While many people in New York City are familiar with establishments such as the Marriott Marquis, or the Plaza, there’s another residential establishment which rings familiar in the ears of many- the Chelsea Hotel. This renowned landmark has hosted its fair share of household names, from Andy Warhol to Ethan Hawke, and has been home to both great love and great scandal. Just to name on of the best known episodes, this is the very hotel where Sid Vicious allegedly stabbed his girlfriend to death in her bathroom –he passed away from an overdose before he reached his trial. The hotel, therefore, wrapped as it is in a mixture of infamy and glory, seems like an odd place to raise a child. Nicolaia Rips, however, grew up knowing it as home.
A litany of adjectives can be applied to young author Nicolaia Rips. Accomplished, motivated, humble, hilarious –any one of these would be acceptable, but her characteristic of choice is whiny. It’s this whininess which filled her childhood, she claims, that drove her to begin writing a compilation of short stories throughout her middle school career. Admittedly, I haven’t experienced much of this whininess in the past four years of our friendship, however, perhaps this is because she was busy channeling it into her debut.
While it is an incredible feat for a person simply to live in the Chelsea Hotel in the first place, it’s very doubtful that many could portray the atrocities and joys that come with living in such an establishment with the humor, skill, and voice shown by Nicolaia Rips. In her debut memoir, Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel, 17 year old Rips takes the reader through a series of short stories that showcase the highs, lows, and tragedies that come with calling a living legend “home.” Her deadpan humor, vivid descriptions, and characterizations of both her family members and her classmates transport the reader into her world, and paints a picture of a unique upbringing.
In an interview with W magazine, Rips was described as “The Eloise of the Chelsea Hotel,” and that she certainly is –although she certainly doesn’t think so. When I asked her whether or not she thought that the moniker was fitting, she indignantly exclaimed: “No! Eloise had room service!”.
Born into a family firmly entrenched into the most interesting social circles in Manhattan – her mother is a former model and an extremely successful artist and sculptor, and her father is a lawyer and top selling author – she appears to be well on her way to becoming herself, one of the larger than life characters that she was surrounded with as a child.
I had the extraordinary luck of meeting and befriending this incredible young woman during our freshman year of high school, when we were placed into the same voice class. Friendship was imminent from the moment when, in her introductory performance, Nicolaia opened her mouth and loudly, proudly, and unabashedly released a rousing rendition of Shy from Once Upon a Mattress. Throughout the past four years she has become like my sister, and yet I continue to be amazed by the plethora of anecdotes she possesses regarding her bizarre, unconventional upbringing in the historic Chelsea Hotel.
While many childhoods consisted of playdates, Rips’ was a patchwork affair made up of travels to the farthest corner of the globe, dinner parties, and living in a small bedroom which she affectionately described as “basically a closet.” Contributing her extraordinary tales to her relative lack of companionship her own age, in reading her book one might take solace in the fact that Nicolaia Rips – an old soul if I’ve ever met one – was never exposed to the infantile normalities which most kids experienced. While most children her own age were watching Disney channel and Nickelodeon, Rips was formulating her theory that she is the living reincarnation of Groucho Marx (her birthday and his death day both fall on the 19th of August) and learning all there is to know about the finer aspects of coffee and coffee shops from her father, a connoisseur of all things related to the beverage.
These aspects of her character, while fuel for her stories, did not necessarily make her very popular amongst children her own age, and her less than stellar experiences in elementary and middle school lead me to ask if she thought that characters from her book will recognize themselves. In answering, she laughed: “I hope not. My lawyers also hope not.”
Having already read the book, (devoured it, in fact, in less than a day) I’m loathe to spoil any of the stories for those who have not yet had the chance to pick up a copy. Without going into detail, however, it’s safe to say that this book is a perfect fit for anyone who likes quirky, funny writing detailing escapades such as a summer excursion to veterinary camp, a near- drowning of an infant (not her fault, Rips’ adamantly states), a diabolical middle schooler hell bent on ensuring entrance to one of New York City’s specialized high schools, and a political campaign with the brilliant slogan “The best of a bad bunch.”
When I got the chance to ask her what her favorite story was in her book, she confessed: “I love the pool party story, because I think it encapsulates the rest of the book”.
Upon being asked if she planned on referencing our high school, LaGuardia, in a follow up novel, she paused before answering, appearing to mull it over. “I could see writing something about LaGuardia,” she answered after a moment. “All my friends should be scared … no, I’m kidding. I’ve been collecting stories.” While Nicolaia will be spending her next four years pursuing an undergraduate degree at Brown University, it remains to be seen what next task she will channel her talent and drive into. However, it’s a safe bet that whether it be a second book or something completely unrelated, the result will be something to be excited for.