Down and Out of the Chelsea Hotel
by James Lough
New York’s Chelsea Hotel has a special place in American culture. It has surely been a home, or a home-away-from-home, to more influential artists than any other building in the nation. To list the famous names in American art and literature that have stayed there would require more words than can be devoted to one book review, and would serve as an encyclopedia of the last hundred plus years of U.S. history.
While these names have included veritable superstars, the hotel did tend to attract the more Bohemian elements of the culture. As such, it has played home to numerous characters associated with the Beat Generation and subsequent counterculture movements. Jack Kerouac is rumored to have written part of On the Road there, and Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs also stayed at the Chelsea when visiting Manhattan in the fifties.
The focus of Lough’s book is not a general overview of the hotel’s colorful history; consequently, he passes over many of the famous names in favor of those who resided there in its final decades, and avoids recounting stories – such as the death of Nancy Spungen – which have been told countless times before. Instead, after many years of painstaking research, Lough has managed to piece together a wonderful picture of the lives of some of the hotel’s famous latter-day guests. Of particular interest to the Beatdom reader will be the stories involving Herbert Huncke and Gregory Corso, parts of which were excerpted in issue eight of Beatdom. (For issue twelve, Beatdom contributor and author, Spencer Kansa, conducted an interview with Huncke at the Chelsea.)
Throughout the book, Lough provides some wonderful descriptions of the building itself, which has come to mean so much to so many people. He refers to it as a “monstrous red brick eco-system of creativity.” The stories of artists sharing ideas and work with one another attest to this poetic phrasing. In these rooms, the exchange of songs was common, as poets and musicians drank and took copious amounts of illegal substances in one another’s “houses” (the rooms, Lough informs us, were more commonly referred to as “houses” despite their diminutive size).
Lough’s attitude towards the Chelsea’s owners – the Bard family – is somewhat negative, despite their fostering of artistic talent. Seemingly showing a phenomenal awareness of future trends, Stanley Bard famously accepted artwork in lieu of rent, yet Lough is quick to observe that much of what Bard accepted was worthless; and the hotel’s famous art-decked lobby is home to some truly awful pieces of work. He calls the collection “Awkwardian.”
In 2011, the Chelsea finally succumbed to the gentrification of New York and closed its doors to artists, gangsters, and Bohemian types, instead charging extortionate rates to more sophisticated clientele. Lough is scathing of this and appears to tie its demise to that of American Bohemia, and to a wider decline in creativity and culture throughout the Western world.
Despite this lament for the death of art, and the end of an important and productive era, Lough’s writing belies a true passion for this “beautiful old whore” of a building. His research is clearly a labor of love, and the book, while informative, is incredibly readable, thanks to his wit and a liberal dose of amusing stories that have otherwise been lost to history.
1981 BBC documentary on the Chelsea Hotel and its legendary inhabitants. This is good stuff. Includes footage of Quentin Crisp, Nico (backed up on guitar by my old friend Joe Bidewell), Warhol, Burroughs, Viva, Jobriath (2 years before he died of AIDS), Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard and more.
”And then he was a she…”-Lou Reed
Chelsea Girls is a 1966 experimental underground film directed by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. The film was Warhol’s first major commercial success after a long line of avant-garde art films (both feature length and short). It was shot at the Hotel Chelsea and other locations in New York City, and follows the lives of several of the young women who live there, and stars many of Warhol’s superstars. It is presented in a split screen, accompanied by alternating soundtracks attached to each scene and an alternation between black-and-white and color photography. The original cut runs at just over three hours long.
The title, Chelsea Girls, is a reference to the location in which the film takes place. It was the inspiration for star Nico’s 1967 debut album, Chelsea Girl. The album featured a ballad-like track titled “Chelsea Girls”, written about the hotel and its inhabitants who appear in the film. The girl in the poster is Clare Shenstone, at the age of 16, an aspiring artist who would later be influenced by Francis Bacon. Notably missing is a sequence Warhol shot with his most popular superstar Edie Sedgwick which, according to Morrissey, Warhol excised from the final film at the insistence of Sedgwick herself, who claimed she was under contract to Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, at the time the film was made. Sedgwick’s footage has been used in another Warhol film “Afternoon.”