“I remember her well from the Chelsea Hotel” sang Leonard Cohen, about his brief sexual encounter (blow job) with Janis Joplin. Somehow that’s that type of song you’d expect to be written about an encounter between the melodramatic poet, and the saddest woman in Rock History - especially when the Chelsea Hotel was involved.
It’s not often that a building is as famous as the people who have live there, and you have to wonder, who made who famous? Was it the grand old lady whose doors opened 1883 as a luxury co-op residence who made her inhabitants famous - or was it the inhabitants’ fame (and infamy) that gave the Chelsea her status. However it came about, there’s no doubt that even though her time as tallest building in New York City was brief, she will always have her place in history.
It was as early as 1905 that she was converted into a hotel and she catered to the elite of New York’s literary and theatre communities. The forties and fifties saw her still home to her beloved artists, but the body was showing wear and tear and gradually she began the long slow descent into flophouse. Large suites were carved up into small rooms to better serve the down and outs with little money and she would have probably not survived if not for her long term tenants fighting to hold on their own rooms.
For those of you, who like me, have always held romantic notions about certain geographical locations; the Left Bank in Paris for instance, The Chelsea Hotel has probably made herself known to you already. My generation at least knows her as the place where Sid Vicious finally brought his ignoble existence to a finale. However, if you really want to get to know something about anything these days, you need an insider’s input. Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel by Ed Hamilton is your pass key into the past, presents, and some very unfortunate sounding potential futures.
For those of you wondering about Mr. Hamilton’s credentials, well he’s been living in the Chelsea for the past nearly dozen years, which gives him access to the ongoing antics of her inhabitants of course. More importantly, he has been writing about the Chelsea on a regular basis for the majority of that time and is host of Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea Blog.
He has made it part of his life’s work, as he is a writer by trade as well, to become the official collector, repository, and reporter on all things Chelsea. Trolling through the memories of older inhabitants he learns the history of events from the past (The Zombie in the cupboard for instance) that an outsider might not have found out about. It also seems that Ed is willing to give even those with the frailest grips on sanity a listen, meaning even some of the less likely legends are revealed.
But some of the genuine denizens have stories that are even more exciting than any fiction writer could have dreamed up. For instance, Storme DeLarverie; is probably not a household name to most of us, but if it weren’t for this brave woman gay and lesbian rights may have taken years longer to entrench. She threw the first punch in what has become known as the Stonewall Rebellion.
The police of New York City were coming down hard on the gay clubs - rounding people up and arresting them for no reason except harassment and figuring no one would ever fight back. That was until Storme threw the first punch and cold conked a cop. That’s when the gays and lesbians threw up their infamous “Stonewall” and fought the cops to a stand still. All it had taken was one person to show they weren’t going to take it and everybody else found the backbone. That one person was Storme DeLarverie - the cross dressing Lesbian.
It’s Ed Hamilton’s introduction of people like this that makes Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel truly invaluable I think. He says at the beginning of the book that it hadn’t been his intent to write about the celebrities of the hotel, but that some of them were just strong of character to be denied. That doesn’t mean you can expect a typical, “So and so did this” while staying at the Chelsea - Ed is far to human a writer for the important people to be turned into gossip fodder.
Two of my favorite episodes concern two survivors of the chaotic Punk years of New York, Dee Dee Ramone and Patti Smith. Dee Dee was an on again off again resident of the Hotel for most of his adult life it seems. He would use her rooms to hole up when he was trying to go clean, or even when he was just looking for somewhere to get away from the world. Ed’s recounting of his conversations with Dee Dee make him sound so human, lost, and sad, that his eventual death by overdose becomes unavoidable.
Patti Smith took a room in the Chelsea for a few weeks to work on a book of poetry, and one night Ed happened to come across her in the halls of the hotel. They didn’t know each other, and maybe still don’t, but from his description of her it sounds like she was out looking for ghosts from the days she spent in the hotel. There was just something beautifully haunting about his description of the whole encounter that removed many of the harsh planes from Patti’s psyche for me.
I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed most about reading the Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel; Ed Hamilton’s ability to keep everything low key and gentle. That’s not to say he can’t be judgmental, but it’s understandable when you spend a good deal of your time trying to keep junkies from shooting up in the bathroom you share with three other rooms on your floor. That would put the saintliest person on edge I would think.
As with so many other wonderful things now the fate of the Chelsea is uncertain. The owners finally managed to maneuver the manager of fifty years, Stanley Bard, out of his job and have started to do their best to rid themselves of all the long term residents. The fight continues today to keep the grand old lady as she has been since 1905 when she opened her doors as a hotel, but commerce and gentrification are tough opponents. Ed Hamilton’s Legends Of The Chelsea Hotel, published by Thunder’s Mouth Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, might just be the punch that’s needed to get people off their feet to save the old lady - but she’ll need some help.
Read Ed’s book, check out Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea Blog, and keep informed. You may find a way that you can help save The Chelsea. The world is in desperate need of originality, even if it comes in the shape of an elderly and care worn hotel.
(Originally posted December 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.