Phil Pavel's parents begged him not to go to Northwestern University. They feared that, as the son of a gas-meter reader from Chicago's working-class South Side, he'd be uncomfortable surrounded by rich kids.
The irony is not lost on Pavel. As general manager of the famed Chateau Marmont hotel on Sunset Boulevard, for the last 16 years he's done nothing but cater to the rich and reckless.
“As a kid I was really good at that memory game,” Pavel explains. Applying that skill today, “I know that this photographer needs light and likes to stay in the 9 suite. I know this writer loves to stay in the Dominick Dunne suite at the back of the building, where it's quieter.” And, he laughs, another guest “is afraid of earthquakes and needs to be on the ground floor.”
He adds, “I once had a psychic tell me that the reason I'm good at this job is that it resonates with a past life in medieval times, when I was king of my own fiefdom.” He cracks up again.
Pavel did attend Northwestern, studying theater on a full scholarship, then headed to L.A. in 1991 to become an actor. Again, his parents begged him not to: “I didn't listen, thankfully.”
Arriving with only $300 in his pocket, he was turned down for every restaurant job he sought, including Greenblatt's Deli. “I remember the owner sort of wrinkling his nose at me because, you know, I didn't have any experience. So I thought if I put down that I was an honor student, maybe that would show I could apply myself.” Instead, Pavel howls with laughter, “he held my résumé as if it was a turd!”
Finally, Pavel tried his luck at a coffee shop where “the HR woman thought — and this was a total case of L.A. being style over substance — that I, this Polish kid, looked vaguely European. They needed a French maître d' for their fine dining restaurant, so I got cast in the role.”
“Philip Pawelczyk became Phil Pavel. I shortened my last name and started this character, and I've kind of been playing it ever since.”
In 1996, he became the Chateau's grand marshal. “As a child, I would fantasize about being at a glamorous party,” he says. “I envisioned my adult life to be something like the party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany's. … I thought being an actor would be a means to creating that life. I kind of manifested it in a totally circuitous route.”
Of the many famous people Pavel has encountered on the job, his biggest thrill was meeting authors Michael Chabon and Bret Easton Ellis. Their books, Pavel says, “shaped my whole being” during his struggle to come out as a gay teen. And the appreciation is mutual: Chabon even thanked Pavel in his author's note for The Yiddish Policemen's Union. “For me,” Pavel says, “it was like winning the Academy Award.”
Today, Pavel is glad he didn't become a star: “I was such a mess, I would have gone totally off the rails.”
He jokes that he probably would have ended up staying at the Chateau, and adds, laughing merrily, “And I wouldn't be here to take care of myself!”