Tuesday, January 06, 2009

I Will Always Remember It Well: The Chelsea Hotel

I Will Always Remember It Well: The Chelsea Hotel

I have always heard and read about the Chelsea Hotel, in the Chelsea Section of New York City. Recently I visited, and resided for a short stay in this literary landmark. Of course I remember Leonard Cohen’s lament of a song “I Remember You Well At The Chelsea Hotel,” and Dylan Thomas’ daughter talked to me about her father’s last days at the Chelsea, (during the time he drank himself to death), in an interview I conducted with her. The composer Virgil Thompson was a long-term resident; Sid Vicious and Nancy were holed up in a room there, as well as the novelist Thomas Wolfe of “You Can’t Go Home Again” fame. I am told he wrote for days on end standing up, rather than sitting at a desk. Arthur C. Clarke wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey” while staying at the Hotel. The playwright Arthur Miller spent part of his honeymoon with Marilyn Monroe at the Chelsea; Bob Dylan stayed there and composed several songs (there was a failed attempt to renovate his room recently). A friend of mine Philip Segal, a professor of English in NYC, told me over dinner during my stay at the Hotel, that he attended several parties at the Chelsea. The rooms were so small and cramped that the parties spilled out into the generous halls that were and still are peppered with artwork of all stripes. He told me that the space in the hallways is so spacious that a ballet company practiced there regularly.

The Chelsea has a reputation of being a literary and artistic flophouse of sorts. A place where the famous, not so famous, the shut-in, the dreamer and the drifter coexisted. And since I was making a trek to New York to meet with some fellow poets, I decided to book a room for a few nights.

The Chelsea, a twelve story builiding with brick and wrought iron balcony balustrades, was the first building in NYC to be listed as a cultural preservation site and historic building of note. It opened in 1884 as one of the first private apartment cooperatives. Since 1946, the hotel had been managed by the Bard family, and since 1955 Stanley Bard ran the joint, until he was ousted by a management company in 2007. Bard was a much loved manager, presiding benevolently over the residents and the guests who lived there. Bard seemed to understand the concept of the starving artist, allowing some to pay rent by paintings, etc… However the new management is much more bottom line, and since Bard left there has been controversy, as residents have mounted a campaign of banners, pranks, and protests toward getting Bard back. Ed Hamilton a resident and author of “Legends of the Chelsea Hotel…” told me that “Unfortunately, the hotel is no longer accepting permanent residents and that is a shame. The permanent tenants are as important to the hotel as the tourists.”

Upon arriving at the Chelsea my wife and I noticed a guitar store adjacent to the hotel was having a “Bernie Madoff Clearance Sale.” Now the lobby ain’t your typical Holiday Inn affair. When we entered we saw a man staring intensely at us, looking for all the world like the resurrection of Samuel Beckett. He was sitting under a suspended paper mache scultpure of a fat lady on a swing. The lobby was full of artworks, murals, etc… There was a painting of an elongated, long-faced Fido, aptly named “Chelsea Dog” that captured my attention. The front desk looked like a prop from Eugene O’Neill’s play “Hughie.” I saw that play some years ago. It starred the actor Jason Robards, who played a down-at-the-heels snake oil salesman, living out his failed life, in a failed, gone-to seed hotel.

We took a squeaking elevator to our room on the third floor. A balding, distracted gentleman asked my wife if she knew where “The Shining” painting was (based on the Stephen King movie). We didn’t now but we ran across it later. The floor we stayed on, and in fact all the floors, are full of artwork, many from of the residents. Even the fire extinguishers were adorned with stickers and graffiti, that made them look like sites of art installation…I guess they are. There is an eclectic selection of paintings on the walls in the gothic halls, including prints of Roy Cohn (of all people), Eisenhower, Jimi Hendrix, Hunter S. Thompson, a beguiling “Horse On Oil Canvas” by Joe Andoe, a photo montage of Andy Warhol and Muhammad Ali, and a huge mural that depicts residents in dialogue: “Myra Resnick in 308 says the Chelsea rocks!” On the top floor you experience ethereal sky light, and series of suspended mobiles, wafting images on the ceilings.

Forty percent of the rooms are saved for residents, and there is a definite sense of community in the place. Ed Hamilton wrote that the Chelsea is the “Last Outpost of Bohemia.” I advise you to visit and make haste/ the way things are going /there is no time to waste!

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