New York’s Chelsea Hotel is the Zelig of American artistic landmarks.
Looming over West 23d Street, the Chelsea seems to pop up in the life stories of every crazed or visionary writer, avant garde artist, and Warholian fame hog of the past 125 years. Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Thomas Wolfe, Allen Ginsberg, Edie Sedgwick, Patti Smith, Milos Forman, Bob Dylan, Christo, Dee Dee Ramone — each had a Chelsea chapter, a formative period within its shabby walls and wrought-iron balconies. If you created or inspired a significant book, movie, or piece of art during the 20th century, odds are that the unofficial artists’ colony, with its dusty carpeting, art-filled hallways, and rusty sinks, has photo-bombed your story.
For a writer, the Chelsea is an embarrassment of riches, which Sherill Tippins mines in “Inside the Dream Palace.” This mostly chronological history of the hotel comes overstuffed with legends and near legends, tales of artistic movements and classics from Wolfe’s “You Can’t Go Home Again” to Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde,” and portraits of doomed romances and lonely deaths, most famously the fatal stabbing of Nancy Spungen. Nancy was found dead with her head under the sink in Room 100, while her drug-addled boyfriend, Sid Vicious, wandered the halls crying.
Tragedies are everywhere here, as so many brilliant, creative minds engaged in timeless flirtations with self-destruction. Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at the 12-story-high Chelsea in 1953, saying to his girlfriend in his last moments of clarity, “I love you . . . but I’m alone,” before giving way to hallucinations and, finally, a coma.
Irish playwright Brendan Behan had been kicked out of the more respectable Algonquin Hotel when he arrived at the Chelsea in 1963 after alcoholism had taken over his life. He was seen wobbling on the sidewalk outside the hotel, trying to strike up conversation with strangers. After a few seizures, he returned to Ireland, where he died the following year. In the wake of a divorce from the troubled Marilyn Monroe and the publicity storm that ensued, Arthur Miller sought refuge at the Chelsea, where he went on to explore their relationship in his play “After the Fall.”
Tippins also provides plenty of less morbid dish in her portrait of the “bohemian headquarters,” as she calls the hotel. Unconventional behavior, including prostitution, was accepted at the Chelsea, where neighbors were generally nonjudgmental. “[N]o one gave a damn what anyone else chose to do sexually,” Tippins writes. In 1967, Janis Joplin had sex with Leonard Cohen after they met cute in the hotel’s famously stubborn elevator. She was looking for Kris Kristofferson, and Cohen teasingly pretended to be him. Cohen memorialized the tryst in his song “Chelsea Hotel #2,” in which Joplin tells him, with her typical frankness, “We are ugly but we have the music.”
In an odd collision of literary worlds, Jack Kerouac and Gore Vidal had a painfully self-conscious and drunken sexual adventure at the Chelsea in 1953 before “On the Road” was published and the Beats’ adrenalized writing captivated the country. Kerouac, in a sea captain’s hat and a white T-shirt, was out tippling in New York with William S. Burroughs when they ran into Vidal. Late in the night, Kerouac and Vidal agreed that they needed to have a historic hookup. “At the front desk,” Tippins writes, “each signed his real name in the hotel log, grandly assuring the bemused night clerk that this register would be famous someday.” With some concern for his public image, Kerouac later failed to include the night’s sexual denouement in his autobiographical novel, “The Subterraneans.”
The first chapters of “Inside the Dream Palace” trade on the less notorious personalities who stayed at the Chelsea long before the Beats, the Factory kids, the punks, and the likes of Sam Shepard, Patti Smith, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Those earlier hotel inhabitants were no less madly creative, but they were quieter and less dazzled, perhaps, by the Chelsea’s growing mythology. Tippins doesn’t ignore them; she writes at length about author and Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells and “Spoon River Anthology” author Edgar Lee Masters. But her enthusiasm is far more evident — and her storytelling more energetic — in her coverage of the messier and more well-known later residents. Occasionally, in order to squeeze yet another famous name into her narrative, she moves absurdly far away from events at the Chelsea.
Tippins also tends to get lost in the tons of information she has pulled together. “Inside the Dream Palace” is marred by too many convoluted anecdotes and a sloppy sense of chronology. Ultimately, though, the facts about the Chelsea and its cultural importance manage to speak for themselves.
The Chelsea eventually fell into serious disrepair, moving from scruffy to moldering, after decades of financial struggle; two years ago a real-estate magnate bought the property and sold it to a boutique hotel chain that’s still in the process of rehabbing the building. It has traveled far from the original vision of the builders, which was based on utopian philosopher Charles Fourier’s notions of diversity and harmony. When the Chelsea opened in 1884, the apartments were sized and priced in order to draw residents from different economic levels. The run-down home of memories began its fascinating, extraordinary life as a dream of community through architecture.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.