These days, pop stars and other glitzy types check in and then never leave. Hettie Judah reports on the cult of the long-stay hotel
BACK IN the days when people really knew how to have fun and behave badly, the Chateau Marmont was the baddest and funnest thing around. Hollywood's pleasure dome somehow set the scene for most of the degenerate scandals to rock the city of dreams. From Roman Polanski's underage assignations to John Belushi's final overdose, it all went down at the Chateau Marmont. To live in a hotel was always the ultimate symbol of decadent celebrity, but the Marmont also provided something extra: privacy. As one studio boss instructed his proteges, "If you must get in trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont".

In the Seventies and Eighties, the bad-time lifestyle of Chateau Marmont languished in the shadow of the international hotel chains: the Hiltons and the Marriots, the Swans and the Trust House Fortes. As international has boomed, "luxury hotel" has come to mean a towering block of two hundred identical bedrooms with a public bar and vast splashy reception. If cruising up in a stretch limo, barging your way through crowds with a posse of minders and turning heads in the lobby rocked your world, all well and good. If it didn't, then you had to grow up a bit, get the Marigolds on and buy a flat. Two London hotels did bravely soldier on in the face of corporate mini-bar oppression; Blake's and the Portobello both opened in the Seventies and peddled a discreet decadence perfect for philandering celebrities, writers, musicians and reclusive plutocrats. Portobello was the boho choice; nascent rockers U2 were sent there by Virgin in 1971 and still visit today and the rooms are a haphazard jumble of antiques and architectural salvage from the nearby market. Blake's in Chelsea was more carefully stage-managed by Anouska Hempel, who created opulent themed suites in rich fabrics and exotic furniture.

Happily, the last few years has seen a boom in small, secretive residential hotels all providing a home away from home for the travelling celebrity "A" list. The stars are selling their London flats and checking in for months at a time; despite Alan Partridge, living in a hotel has suddenly become cool once more.

Shirley Manson of Garbage has been living in a hotel in Madison, Wisconsin for nearly a year now. She does so, she says, partly for convenience, partly as protection against stalkers and partly because "I'm not putting my hand down a toilet when I'm making a record. I've been doing that for years. I want a break!". When Francis Ford Coppola needs some space to think about his next movie, he checks in to the Portobello, likewise Van Morrison who shacks up there for months on end to write songs. Alan Parker eschews his London flat for the more convenient Covent Garden, a carefully- tailored country house-style pad stuck bang in the heart of town on Monmouth Street. One novelist stayed at Durley House (a development of 12 separate apartments from the Covent Garden stable) for six months, which at pounds 250 a night must have been the result of a pretty impressive advance.

The new hotels pander to the artists' whims as if they were grown-up children. "These are incredibly creative people, and we give them the time to be creative," says John Ekperigin of the Portobello. He sees his hotel as a space where people can just relax and get on with it; he even hinted that the rooms might have some inspirational power of their own. "The script for Alien was written here," he told me. "At the time we used to have a pink room and I was told by the writer that this is where he got the inspiration for the stomach exploding."

"People stay here because they are doing something private or creative; if they are here to promote a film they will go somewhere more splashy and conspicuous, but very famous people stay here because they know we don't have fifteen paparazzi standing outside the the door," says the spokesman for the Covent Garden. "We have a lot of London people who will just check in here to get away from it all and specifically to get away from the press." When Ralph Fiennes's marriage broke up he moved in to the elegant, antique-laden Pelham in South Kensington, where he is still a regular visitor. Blakes is still so secretive that it will not even hint at the guests that set up home in its luxurious suites. The bar at the Portobello is hidden from the outside world and most definitely private ("You don't want every Tom, Dick and Harry walking in when Van Morrison is having a beer and some winkles" explains Ekperigin).

The new hotel set are not all muse-chasing artists. So called ordinary people will fly in from New York and take out a suite for the whole "season". The original "jetset" breeze round the globe from New York to Sydney to London to Paris and stop over for three month chunks in each city. Now they are selling off their flats in London to take up residence at Durley House or at Anouska's new temple to minimalism, the Hempel (also supplied with flatlets). Gennifer Beales of the grand Holland Park Halcyon suggests the motive is purely financial: "London is so expensive; people could buy a mansion in LA for the price of a flat in London so they are staying in hotels." At Durley House they have their eye more firmly set on luxury. "It's so much easier to check into a hotel than to maintain a flat. Everything is done for you; what could be nicer?" said a spokesman.

The bulk of the guests are new international business people; producers, publicists and most particularly, models, who are in constant motion between shows and shoots. With such a heady mix of guests sharing the same roof, the encounters over the marmalade must take on a fairly surreal quality. At the Covent Garden they admit to doing a double-take over Meryl Streep and Glenn Close sharing lunch. At the Portobello they are a little more blunt: "In the last five years or so, all the rock stars have started going out with models; that happens because of liaisons that go on in hotels like ours. We are these people's best kept secret, which is why they keep coming back." The Chateau Marmont spirit lives on.