If you are longing to run away from home, and you are looking for a place to stay, and you are really fed up with staying at posh hotels where the bellboy's manicure costs more than your luggage, and you feel a little too grown up to sleep under those stenciled geese honking their way around your room, you may want to consider the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. The Chelsea is the type of hotel where you can check in with a case of cheap Scotch and sit in your room, unapologetically smoking a carton of Marlboros, while you stare out at the gritty Manhattan view, work yourself up into a fit of angst about the missed possibilities of your life, ponder the ledge outside a window that does open, think about writing a novel, think about taking up painting again, perhaps send home a telegram that you've decided to stay in New York permanently, and please forward all your mail to the Chelsea. Possibly this is what happened to Thomas Wolfe when he wrote "You Can't Go Home Again" while living there in Room 831.
At the Chelsea you're pretty much left to your own devices, no doubt a factor that attracted a stellar crop of artists in its century of operation. When I went there with my husband recently I was curious to make a pilgrimage to the hotel where Mark Twain had lived while he was in New York. I think I may have gotten the room he stayed in; if not, most certainly it was the same mattress. Perhaps this explains why, when Sarah Bernhardt lived there, she slept in her coffin.
Like New York, and like the neighborhood surrounding the hotel, the Chelsea is not a place for wimps. The intuitive (like myself) begin to pick up on these subtle clues right away while making reservations. I had seen listings for the hotel in a guidebook that suggested asking for one of the rooms with a fireplace. Sounded good, so I rang up: "How much is a room for two?"
"Okay, I'd like one with a fireplace."
"Yes, a fireplace."
"Well, you know that costs extra. And you have to bring your own wood. And a screen."
"I have to bring my own screen for the fireplace?"
"I said skip it. Just give me the regular room. Forget the fireplace." Visions of arriving at Penn Station toting my luggage, the Scotch and, now, a cardboard box of firewood, dragging a folding screen, with arms piled high with pokers (fearing certain arrest for carrying a concealed weapon) . . . all this greatly reduced my romanticist's urge for a fire.
Once again my prescient faculties had revealed what I later learned to be the absolute truth: The Chelsea was for the hard core. There was no room service, no mini-bar, no pillow chocolates to fear crushing during an urgent, unforeseen need for a nap. But for those still ambulatory enough to walk next door to the El Quijote, the adjoining 1950-ish Spanish restaurant, food and cocktails were available.
Not to mention a sinister, film-noirish ambiance. My husband and I sat down at the midpoint of the bar and I ordered a Manhattan to celebrate my arrival. At 12:30 a.m. we were informed it was last call, and when I protested bitterly, two more drinks arrived, on the house, without explanation. I tried not to feel pressured to gulp, in spite of the fact no other customers were left in the bar, save a sequined ghoul at the end. She sat dejectedly, chain-smoking, swilling martinis and loosening bone-rattling coughs. The stern-faced El Padrino of the El Quijote stood at the opposite end of the bar and counted his closing-time money with the shrewd calculations of a bookie planning his retirement.
What was there about the drinking thing and the Chelsea thing that went together so well? For that matter, what was it about drinking and writers that went together so well? Plaques are posted next to the hotel's front door to immediately alert the non-initiated as to the building's special status--commemorating the lodging of several immortal writers/drinkers. While Wolfe lived at the Chelsea he worked hard at his drinking. In the '50s, Brendan Behan moved in after he was thrown out of the Bristol Hotel for his drunken antics and continued them at the Chelsea while he wrote "Brendan Behan's New York." During his residency at the hotel, the poet Dylan Thomas uttered his last words in Room 206, "I've had 18 straight whiskeys, and I think that's the record." And Charles Jackson--another Chelsea resident--wrote "The Lost Weekend," the tale of a man destroyed by drinking.
When we arrived, walking the quick 10 minutes from Penn Station sans firewood, we observed the neighborhood surrounding the namesake hotel at 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue. Chelsea is a working-class district, adjacent to the garment industry, wedged between midtown and Greenwich Village. The hotel with a vintage neon sign above a striped canopy was once New York's tallest building at 12 stories. The down-at-the heels lobby is decorated with modern art, the electric colors an incongruous addition to the melancholy Victorian room. We approached the front desk, which has the ominous look of a barred bank cage in a bad part of town. A friendly bellman with a ponytail and nonthreatening manicure showed us to our room, which was a perfunctory affair with the same dismal furnishings to be found in cheap motels everywhere. Perhaps this is because most suites are reserved for permanent residents who have thrown this furniture out the window and decorated to their liking.
I later found out the Chelsea was one of New York's first preserved landmarks. This decision, I'm convinced, is not due to the hotel's stunning architecture or painstaking restoration. It is due to the amazing roster of artists who have called the Chelsea home. It appears that this compilation is not a coincidence; the Chelsea's impresario for the past 40 years has been Stanley Bard, who took over from his father, David. Stanley loves artists and treats them with the tolerance they require--an unusual trait amid the low-browed, coin-counting Dickensian characters who usually play the role of landlord--most of whom, in my experience, have the artistic sensibility of a bank ledger. In the '60s, the hotel became part hostelry and part rehearsal hall, a natural circumstance due to the soundproof brick walls and the floors, where white sand fills the void between layers of iron.
I kept hoping to be visited by the ghosts of other writers who'd lived there: O. Henry, Sherwood Anderson, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, who supposedly moved there from the Plaza because he hated feeling as if he needed to wear a tie to go downstairs and check his mail. The whole gang of Beats lived there off and on while in New York: the poet Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, who under the influence of something decidedly stronger than whiskey wrote "Naked Lunch" in his room. In another room at the Chelsea camped another world-class drinker, Jack Kerouac. Revved on Benzedrine, and whaling on a typewriter equipped with a special roll of 150-foot Teletype paper, he cranked out "On the Road" in 20 days.
Painters also seemed to favor the Chelsea, some even donating their artwork to Stanley Bard to cover past-due bills. Larry Rivers, David Hockney, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning all stayed during the '60s, favoring the upper suites for their better light. Robert Mapplethorpe was filmed in one of the studios getting his nipple pierced--an event of sufficient art-world import that it was later screened at the Museum of Modern Art.
I learned that during the '60s another style of artist invaded the Chelsea: the entire "Most Wanted" list of rock-and-roll: Bob Dylan wrote a song about the Chelsea, as did Joni Mitchell. Her song, "Chelsea Morning," inspired that romantic couple, the Clintons, with a name for their daughter. Leonard Cohen also wrote about the Chelsea; his song was a tribute to another resident, Janis Joplin. Joan Baez was there, Donovan, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, the Band, Lovin' Spoonful, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Miles, Patti Smith, the Allman Brothers, the Winter brothers, Johnny and Edgar. Also Quicksilver Messenger Service, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Iggy Pop and the Stooges. I tried hard to imagine the euphoria of being an 18-year-old girl again, and somehow stumbling into the Chelsea, finding myself surrounded by the people who at that time were my gods. I envisioned the scene: wild music, borrowed guitar strings, borrowed groupies, LSD, Acapulco Gold, Panama Red, Pink Floyd. Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll at its zenith.
The Chelsea also has a place in film history. It was the home of Andy Warhol's stars, Viva and Edie Sedgewick, and the location for "Chelsea Girls," his film featuring the transvestites Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn. It was also the scene for "Sid and Nancy," another very Chelsea story commemorating Sid Vicious, the star of the Sex Pistols punk rock band; Sid stabbed his girlfriend, Nancy, to death in Room 100.
On the eighth floor, I, too, was thinking of violence when each morning the clanging radiators woke me at 5:30, wondering if the pounding was coming from the inside of my head or the outside. At all hours I strolled the corridors of this forlorn hotel, peered over the ancient iron balustrade of the central stairwell, lurked in the linoleum hallways, constantly alert for any phantoms from the past or any luminaries of the present, or even the future. But the residents I saw seemed to be an odd mix of retirees and young people in black leather jackets, possibly painters, the rock stars of tomorrow, or simply fans attending a show at the Garden. Hotel lore has it that Madonna stays there on occasion, possibly to bring her back to her Bohemian roots, or maybe to be sure she gets up at 5:30 in the morning. The only remaining sign of the Wild Days was the pungent and constant sweet smell of success--the odor of expensive marijuana rolling out from under battered old doors.
Doors that had no doubt witnessed much in their lifetime of service, sheltering artists at the Chelsea Hotel.
For reservations at the Chelsea Hotel: 212-243-3700. Rates start at $150. Information: www.hotel chelsea.com/newmain.html.
Cathleen Miller, coauthor of "Desert Flower" (William Morrow), lives in Napa, Calif.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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