“Dylan Thomas lived and wrote at the Chelsea hotel and from here he sailed out to die.”
~ written on a plaque by the front entrance of the Chelsea.
I first became aware of the Hotel Chelsea while still a relative youngster back home in Australia.
In, I guess, November of 1978, I was watching the evening news with my parents when a story came on about Sid Vicious having killed his girlfriend Nancy in a Hotel in New York. If memory serves, there was footage of Nancy’s bagged body being taken out on a gurney and some shots of the hotel exterior.
The visuals didn’t make much of an impression, nothing ever looked particularly interesting in the grainy, dim TV footage of the time. The story, however, stuck because it was such a surprise to me to discover that famous people could behave in that way. This was all pre-O.J. of course.
Some years later, I went and saw the movie Sid and Nancy in the cinema and I think that may have been the event that cemented the Chelsea in my consciousness. Over the years I stumbled upon more and more stories about the hotel and the colourful people who had and did inhabit it.
By the time I’d read about Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, and Arthur Miller living and working within its bohemian environs, I’d become a bit of a bohemian myself. I considered myself a working musician in an art-rock band and had begun to read far more widely than the SF novels of my youth. To me at this time, the Chelsea had begun to feel like a counter-culture hub and I was frustrated that nothing like it existed in my part of the World.
I was drawn to the images I’d see of some of my musical and literary heroes photographed standing atop the wrought iron balconies that bedeck the hotel facade; the grimy streets of New York laid out beneath them.
I never, however, believed for a second that one day I would have the opportunity to see the Chelsea with my own eyes. It seemed a very unlikely eventuality but, hey, never say never.
I’m aware that there are some readers who may not be as familiar with the Hotel Chelsea as others and so here is a bit of a potted history to get you up to speed, as it were.
Completed in 1885 (though, it was opened to residents the previous year), the building now known as the Hotel Chelsea was originally one of New York’s first private apartment cooperatives. The red-brick building was designed by Philip Hubert in the Queen Anne Revival style (some say Victorian Gothic).
Amazingly, at the time of its completion, the Chelsea would have dominated the skyline. At just twelve stories, the hotel was then the tallest building in New York.
Sadly, a confluence of social and financial shifts in and around Manhattan led to the Chelsea going bust and closing its doors. It reopened in 1909 as the Hotel Chelsea under the management of one A. R. Walty.
After the hotel also went bankrupt, it was purchased in 1939 by Joseph Gross, Julius Krauss, and David Bard, who, as partners managed the hotel together until the early 1970s. After Joseph Gross and Julius Krauss both died, the management fell to the famously eccentric Stanley Bard, son of David.
It was under the guiding hand of Stanley that the hotel began its metamorphosis into the bohemian sanctum of artists, musicians, and writers that was to build its fame.
It has been said that reading through the list of Chelsea Hotel residents is like watching a highlight reel of 20th century American culture.
It includes writers such as Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas (who wrote the final draft of ‘Under Milkwood’ at the Chelsea – and shortly thereafter, was carted off to hospital to die, allegedly, of alcohol poisoning), Brendan Behan (who would also die of the drink), Arthur Miller (who wrote ‘After the Fall’ there), Jack Kerouac (who worked on ‘On the Road’ there), Gore Vidal, O. Henry, Allen Ginsberg, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Thomas Wolfe, Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs (who wrote ‘The Naked Lunch’ there), and Arthur C. Clarke who wrote ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ there).
The list of artists is also impressive; Larry Rivers, Christo and Jeanne-Claude (Christo wrapped Jeanne-Claude, his wife, there), Jackson Pollock, Doris Chase, Bernard Childs, Claudio Edinger, Australian painter Brett Whiteley, Yves Klein (who wrote his Manifeste de l’hôtel Chelsea there in April 1961), Ching Ho Cheng, and Robert Mapplethorpe all resided there for a time. Sculptor René Shapshak and his wife lived here; his bust of Harry Truman displayed in the lobby. Andy Warhol shot his film Chelsea girls in the hotel.
Film stars and directors like James Dean, Stanley Kubrick, Uma Thurman, Mitch Hedberg, Eddie Izzard, Miloš Forman, Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper, Squat Theatre Company, Elliott Gould, Elaine Stritch, Shirley Clarke, Michael Imperioli, Jane Fonda, Dave Hill, Russell Brand, Lillie Langtry, the Warhol film star Viva and her daughter Gaby Hoffman, and Edie Sedgwick either called the Chelsea home or were frequent visitors over the years.
And various music icons including Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan (who penned the ‘Blonde on Blonde’ album there), Leonard Cohen (who wrote about his tryst with Joplin there in his songs ‘Chelsea Hotel #1 and ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’), Dee Dee Ramone, Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Nico, Cher, Graham Nash, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, John Cale, Édith Piaf, Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, Rufus Wainwright, Jim Morrison, Pink Floyd, Canned Heat, The Grateful Dead, and, last (and least) Sid Vicious were all also either residents or very familiar faces at the hotel.
Most of these multi-various celebs, along with a collection of failed artists, musicians, junkies, and poets were presided (and fawned) over by the much loved – if somewhat confounding – figure of Stanley Bard.
Arthur Miller, who had christened the Chelsea “the high spot of the surreal”, reminisced (in an article he penned) about a time when the grit in his hotel room carpet had gotten so deep that he erupted in a rage over the phone.
“For Christ’s sake, Stanley,” he recalled shouting, “don’t you have a vacuum cleaner in the house?!”
“Of course! We have lots of them,” Stanley replied.
“Then why aren’t they ever used?”
“They’re not used?”
“Stanley! You know goddamned well they don’t use them!”
“I never heard of such a thing! Why don’t they use them?”
“You’re asking me why they don’t use them?”
“Well, you’re the one who brought it up.”
“Look, just get a vacuum cleaner up here and let’s forget this conversation.”
“Fine. How are you otherwise?”
“Truthfully, there is no otherwise — all I am is a man waiting desperately for a vacuum cleaner.”
“And he would laugh,” Mr. Miller wrote, “grateful for another happy tenant.”
He would later write, “This hotel does not belong to America. There are no vacuum cleaners, no rules, and no shame.”
But the hotel’s unique culture was also self-nurturing. The sheer number of creatives all living in such close proximity allowed for a kind of cross-pollination of ideas. Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, was turned on to photography while a resident (he shared the hotel’s smallest apartment with Patti Smith) after one of their neighbours, artist Sandy Daley, lent him her Polaroid camera.
Bob Dylan, who lived in room 211 during the 1960s, was inspired by fellow Chelsea guest Dylan Thomas to change his surname from Zimmerman, or so the mythology has it. A Dylan tale that is certainly true is that in his 1976 song to his first wife, Sara Lownds, “Sara” he references the Chelsea with the lyric: “Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/ writing ‘ Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.”
Bard was extremely tolerant of the burgeoning drug culture in the hotel. He was especially accommodating with the Beat poets and their coterie, “I knew Timothy Leary, Allen [Ginsberg] and that whole beat generation,” Bard once said. “I thought that each person had their own right to do what they wanted as long as it wasn’t destructive to the hotel”.
William Burroughs was one of that group of beat poets which also included Jack Kerouac who took up residence in the hotel in the late 50s and, as mentioned above, much of Burroughs’ novel, Naked Lunch, was written there.
There are numerous other Chelsea anecdotes, from Gore Vidal famously sleeping with Kerouac to the fact that several survivors of the Titanic stayed at the hotel (which is a short distance from Pier 54) Or The painter Alphaeus Philemon Cole living there for 35 years until his death in 1988, aged 112 (he was to that point, the oldest verified man alive) but I guess it’s fitting to close on the incident that first made me aware of the Chelsea.
This was the hotel’s most notorious scandal – Nancy Spungen’s death was arguably the lowest point in the Chelsea’s chequered history. Her drug-fueled trip with nominal Sex Pistol, Sid Vicious, came to its inevitable, pathetic end in November 1978 when her body was found in their filthy bed in room 100; a solitary stab wound had pierced her abdomen. The knife was Sid’s and he was duly arrested for the killing but never made it to trial; dying just four months later from a heroin overdose.
Though it was this rather dark and tragic event that was my introduction to the Chelsea, My fascination for the legendary position it holds within the American, and indeed global, counter-culture and Avantgarde made me want to seek it out when I eventually had the opportunity to visit NYC.
Unfortunately, it took another four visits for me to finally get there, only to discover that it was under renovation (and in fact still is at time of writing). Though I could not enter, It was still a real thrill to stand and look up at that famous and familiar facade, imagining all those who had imbued the very walls with their unique otherness.
I’ve revisited several times since and am always struck by the building’s strange, stately grandeur and ceaseless sense of mystery and promise.
Words and images are my own.