Sunday, May 21, 2017

299. The Chelsea, the Craziest of Hotels


          The release date for Bill Hope: His Story was last Wednesday, May 17, so those who have already ordered it from Amazon should be receiving it shortly, and anyone who wishes to order it can do so and have it promptly shipped.



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         For six LibraryThing prepublication reviews of Bill Hope: 
His Story by viennamax, stephvin, Cricket2014, Shoosty, terry19802, and graham072442, go here and scroll down.

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         Imagine a landmarked hotel with a handsome wrought-iron interior stairwell and walls adorned with art, but now described as a junky-infested flophouse pulsing with creative energy.  A hotel where young singers check in, write a few songs, and check out, then use the illustrious name of the hotel to help sell their records.  A hotel where young would-be starlets stay  for a few weeks to suck up the bohemian atmosphere, then check out and hopefully go on to greater things, or maybe never check out and grow old  and weird, becoming fixtures in the weirdest of scenes.  A hotel where young punk rockers in black leather jackets, tattered clothing, and mohawks lounge about in the lobby, adorned with black eye makeup and tattoos, and at intervals beg to stay in room 100, only to be told, “There is no room 100!” 
         Imagine a hotel where film crews suddenly arrive with trailers blocking the street, set up tables on the sidewalk, and pile junk in front of the door, then crowd the lobby and stairwells and elevators, shooting TV episodes and even big-budget Hollywood films, yelling all the time and running noisy machines that blow the hotel’s fuses.  A hotel where residents might come home to see a naked model posing for a film crew right in front of the door to their room.  Where the tenants wear black leather or the latest high fashion, or blue hair, or a rumpled suit that makes them look like Dylan Thomas, or T-shirts and khakis like they wore in college.  Where the bathroom may have a floor, sink, shower curtain, and tub caked with black, greasy grime, or blood on the toilet and floor, and old needles and baggies strewn about, deposited by trespassing junkies.  A hotel where, whenever tenants complain to the manager, he denies flat-out that anything going on is illegal or out of order or wrong.

         Welcome to the legendary Chelsea Hotel, a venerable 12-story Victorian Gothic structure at 222 West 23rd Street in Chelsea, long a haven for struggling writers, artists, musicians, outlaws, freaks, and crazies.  Built in 1883 as a lavishly decorated co-op apartment residence, in 1905 it became a residential hotel catering to theater luminaries like Sarah Bernhardt, who reputedly slept in a coffin, as well as Lillian  Russell, Mark Twain, and (under various names, in hiding from the law) O. Henry.  In the 1930s the brooding novelist Thomas Wolfe lived in room 831, where he wrote You Can’t Go Home Again.

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Beyond My Ken

          The 1940s and 1950s were hard times for the Chelsea: stained-glass windows, mirrors, and ornate woodwork were torn out, as spacious suites were divided up into tiny rooms, and the hotel became little more than a flophouse.  Many of the old residents refused to vacate, thus preserving some of the original architectural detail, and impecunious writers continued to flock there.  It was at the Chelsea – where else? – that the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, having imbibed heavily at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, collapsed, and was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he died a few days later.  In the 1960s various Andy Warhol superstars checked in, and Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls was shot there in 1966.  Bob Dylan resided there from 1961 to 1964, as did other cultural luminosities and oddities, including Valerie Solanas, famous for shooting Andy Warhol.  Punk rockers and gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe frequented the hotel in the 1970s, followed by Madonna and various artists in the 1980s and beyond.  Indeed, one might ask who of the cultural elite didn’t show up there at one time or another.  Or at least, who of the avant-garde crowd of the time, usually in the early and less recognized phase of their career.

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The Chelsea's wrought-iron stairwell.
Calton
         Presiding over this weirdest and most creative of hotels was its proprietor, Stanley Bard, who was born in the Bronx in 1934 to Jewish immigrants from Hungary.  His father had bought an ownership stake in the place in 1947, and the son began working there as a plumber’s assistant just ten years later.  After that he got a B.A. in accounting from New York University and served in the Army following the Korean War.   When his father died in 1964, Stanley took over, thus inaugurating the Chelsea’s era of greatness … and weirdness.  Round-faced with blue eyes and a hearty grin, he was partial to creative types of every stripe and hue, welcomed them with open arms, and was amazingly indulgent when it came to lapses in behavior and the payment of rent.  Word of his benign management soon spread, which explains the influx of creative personalities mixed in with assorted deadbeats and weirdos.   
         Not that the Chelsea of recent times was the elegant hostelry of yore.  The halls were dimly lit with long fluorescent tubes; the walls had cracked plaster, peeling paint, and exposed wires; the furniture was old and crumbling, the carpets stained and dirty; and pests roamed freely in the utter absence of exterminators.  But if anyone complained of roaches or mice, or a lack of heat or running water, or violence in the halls, or a filthy bathroom littered with the paraphernalia of junkies, Stanley Bard simply denied the facts put forth to him.  According to him, the writers and artists on the premises were happy, brilliant, and prosperous, glad to be living in the Chelsea’s luxurious accommodations.  Con man or perennial optimist gazing through rose-tinted spectacles, he maintained this illusion for over 40 years, while tolerating or even encouraging the eccentricities of tenants.  If an artist who owed him two months’ rent came to him in tears, fearing eviction, he would say, “Don’t worry, keep painting, keep painting.”  In spite of the hotel’s deteriorating conditions, creativity flourished and evictions were rare.

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The lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in 2010.  
Historystuff2

         In Legends of the Chelsea Hotel Ed Hamilton, himself a resident, chronicles the strange people and stranger doings typical of the hotel.  For instance:

·      An underground filmmaker who claimed he had become a voodoo priest in Haiti and had a Zombie slave in his apartment.
·      A drunk resident who scared his neighbors by practicing swordsmanship in the hall, having got a role in a Shakespeare play.
·      A white-haired lady who threatened junkies with a gun whenever they tried to shoot up in her bathroom.
·      An aging actress living on food stamps who hadn’t paid rent in seven years.
·      A delusional photographer who claimed mysterious intruders were trying to steal his photographs.
·      A young woman who worked off and on as a model and put off paying rent, promising to pay it when she sold a Larry Rivers painting worth fifty thousand dollars, but who finally had to move out.

         But there were famous residents as well.  After his breakup with Marilyn Monroe in 1960, playwright Arthur Miller moved in, wanting a quiet place where he could work in peace, but was soon badgering Stanley to send someone up to his room to vacuum a carpet caked with grit.  Jack Kerouac may or may not have written On the Road on the premises (accounts differ), but evidently had sex there with Gore Vidal.  Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were there in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it was there that Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch.

         And there were grim doings as well.  When a junky died in one of the rooms, the police took over the ninth floor, and tenants were barred from going up, until a body bag was removed on a stretcher. 
         “What’s going on on the ninth floor?” someone asked Stanley Bard.
         “Nothing,” said Bard.  “Why would you ask that?”
         “There were cops all over the place!”
         “No there weren’t.”
         “Yes there were!”
         “You may have seen one or two policemen.  They probably have a room here.”
         “Joe’s dead, isn’t he?”
         “Joe?  Oh no, Joe’s fine.  He just went on a little vacation.  Europe, I think.  He’ll be back in a couple of years, I’m sure.”
         Stanley Bard’s denial of unpleasant reality was absolute and unflinching.  Nothing of the incident appeared in the papers, and tenants almost wondered if they had seen a body bag or not.

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Sid Vicious, January 1978.
Chicago Art Department

         Room 100 – the one the young punk rockers kept clamoring to stay in – had witnessed another horrendous event not easily denied.  On the morning of October 12, 1978, Sid Vicious, formerly with the punk rock band the Sex Pistols, woke up in a drug-induced stupor, found his girlfriend Nancy Spungen stabbed to death in the bathroom, and called the police.  In his confused state of mind Vicious confessed to the crime and then denied it, and was promptly arrested and charged with murder.  Four months later he died of an overdose while out on bail awaiting trial.  His guilt seemed obvious to many, but some have argued that a drug dealer killed her while Vicious was unconscious, and others have asserted that Nancy killed herself.  So began the legend that brought young punk rockers flocking to the Chelsea in hopes of gaining access to the room; when management denied its existence, they carved their initials into the door with their switchblades, and improvised memorials by putting roses in empty liquor bottles with cigarettes, joints, used needles, and love notes.  Some even carved the wall with slogans:

TOO FAST TO LIVE, TOO YOUNG TO DIE
DON’T LET THEM TAKE YOU ALIVE
LOVE KILLS

Bard replaced the door several times, then tore out the walls and divided up the rooms in the apartment between the two adjacent rooms.  So from then on, when he told the rockers there was no room 100, he was telling the truth.  But the young punk rockers still flocked to the hotel.
         To stay in the Chelsea Hotel required nerves of steel and endurance; it wasn’t for the timid, the sensitive, or those needing rest and quiet.

         And the hotel today?  It was overtaken by the relentless gentrification of the Chelsea neighborhood, which doomed its status as a sanctuary for artists and weirdos.  In 2007 Stanley Bard was forced out by the heirs of the other co-owners, who then sold it, and in 2011 it was closed for renovations.  When Bard died in Florida in February 2017, he rated a lengthy obit in the Times. 
         Long-time residents remain in the hotel to this day, harassed by construction noises.  The present owners plan to reopen it in 2018, but, renovated and scrubbed up, it will not be the Chelsea of legend.  I walked by it recently and found the façade masked by lofty blue scaffolding above, and the ground floor fronted by tunnel-like scaffolding with a plaque beside the entrance announcing the building’s listing with the National Register of Historic Places.  Flanking it in the tunnel is Doughnut Plant on one side and Chelsea Guitars on the other. 

         Source note:  For much of the information in this post I am indebted to Ed Hamilton’s Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with Artists and Outlaws in New York’s Rebel Mecca (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007).  For more about the Chelsea, you can’t do better than read this memoir.

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BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.






Coming soon: Strange occupations in New York City.  Who cares for the fine chinaware and filigreed brass room numbers from the Waldorf Astoria's legendary past?  Who made Jackie Kennedy Onassis's wigs?  Who brings the ships in safely through the shallow, sandbar-ridden Outer Harbor?  Who calls himself the keeper of 40,000 souls and says good-bye to them every night when he leaves for home?  More where-but-in-New-York stories.


©   2017   Clifford Browder