The Chelsea Hotel: A ‘Desperate Haven’ For New York’s Creatives
In Service95 Book Club’s Monthly Read for September, Just Kids, Patti Smith recounts the year she lived at the Chelsea Hotel. Here, we find out a little more about the history of the legendary hotel and its resident dreamers, poets, rockstars and artists
Turn onto 23rd Street in New York City and you’ll see a neon sign that reads ‘Hotel Chelsea’. Once upon a time you could gaze at big paintings in its grotty lobby, watching Stanley Bard, the manager and part-owner; his son, David, and the many legendary Chelsea guests passing through. You could sit in El Quijote bar and breathe in the ghosts of over a century of resident artists, musicians and writers.
Built between 1883-85, the 12-storey, 250-room red brick Hotel Chelsea (commonly known as the Chelsea Hotel) was one of New York City’s first cooperative apartment buildings. Soundproofed walls meant composers wouldn’t bother writers; so while Mark Twain wrote, Isadora Duncan danced on the ornate staircase. Over 60% of the hotel’s rooms were occupied by long-term residents. To this date, some 40 tenants remain. Perhaps we know some of their stories. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas drafted Under Milk Wood here, and through pneumonia or whiskey imbibed at The White Horse Tavern (or both) fell into a coma and died. William Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch; Andy Warhol shot Chelsea Girls, his split-screen experimental film. Bob Dylan composed Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands in room 211. Actress and Warhol ‘superstar’ Edie Sedgwick set fire to her room. Janis Joplin rode the lift to room 411, looking for Kris Kristofferson. Instead, she found Leonard Cohen, and Cohen composed Chelsea Hotel #2. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote After The Fall in room 614 following his divorce from Marilyn Monroe. When Robert Mapplethorpe had his nipple pierced, it was filmed by Sandy Daley as Robert Having His Nipple Pierced. Life is art in the Chelsea Hotel.
To Patti Smith, the Chelsea was the ultimate refuge. She and Robert arrived penniless, Robert gravely ill. They were given a tiny room by Stanley. “The hotel is an energetic, desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder. Guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie poets, playwrights, broken-down filmmakers, and French actors. Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world,” (Just Kids). In the 2022 documentary Dreaming Walls, it’s Patti we see on the roof of the Chelsea. “Dylan Thomas used to hang out on this very roof! I’ve always wanted to be where the big guys were, you know?” She is: when William Burroughs stumbles out of El Quijote bar, it’s Patti who straightens his tie and pops him in a cab.
“I don’t think people realise how strange it really is,” a resident says in the 1981 BBC documentary Chelsea Hotel. Stanley Bard ‘the Robin Hood of inn keepers’ takes us, with discretion, into this world. The singer Nicogrowls her Chelsea Girls song in the half-light of one room. The English writer and actor Quentin Crispunpacks his lavender hair dye: “The very first time I came, I only stayed five days and there was a robbery and a fire and murder,” he said. Bohemia had shifted to anarchy at the Chelsea.
Bard was ousted by the hotel board in 2007. Under reconstruction for 10 years, Hotel Chelsea recently reopened as an upscale boutique hotel. The current hotelier-owners call out the surnames of past residents in bold capitals on their website – a shamanic litany of their ‘notable denizens’. Time will tell how the ghosts will dance.
A Scene From Dreaming Walls: Inside The Chelsea Hotel, © Clindoeilfilms. Courtesy Of Magnolia Pictures; Patti Smith On A Balcony At The Chelsea Hotel, May 1971 © David Gahr/Getty Images; Hotel Chelsea Exterior, Getty Images; Chelsea Girls Movie Poster, Alamy; Janis Joplin In The Lobby Of The Chelsea Hotel, March 1969 © David Gahr/Getty Images; Hotel Chelsea Facade © Annie Schlechter; Patti Smith And Eric Anderson At The Chelsea Hotel, May 1971, © David Gahr/Getty Images