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The Hotel Chelsea is currently closed for redevelopment. Illustration by Emma Kelly

Remembering Her Well

by Jason Kersten and Aminata Dia | Manhattan magazine | April 3, 2012

West 23rd Street’s daunting Victorian Gothic will stand for years to come, but the Hotel Chelsea, New York’s last true bastion of bohemia, has been overrun. Psychic demolition began in 2007, when proprietor Stanley Bard was ousted from the hotel’s board. For 50 years, Bard had handpicked the site’s permanent residents, including scores of America’s greatest artists, musicians and writers, plus countless others drawn by a culture of tolerance and creativity. The final blow came last fall, when developer Joseph Chetrit bought the landmarked building for $80 million. A major renovation is in progress, more than a dozen residents have been forced out and the remaining occupants are bracing for what’s expected to come: a boutique hotel à la the Chateau Marmont.

Not everyone is convinced such a plan will work. “The hotel is a right-hemisphere place, and the left-hemisphere people have always been trying to control it,” says longtime resident Tim Sullivan. “But those people can’t exist without the right-hemisphere people—the artists, the creators, the Einsteins.”

The future of America’s most creatively productive piece of real estate is unknown, but before the chain to its storied past is broken, we interviewed current and former residents who are grateful for the memories.

Jen Gatien (film producer; resident since 2009): I love the magnitude of the building. It commands that block. You can’t miss it. And the lobby is covered in art.

Raymond Foye (writer, curator and publisher; resident 1974–1979): The walls are thick. The ceilings are high. The windows are large—many are bay windows, which gives the feeling that one is looking out over the prow of a ship. It is a very quiet building, despite its reputation for wild parties and rock ’n’ roll.

Abel Ferrara (film director; lived in and filmed a documentary on the hotel): The walls are so thick that musicians can jam in there without bothering their neighbors. I think that might be how the whole artist tradition started.

Tim Sullivan (musician and artist; resident since 1981): In the middle of the hotel there’s a perfect pyramid that originally was the infirmary. Later on it was an apartment, and Sarah Bernhardt lived in there. There’s a picture of her sleeping in a coffin in the room.

Foye: Some rooms were so tiny you could hardly fit more than two people in them. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe once occupied one of these. Gregory Corso described it by saying, “You walk in the room and out the window.” Other apartments are vast and luxurious.

Faye Lane (writer and performer; resident since 1990): Some people say it’s a geographic thing—that the Chelsea is some kind of karma circuit. I don’t know about that, but I do know that creativity is contagious. And there’s something about the mix of bad art and good art on the walls that makes people feel free to create. It has done that for me. Living in the Chelsea, creating feels not only OK, it feels imperative. I love that.

Foye: Stanley selected people the way a museum curator would select paintings. He loved creative people, and the hotel was a monument to his unique vision. I often felt that he was the greatest artist of them all.

Sybao Cheng-Wilson (curator; resident since 1989): My brother Ching was an up-and-coming artist who could not always pay his rent on time, so Stanley would allow Ching to pay the rent late, even if that meant many months later. Stanley afforded him the security to just paint.

Ed Hamilton (from his book, Legends of the Chelsea Hotel; resident since 1995): Among his many endearing qualities, Stanley possesses a congenital inability to admit that anything bad has ever taken place in the hotel. There are no roaches or mice, and certainly no junkies have ever lived here. If pressed, he might be willing to admit that Sid and Nancy had a slight altercation one night back in the ’70s, but nothing untoward has happened since.

Arthur Miller (from his essay “The Chelsea Affect”; former resident): The Chelsea in the ’60s seemed to combine two atmospheres: a scary optimistic chaos which predicted the hip future, and at the same time the feel of a massive, old-fashioned, sheltering family. That at least was the myth one nursed in one’s mind, but like all myths it did not altogether stand inspection.

Nile Cmylo (clothing and costume designer; resident since 1989): The Chelsea Hotel at one point was like a crossroads where people on the way up met people on the way down. They would meet in the middle somewhere. It was that kind of a place.

Foye: Isabella Gardner had the most elegant salon at the hotel. On Sundays she would host an ongoing reading of Plato’s Symposium: Virgil Thomson played Socrates; Gregory Corso played Alcibiades.

Sullivan: Most of the famous people that have ever lived here have all been very approachable and very human. I never saw any kind of elitist-ness with the famous people that lived here. I guess those people would stay uptown.

Foye: I once had dinner at Victor Bockris’ apartment with Andy Warhol and William Burroughs. Both were very shy. Victor was trying desperately to get the conversation moving. At one point he said, “Gee, this is interesting: Andy, you’ve been shot, and Bill, you’ve shot someone.” There was an uncomfortable silence. “Who did you shoot, Bill?” Andy asked. “Oh, that was a long time ago, Andy. I haven’t shot anyone lately,” he replied.

Lane: My all-time favorite Chelsea Hotel character was the infamous Stormé DeLarverie. When I met her she was in her 70s and somewhat frail, but ever the gentleman, she insisted on carrying my heavy groceries. She would also escort me to the subway and would scold me if I came home too late at night. “You let me know,” she said, “if anyone bothers you. I have a gun, and I’m not afraid to use it!” Stormé told me she threw the first brick at Stonewall, and that the whole thing started because she kicked a police officer in the butt—she said he was asking for it. I knew Stormé as a drag king, but I saw pictures of her as a woman and she was gorgeous.

Sullivan: Janis Joplin used to live in 723, and she had a lot of parties. The lady next door complained to Mr. Bard about the noise. So Janis goes and knocks on her neighbor’s door and apologizes, and they became very close friends. Over the years, when she was out on tour, Janis would always write letters. The woman showed them to me and the autographed albums Janis had given her.

Gatien: Viva used to live in my apartment, then Gaby Hoffman, the actress, then later Ethan Hawke. Viva battled with Stanley all the time. The story is that one night she hammered through the walls to get to the vacant apartment next door, knowing that possession is nine-tenths of the law. It worked. It was a great apartment, big with lots of light.

Foye: I met the poet James Schuyler in the elevator. Also the actor Peter O’Toole. This occurred a few days after 9/11. I was reading a newspaper. “What’s in the news,” he asked gravely. “This is the Village Voice,” I replied. “It’s mostly good news—music and art.” “That is good news!” he replied.

Gatien: There was a wonderful man who lived at the end of my hall, Willem van Es. One night he had gotten into a disagreement with his girlfriend, who decided to hole herself up with a rifle. Chelsea Hotel apartments are so coveted that she was plotting to remove him from his own apartment. NYPD’s SWAT team stormed the hallway and demanded that she open the door. She was arrested and brought to Bellevue and promptly returned at 4am.

Ferrara: I believe every [expletive] thing they say about that hotel, about the vortex, about it being haunted. It’s all [expletive] true.

Sullivan: When I moved in, there was this prostitute who lived here; her thing was that she dressed up like Betty Boop. She ended up getting AIDS and dying… And she had been dead maybe 10 years by this point: Somebody was staying in her room, and she was looking in the mirror and saw this image of Betty Boop looking back at her in broad daylight. She freaked out.

Lane: Arthur Miller lived in my apartment for a while, and he wrote A View From the Bridge there. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe stayed here with him many nights. Imagine, Marilyn Monroe sitting on my toilet! When we first moved in I would lie in the bathtub trying to channel her. “Marilyn,” I would whisper, “come into me! Come into me!” Then I started reading about how troubled she was, and I changed my tune: “Marilyn, get out of me! Get out of me!”

Sullivan: Over the years people have told me they’ve seen things. One guy subletted his apartment out to a friend of his, and she called him and said, “Listen, I can’t stay here because I’ve been seeing things; there’s weird energy.” I don’t think she knew that was part of Sid Vicious’ room. Another guy I knew took me into the room, and he said, “It’s kind of spooky.” He opened it up and it had a weird aura about it. I said, “I don’t even want to go in there.”

Ferrara: I wouldn’t go near Sid’s room. I didn’t even like to go on that floor.

Lane: I loved Dee Dee Ramone; in the late ’90s I saw him often in the sixth floor hallway. He seemed kind of shy and troubled, but he always stopped to chat and always had something fascinating to say. I told him that I had once seen a ghost in my apartment, and he said that didn’t surprise him, as the basement of the Chelsea Hotel was a corridor to hell. I said, “How do you know?” He said, “I saw the devil down there.”

Shanyn Leigh (Actress; resident in 2008): I played Janis Joplin in Abel’s movie. To help get into the role, I carried around a bottle of Southern Comfort; I filled it with apple juice. One night I set it on the table and went to bed. A loud explosion woke me up—the bottle had exploded! I think Janis was mad because it wasn’t Southern Comfort.

Sullivan: I’ve seen people jump out windows and die. I’ve seen fires in the middle of the night, coming back from Danceteria—seen flames shooting out of the side of the building and everyone is out on the street.

Cmylo: When I first moved in, a drag queen died in the bathtub beneath me the first week. One year there were two suicides on the solstices: Somebody committed suicide on the winter solstice by jumping on the inside, then somebody committed suicide in the summer by jumping on the outside.

Foye: The hotel reminded me of a Hindu temple I once visited in Tamil Nadu [India], a major center for sacred astrology. A person’s horoscope was cast from the moment they walked across the threshold of the temple, because it was assumed that it took the person several lifetimes to arrive at that point. Therefore, it was considered a kind of birth date. I always felt that way about the Chelsea: The day you crossed the threshold was the day your life began.

 

Jen Gatien produced the critically acclaimed documentary Chelsea on the Rocks, which features many more great stories from the hotel. Her latest film is Jack and Diane.

Raymond Foye is the publisher of Hanuman Books and a well-known literary critic. He also curates for the artist Philip Taffe.

Abel Ferrara directed Chelsea on the Rocks, as well as many other films, including the original Bad Lieutenant, which he also co-wrote.

Tim Sullivan is the guitarist for the surf-rock band the Supertones, whose new album, Mysto Incognito, is due out later this year.

Faye Lane is the creator of the award-winning comedy Faye Lane’s Beauty Shop Stories, currently in its second year at the Soho Playhouse.

Syboa Cheng-Wilson manages the vast artistic estate of her brother Ching Ho Cheng, some of which may be seen at chinghocheng.com.

Ed Hamilton is the author of the book Legends of the Chelsea Hotel. His popular blog, Living with Legends, chronicles past and present life in the building.

Nile Cmylo’s dresses and costume designs have appeared in several episodes of Sex and the City. Recently, she designed tour costumes for Mariah Carey.

Shanyn Leigh has appeared in numerous films, including Public Enemies and 4:44 Last Day on Earth.