Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Tales of the Chelsea!
The Hotel Chelsea was, and still is, a bohemian enclave at 222 West 23rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in New York City. Affectionately known as “The Chelsea”, it has been a landmark property, home to writers, musicians, painters, actors, poets, photographers and fashion designers since its inception as a co-operative apartment building and later on as a residential hotel with 250 suites and rooms. If you wanted to meet any of the major New York City “art people” of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s you would probably find them sipping drinks, when they were flush, at the bar of El Quijote, the restaurant on the hotel’s ground floor. El Quijote too was full of rich history and tasty Spanish seafood delights, presided over by Manolo, the head barman of the eatery.
The majority of the residents of the Chelsea were a unique lot of New York City’s “names in the arts”, when the hotel was a haven for artists that loved to mingle and live in an environment that fostered creativity. The Chelsea and its denizens was bizarre and wonderful and strange.
The Chelsea is still around in history and lore, even though the Victorian Gothic red brick building has been amid ownership changeovers and renovations since 2011 and currently accepts no new permanent tenants. Approximately 50 of the permanent residents still reside in the Chelsea amidst construction debris, gutted hallways and empty rooms being updated and no restaurant on premises. There is a harsh contrast between original units with stained-glass windows and ornate woodwork and those recently renovated with fresh stark paint and crisp modern lines; there’s no denying that the current renovations have begun to eradicate much of the Chelsea’s historic integrity, room by room.
Many of the Beat Generation writers and poets, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Herbert Huncke, Greg Corso and William S. Burroughs lived here when they returned from France in the mid ‘60s. Brendan Behan saw his last years at the hotel as did his fellow poet Dylan Thomas who, on November 9, 1953, downed 18 straight whiskeys at the bar of the White Horse Tavern, a record as he declared, lapsed into a coma when he returned to the Chelsea and was later pronounced dead at St. Vincent’s hospital from a severe lung infection with extensive advanced bronchopneumonia, not with alcohol poisoning as his attending physician, Dr. Milton Feltenstein, a celebrity doctor, had diagnosed.
In room 211, Bob Dylan wrote songs for his classic 1966 “Blonde on Blonde” album, and 10 years later, in the song “Sara”, he would name the hotel with the line "staying up for days in The Chelsea Hotel, writing Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for you."
In Room 424, Leonard Cohen had an evening’s liaison with Janis Joplin, whom he met at the El Quijote, and immortalized the occasion in the songs “Chelsea Hotel” 1 & 2.
Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe moved in at the Chelsea during very early 1960, just before Miller and Marilyn parted, and he wrote three plays there including “After the Fall”. Arthur C. Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick, both residents at the time, co-wrote the script for “2001: A Space Odyssey” while living at the Chelsea. Andy Warhol shot the film “Chelsea Girls” there. Madonna lived at the Chelsea for a while and in 1992 shot pictures for her book “Sex”. Ethan Hawke made a movie called “Chelsea Walls” while living in a two-bedroom apartment, after his break-up with Uma Thurman. Douglas Glenn Colvin a/k/a Dee Dee Ramone, of the Ramones punk rock group, was moved between a few different rooms during his stay and wrote a book called “Chelsea Horror Hotel” about his experiences. Christo and Jeanne-Claude once stole the doorknob from their bathroom door for an art project; the doorknob is now in the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn Museum. Singer and songwriter Patti Smith lived at room 1017 with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, where Mapplethorpe took the first photographs that made him famous. A rooftop studio still belongs to the multi-disciplinary artist and hair stylist Gerald DeCock; previously it was inhabited by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and before that was the home of George Kleinsinger and his family, including a pet cobra and small alligator that resided in his bathtub.
A unique event at the Chelsea comes to mind when, a few weeks before his demise, the 100th birthday of composer and pianist Eubie Blake was celebrated with dinner at a private dinning room of El Quijote and later on a party at the suite of Dr. Helen Armstead Johnson, the Black Theater historian par excellence. During the party, Eubie sat at Helen’s upright piano and played ragtime, some of his own compositions, and other jazz pieces for 4 hours straight, a couple times doing 4-hand pieces with S.I. Hayakawa, who had flown in with his wife from San Francisco to be part of the celebration. Other notables that were part of the event were: George Kleinsinger, composer and conductor, also a resident-artist at the hotel; Ulysses "Slow Kid" Thompson, tap dancer and comedian, and husband of Florence Mills, the "Queen of Happiness"; Florence Turner – New York’s own version of Anais Nin and author of “At the Chelsea”; Maurice Girodias, the avant-garde publisher of Olympia Press in Paris; composer Virgil Thompson; Bettina Grossman, a brilliant and prolific artist that is also still an artist-in-residence at the Chelsea; Michel Auder and Viva (Janet Susan Mary Hoffmann); Greg and Maurice Hines; yours truly, and a few others whose names I no longer remember.
The Chelsea has featured and collected the work of many painters who passed through its doors as well as having a collection of priceless manuscripts. As a matter of fact, the entrance lobby and sweeping staircase and a number of hallways, always featured paintings, sculptures, collages and art ephemera on the walls, hanging from the ceiling and sitting at the corners during the hotel’s heyday as a thriving artist-colony.
I heard a rumor that Stanley Bard’s father, David, had won the hotel at a high-stakes card game played in the New Yorker Hotel, but that is just a rumor; the hotel was purchased in 1943 by David Bard and a couple other investors.
Stanley Bard, the General Manager and part-owner as well as patron-of-the-arts until 2007 (when he was unceremoniously ousted by the other investors) would accept manuscripts or art pieces from struggling residents, en lieu of rentals fees, to assist the ones whose art was not selling, but also to complement the hotel’s and his personal art collection. Other pieces were given to him out of love and generosity by resident artists. Another source of art for the hotel was decorations and paintings created and left in the rooms and apartments when an artist moved out – a bathroom door comes to mind painted by Themos Maipas, a notable Greek painter that lived at the Chelsea from ‘67 to early ‘72; the door was painted with a life size image of the artist’s “rooster man” signature subject. When Themos returned to Greece in 1972, Stanley had the door removed from the room and it hung in his office for a few years until it was consigned to the NYC gallery that represented Maipas and it was eventually sold at auction.
“The Chelsea is the last outpost of bohemianism in New York City” said passionate Chelsea advocate Artie Nash who remains in Room 205, Dylan Thomas’s former home. A sign on his window facing West 23rd St. declares, “Bring Back the Bards.”
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