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Check in, act out


In the 1980s, Harold Macmillan, the former English prime minister, was informed by someone that a historic British estate called Cliveden House had been turned into a hotel. “But my dear boy,” Macmillan is said to have replied, “it always has been.”

Set on the Thames, about 30 miles west of London, with formal gardens, tennis courts and a swimming pool, Cliveden (pronounced CLIF-den) had all the trappings of a luxury resort long before it took in paying lodgers.

When its last private owners, the Astor family, lived there, the guests who passed through were as varied as Lawrence of Arabia, Mahatma Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin and a Harley Street osteopath named Dr. Stephen Ward. Ward had treated the third Viscount Astor for a bad back after a hunting fall and was rewarded with an inexpensive lease on Spring Cottage, a quaint house on the estate that he used as a weekend home.

And, as often happens with hotels, a fairy-tale setting became a backdrop for imprudent behavior.

In July 1961, at the Cliveden pool, Ward introduced his friend Christine Keeler, a 19-year-old showgirl, to John Profumo, a minister in Macmillan’s Cabinet. Keeler was stark naked. Profumo offered her his jacket.

Their brief affair was complicated less by Profumo’s marital status (his wife was actress Valerie Hobson) than by his job (he was secretary of state for war at the time of the Cold War, and Keeler was simultaneously sleeping with a Russian naval attachi, who was suspected of espionage).

Almost 50 years later, a frisson still animates Cliveden. Michael Chaloner, house manager at the hotel, said that it is a rare day that a guest does not bring up the Profumo business. And Spring Cottage, a former home of its catalyst, Ward, attracts particular interest.

Once a summer house that accommodated visits from Queen Victoria, the three-bedroom building, which is rented to guests seeking a secluded riverside idyll, was recently renovated by Martin Hulbert, a London designer, under Cliveden’s current owner, SRE Hotels. (The National Trust in Britain manages the estate’s 376 acres.)

Why are hotels such notorious settings for bad behavior? And why do people continue to flock to places where the perfume of scandal, or even tragedy, lingers?

It has been a busy summer for hotel scandals. In July, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund charged with assaulting a housekeeper at the Sofitel New York two years ago, was indicted on a charge of involvement with a prostitution ring at the Hotel Carlton in Lille, France. That month, too, actress Emma Roberts was arrested in an undisclosed Montreal hotel on the suspicion of beating up her boyfriend. And Nicholas Brooks, son of the songwriter Joseph Brooks, was convicted of strangling and drowning his girlfriend in a bathtub at the private residential club Soho House New York.

Lately, tabloid writers have been chattering about Lamar Odom, the basketball-playing husband of Khloi Kardashian, who had decamped earlier this summer to the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, reputedly with a girlfriend.

“Historically, of course, the hotel bedroom has been the scene of many a drama,” said Ilse Crawford, the original designer of Soho House New York. “And this is partly because it is a private world. It’s away and unaccountable and not visible.”

Nor are bedrooms the only incubators of extreme behavior at hotels, Crawford added. The public spaces can lower one’s inhibitions, too, because they are areas of aspiration – which is to say, role-playing. Ever since the birth of the modern hotel in the early 19th century as a place where ordinary people were surrounded by aristocratic trappings, the idea was that you could enter “a life that isn’t one that you’re a part of,” Crawford said. “It’s a dream, in a way.”

In other words, hotels are no place like home. They are settings where no one knows your name (except the front desk, which uses it at every opportunity in ostensible celebration of your existence), and where service people pick up after you and offer you delicacies.

Lifted from your routine and frequently your class, separated from the anchors and betrayers of your identity – the unkempt lawn, the knowing neighbors – you swell into a bubble of self-importance.

Reality slips away. If you are an average person, the result may be that you switch on the adult channel and raid the minibar. If you are a celebrity, you may trash the room.

And just as certain guests (Strauss-Kahn, Marion Barry, Lindsay Lohan) are known for indulging questionable habits in hotels, certain hotels seem to attract out-of-control guests. Asked what ran through her mind when she heard about the murder at Soho House New York, Crawford said, “When I saw that story, I thought, ’My God, talk about being the next Chateau Marmont.’”

“If you must get into trouble, go to the Chateau Marmont.” The movie studio executive Harry Cohn handed down that piece of advice long before Lindsay Lohan was banned from the infamous Hollywood hotel for piling up more than $46,000 in charges. Or before John Belushi fatally overdosed there. Or even before members of Led Zeppelin rode their motorcycles through the lobby. But it remains relevant in branding the place as irresistibly mad, bad and dangerous to stay in: Byron on Sunset Boulevard.

Which may be why Cohn’s quote pops up on the website of the Marmont’s owner, Andri Balazs: the lurid is alluring, especially when celebrities are involved. (Balazs, whose many hotels include the Standard Hotel High Line in New York, where guests have been spotted lounging in the nude near windows overlooking the pedestrian thoroughfare, did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.)

Like the Chelsea Hotel, its New York cousin in celebrity infamy, Chateau Marmont is a movie set as much as it is a lodging. It was not just the Loire Valley-inspired architecture that led Sofia Coppola to film her 2010 movie “Somewhere” there. For Coppola, the Marmont is a stifling sanctuary of decadence, much as the Park Hyatt in Tokyo and the palace at Versailles were in her earlier films. Cut off from ordinary society and floating in sugary clouds of anomie and confusion, her characters act out.

In “Somewhere,” for instance, a movie star played by Stephen Dorff lives at the Marmont in an arrested, and inverted, version of home life. The star’s 11-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) prepares eggs Benedict with ingredients she ordered from room service. And after he nods off in the middle of an evening’s entertainment, the twin pole dancers who had been performing for him pick up their boom box and quietly leave his bedroom.

If you listen to hotel designers and managers, not just the Marmont, but all the world of hospitality is a stage. Chaloner of Cliveden House said that guests enjoy the estate “almost like a film set.” This is especially true now, he added, with period shows like “Downton Abbey” “fictionalizing aristocratic families in the very surroundings that Cliveden can provide.”

Ilse Crawford based her design ideas for Ett Hem, a new boutique hotel in a 1910 Stockholm town house, on the cultural life of the Swedish couple, a government official and his wife, who originally lived there. This hotel has high-toned furnishings reflective of the couple’s elegant tastes, and distinct “masculine” and “feminine” zones with corresponding dark and light palettes. “There is a sort of repertory quality to that project,” she said, though the story is told mainly through objects.

And David Rockwell, the prolific designer of hotels and theater sets, identified lighting and choreography as the key features straddling the two disciplines. For the Belvedere, a hotel on the Greek island of Mykonos, for example, he orchestrated a turndown service in which 30 candles are lighted in each room. It “beats the chocolate on the pillow,” he said.

Hotels and theater are connected in another way, Rockwell added: “Both are about a kind of temporary community.” The effects are powerful, he said, because they “exist for the moment you’re there.”

While some guests treat the transient experience of hotels as a chance to take a vacation from morality or sanity, designers said that visitors also find more lasting inspiration. Pierre-Yves Rochon, who has designed or renovated eminent hotels like the Savoy in London and the Four Seasons Georges V in Paris, said that the strategies he sometimes uses to increase the apparent size of a room or admit more light into a bathroom may give guests ideas for improving the layouts of their own homes.

“Normally, I’m not a crazy guy,” Rochon said of his restrained designs. “I’m not Philippe Starck.” But given his work in historic settings, Rochon is not immune to drama.

When he renovated the InterContinental Paris-Le Grand, for example, he introduced intensely red rooms overlooking the Paris Opira. Even the bathtubs were positioned to take in the view. Rochon said he imagined guests luxuriating in them with glasses of Champagne.

Can a red room drive one to extreme action? Rochon said he believes color affects behavior, but the two do not necessarily correlate. Certainly, photos of the Sofitel New York, which his firm designed in neutrals, convey nothing that would incite the behavior attributed to its most notorious guest, Strauss-Kahn. (Rochon declined to speak for the record about the hotel or the incident.)

At Spring Cottage, guests now come and go where Ward once socialized with members of the upper crust, although he did not do it for long. When details of the Profumo scandal surfaced, embarrassing Lord Astor, it was Ward who took much of the heat.

He was ejected from the cottage and later brought to trial for having shared his London home with Keeler and another showgirl, an arrangement that was interpreted by the courts as “living on the immoral earnings of prostitution.” By the time the guilty verdict was handed down, he had overdosed on sleeping pills and was in a coma. He died three days later.

His successors today are often aristocrats after their own fashion: actors who might be making a film at the nearby Pinewood Studios, England’s version of Hollywood. “I’m not allowed to say who,” Chaloner said, adding, “They come here to hide; they live a lovely life.” He mentioned access to a boat ramp on the Thames and, for an extra charge, a butler.

And what misdeeds have occurred at Cliveden during Chaloner’s 20-plus-year tenure?

“There have been very many scandals and much scandalous behavior,” he said. “Unfortunately, my memory for details of these instances is strangely hazy.”

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