The only time I stayed at the Chelsea Hotel, a few years ago, I kept thinking about Gilbert Sorrentino’s Splendide-Hôtel (1973), a slim volume of meditations, 27 in all, organised from A to Z – a segment per letter, plus one for good measure. Sorrentino took his cue from a line in Rimbaud’s Illuminations: ‘And the Hôtel Splendide was built in the chaos of ice and polar night.’ His final piece, for the last letter of the alphabet, deals the reader a dream ending: ‘Z. Everyone is asleep in the Splendide-Hôtel.’ Unlike the Splendide, the Chelsea Hotel was a place where the zeds were hard to catch. It was easier to catch a bedbug: in the middle of the first night, I found two in the bedding, stuck them in a glass and presented them at reception, in hope of a refund, but I was dispatched to another room instead. I stripped the new bed down, doused the sheets and blankets with vodka, remade it, and lay on the covers like an olive in a very damp Martini, trying to remember the name of the photographer I’d known here back in the early 1980s: Caucasian French, born in Oran, with a stack of monochrome prints of boxers and jazz musicians, and a great eye for subjects of African descent.
In 2011 the Chelsea, which took its first occupant in 1884, was sold to a developer as prime Manhattan real estate – it’s on West 23rd between Seventh and Eighth – for $80 million. The list of luminaries who stayed a few days or dug in during that time – musicians, painters, writers, photographers and directors, journalists, actors, exponents of haute and basse couture, and Warhol Factory girls – is longer than the Benedicite. There are still nearly ninety residents hanging on as the fate of the premises is contested, but the glory days are gone.
I hated the Chelsea when I went there to look at those photos. I was living uptown at the Ansonia, sub-subletting a corner room at the far end of a long corridor. The corridors ran about 35 metres end to end and it was said that the Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior used his as an archery gallery. I have a vivid memory of a mini-fracas in the hotel and bells going off relentlessly. I stuck my head out of my room – on the fourth floor – and shouted an inquiry to a scurrying resident. The fire, she seemed to be saying, was on the 17th floor, but I must have misheard. I shut the door and packed in a leisurely way. It turned out to be on the second floor, or maybe the first; the place was thick with smoke and clanking firefighters by the time I groped my way to the flooded lobby.
There were a couple of good fires at the Chelsea, retold with gusto by Sherill Tippins in Inside the Dream Palace (Simon and Schuster, £14.99), her exhaustive, fascinating life and times of the hotel. In 1978 a rejected lover got a nice blaze going on the second floor when she set light to her ex’s clothes. There was the usual ruckus but only one death: the building was designed to limit the spread of fire. Earlier, in 1971, an older resident had fallen asleep, leaving food on a hotplate. She died, but a gaggle of regulars lived to tell the tale as they’d seen it unfold at three in the morning from the stairway: ‘Clifford Irving in boxer shorts and a mink coat’; ‘Viva clutching her baby’; ‘Miloš Forman wearing a skirt borrowed from a neighbour’; and the weaver Juliette Hamelcourt, once a lady in waiting to Queen Astrid of the Belgians, with her dog under one arm and a bundle of tapestries under the other.
The Ansonia – which was turned into a condominium in the 1990s – boasted fewer legends. Musicians were said to like it because the walls were thick: Caruso, Toscanini, Stravinsky. Later Barry Manilow played piano in the basement (no wall thick enough). The building is beautifully described by Bellow in Seize the Day. The Chelsea makes many more star appearances, but it’s the denizens of the place, their celebrity and sheer numbers – from Mark Twain through several generations of artists, cranks and druggies, to Sid Vicious – that warrant its reputation. Almost no one on the New York arts scene fails to put in an appearance in Tippins’s book, starting with William Dean Howells and Stephen Crane, up through Thomas Wolfe, and on to anyone you care to name, sliding to an elegant halt with Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland.
Largely it’s the names, not the work. You almost get the impression that Arthur Miller might have written After the Fall there, but it was mostly done in Connecticut; or that Kerouac might have written On the Road there, but that was mostly done on West 20th. Wolfe’s two posthumous novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again, were drafted at the hotel in the late 1930s; Larry Rivers, who took up residence in 1963, had a studio in the building; Chelsea Girls was filmed there. Later, Dylan dreamed up ‘Visions of Johanna’, for Blonde on Blonde. Phil Ochs, another resident, must have slung some songs together before he killed himself in 1976. The Grateful Dead rehearsed at the hotel before gigs, and Abdullah Ibrahim, the great Ellington protégé, was living there – presumably composing – in the 1990s. James Schuyler arrived in 1979 and wrote out his last years there.
The Chelsea’s presiding spirit in the 19th century was Philip Gengembre Hubert, the son of a French Fourierist who took him to America as the New World phalansteries were breaking up. Hubert, a French teacher, went on to sell his patent for a self-fastening button to the US government for $120,000 and became an architect. He finished the Chelsea in 1885 and in Tippins’s robust, utopian take, it always remained a 12-storey phalanstery, inspired by the ghost of Fourier, though she sympathises with the alternative view that it was little more than an ‘an outlaw mental-health clinic’ or an exhausting marathon of narcissism. Long after his own departure, Miller declared the life of the place ‘self-regarding, self-indulgent, and not at all free’.
The emblematic Chelsea figure of the 20th century is Harry Smith, who pitched up sometime in the 1960s, moonlighted in the 1970s, owing tens of thousands of dollars in rent, and returned there to die in 1991. Smith had put together the Anthology of American Folk Music, released by Folkways in 1952, from his own harvest of 78 rpm records. He was then about thirty. He graduated to the Beat scene and later became a boozy guru to the hippies. In 1967, during an anti-war march in Washington, he advised Ed Sanders and Allen Ginsberg on their ambitious scheme to exorcise the Pentagon. If they really hoped to levitate the building – and they did – Smith suggested they would need a live cow, painted with magical symbols. It was a long shot; even al-Qaida failed to budge the Pentagon.
Smith’s life’s work climaxed in SoHo in 1980 with a six-night run of Mahagonny, a multi-projector film he’d been working on for years, decoding and interpreting the Brecht/Weill opera in analogical impressions triggered by an arcane series of prompts on cards, in the hope of ‘translating, as nearly as I can, images of the German text into universal, or near universal, symbols and synchronising the appropriate images with music’ from the score. On the last night of the run, high on speed, Smith began shouting at the projectionists and throwing reels around the projection room. Then he spotted his doctor in the audience. He went ballistic and stopped the show. Outside he smashed the carefully produced filters and the treated slides in a blistering argument with his quiet-spoken nemesis. Smith, who began as an anthologist and became his own anthology, survived in his last years on Ginsberg’s patronage – few poets more generous, in the life or the verse – and became a professor of shamanism at Naropa. Lost to alcohol in a flophouse on the Bowery a few years before his death, he remained the man he’d always been, recording the mutterings and expectorations of fellow outcasts in cubicles next to his own.
The life of Harry Smith is one episode in Tippins’s Epic of Everyone, even people who never set foot in the insalubrious lobby of the Chelsea. Her narrative method is best described as ‘associative garrulous’, her story spun across ever-extending degrees of separation. The shuttle is whirring, the temperature’s rising, everybody’s at the party, and she’s a perfect host. By the end the question is, who haven’t we encountered? We bump into Whitman, Hart Crane, all the Abstract Expressionists, Herbert Huncke plus any given Beat, all of the New York School, Bob Dylan, Nico, John Cale, Lou Reed, Malcolm McLaren, Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe, William Eggleston, and … hang on, here’s Walker Evans. And there, not exactly flitting past, goes the bulky shadow of Henry James. Tippins has embarked on a compendious venture, as the index suggests. I search in vain under B for a word of my old acquaintance the photographer, Martine Barrat, though she’s alive and well on Google. In Sorrentino’s Rimbaudian alphabet, there’s no mention of the Chelsea. And don’t imagine you can rent a room these days, even if you had the stomach for it. But if you’re looking for somewhere with a soupçon of chaos and polar night, there’s always the Hôtel Splendide.