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Inside the Dream Palace:
The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel
Poor Gore Vidal. How could he have known, when he checked into New York's Chelsea Hotel in 1953 with Jack Kerouac and told the desk clerk to keep the register because it would be famous someday, that his particular night of passion would hardly make the top 10 of the Chelsea's celebrity hookups. The Vidal-Kerouac coupling pales beside those of Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith, Edie Sedgwick and Bob Dylan, and further back Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson. If Vidal had murdered Kerouac that night, that might have made the hotel's hall of fame, except that the unfortunate end of Nancy Spungen at the hands of Sid Vicious in 1978 must be the definitive Chelsea Hotel homicide.
You can find all this and much more in this exhaustive account by Sherill Tippins of New York's least TripAdvisor friendly hotel. Here is recorded in painstaking detail all the drunken brawls, the elevator encounters and the rooftop concerts that made this building on 23rd Street the most powerful piece of conceptual art in Manhattan's history. The Chelsea was where Jackson Pollock vomited over Peggy Guggenheim, where Arthur Miller fled when he left Marilyn Monroe, where Dylan Thomas drank the 18 straight whiskies that killed him in 1953. Some hotels have discreet plaques proclaiming them to be one of the leading establishments in the world, but the Chelsea has a different kind of renown (one person called it 'the Ellis Island of the avant-garde'), and reading Tipping's book makes it seem as if anybody who was going to be somebody on the cultural scene in the 20th century checked into the hotel at some point.
What is interesting about the Chelsea is that it was always intended to be a creative crucible. Its architect, Philip Hubert, was influenced, like many Americans in the 19th century, by the teachings of the French philosopher Charles Fourier, who advocated 'phalansterism', planned communities with a judicious mix of people who together would become more than the sum of their parts.
So the magnificent gothic building was built in the 1880s with 15 artists' studios on the top floor with 10ft-square north-facing windows, and apartments with soundproofed walls for musicians. There was even one on the roof in the shape of a pyramid that was meant to have particularly creative vibes. The building had grand accommodation and what we would now call social housing, the social experiment to be overseen by a board of regents.
By the turn of the century, the carriage trade had moved uptown, but the bohemian types remained. Writers such as Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson and O Henry all lived at the Chelsea during the 1920s and 1930s. Abstract expressionism found its feet on 23rd Street, the place where Pollock drunkenly said to Willem de Kooning at one of their encounters in the lobby: 'You know more, but I feel more.' After the war Thomas resided there when he came to New York for his hugely successful reading tours of America, complaining that at the Chelsea 'the cockroaches have teeth'.
As the area around 23rd Street became seedier and the rents declined in the mid-20th century, the hotel was taken over by a Hungarian emigre, David Bard. He respected the bohemian ethos of the hotel and would occasionally accept works of art in lieu of rent. He was succeeded, reluctantly, by his American-born son Stanley, who presided over the Chelsea from the era of the Beat poets to Sid and Nancy.
The hotel had always been tolerant of sexual variations and substance abuse, but it wasn't until the late 1950s that African-Americans were allowed to check in as guests rather than just clean the rooms or operate the lifts. Even then, social attitudes took a while to change - in the mid-1960s, Jimi Hendrix checked out after he was mistaken for a bellman. The only person in these pages, though, actually to be evicted was the African-American choreographer Katharine Dunham - for bringing two fully grown lions up to her apartment, where she was rehearsing an African-themed version of Aida.
Andy Warhol immortalised the hotel as a happening in his film Chelsea Girls in 1966. After its release, Dylan said that 'it was all over for the Chelsea Hotel. You might as well have burned it down.'
The transient population of superstars, musicians, drug dealers, video artists and anarchists often did set the hotel alight - but at the Chelsea fire was a happening. And when, during one conflagration in 1970, the firefighters ordered the video artist Frank Cavestani to stop taping it, he protested: 'Stop taping in the Chelsea Hotel? What've you got to hide?'
But while the party raged on through the punk years - the New York Dolls, the Ramones and, of course, the Sex Pistols all stayed there - the spirit of the Chelsea seems to have been finally extinguished by the cold water of capitalism. In 2007, the board of directors summarily fired Bard, the hotel is now closed and its residential population has dwindled from more than 300 to about 80 households.
The Chelsea's history is unique, so it is a shame that Tippins can't quite do it justice. The research is there, but she is a bit too overawed by her material. She has interviewed residents and Bard. But it would also have been interesting to hear from the chambermaids and bellmen who had to clear up all the mess.
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