Rot at Hollywood's "Playground": Chateau Marmont Staff Allege Racial Discrimination, Sexual Misconduct and Neglectful Management

After a battle over unionization and mass layoffs, former employees reveal how the debauchery at the iconic hotel goes hand in hand with toxic management: "The leadership operates in a perpetual state of racism and unconscious bias."

Celebrity hotelier André Balazs announced a pandemic pivot July 28. He intended to turn his flagship lodging, the industry favorite Chateau Marmont, into an as-yet-unpriced private timeshare — though promising to keep its perennially trendy restaurant open to non-equity members. While the news was bemoaned across Hollywood as the loss of a storied hotel, for many of its staffers, 248 of whom were laid off at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in mid-March, the move suggested something more nefarious: a ploy to bust their attempts at a union.

An organizing drive had quietly begun in the months before the plague hit, and by their reckoning Balazs appeared to see the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to counter it by booting them without providing severance packages or extended health insurance. (Balazs has denied the charge.) The property has since operated at a reduced capacity, with a skeletal workforce, as the overall U.S. hotel market has shrunk 45 percent in 2020, according to market research firm IBIS World.

Regardless, Balazs’ moves have turned his former staffers talkative. Employees allege that the Chateau has been a workplace rife with toxic behavior, including neglectful management and unaddressed racial discrimination and sexual misconduct. They contend that the hotel’s tagline aimed at its privileged guests — "Always a safe haven" — doesn’t extend to those who tend to those guests.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with more than 30 former Chateau staffers, several with decades-long tenures, some pro-union and others not, in departments ranging from security and housekeeping to dining and the front desk, along with a number of executives who’ve worked with Balazs at the corporate level. Most would speak only under the condition of anonymity, concerned about retribution and mindful of the nondisclosure agreements they have signed.

THR asked Balazs to release them so they could speak freely about their concerns. He declined. Balazs also declined to be interviewed and did not respond to many of THR’s findings but provided statements through his publicist and from his lawyer.

A veteran business associate of the hotelier, made aware of the scope of THR’s inquiry, lamented: "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."

Balazs, 63, is one of the most celebrated hoteliers in the world. His name, rivaled in the U.S. only by fellow impresario Ian Schrager, has become shorthand for an auteurist vision of hospitality. Ivanka Trump once interned for him. A decade ago, his Boom Boom Room at The Standard High Line was the closest thing Manhattan had that harkened to the city’s Studio 54 era. A personal aphorism — "All good hotels tend to lead people to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do at home" — is quoted across the internet. He’s fond of comparing his output to that of a golden age director or producer. As he puts it, "What we try to create are experiences."

The Chateau, which he purchased and began restoring in 1990, is his crown jewel, known in the past as a hideout for Howard Hughes and Vivien Leigh and in the present as the site of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s annual post-Oscar bash. It’s a family investment he retains with his silent partner, ex-wife Katie Ford, the modeling company heiress and philanthropic backer of anti-human-trafficking efforts. (She didn’t respond to THR requests for an interview.)

Balazs’ subsequent boutique endeavors, the Mercer in New York and the Chiltern Firehouse in London, are similarly star-studded. Over the years, he’s expanded into design-forward condos and launched The Standard, the hotel chain aimed at young professionals, its marketing relying heavily on suggestive stunts like models in sleepwear lying in repose within a glass vitrine behind the reception desk at the Sunset Boulevard outpost, just yards from the Chateau.

The Boston-born son of Hungarian immigrants, both physician-intellectuals, Balazs and his father founded a biotech company that sold two decades ago for $738 million. The father of three has cut a charming, swashbuckling path through jet-setting circles as an eligible man since his divorce from Ford in 2004, dating Cameron Diaz, Kylie Minogue, Naomi Campbell, Uma Thurman and Chelsea Handler.

Balazs has long mixed with media figures, including former Condé Nast editorial director James Truman (with whom he became a business partner in an organic farming operation) and former Page Six columnist Richard Johnson. Perhaps not incidentally, his media coverage has been reliably haloed. A 2017 profile in Condé Nast’s glossy of British high society, Tatler — headlined "Hotelier André Balazs’ Deliciously Naughty Life" — swooned: "What he is, is a libertine. A sybarite. A risk-taker. A character from Evelyn Waugh, almost."

***

According to employees, the most serious problems at the Chateau have festered in the absence of a responsive management structure and a viable human resources department. Its well-regarded, long-tenured HR director, Carol O’Brien, left in 2013. In recent years, junior-level staffers with little experience, who report to the hotel’s managing director, have assumed HR duties. As a result, the staff has come to believe they don’t have a credible outlet for potential redress.

They point to a variety of episodes. In one case, a restaurant staffer in a supervising role allegedly directed ethnic slurs at a group of Latino kitchen workers multiple times a week for years. They didn’t feel they could report the situation without fear of potential blowback. "[The management structure] was too close to HR," says one of these workers.

Sonia Molina Sanchez, a Chateau housekeeper for the past decade, tells of an incident six years ago in which a male guest began masturbating while she was cleaning his room. She reported what happened to her manager, hoping the man would be barred from the hotel. However, the guest continued to visit. (She didn’t service his room again.)

"[Management] made me believe that they were going to deal with it, but they didn’t do anything," Sanchez says. "They made me feel unsafe at work. Every time I saw him, I was reliving my experience. I felt abused again."

Adrian Jules, a Black guest relations employee who began at the hotel in 2017, believes management was ill-equipped to handle his complaint when he received in October a series of unsolicited, sexually explicit text messages from an inebriated white female colleague. (The messages, which THR reviewed, included an image of a used condom along with accompanying text reading, in part, "I’d just appreciate some more compassion.") He says he experienced a "constant ghosting" that arced from his direct supervisor to the managing director to another young staffer who by then had been given responsibility for HR.

"You have to think, as a man, and a Black man specifically, if you get a message like that, you’re immediately terrified," says Jules, who has hired counsel with the intent to file an employment discrimination suit against the Chateau. "What would have happened had I sent text messages like that to her?" He adds, "You do what the employee handbook tells you to do, and nobody listens."

The Chateau’s law firm, Pillsbury, counters that "workplace issues are regularly raised, as at any business, and swiftly investigated and addressed," adding that a whistleblower line is in place for employees to report issues or concerns directly to outside integrity counsel." (Some workers say they felt uncomfortable contacting the integrity counsel, attorney Neil Getnick, because of a perception that he was close to Balazs.)

"I have never condoned, and the Chateau Marmont’s 'Code of Conduct' in conjunction with the 'Employee Handbook' specifically prohibits, any unwanted sexual contact with, or any verbal or physical abuse of, anyone at any time," Balazs wrote to THR. "If, for any reason, our exceedingly clear 'Code of Conduct'— which everyone must read and sign as a pre-condition of their employment — has been violated, it is my first, singular and moral obligation to correct it — and I will!"

***

Staffers say that for years, during Balazs’ stays at the Chateau, he’s become heavily intoxicated and openly used illegal drugs in the restaurant and lobby in view of guests. "He’d be out in the garden with friends and they’d be snorting cocaine off their dinner plates," notes one member of the restaurant team. "We all saw it." Balazs declined to comment on the matter.

While his alleged immoderation affected his employees, resulting in erratic, rageful and impulsive behavior directed at low-level staff as well as managers — "It’s like having an alcoholic, drug-addicted father, but it’s your CEO," an employee explains — he also hurt himself. Staffers recall repeated instances when Balazs injured himself in falls, resulting on one occasion in a large bruise to his face and on another in an arm being confined to a sling.

Multiple sources say that Balazs has regularly demanded, especially while entertaining company, that alcohol continue being served past 2 a.m., a violation of California liquor law. Staffers note that, as a result of this practice, when Balazs wasn’t in town, which was most of the year, many members of his social circle stipulated the same — and if they were denied, they’d often threaten to call or text Balazs in order to get their way. "You just did it, and you ran their credit card info after 6 a.m.," the hour when drinking becomes legal again, one staffer explains. These individuals typically weren’t hotel guests. Instead, they were locals who came to treat the lobby and garden as an after-hours lounge. The Chateau’s legal counsel responds that Balazs and the hotel "take very seriously their obligation to comply with all state liquor laws."

One producer, a regular at the restaurant, observes: "The Chateau is such a long-running show. It’s 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."

The hotelier also has a history of sexual misconduct. In November 2017, multiple women, including a Chateau worker employed as a front desk clerk in the early 1990s (and identified only by her first name), accused Balazs in The New York Times of a pattern of groping. In one incident, actress Amanda Anka claimed he grabbed her crotch at his Chiltern Firehouse property after the London premiere of Horrible Bosses 2, in which her husband, Jason Bateman, starred. By the article’s account, multiple individuals witnessed the incident, and Bateman confronted Balazs afterward, spitting gum in his face.

The couple confirmed the "outrageous and vile behavior" to the Times in a statement. Balazs neither denied nor otherwise commented for the Times’ coverage, and his employees at the Chateau say he never addressed the allegations internally.

Earlier that year, in March, Balazs left the Standard hotel group, where he served as chairman and which he’d founded in 1998. While he announced at the time that the move was simply a "friendly parting of ways" as he focused his attention on the ultra-luxury hospitality market, THR has learned that he’d been maneuvered out, in part because of a history of inappropriate sexual interactions with subordinates — including a floor manager at the rooftop club of The Standard High Line, then known as the Boom Boom Room (now The Top of the Standard) — which resulted in confidential settlements.

The Chateau’s attorney denied that Balazs was involved in any such settlement during his time at The Standard, insisting that his departure "came as a result of the sale of that business." A spokesperson for The Standard tells THR: "There were a multitude of business and personal factors that contributed to the company’s termination of André’s employment, removal from the board and repurchase of his interests. We have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment. Much of what has come to light publicly since his separation [from The Standard] was kept from senior management."

Five of Balazs’ employees, one man and four women, tell THR they were inappropriately touched by him either at work or during company events, typically on their buttocks and while he was inebriated. "What’s weird is that it didn’t feel personal," says one Chateau staffer. "He was just in a promiscuous mood. He does it in a way that makes you feel unseen by him."

"This collection of allegations of supposed personal misconduct on my part is simply false," Balazs wrote to THR. "It’s not who I am." The Chateau’s law firm likewise denies that Balazs "has had inappropriate physical contact with any staff under his employ," observing that there "have been no such claims filed with ownership, management or authorities."

Staffers explain that the hyper-social Balazs associates — a coterie numbering in the hundreds who, when staying at the Chateau, is granted the reservation-system designation "AB," a level outranking standard VIPs — also often cross lines. "It’s uncomfortable to go into that work environment where people who know André feel it’s OK to do things like ask for pictures of you as keepsakes, ask you to rub lotion on them or reach out to rub the back of your head," says Jimmy Cahue, who began working at the hotel in 1995 and most recently served in guest relations. "People think, 'It’s the Chateau!' and they can get away with anything. And the truth is, we don’t even bother telling anybody anything anymore because we don’t think anything will ever get done because management will never address the situation."

The Chateau’s counsel notes that "if a staff member feels that a guest’s conduct is inappropriate, they are encouraged to report that to hotel management," and André Balazs Properties, the hotel’s parent company, "maintains a list of more than 260 guests that are not welcome at the Chateau Marmont because of unacceptable past conduct."

***

The Chateau has long leaned into its notoriety as a place for high-toned mischief, happy to embrace Columbia Pictures co-founder Harry Cohn’s immortal adage, "If you must get into trouble, go to the Marmont."

To that end, insiders say Balazs has been at work on a previously undisclosed members-only club to replace Bar Marmont, adjacent to the hotel on the Chateau campus and shuttered in 2017. The sex-themed space, whose renovation has been ongoing, includes a vestibule with safe deposit boxes for visitors to stow their phones, ensuring privacy. The club’s exterior door entrance, at the side of the building, had at one point been installed with a brass phallus doorknob, but it was removed after hotel employees complained.

Yet while debauchery is part of the hotel’s DNA — it made worldwide headlines when John Belushi died of a speedball injection in Bungalow No. 3 in 1982 — what was once a steady breeze has, in the years before the pandemic, become a gale-force storm. Even during the crisis, the guests that do come have continued in this mode. Housekeeping staffers say that before the pandemic, units were trashed at a rate never seen before, while the same time period saw personnel cut by half.

These revelers, who increasingly rent out rooms for a single night to throw private parties, often leave hours after the mandated checkout time, impinging on the fixed window when rooms need to be serviced. As a consequence, detail work has slipped. In one recent case, a child found a sex toy underneath a bed; the supervisor on duty was fired. (The Chateau’s attorney observes that this incident was merely "the final infraction that led to the employee’s termination.")

"The fact that there’s less staffing in recent years has affected us a lot," says Martha Moran, who has worked in the housekeeping department for 34 years. "With all these extra party people coming and destroying the rooms, the pressure is as never before."

Employees contend they don’t receive suitable training to handle the needles and bodily mess connected to increased drug use they encounter more often in the rooms. The Chateau’s counsel observes that the housekeeping department maintains a "folder of cleaning safety procedures" and containers that can handle biowaste.

***

Employees portray the hotel as an institution defined by racial prejudice. It starts, they say, with Balazs himself, a micro-managerial personality who they perceive has a clear preference in hiring and promoting white workers "on the floor," hospitality speak for high-visibility roles, and that managers are so cognizant of hewing to it that they shift staff when he’s on site to appease him, and have even called in certain employees on their days off who best fit his favored aesthetic.

"I simply was treated differently," says Gina Steffe, a white server who worked at the hotel for six years, until the pandemic. "I was favored there: given unwarranted opportunities, privileges, sections and shifts that my colleagues of color were not. Apparently, I fit a certain 'look' that Andre and the upper management preferred."

According to Michael Racanelli, a white bellman who began working at the hotel in 2015, the reality is this: "If a blond, white hostess has less experience than someone else, it doesn’t matter. It’s the vibe he’s going for. Managers would say, 'It’s an André directive,' which would absolve them."

In a response, the Chateau claimed that the majority of its regularly scheduled employees were nonwhite, including half its servers and department heads. But staffers contend that Black and Hispanic employees were less likely to be promoted, or slower to see advancement, than their white counterparts, and that this is especially true when it comes to the coveted server positions and the most lucrative shifts. They also allege that white employees are less likely to be disciplined for minor workplace infractions. (The Chateau denied this, observing that white employees were disciplined at the same rate as their proportion of the staff in 2019 and that during the same year, Hispanics were named in only 28 percent of disciplinary actions while representing 40 percent of the workforce.)

"The leadership operates in a perpetual state of racism and unconscious bias," says Rosemary West, a white sommelier and manager who worked at the restaurant for six years until she, too, was laid off. "The hotel has been allowed to dismiss BIPOC concerns for years as there is no HR department. Fear of retaliation was an absolute concern at the property. Many qualified personnel were passed over for promotions to be filled by white personnel."

Pedro Diaz, a Latino cook with 15 years’ experience at the Chateau, believes management "took advantage" of some workers' "immigrant mentality." "You’re grateful and humbled to have a job," he explains. "You don’t complain, you don’t speak up, you don’t really know how, even if something isn’t right."

Balazs writes: "I view the curation of a boutique hotel as similar to hosting a delightful dinner party, the secret to the sauce is 'in the mix' — the success of this recipe allows for no discrimination based on race, color, creed, sexual orientation, gender, age or even the slightest hint of such bias."

Employees say Amanda Grandinetti, who took over the Chateau’s leadership role as managing director in 2017, has repeatedly made what she apparently considered jesting comments directed at subordinates who are minorities. However, because of her position and the compromised nature of HR at the Chateau, the recipient and others in earshot have felt they had no recourse. In one instance, Grandinetti approvingly referring to a favored Black employee by stating, "You’re my blackie," and on a separate occasion corrected a different staffer’s affirmative response to her request — instead of "OK," she explained, jocularly, "You’re supposed to say, 'Yes, Amassa,' " an apparent allusion to African American vernacular English referencing a slave master.

Grandinetti, in a statement provided to THR, writes: "Learning that I have disappointed or offended people that I have worked positively and productively alongside for so many years has been heartbreaking. I try my best to create an inclusive environment with the top hospitality professionals in the world, no matter who they are. In hindsight, I certainly see opportunities where I could have advocated more quickly for my team to ensure that they felt safe and supported, which is now my number one priority."

Employees say that the Chateau’s culture of prejudice extended to its treatment of prominent Black and Latino visitors to the restaurant — including showrunner Kenya Barris and actress Tiffany Haddish — who are stopped, questioned and challenged on arrival at a conspicuously higher rate than their white equivalents. "There’s an inconsistency to how that’s dealt with," says one Black restaurant staffer. "If it’s not intentional, it’s at the least a lack of care." Haddish’s representative confirmed two such incidents. Barris didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Cahue, of Latin American descent, had a perch in guest relations that provided him a firsthand view into the driveway’s exclusionary screening. Staffers explain that it’s a system driven primarily by fame, wealth, looks and connections — but by an unmistakable current of racial bias, too.

"There were times when we’d have a Black couple who was trying to have dinner and we had room to accommodate them," Cahue says. "We would call upstairs, we’d say, 'an African American couple,' they’d ask if they were celebrities, and if not, they’d say, 'We can put them in the dining room,' which is secluded and where newcomers are seated. The main spot to dine is the garden area, so people seated [inside] felt isolated. Oftentimes they’d go, be disappointed, and then we’d offer them Bar Marmont or we’d say, 'Come by on Sunday or Monday,' which are our less busy nights." He adds, "Black people weren’t taken care of as much as white people."

On May 30, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the hotel’s Instagram account quoted an anti-racist declaration from 76-year-old civil rights activist Angela Davis. Staffers were galled. "It was like, 'You’ve got to be kidding me,' " one Black employee says. "She looks like someone they couldn’t be bothered with if she were to show up at their doorstep."

***

The year 2017 marked a turning point for the Chateau. Phil Pavel, a well-liked figure in Hollywood who’d been managing director for more than two decades, decamped to downtown L.A.’s buzzy new NoMad hotel, triggering a diaspora of longtime staffers. "A lot of celebrities, like Patricia Clarkson, would say, 'Where’s so-and-so?' And I’d go, 'They left,' and they’d shudder and gravitate to the rest of us like comfort pillows," says Racanelli. By summer 2018, the lodging, which had long prided itself on the difficulty of its bookings, had enough availability that it opened itself to multiple online platforms, including Expedia.

At the end of 2019, hotel union Unite Here made its latest push at the Chateau, with efforts intensifying in early 2020. LVMH’s hospitality division had been considering a deal with Balazs, who’s been shopping the hotel for about $200 million, with the hope of retaining a 20 percent stake. According to an individual familiar with the situation, "[LVMH] walked away when the union problems started because the union would stick with the property no matter who owns it."

The Chateau’s attorney claims that while the property is regularly a target of purchase interest, Balazs hasn’t been pursuing a sale. Meanwhile, Balazs has spoken of an in-the-works documentary project that he began shooting about five years ago. "We’ve filmed hundreds of hours of footage with people like Gore Vidal," he announced to Variety in August. "Jane Fonda told me, 'Oh my God, André, let me give you all the footage I have. I used to live here.'"

Sanchez, the Chateau housekeeper, has her own tales. She notes that after admiring Roma, she jokingly suggested to its Oscar-winning director, Chateau guest Alfonso Cuarón, that his next film focus on the hotel’s service staff. "In my head I’ve written the script," she says. "I’ve got the stories. I’ve even got a title: What Housekeepers Hide."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.


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