AT THE CHELSEA By Florence Turner Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 150 pp. $13.95
When in Gotham, the famous bivouac at the Plaza or the Waldorf. The infamous slum, but stylishly. For nearly a century, the Bohemian aristocracy -- artists, poets, writers, composers -- has pitched its dreamy tents at the Chelsea Hotel, a heap of blackened brick and wrought iron on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. In eras past, the lobby has been furnished with paintings and sculptures tendered in lieu of back rent. Dingy and down at the heels, the Chelsea's greatest luxury has been its tolerance -- of mad dogs and Irish poets, pimps and rock bands, pet monkeys, pythons, spitting punks and divas divine.
Sarah Bernhardt always took a Chelsea suite for the New York theater season, sweeping in with her own sheets and a custom-made coffin that doubled as a bed. Big, bad Thomas Wolfe huffed and roared through the once-elegant halls, and teetered drunkenly amid the crated manuscripts in Room 831, where he wrote "You Can't Go Home Again." Dylan Thomas finished "Under Milkwood" at the Chelsea, then died of alcoholism at St. Vincent's Hospital, a few blocks away. Arthur Miller lived there until his wife decided it was no fit place to raise children. Janis Joplin drifted through in a mist of pot smoke and Southern Comfort. Bob Dylan kept to his room, feverishly writing songs. Sex Pistol Sid Vicious checked into the Chelsea, then checked out on a police gurney, DOA on heroin.
In 1964, Florence Turner, yet another aspiring novelist, bumped her suitcase into the Chelsea lobby, and into Thomas Wolfe's old room. There she stayed for 11 years. Turner was also, at various times, a theater scout for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a pornography writer and confidante/muse to the Chelsea denizens she came to know in her tenure there. "At the Chelsea" is her memoir of the hotel's tumultuous '60s, as well as a cursory history of the Bohemian culture that had flourished there for nearly 80 years before. Passionate about her adopted home and its brilliant, if loopy tenants, Turner seems to feel the same affectionate nostalgia that inspired another resident, Edgar Lee Masters, to fret:
Who will then know that Mark Twain used to stroll
In the gorgeous dining-room, that princesses,
Poets and celebrated actresses
Lived here and made its soul
The Chelsea has soul, a case Turner makes convincingly, fondly -- and, aptly, with an impressionist's jumpy, eccentric eye. At times, this approach can be frustrating. Turner's narrative is often as serendipitous as a hotel lobby. Characters drift in and out in jumbled chronology, pause in an alcove, then disappear. Here's Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Stanley Kubrick. What were Sam Shepard and Patti Smith talking about at all those impromptu dinners with Turner? If waiters watched "with stunned expressions" at Janis Joplin's dinner parties, just who was face-down in the fajitas? Turner tantalizes, but offers too few close-ups. You'd like her to have a good sit-down with Alice Tibbets, Edgar Lee Masters' great and good friend. Or with her own dear friend, the designer Charles James, who dressed Dietrich and Gypsy Rose Lee, then faded like a crumpled corsage.
There is a charmingly vague attempt at chronology and theme, with a chapter titled "The Sixties -- Painters and Pushers" and one on the Chelsea's famous fatalities, "The Harder They Fall." But the book works best when it's viewed as the family album of a brawling, brilliant, sophisticated and sleazy tribe of loners. The way they tear at -- and care for -- one another offers a close, if messy, look at the artistic temperament.
It's often very funny. Disaster looms when composer George ("Tubby the Tuba") Kleinsinger's regular shipment of live crickets (for his iguanas) is delayed by a postal strike. "He worried that the iguanas might starve," writes Turner, "and two musicians, Raoul and Stephanie, wrote a charming song to commemorate the coming tragedy." They pull together, these misfits. Artists reel through the corridors and cling to one another, throwing poor little parties, cadging free drinks from the long-suffering restaurateurs downstairs.
Turner's memoir becomes more cohesive in the second half, when she abandons a gossip-column prose style bristling with names, and lets us know more of herself. Game and compassionate, Turner comes off as a cross between Auntie Mame and Grace Slick. She can be sentimental, and hilariously matter-of-fact when discussing tenants' peccadilloes. ("Fearing cats, he slept with his glasses on in case a cat should walk across his face.") Having already raised three children, she isn't past taking a 22-year-old lover. Or two. ("Another man sailed, like an oil tanker, into my life.") She survives her own nervous breakdown and hospitalization with the gentle help of Chelsea friends eager to return a favor.
The Chelsea has never been a place where one just says no. It's the brave, and often foolish, propensity to say yes that has distinguished the Chelsea's artists and its management. And toward the end of this slim volume, we get Turner's take on the vital, if sloppy, dialectic that produces both heartache, and art:
"There were times ... when the Chelsea tenants, carried on a stream, a flood of misfortune, fell drunken, hit their heads, vomited, knelt desperately, unheeding in their misery. Then, fastidious in despair, they cleaned and polished and searched the corners of their rooms for new hope."
There was always another gallery opening, another poor little party with gin in paper cups. At the Chelsea there's a lovely, wobbly toast: "To the innkeeper! And Lord bless this dump."
The reviewer is a staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine.