Romance of the Rogues: The Hotel Chelsea Keeps on Keeping On
February 11, 1980
today will pass
as currents of the air
that veer and die
tell me how souls can be
such flames of suffering
and of ecstasy
as do the winds fare
Edgar Lee Masters’s poem is printed, in bold italics, on the promotional brochure of the Hotel Chelsea. It is its come-on. The Hotel Chelsea sells a Romance.
Certain artists are known as much for how they lived or died as for what they created. They are the ones who live in glass houses and throw stones from the inside. Their names are signals, and we can place them, but we know them best as myths. It is a Catholic concept, part of the tradition that saw Dante descend through the nine circles, made Francois Villon an anti-hero, named Hollywood Babylon, Monroe a martyr, Jagger Lucifer. It is the Romance of the Artist in the West, and the Hotel Chelsea may very well be the Last Romantic.
Brass plaques at its entrance at 222 West 23rd Street proclaim the one-time presence of Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan. Stanley Bard, the Chelsea’s manager, will say fondly that all three would make merry, ribald scenes in the lobby when returning from a drunk. “Brendan Behan’s wife,” he says, “seemed unable to have children. But while they were staying here she became pregnant. It’s a very creative place.”
Naked Lunch, The Lost Weekend, and 2001: A Space Odyssey were written at the Chelsea. So was a lot of Beat poetry. Stuart Cloete chose it for the ultimate bomb-shelter in his novella, The Blast. Andy Warhol made Chelsea Girls there. The woman who shot him, Valerie Solanas, founder of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men), lived there while he was shooting. So did Viva, who superstarred in the movie. Rock flowered there, and punk decays.
When Alfius Cole, who is 102 (and a painter) moved in about 50 years ago, the hotel was already in the second phase of a process of architectural parthenogenesis which is only now nearing completion: Once it held “baronial” apartments. Today, all but a very few of the hotel’s 400 units are efficiencies, studios, and one-bedrooms.
In 1883, when Hubert Pirsson & Co. finished building the “Chelsea Apartments,” the city’s first duplexes were provided for the needs of its first occupants, a group of wealthy artists who formed the city’s first cooperative. The duplexes were on the top floors of the 11-story building, and their upper levels were studios, where the best-established artists could enjoy unobstructed views, sunsets, and early-morning northern light. For a short time, the Chelsea was the city’s tallest building.
By 1906, patronage had dwindled, and with it the banquet-ticket of commissioned portraiture (Warhol’s book of coupons is, after all, a fairly recent phenomenon). Arcadia gave way to democracy, but Arcadian vestiges remain. The Chelsea’s lower floors are rented out, for the most part, to transients. And as people move in, they await vacancies on the higher echelons. Inside, the building’s spine, an elaborate spiral of brass, tarnishes.
From the steps of the library across 23rd Street, the Chelsea looms into focus. “Victorian Gothic,” “Freestyle Queen Anne,” of “Picturesque Secessionist,” it is a broad, lumbering, red-brick behemoth. A pyramidal mansard tower, gables and giant chimneys roost over the balconies like cranky robber barons. The Chelsea was the first building to receive landmark status both on architectural grounds and for “its long-time association with the literary world of New York.” It is that rare thing, an iconoclastic institution.
Virgil Thomson, who is 83 and has lived there since 1940, has the prestige of a national treasure and presides — in one-half of one of the original tenth-floor apartments — over the old guard. Many American members of the new guard chose the Chelsea out of galloping nostalgia — the hotel is a repository for the sensibilities of decades past. Jim Pasternak, who is in his mid-thirties, makes films and teaches at the New School. He moved to the Chelsea in the early ’70s when his marriage was ending. “During the first two weeks I was here, I fell in love with five different women, and within three weeks had affairs with all five. It was quite a wild place then. A ’60s feeling was still rampant.” The Chelsea has been described as a stopping off point on the international bohemian underground railroad; Europeans flock to it — and use it as a hotel. Few plain old American tourists are registered.
Neither the old guard nor the new claims any interest in or responsibility for the transient caste. To most, they are untouchables. Literally, a transient would be anyone who stays at the hotel for brief stints. Actually, a transient is someone who has not been given a context by those who have given it to each other. It is often the transient who makes the news. Jim Pasternak’s apartment is directly above the one shared by Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, and he was home the night she died. “I only know because a police officer came by and asked me questions the next morning,” he says. “I couldn’t tell him anything. The walls are very thick here and no one I knew knew them.”
When current tenants are mentioned, Stanley Bard turns cautious. When unpleasantries are mentioned, he turns off. Otherwise, his conversation is riddled with anecdote. He grew up with the Chelsea — his father ran it before him — and his office has the scent of obsession.
Although Bard is devoted to the myths of the Chelsea, he’s considered penny-wise in his attentions to the building itself. Almost everyone has complaints about the plastering, or the plumbing, or the heat, or security. One longtime tenant says Bard sometimes rents rooms “to people who might be better off in hospitals,” yet he has been known to waive rents for months on end to people in whom he has faith, or for whom he as a soft spot. His credo is that the pulse of the culture beats quickest away from the mainstream — his commitment is to the Chelsea’s tradition as beacon to the fringe.
The lobby is a reliquary of the ’50s and early ’60s. First impression is of bright lights, patterned wall-to-wall, vinyl-seated gargoyled wooden benches, chrome, more vinyl, a blur of Everyman Abstract Expressionism, a dash of Pop, and a Sputnik hanging from the ceiling. Paintings cover the walls like easy-to-fit pieces of a large puzzle. They look like tired versions of what we have come to know as masterpieces, and the paint seems to be describing those times: they are orange and blue and green and yellow oil and acrylic notations, and they hang like writing on the walls. In 1956, Bernard Shapshack, a sculptor in residence, proclaimed the lobby “the signboard of the people.”
It is a lobby without coherence. No Hilton Kramer, no Clement Greenberg ever reviewed it. Certainly no sister Parrish ever decorated it.
The Chelsea — “Oasis,” “lower depths Brigadoon,” “a really funny hotel” — is a labyrinth of self-referential environments. Upstairs spring jungles of personal iconographics.
At noon Stella Waitzkin is making tea. She has lived at the Chelsea for about 10 years, is a hippie, a grandmother, and an artist. Her one-bedroom apartment is what she makes. She makes books. Books of sandstone, glass, and resin, baked in kilns, often encrusted with dolls’ heads, or bas-reliefs of the Parthenon, or things undefinable. The books are everywhere. “What you see,” she says, “is just the tip of the iceberg. I keep another room here to store more books and I keep a lot in the country, where I do most of my baking.” As she speaks, two cats appear and disappear among the stacks, then pause and pose like bookends. She points at a sagging bookcase. “Can you imagine what would happen if that wall gave in? The plastering here is one thing I’d like people to know about the Chelsea.”
“I’ve thought of moving to Ireland on occasion,” says Isabella Gardner, “but I could never live anywhere else in New York.” Isabella Gardner was an actress, is a poet, and was once married to a poet, Allen Tate. She also keeps “another room” at the Chelsea, “to work in though I never use it. I usually go to the country to work, to MacDowell. It’s difficult to work here, I find… there are distractions, the city, you understand…” Isabella Gardner’s hair is long, straight, and red and it lists in and out of a topknot. She moves in slightly awkward sequences on long thin, colt legs.
“Everything I need is easily available here. I know exactly where to go to get my shoes cobbled. I know all the bellmen and I can get special service. I have good friends here. I’ve lived here off and on since… oh… the early ’60s… I was traveling a great deal then… and my daughter, you know lived here too for a while… in her own apartment of course. She knew all the rock people then… Janis Joplin and all… I only knew them by sight. Nowadays I don’t have anything at all to do with the transient traffic.” She stops for a second and looks purposefully askance: “and I mean traffic in every sense of the word.”
Isabella Gardner’s apartment has the aura of permanence. She has a stained glass transom over her front door and has had the paint stripped off the mahogany moldings — “as Virgil says, ‘hotels tend to paint over everything with beige paint.’ ” She’s a bit of a curator: “During the blackout of 1977, as I made my way to the lobby, I had a candle in one hand, a rag in the other, and I polished my way down. At other times I’ve been tempted to go at it with a can of spray paint.”
Mildred Baker, a friend of both Stella Waitzkin and Isabella Gardner, has lived at the Chelsea for 40 years. She is a brisk woman. She stands erect. Striding through the lobby, calling greetings to the desk, she is a ballerina field marshal. Now retired, she was director of the Newark Museum, and used to split her week between the Chelsea and a house in New Jersey. When she joined her husband (who worked for FDR’s Relief Administration) at the hotel during World War II, she would “come in to find sailors cavorting in the lobby. The British Merchant Seamen kept a canteen going here. And some Catholic charities kept space as well, for sheltering refugees. The old management, this Mr. Bard’s father, and Mr. Gross, and dear Mr. Krauss — he was an angel to us — were all of Hungarian descent. They worked here during the Depression and were able to buy it from the Knott Hotel Corporation for $50,000 down, which they borrowed from a bank down the street. They also took in many Hungarian refugees after the uprising in 1956.”
Mildred Baker’s muted walls bear many abstract landscapes and many inscribed photographs. As she excuses herself to prepare for a trip she is about to take to the Red Sea, she mentions that the pictures are all that matter of her possessions.
A traffic cop on Eighth Avenue: “the Chelsea is okay for a single woman, for a couple of nights maybe, if you’re careful.” Further west toward Ninth, a waiter in a Chinese restaurant: “the Chelsea is not so nice. You be better off at Holiday Inn on 58th Street.”
East of the hotel is headquarters for the toy and novelty business — year-round ghosts of birthdays and New Years. Facing it are a “Y” and a branch library. To the West, London Terrace, a bulking Tudorish apartment complex, and toward the River, an Alphaville of highway, trucks, and diners. There is one flicker of Merry Olde England at Mr. Spats — where a stew and a stiff drink help brighten the way to New Jersey. But night hits hard on 23rd Street.
Heading back to the Chelsea out of darkness is like heading back to a dorm after a late night out. There is always someone sitting there to watch you. And even if it’s 4 a.m. and the someone is nodding out, enough energy remains to lift a head and an eye that follow you: Are you a transient? Are you Someone? Are you good for a hit?
Susan from San Francisco is at the bar of El Quijote — which is to the Chelsea what the Polo lounge is to the Beverly Hills. She has been practicing Spanish with Jose, the bartender, and it keeps getting better as she drinks: “I can’t speak a word of Spanish, but just listen to me go. When you want to communicate, language is no barrier.” She is a freelance secretary in town for a conference. Her boss is at the Plaza. “Did you know that Dylan Thomas used to drink right here? Got to admit this place has a lot of history.” The plaque at the hotel entrance reads: “Dedicated to the memory of Dylan Thomas, who lived and labored last at the Chelsea Hotel and from here sailed out to die.”
The Artist as Sage, the Artist as Addict, the Artist as Albatross, the Artist as Package. All of them live at the Chelsea.
“My apartment doesn’t cost anything like what it looks like,” says Virgil Thomson, “and my paintings are by people I know. I never have pictures around by people I don’t know. That kind belongs in museums.” Evidence has it that he knew Florine Stettheimer and Marcel Duchamp rather well. Mr. Thomson’s favorite painting, however, is by an artist less well-known, Christian Berard. It is of a saltimbanque. “It moves around the canvas. A good picture shouldn’t be too stuck there.” He also likes a more recent sculpture that looks like a flower made of congealed brown paper bags. It is about five feet high, like Mr. Thomson, and it stands its twisted stand at the entrance to the living room. “The process by which this was made is the same process used to dip babies’ shoes. You know, when they are bronzed as souvenirs.”
He is equivocal about the Chelsea’s management. “They have to give you a minimum of service and they do. All hotel service everywhere is economized and abbreviated. It’s easy to make the bed. A young man comes to work for me in the mornings and he takes the right side, I take the left, and poof, it’s done. I don’t wriggle much in bed. That’s a sign of age. The young tend to destroy their beds every night.”
“The people I associate with here are mostly older people or others trained classically to music.” But he remembers Janis Joplin, whom he “would nod to, in a friendly manner, in the elevator. She had a wonderful dirty voice. The finest dirty vocal tones I’ve ever heard.”
Some of the overflow of Virgil Thomson’s art collection can be found in Gerald Busby’s apartment. Busby is custodian to a smaller relative of the paper-bag flower, and to several paintings by an artist Mr. Thomson describes as “a little French criminal I used to know.” Mr. Thomson’s distinct round face appears in the foreground of one of them. Gerald Busby is in his late thirties and was trained classically in music. “I share a birthday with Brahms,” he says.
“My first job in New York (after leaving Texas) was as organist to a congregation of Methodist alcoholics. I wrote the score for Robert Altman’s movie, Three Women, and Altman gave me a small part, the part of the alcoholic Baptist minister, in A Wedding. This sort of thing happens to you when you’re from the South.” Laundry comes through the door. A housepainter leaves the kitchen. John Cheever calls to talk about Robert Altman. A friend arrives; they are going to a screening.
“It’s been fun living here. Whatever new goes on in the city can sooner or later be had here. There are always all sorts of rumors flying round here. I heard once about being able to order drugs through room service, but I’ve never tried it so I’ve no idea about any truth to it.”
It seems unlikely. Room service is virtually nonexistent, although Isabella Gardner says, “One can make arrangements with the bellmen.” Other rumors, however, are grounded. In October 1974 The New York Times ran an article which stated that “two gunmen held ten men and five women hostage for more than two hours at the Chelsea Hotel.” Jim Pasternak: “They were pimps, big dudes in white hats who had a floating crap game at the Chelsea on Saturday nights. Apparently two other pimps came over from Queens to make trouble:” Virgil Thomson: “I’ve lived in Kansas City and Paris, which are the great centers of sin and corruption, so I was neither shocked nor vastly entertained by small time dope selling or gambling. You know, at my advanced age I’m not that interested in gang-bangs, but they do have them around.”
Other rumors concern fires at the Chelsea, of which there have been several. Pasternak says, “A big one two years ago was started by an enraged woman who set fire to her lover’s trousers. He was not in them at the time, but another young man — I believe he had a weak heart — died from the fumes.”
“I could hear the desk clerk and the bellboy pounding up the stairs,” William S. Burroughs wrote in Naked Lunch, “I took the self-service elevator down, walked through the empty lobby into the street. It was a beautiful Indian Summer Day… I had to stock up on junk fast… I took a taxi to Washington Square, got out and walked along 4th Street till I spotted Nick on the corner. You can always spot the pusher.”
Jim Pasternak: “We mostly have crimes of passion here. Viva, in the days when I first moved here, had some spectacular lovers’ quarrels. One morning while sitting at my desk working, I looked up and noticed a bicycle fly past my window. I guess she couldn’t throw him out the window, so the bicycle was the next best thing. People are also very fond of their animals here. During the fire a while back, everyone gathered in the lobby with their pets. It was like a family reunion. A few people actually admitted to having grabbed their animal before their loved one.”
George Kleinsinger, who wrote the musical Archie and Mehitabel, about the love between a cockroach and an ally cat, has a cat named Mehitabel. “My skunk bit my second wife, dear Kate, then it made the mistake of biting me and I had to get rid of it.” Mud, trees, turtles, canaries, parakeets, finches, aquariums, an incubator, and “a nuclear family of ringnecked doves (including eggs) who love each other very much” remain. A black baby-grand piano and tape machines take up what remains of the studio.
“I moved to the Chelsea 20 years ago, dear one, to escape Roslyn, Long Island. Suburbia! I leave the Chelsea only when I go to St. Thomas. I love, love, love the tropics. I love to have sex many times during the day. I love love.”
When his friend Brendan Behan died, he composed an elegy that includes an insert of Behan’s singing. “Yes, yes dear one, I recorded Brendan right here. After a bit of drinking, dear Brendan would come here and sing, sing, sing. All that drinking and singing, he was a big bore really. I drink too much too, dear one, but the Irish and the Jews have a lot in common. But I’m not an alcoholic… because I’m Jewish.”
“My girl left me last night to go to Australia and I hate to be alone, dear one, and a fellow from downstairs came up here and offered me his girl for an hour for $50. They needed the $50 but I felt terrible. Instead, I told him they could both spend the night on my floor — they had run out of money, you see, and had no place to stay. So all night long, I got up to tuck the blankets around them. I was afraid they would catch cold.”
Don Quixotes of plaster, Don Quixotes of steel, wood-carved Panzas, plastic Dulcineas people the bar of El Quijote. The wall facing the bar is a dusky mural of scenes from Cervantes. The kitchen door is canopied with three-dimensional cut-outs, Disney-colored. Accessible from both street and lobby, El Quijote is a collision-ground of sensibilities: Grand ladies of the Chelsea, at banquettes, gloves poised on white linen, might as easily be in Schrafft’s.
One woozie Dulcinea, wearing several Christmas ornaments, French, named Jacki, weaves into the lobby with soup in a take-out coffee container. “I have lost my dog. Mon chien. He was very beautiful. Where is my chien? I cannot find heeeem.” She sits on one of the gargoyle benches and slurps for a moment. Two beefy teenaged boys walk in. They seem shy. Jacki spots them, shrieks, and throws a gartered leg over the nearest gargoyle and singsongs, “We are putanas, we are putanas, boys, how you like that we are putanas.” The two scan each other and hotfoot it out of the lobby.
Jim Pasternak: “It’s very easy to drift and get all whacked out at the Chelsea.” The year before last a young art historian did more than get whacked out. Another tenant says, “Please don’t say who I am, but I knew him when he first came to the Chelsea. He was straight as a board. He dressed like an accountant — three-piece-suits, the whole bit. But then he changed completely. He wore leather all the time and never had any money. And when he couldn’t pay the rent, he’d sleep in the lobby or if he heard of a vacant room, he’d climb into it from one of the balconies. I told Stanley [Bard] that he belonged in a hospital, or at least with his family. Maybe if he had been kicked out of here he would have gone to his brother’s in Brooklyn. I was very fond of him. He was someone special. Well, one morning I opened my window to check the weather and when I looked down I saw him lying next to his brains, on the parapet just below me. All I could say to myself was, ‘why did my eyes have to see this, why!’ ”
Gert Schiff, a professor of art history at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, moved away from the Chelsea at about that time. He had lived there for 13 years, “I had had enough. I love it there, but I had had enough of the punks and junkies. It is true that people always find something to grouse about. In the ’60s they groused about the ‘hippie invasion.’ The older ones get cranky about newcomers, but this bunch seems particularly sordid.”
A man of about 30 is in the lobby in pajamas. He has been there for over a half-hour talking to a stray kitten. He is British. “You know, I really came down here because I ran out of cigarettes, but don’t you find this to be an unusually lovely kitten? Kitty, I would love to take you home with me, but I just can’t. I already have a kitty and my kitty doesn’t like other kittens very much. This hotel’s really quite wonderful you know. Every morning I am awakened by the sound of Mr. Kleinsinger’s birdies.”
Angus Wallace, also British, is “sort of an entrepreneur of the avant-garde.” He no longer lives at the Chelsea, but people don’t really leave — they become alumni. “I went to Summerhill as a child and think I was very changed by it, you know. The Chelsea reminded me a lot of Summerhill. The same sort of freedom. The same sense of waking up in the morning knowing that you have to build your life, and that no one can do it for you. The Squat Theatre — I was managing them — came to the Chelsea when they first arrived in New York. In fact — for better or worse — I think the Chelsea gave them their first clear picture of New York, of America really. They had a goat with them, for one of their plays, and kids and all, and they were permitted to keep their goat tethered up on the roof. It was summer then, of course. But anyway, I’ve stayed at the Chelsea when I’ve really been down and out. No money at all. And Stanley Bard was extraordinarily good about that. He was really very patient and didn’t press me at all. I knew someone at the Chelsea — he was a very famous fashion designer and a good friend of mine when I lived there; his name was Charles James. And, well, I supposed he had come upon hard times. Now that he’s dead I don’t suppose there’s harm in mentioning that I don’t believe he paid any rent for something like twelve years.”
“Poor Charlie James,” says Mildred Baker. “He was really quite alone, I’m afraid, by the time he died. The poor man fought with everyone.” “Poor Charlie,” says Richard Bernstein, a commercial artist who keeps a studio at the Chelsea, “was hustled all his life. And now some of the people who hustled him are putting up a plaque in his honor. I’m sick of the romance of the Chelsea. They’re always making heroes of pretty sad cases.”
Susan Sontag once wrote that “for the modern consciousness, the artist (replacing the saint) is the exemplary sufferer.” And in fact the Chelsea does sell a rather morbid Romance. But it would be unjust to give a damning send-off. We need the Chelsea. It stands for the rebel, the romantic, the freak in us all. Brendan Behan put it more simply: “There is more space in the Hotel Chelsea than in the whole of Staten Island.” ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 30, 2020