The Luxury Dilemma

How the whims of one very wealthy man transformed the most famous hotel in Los Angeles

image of Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman at the Chateau Marmont
Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman during HBO Films Pre Golden Globes Party Inside Coverage at Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, California. (Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic / Getty)

Behind vine-covered walls on a modest hill overlooking Sunset Boulevard sits the decidedly immodest Chateau Marmont. The hotel was inspired by a French Gothic castle and, at 93, it is easily the oldest thing in Los Angeles that’s still considered sexy.

As a born-and-raised New Yorker without a driver’s license, I found the hotel the perfect place to park myself for a day of meetings in the era before Ubers and WeWorks and Soho Houses. I used to go there in the 2000s, back when I was a wedding planner. It was like a celebrity safari; stars would walk by, within arm’s reach. You could “do Los Angeles” without ever needing to move. I never could have afforded a room there, but I knew by reputation that at night it offered entertainment of a different sort: luxury and licentiousness and debauchery, unbounded by any rules.

In more recent years, I’ve returned to Los Angeles in a different career—as a screenwriter traveling on someone else’s dime. Naturally, I didn’t want to just take meetings at the Chateau; I wanted to stay there, to be a fly on the wall where the wild things were. Only I couldn’t.

I was told, in early 2021, that the hotel was not taking any new bookings. During the pandemic, a dispute between the owner and the staff had exploded, spectacularly. The hotel was now operating with a skeleton crew; employees were on strike, trying to organize a union. Even some celebrities were boycotting it.

The debauchery the Chateau was known for came at a cost. After a massive round of pandemic-related layoffs, employees started talking, publicly, about what they’d experienced on the job, and the stories were gross. Allegations included maids being forced to handle used drug syringes, staff members being cajoled by poolside guests to lotion them up, sexts and slurs and relentless sexual propositions from colleagues or guests. (A spokesperson for the company told me that “the Chateau vigorously objects” to these allegations.)

The Chateau Marmont opened in 1929 and from its earliest days was known as a discreet playground for the rich and famous. “If you must get into trouble, do so at the Marmont,” the studio mogul Harry Cohn is rumored to have told his biggest stars. Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller made love there; Lindsay Lohan lived there; John Belushi died there.

In 1990, André Balazs purchased the property and began restoring it with his ex-wife. The son of academic Hungarian immigrants, Balazs made his fortune in biotech before turning his attention to nightlife and hospitality and opening a series of hotels and private clubs. “All good hotels tend to lead people to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do at home” is one of his widely quoted bon mots. The Chateau is known for catering to regulars, many of whom arrive precisely to do the kind of partying they wouldn’t do at home.

In many ways, the hotel operated like a very-high-end mom-and-pop enterprise, long functioning without corporate vultures lurking for earnings reports, in-house legal teams wringing their hands over the risk of litigation, or a fully functional HR department. Its last full-time HR director left in 2017 and was never officially replaced.

For years, the workers’ grievances racked up. In a major exposé, The Hollywood Reporter described complaints from housekeeping of short staffing and sordid parties to clean up after. Front-of-house workers said they’d experienced unwanted sexual advances from guests and colleagues alike. Ethnic slurs were reportedly hurled with regularity at Latino kitchen staff by management. Black and Latino employees said they had been back-burnered for the best shifts and promotions—allegations corroborated by their white colleagues. (In a statement to me, the spokesperson rejected all of these allegations and called them “unsupported.”)

Then, in March 2020, at the dawn of the pandemic, Balazs laid off all but nine of the hotels’ 259 employees—without severance or decent health benefits. Many had been in his service for years. Though I didn’t get to speak with Balazs directly, in a statement he said he saw the decision to cut down to a “‘caretaker’ staff” as necessary “because of the world-wide Covid 19 situation and my perspective of its likely duration.” The laid-off workers saw it differently. The move amplified murmurs about unionization, murmurs that grew louder that summer after Balazs announced to The Wall Street Journal a plan to convert the hotel into a private club, one served by staff with a “different skill set” from the old hotel workers’. Business publications interpreted this as a COVID-related pivot, but employees—and many others—speculated that it was an attempt to undermine the union effort. (The spokesperson told me that the private club was never “more than a concept.”)

A movie and a TV show were being filmed at the Chateau: Being the Ricardos and The Offer. Under pressure from Unite Here 11, the 32,000-member hospitality workers’ union that was representing Chateau employees, both moved production elsewhere. The celebrities were divided (despite the fact that most of them—Hollywood being a union town—belong to unions). Some, such as Amanda Seyfried and Issa Rae, boycotted the hotel. Others seemed oblivious or chose not to care; Jay-Z threw an Oscars after-party there last year, which celebrity scabs including Questlove and Rosario Dawson crossed a picket line to attend. (“I didn’t cross a picket line,” Dawson, under fire, later tweeted—apparently wanting people to know that she’d arrived so late to the party that most of the protesters had gone home.)

Reading about the employees’ grievances, I felt outraged on their behalf. But I was skeptical that unionization could transform their workplace. The Chateau is not a Holiday Inn; it’s a luxury boutique hotel. The Chateau doesn’t just offer rooms for guests to sleep in; it offers, as Balazs has put it, “experiences”—experiences that might, I suspected, be fundamentally at odds with a better environment for workers. Guests have been drawn to the Chateau over the decades less by the thread count in the bedding and the expansive wine list than by the seductions of a place that turned a blind eye to social transgressions.

In that Hollywood Reporter exposé, one regular anonymously described the Chateau as “this weird beast that kind of slipped by and shouldn’t exist as it is, but it does. But if you were to say, ‘It needs better HR and proper compliances and codes and egalitarianism at the door,’ it loses its touch.” When briefed on the staff’s troubles, a business associate of the hotel told the paper, “I’m reconsidering the Chateau through a totally different lens now. All of the talk of it being a ‘playground,’ of it exalting ‘privacy.’ It really was just a system that protected white men in power.”

In that light, the question for me became: Can debauchery and decency co-exist? Can luxury accommodate fair labor practices and still feel luxurious?

From personal experience, I had my doubts.

Owning a luxury service business of any kind can be ethically and emotionally challenging. It strains what you believe is acceptable behavior to tolerate at work, and what needs to be tolerated in order to turn a profit. I’ll never forget the first time I questioned the direction that my professional life had taken. I was underneath a princess-waist Vera Wang gown, helping my client hoist up the skirt so that she could pee, when I found myself at eye level with the words Meet Mrs. Cohen, written in cursive blue-Swarovski crystal across her underpants. I swallowed the moment, knowing that this service was the “above and beyond” that my clientele expected.

I had a harder time justifying this kind of dirty work when I had to ask other people to do it. Over the years, our staff members were told to, among other things, smoke cigarettes and exhale into brides’ faces (so the brides would not have to smoke themselves and ruin their lipstick), walk dogs, hold babies, dance with fathers/brothers/groomsmen, take shots, cover up infidelities, cover up relapses, buy alcohol, buy drugs, set off fireworks, and put out literal fires. There was verbal abuse, unwanted sexual advances, and wild, drunken accusations. (There were also some very nice people; you cling to the memories of the very nice people.)

Depending on my own exhaustion level, I heard staff members’ complaints with either horror or indifference. This was, after all, part of the job of being in “luxury hospitality.” My partner and I tried, as best as possible, to insulate our employees by adding behavioral clauses to our contracts: Thou shalt not curse at staff; thou shall not grope staff; thou shalt not force staff to smoke on your behalf.

But mainly, we did what people used to do in the good old days: We threw money at the problem. We would attempt to, within the bounds of profitability, make it worth our staff’s while to tolerate the abuse they endured while we kept saying yes to our clients’ whims. Because that’s what the luxury service business is all about.

But over the years, the rich got richer, and their behavior seemed to get worse. I began to wonder if hearing yes was no longer enough. Was knowing that the people who served you had to say yes an essential part of the fun?

image of Andre Balazs at a public telephone in New York City
Andre Balazs, President and CEO of Andre Balazs Properties posing with a public telephone, circa 1996. (Rose Hartman / Getty)

André Balazs is very particular about his glassware—in particular, about whether the shatterproof glasses used near his pool feel as luxurious as real glass. I know this not because I’ve ever met or even spoken to Balazs, but because I have planned several lavish weddings for select clients to whom he would rent his former private estate in upstate New York. Through many people—his house managers, his personal chef, corporate executives from André Balazs Properties—Balazs made his preferences, opinions, and, in fairness, concerns for our clients’ happiness and satisfaction known. No detail was too small.

So when I heard, in December, that the hotel had struck a deal with the union, I knew that Balazs must have micromanaged every detail. But I was surprised when I read that the resulting contract was fairer and more generous than anyone in the luxury-hotel business could have imagined.

Among the workers’ victories were a 25 percent wage increase for nontipped workers; a raise to $25 an hour for housekeeping within one year; health coverage for employees who work more than 60 hours a month; free legal services for employees with immigration, tenant, or consumer issues; and job-protection measures for immigrant employees with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or Temporary Protected Status. Union representatives called the package “unprecedented.” And the spokesperson told me that many of the laid-off workers have since returned to the hotel.

After years of acrimony, how had such a seemingly unbridgeable gap been closed?

Balazs has never had a choirboy’s reputation. The bachelor made headlines for years with his steady rotation of celebrity love interests. A 2020 Tatler article described his life as “deliciously naughty,” noting his dedication to delivering “excess” to his guests and his reputation for “outrageous flirting.” Perhaps too outrageous. The actor Amanda Anka accused him of groping her in 2014, after the opening of Horrible Bosses 2. After the incident, Anka’s husband, Jason Bateman, spat in Balazs’s face.

But Balazs was apparently shaken by his employees’ charges, especially of racial discrimination. He felt that they were fundamentally at odds with who he was.

“André’s lived a life committed to social justice from his college years and throughout his adult life,” Neil Getnick, a lawyer specializing in whistleblower representation and one of Balazs’s oldest friends, told me. Getnick serves as the business-integrity counsel for Balazs’s properties. He also represented Balazs at the bargaining table.

Getnick and Balazs met at Cornell in the late ’70s when Getnick, a law student, and Balazs, an undergraduate working at a student newspaper, together lobbied the university to divest from apartheid-era South Africa. The ’90s, Getnick told me, found him and Balazs collaborating again, this time with the Reverend Jesse Jackson to free the Kenyan political prisoner Koigi wa Wamwere—another Cornell classmate. Later, the two friends established a scholarship in Kenya with, Getnick said, the support of Representative John Lewis. For a while Balazs was an investor in a New York nightclub called M.K.—“so called,” he said in an interview, “because we obtained the license on Martin Luther King Day.”

One day about a year ago, protesters outside the Chateau were joined by pastors and choir singers from nearby churches. Balazs, Getnick told me, found that “too much to bear,” and he went down to the picket line.

Pastor William D. Smart Jr., the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, spotted Balazs, and approached him. He later told me about the conversation: “We said, ‘Everyone wants to talk to you and try to resolve these issues.’” Smart recalled Balazs responding, “Well, you don’t know me, but I’m not the guy that they’re painting me out to be.”

A meeting was arranged. Getnick, Balazs, and union representatives convened for the first time, with Pastor Smart serving as mediator. But negotiations stalled; there was no follow-up. Early on Pentecost Sunday, Smart sat down to write his sermon, and was moved to call Balazs.

He told me that he asked Balazs, “Where have you been? What’s going on? We started something; you’re not finishing it.” And Balazs replied, “Well, there’s no excuse,” and bingo: “He made the commitment on that Sunday call that he would meet; he would start the process.” Six months later, they had a deal.

This, Getnick said, “was not at all typical of how these negotiations would typically proceed.” Which, of course, is how you would expect something to go down at Chateau Marmont.

I would like to think that the agreement will serve as a model for other luxury businesses—and certainly the hotel industry is watching—but I’m skeptical. Yes, the dogged commitment of workers and organizers is what brought injustices at Chateau Marmont to light. But this happy ending ultimately depended on the whims of one very wealthy man. One who—luckily—happened to be a Boomer with a soft spot for clergymen, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Yesterday, Jeff Bezos wanted to be a media mogul; today, a sports impresario. This whole thing could have easily gone a different way.

I also couldn’t help wondering how much the contract will change workers’ experience on the job. They’re better-compensated; they have retirement benefits and other protections. But the agreement does little to shield them from entitled or inebriated guests. It did what I used to do: It threw money at the problem.

This morning at the Chateau there will still be vomit to clean up from last night’s rager. Tonight, or the next, there will still be ass grabs by Hollywood honchos. I’m not sure whether a great place for the wealthy can ever be a great place for those who serve them. In a business where the key word is yes, unions can police employers, but the whole point of a luxury experience is that no one polices the guests.