Down at the Chelsea

Not everyone at the storied hotel is a legend: stories from some of the Chelsea's lesser-known residents

The Chelsea Hotel made news last month when its board ousted its longtime gatekeeper, Stanley Bard, and replaced Bard family management with BD Hotels, a company that turns historic places into high-end boutique inns. With the rumored help of hotelier Andre Balazs, who oversaw the revival of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, the Chelsea—long a haven for artists—will be getting a face-lift.

In truth, it could use one. Built in 1883 as one of city's first co-ops, the Chelsea went bankrupt and became a hotel in 1905. The rooms, once artfully planned by their individual buyers, were chopped up into SROs, leading to startling differences from room to room.

Though the Chelsea's in better shape than it was back in its '60s and '70s heyday, it still gives new meaning to the term "shabby chic." Art of varying quality by lesser-known former residents hangs on the walls of the stairwell; decrepit blue vinyl and mirrored benches that should have been tossed years ago sit between the elevators; fresh coats of paint have completely covered the door numbers, leading residents to fashion handwritten signs so visitors can find their apartments. Though some of the original touches are intact—stained-glass windows and wood molding on the hallway walls—there's no consistency. In the lobby, which was updated in the 1990s, the gold velveteen furniture is now dated and worn. The old girl is getting a little rough.

Victor Bockris.
photo: Alana Cundy
Victor Bockris.


Portraits from the Chelsea
by Linda Troeller and Alana Cundy

The funkiness is one of the reasons the residents love it so much, and why tourists who want to experience bohemia stay there. But it doesn't bring in the big spenders.

Much has been written about past residents of the hotel: Sid and Nancy, Dylan Thomas, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur C. Clarke. And several of the current full-time residents handpicked by Stanley Bard, who comprise 60 percent of the hotel's occupancy, are key downtown tastemakers: activists, musicians, painters, photographers, writers, actors. People like nightclub queen Susanne Bartsch and her gym-magnate husband, David Barton; Vogue fashion news editor Sally Singer; gallery owner Daniel Reich; Zaldy, the Scissor Sisters' fashion designer; painters David Remfry and Philip Taaffe, who lives in composer Virgil Thomson's preserved apartment; and Arthur Weinstein, the Studio 54 photographer who is battling cancer.

But most of the residents aren't so well-known. Some came to the Chelsea hoping that some of its good luck would rub off, that by association they might become part of the hotel's lore. Some pay market rate for decrepit single rooms that wouldn't pass muster in a Lower East Side tenement just so they can be a part of the Chelsea. Some have been there for nearly half their lives; others just want a place to work. With its nearly soundproof, sand-filled, three-foot-thick walls, the Chelsea has always been good for that.

Gerald Busby
photo: Alana Cundy
Gerald Busby, 71
Composer. Resident since 1977.

Best known for his score for Robert Altman's Three Women, Busby lived in a spacious four-room apartment until his partner died of AIDS-related causes in the mid-1990s. Then the HIV-positive Busby himself hit bottom, succumbing to a crack addiction. He credits Bard with not throwing him out on the street. Instead, the sweet, bearded man followed through on a promise to clean up after moving to a smaller room.

Stuffed with composition papers, music books, and a piano, Busby's room is blessed with high ceilings, a bathroom and kitchen (a rarity), and two curved windows that look onto a tiny balcony. He can barely pay his below-market rent and survives on Social Security, welfare, and the occasional ASCAP royalty check.

When Busby first came to the hotel in 1972, he had been a traveling book salesman for Alfred Knopf and Random House. A friend invited Busby, also an accomplished chef, to cook for Virgil Thomson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and former classical critic for the New York Herald Tribune, who lived in the hotel for 50 years until his death in 1989 at age 92. Thomson took a liking to the openly gay Busby, then a budding composer, and rang up Bard on the hotel's house phone. "This is the kinda person you're supposed have here!" Busby says, impersonating Thomson in a deep Texas drawl. "That meant I was in."

As a 30-year resident, he's seen his fair share of shenanigans. "In those days, every year there was some major catastrophe—a fire, a suicide, there was a murder," he says. "There was a couple across the hall who argued constantly—I mean yelling and screaming and calling each other horrible names and slamming doors. And one day while that was going on, I left the apartment, and the man was standing in the hall drinking beer from a can, kind of leaning against the wall. I said, 'Hi,' and I started towards the elevator. And suddenly 20 policemen rushed in and grabbed him and ran into his apartment. He had just shot and killed his wife and was waiting for them to arrive. That was kind of the Chelsea."

So far, residents haven't been told whether they'll be able to stay under the new management. Busby, however, says he's heard that the new company will be reviewing the portfolios of the current renters. And by portfolios, he doesn't mean sketches and poems.

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