The Chelsea: bohos, bad behaviour and bed bugs

Jackson Pollock puked there, Dylan wrote lyrics there, Nancy Spungen was killed there – could a space as chaotic as the New York hotel exist today?

Wed, Apr 9, 2014, 01:00

‘I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel” goes Leonard Cohen’s song, marking his fondness for the hotel that served as a byword for the alternative and artistic for much of the last century. It’s a line to go with the many other cultural references that have helped to mythologise the New York hotel as a bastion for bohemianism, a salon for artistic geniuses and the favoured lodgings for fragile, sensitive, disturbed artists.

Its past guests include Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Robert Mapplethorpe, Janis Joplin, Harry Smith, Patti Smith, Arthur Miller, Andy Warhol, Arthur C Clarke, and Thomas Wolfe. Bob Dylan wrote lyrics for Blonde on Blonde there, while Sid Vicious allegedly stabbed Nancy Spungen to death in room 100 in 1978.

Over the years, a vast counterculture parade of musicians, painters, writers, photographers, directors, journalists, actors et al pirouetted through its doors and staggered up the stairs. Hundreds – nay thousands – came, caroused, worked and occasionally paid their bills. It’s the sort of legacy you don’t get from a Jury’s Inn or a Hilton.

This history is what attracted the attention of author Sherill Tippins. She’s not the first person to chronicle the hotel’s past: Irish writer Joe Ambrose previously wrote about the comings and goings at the Chelsea, while many films, including Warhol’s Chelsea Girls , Leon and Chelsea Walls are all set there.

However, her six years of research for Inside the Dream Palace uncovered a world of detail about the building and its guests. Indeed, Tippins has a penchant for books about creative people and buildings – her 2005 book February House looked at the one-time Brooklyn dwelling of WH Auden, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee.


Outlaws and outsiders
Inside the Dream Palace is a colourful account of a space that has had many different phases, but always attracted eccentrics, outlaws and outsiders.

The hotel began as a utopian ideal in 1885 with architect Philip Hubert, a French teacher who invented a patent for a self-fastening button and sold it to the US government for $120,000. He believed that Americans should live together in a self-sufficient community to cure them of their competitiveness and greed. Hubert intended the Chelsea to be a building where its inhabitants would come together in various communal rooms and spaces to work together, bridge class divisions and value the arts. The plan was that the Chelsea would be a “co-operative club” populated by 80 families brought together by an idealistic board of management.


Blind eye to cockroaches
Hubert’s grand idea failed to attract enough long-term residents to pay the bills, and the building was turned into a hotel in 1905. It became what Tippins calls a “shabby caravansary”, attracting transients who turned a blind eye to scuffed linoleum, scuttling cockroaches and threadbare sheets pockmarked by cigarette burns. Some of the new arrivals, of course, considered such squalor to be a credential of their bohemian life.

By 1939, the hotel was bankrupt. A new owner kept it going by running it as a halfway house for artists, accepting their canvases in lieu of rent. This investment was sometimes shrewd, more often foolhardy.

When Peggy Guggenheim took over a private dining room to present Jackson Pollock to her friends, the painter ended up vomiting on the floor. A connoisseur on the staff had the idea of cutting out and framing the square of smeared carpet, thinking it would be worth millions. Pollock’s regurgitated meal has, to date, never been offered for sale at auction.

As the years went by, the roll call of infamy began to grow, and Tippins walks a fine line through the detail. On the one hand, the book is full of increasingly lurid and salacious anecdotes, but the author is also alert to what the hotel was initially intended to be. She sadly notes how Hubert’s ideals disappeared into a cloud of narcissism, excess and ego as drugs took over in the late 1970s and 1980s.

According to Tippins, being an artist in the context of the Chelsea freak show required no talent, only a capacity for shameless self-display. One of the washed-up Warhol superstars, after half a century spent cadging food and drink in the Chelsea, boasts of his career as “a cross between a butterfly and a lapdog” and explains that the world owes him a living because “I class up a joint”.

Tippins is forthright about the Chelsea’s decay and downfall. Arthur Miller thought that he would find peace and quiet there, but, after moving out in a huff, he accused Warhol of making the place “wild and unmanageable”. Tippins blames what she calls an “American age of abdication”, when pampered baby boomers demanded “all the benefits of a life without limits, without any of the costs”.

Tippins argues that the Chelsea, when functioning at its best, was effectively a revolutionary social experiment through which residents found “strength through diversity”. It’s clear she thinks it was at its best during the 1950s and early 1960s, but that once the rot set in, the place went downhill fast.

There is not much here about its later years, probably because the best stories and the most interesting characters are from its earlier heyday. The Chelsea closed its doors in 2011 (though some long-term tenants are still holding out) and it is currently being redeveloped.


Any modern-day Chelseas?
Of course, the Chelsea of old is not the only hotel with illustrious or murky artistic connections. The Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, where John Belushi and Helmut Newton died, and the same city’s Landmark Motor Hotel, where Janis Joplin overdosed in 1970, have their own share of infamy.

It makes you wonder if any modern-day counterparts can give the down-at-heel Chelsea a run for its money in the boho stakes. These days, hotels with a glitzy artistic or celebrity clientele tend to be surrounded by a phalanx of paparazzi. Social media also means bad behaviour in the corridors reaches a wider audience much more quickly than was the case when Pollock was puking his guts up in the Chelsea.

There is the fact that many of the hotels that attracted artistic customers are no longer in favour. London’s Columbia Hotel was once the preferred location for low-rent, raucous and hard-drinking rock bands, but musicians now tend to be billeted in blander, boutique hotels. Many touring acts can no longer afford a hotel – the days of emerging or struggling artists setting up shop in a hotel for weeks or months is over.

Many of the hotels that once had a rep for welcoming literary and artistic customers have now been taken over by big chains whose focus is on the bottom line rather than the art of their guests. New York’s Algonquin, fabled for its connections to Dorothy Parker, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe and many others, is now part of the Marriott group.

The property market has also intervened. Even a down-at-heel hotel in a newly desirable and gentrified part of a city can command a huge premium after redevelopment. The days of a hotel such as the Chelsea, with its open-door policy for artists, bohemians and other strays, seems to be at an end.


Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins is published by Simon & Schuster

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