? Gimlets, I assume. And my great-grand mother? Martinis, maybe. I want to know them. So I lunch one Spring afternoon at the hotel’s restaurant. A homecoming, I imagine. The prodigal daughter returns.
Such exclusiveness just to enter the Chateau’s doors. Reservations for lunch have to be made, a valet has to be paid, the narrow entrance has to be found behind a wall of ivy. But this is ok, it fits the metaphor. Time travel is difficult, séances are mysterious.
Then I am in a garden courtyard, drinking a gimlet too fast. I order a shrimp cocktail and a Caesar salad, I munch on parmesan bread sticks. The Chateau Marmont feels curiously empty—despite the crowds, the potted lemon trees and wicker tables and chairs, the hanging plants. Inside is depressing, almost a dark space, with maroon rugs, everything deep greens or blues, gothic windows and doors, wrought iron chandeliers hanging from cavernous ceilings. Maybe if I move into the lobby bar, where a record player is playing Billie Holiday, where a piano gathers dust. Where are you?
Another story: My grandmother is dying from multiple sclerosis; the same disease my father will be diagnosed with some fifteen years later. Her wealthy banker husband has left her for his secretary, she is dying in a city hospital in Florida. My father leaves his wife and twin baby girls and flies there, arriving barely in time. Amends must be made—he was her only son after all. She is sorry, she wishes she had been there. She dies the next day. It was like she was waiting for me, my dad will say later, always with wet eyes.
A third gimlet, Mr. Waiter, thank you.
This is the thing about drinking with ghosts, you come to the right place, somewhere that means something to you—the Chateau Marmont, Musso and Frank’s, Trader Vic’s—then drink to dull the feeling of an empty room. There are only tourists drinking Aperol Spritzers, shoveling heaps of oysters and spaghetti Bolognese into their drooping, waiting mouths, eyes not on their companion but on the faces at the tables next to them—darting at whoever walks in next. Who’s that? They seem to be wondering about everyone.
Los Angeles is a difficult city to be from. Landmarks are bulldozed to make room for a mixed use complex; a favorite bar, already refurbished, is closed indefinitely. There are few places that remain the same. And it is a dangerous thing to rely on memory alone, nostalgia creeps in, the line between fact and fiction blur. So you start to hunt for threads, even the smallest link to the past, anything to help transport you back. The botanical bouquet of gin, the unmistakable feel of a worn leather booth. But it doesn’t matter, you can’t go back.
In the Chateau Marmont bathroom the full length mirror is fogged with age, but still I’m told, those are my grandmother’s eyes looking back at me. And despite the inheritance, despite her influence on my life, I will never really know her. Los Angeles can raze and rebuild itself as much as it wants, the ghosts walk with us. Drink to find them, drink to forget them. That’s the real tragedy. Bar, or no bar, all are haunted.
Liska Jacobs holds an MFA through the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Hairpin, The Nervous Breakdown and others. Her debut novel, Catalina, will be out November 2017 from MCD| FSG Originals. More at liskajacobs.com
Image: Chateau Marmont Sign – Hollywood, CA, Chris Goldberg, Creative Commons