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Chelsea Hotel: The Diabolical Den of NYC’s 20th Century Eccentric Intellectuals

Built in 1884 in the heart of the theater district, it ended up in bankruptcy. Here, art, music and poetry started a close relationship with sex, drugs and rock'n'roll

Chelsea Hotel NYC (J J, Flickr)

Sunk by greed and conformity, the hotel is currently closed for renovation and once reopened, it will have tastefully boring rooms overfilled with amenities. But the spirit of the Chelsea Hotel was never about décor but about creativity, and its willingness to welcome people and artists of all social circles…

“Thank God the Chelsea Hotel has never been respectable, and with the current management it never will.”  Such a review would shut down any ordinary hotel, but this was not an ordinary hotel, nor was the guest who left this review, ordinary.  However, Arthur Miller’s description of the Chelsea Hotel, where he lived after divorcing Marilyn Monroe, was indeed the most accurate and, in its way flattering.

“God Save the Queen”. A beautiful Queen Anne and Gothic Style revival hotel, with an ornate red brick façade, the Chelsea Hotel was built in 1884 at 222 West 23rd street, which was, at the time, the epicenter of the New York theater district. It was at first a cooperative apartment building, later transformed into a hotel whose rooms featured elegant fireplaces, windows with stained-glass transoms, and distinctive flower-ornamented iron balconies; it also had an intricate cast-iron internal staircase running from the top of the 12th floor down to the lobby.

The façade of the Chelsea Hotel (Wikipedia)

However, with the relocation of the theaters to Times Square, the Chelsea went bankrupt.  In 1939 it was taken over and managed by the Bard family until 2007. The top floor was occupied by fifteen artist studios and, over the years, the Bards let struggling artists stay for free or allow them to pay rent with their artwork, transforming the Chelsea into a creative utopian wonderland. Stanley Bard once said, “There is not another building in the world that caters to this many creative people; there is some mystique within these walls that helps people produce art.”

My first apartment in New York in the 90s, was a small studio on 22nd street, that I shared with my friend Carmine Marotta, from whom I learned “everything that I did and did not want to know about gritty New York,” including that the ornate building inhabited by a variety of odd people, and casting a shadow in our already dark alley back-yard, was in fact, the iconic Chelsea Hotel.

Walking into its marijuana-scented lobby, I was stunned by the abundance of the most extravagant art pieces mixed together in a kind of “LSD–dictated” order hanging from the ceiling and on every wall, and I was overwhelmed by the thought that artists like Jackson Pollack, Christo (who stole the doorknobs of the hotel for an exhibition), Diego Rivera, Willem De Kooning, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cartier-Bresson, and many others, at some point, had lived here.

You cannot make up the stories about those who lived at the Chelsea Hotel, even if you were a writer as creative as Arthur Clarke who, while living at the Chelsea for twenty years, wrote the sci-fi “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  It was probably more believable for Clarke’s readers to accept his sci-fi book as realistic, than if he had written a novel describing everyday life at the Hotel.

Only the Algonquin and the Albert hotels probably had a similar mix of creative tenants, however, the Chelsea Hotel was definitely their “evil twin” and, while it always looked as if it were at the end of the rope, it was instead living in its natural state.  Some of the most creative literary and musical geniuses of the 20th century such as Mark Twain, Charles Bukowski, Tennessee Williams and Jean Paul Sartre, lived and created their work at the Chelsea Hotel, sat in its lobby and mingled with their peers. Except perhaps the writer O. Henry, who used to check in under aliases to avoid creditors. Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again” at the hotel, and he might have gotten the inspiration for the title after living at the Chelsea Hotel.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” when, beginning in the 60s’, New York fell into its turbulent decades. Meanwhile at the Chelsea Hotel, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll were having an affair with art, music and poetry, giving birth to an explosion of creativity.  The judgment-free, diverse and savant-like mix of regular tenants had created a most improbable microcosm of bohemian New York.

Stormé DeLarverie, a lesbian cross-dresser veteran of the Stonewall Riots was a tenant, as was a 92-year-old who starved himself to death–but not before timing his demise on a Friday so that his obituary would appear in the Sunday New York Times. Composer George Kleinsinger housed a variety of pets in his apartment:  a Patagonian lizard, a monkey, several turtles and an assorted selection of snakes that occasionally ventured down the staircase to mingle with the local New York cockroaches roaming the hotel.

The lobby of the Chelsea Hotel (Wikimedia)

It was a case of music, love affairs, sex and poetry among the Titans. The Clintons named their daughter after Joni Mitchel’s song “Chelsea Morning,” Leonard Cohen, romancing Janis Joplin at the Chelsea hotel, wrote the song “Chelsea Hotel #2”.  Bob Dylan wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and recalls “staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel.” Jack Kerouac, while living at the Chelsea, wrote “On the Road” and had a one-night stand with Gore Vidal, while Patti Smith had a relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Jimi Hendrix was mistaken for a bellboy by an elderly tenant who asked him to bring her bags up to her apartment (which he graciously did). At the Chelsea Hotel, welcome cards should have come with warning labels: an unruly hotel where no one is too weird or too eccentric, and where only dysfunctional creativity rules.

The Chelsea Hotel was blessed and cursed by having multiple personalities coexisting in one entity without killing each other…well, almost. Andy Warhol shot the movie “Chelsea Girls” there, only to get… shot himself a few years later at its Factory. He survived, thank God; the shooter was just aiming at his testicles. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas drank himself to death with 18 shots of scotch.

Now, shots aside, drugs and rock’n’roll could not stay out of the Chelsea Hotel, so much so that Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, described  the Hotel in one sentence:  “You had to be a certified dealer to get a job as a bellboy.” But with every high comes a low and soon the Chelsea was once again in the news when Sid Vicious, bassist of the Sex Pistols, killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in 1978, and avoided justice by dying of a heroin overdose.

In 1992, “Material Girl” Madonna, with some business sense but no sense of irony, shot the photos for her glossy book “Sex” at the Chelsea Hotel whose walls, by then, had already experienced a lifetime of live, wild and kinky sex. In fact, in the 70s the first floor of the hotel was “reserved” for pimps and prostitutes, and later Ms. Palagia ran for a decade the once-a-month sex party, “One Leg Up,” where the hotel managers were graciously also invited to participate.

Chelsea Hotel NYC (J J, Flickr)

Arthur Miller said, “This hotel does not belong in America; there are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and shame.” He was right. The Chelsea Hotel does not belong in America, it belongs in New York.  Where else could you find Stanley Kubrick, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Elliott Gould, the Grateful Dead, Chet Baker, Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison, Pink Floyd, Jane Fonda and many other artists all having one thing in common besides their genius but the Chelsea Hotel?

Seven survivors of the Titanic stayed at the Chelsea hotel, but greed and conformity finally sank it. The hotel is currently closed for renovation and once reopened, it will be respectable and have tastefully boring rooms overfilled with amenities, although the Chelsea Hotel was never about décor or amenities. It was instead about art, creativity, and welcoming people of all walks of life; the true meaning of hospitality. Andy Warhol almost lost his balls for his vision. Hoteliers should preserve theirs and grow a… vision. They have the moral duty to foster and host young broke artists and build with them a new tradition while continuing the legacy of the Bard family. They owe it to the Chelsea Hotel. And ending with a Sex Pistols song, I’ll say: “What are you going to do about it?

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