Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Chelsea Hotel - Inside The Dream Palace

My review of  Sherill Tippins: Inside The Dream Palace - The Life And Times Of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel from the Sydney Morning Herald (I was particularly proud of getting the adjective Gormenghastian and the slightly risque Janis Joplin reference into the newspaper).

In the early nineties I spent a night in New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel just so that I could say that I spent a night in the Chelsea Hotel. It was not an entirely pleasant experience. The ancient, spring-less bed was infested with bugs, armies of cockroaches marched in formation across the floor, the heat pipes clanged alarmingly, and at two in the morning the man in the room above began alternately screaming and sobbing.
But I got out alive which was more than can be said for Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, who he stabbed to death in room #100 under the influence of heroin. Dylan Thomas too didn’t quite survive his sojourn at the Chelsea, his reputed last words “I’ve just had 18 whiskies, I think that’s the record,” were uttered in room #205.  
The Chelsea Hotel was built in 1884 by architect and speculator Philip Hubert as a kind of urban utopian community. Originally 80 elegant spacious flats, the venture went bankrupt in 1905 and was reborn as a residential hotel frequented by artists, writers and other ne’er-do-wells. The flats were subdivided many times and the décor went to seed. 
In her delightful, painstakingly researched history of the Chelsea, Sherill Tippins takes us through its many ups and downs and the cast of characters who called the Chelsea home. We meet Jackson Pollock losing his liquid lunch in front of Peggy Guggenheim and her carefully selected coterie of upmarket art buyers. We find Arthur Miller pacing the halls after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe. Bob Dylan goes to the Chelsea to write Blonde on Blonde. Allen Ginsberg hunkers down to work out bits of Howl, Andy Warhol digs on the whole scene and shoots the influential art film Chelsea Girls there. Around the same time Arthur C Clarke pops into the Chelsea to work on the screenplay and novel of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Each artist’s space was enjoyably eclectic: Miller’s rooms were stuffed with books and papers, Clarke wrote in an austere environment, George Kleinsinger, the composer of Tubby The Tuba, filled his flat with palm trees, parrots, monkeys and a giant iguana.
Tippins also steers us towards some of the building’s lesser known eccentrics and outsiders. Not everyone was famous or talented and the Chelsea had more than its fair share of horrible painters, wannabe poets and drug dealing hangers on. Occultists dined with nonagenarian widows and the trust fund children of deceased rock stars played ping pong in decaying Gormenghastian corridors.   
The Chelsea became legendary too for its celebrity couplings: Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac doing it for “literary history” in a squalid rented room, and no one can listen to Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2 without thinking of Janis Joplin’s wicked grin. As the building corroded throughout the 1980’s and 90’s Tippins unpacks the failed deals and broken promises which were always about to return the Chelsea to its glory days. Parts of the building got scaffolded over and one day all the art - taken in lieu of rent - disappeared from the walls “for safe keeping.” Inside The Dream Palace ends on an elegiac note: one plan has the Chelsea redeveloped as a tasteful, dull, upscale hotel, but more likely it will be snared in perpetual legal complications and whither on its own rotten timbers. In either case the Bohemian debauches and artistic epiphanies seem to be in the building’s past. We are however extremely fortunate that Tippins has ferreted out the stories and given us this very enjoyable momento mori. 
       When asked if the Chelsea was a good place to stay in New York Arthur Miller warned a foreign friend that it was less a European Grand Hotel and more a sort of “Guatemala or Outer Queens,” and perhaps it was, or maybe Miller just wanted to keep a good thing for himself.

27 comments:

Liam Hassan said...

Looks like a good read Adrian - the Chelsea Hotel always did strike me as being better in the imagination than in reality.

Theres a new book out too about the seventies music scene in New York called Love Goes to Buildings on Fire. Read a review of it yesterday - points out that the reason New York seemed so eclectic in the seventies was being it was so run down and cheap. Now increasing gentrification and property prices have pushed a lot of developing artists out.

So difficult to know what to do with the Chelsea - preserve it like some bland heritage piece, or let it go to rack and ruin?

seana graham said...

I don't really know much about the Chelsea Hotel, so I was wondering why the account of it sounded so familiar. Then I remembered that it featured prominently in Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland.

I think I may have also run across it again when I was doing a bit of research on another famous and notorious old hotel in Los Angeles called The Cecil.

Alan said...

Adian,The Chelsea Hotel has a lot of ghosts and powerful memories and was very avant garde New York.I feel that way about the West and East Village and the parade of jazz/folk and rock icons who played and sung their way into hearts and lives.A fine post from OZ.Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Liam

Definitely my experience of it was pretty cruddy but I missed the heyday.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

And theres also the iconic Chateau Marmont and the Bradbury...

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

And if you like the idea of the West Village in that era you should definitely watch Inside Llewyn Davis.

Alan said...

Adrian,Good tip thank you.Best Alan

Cary Watson said...

"Gormenghastian corridors"...I salute you for that. Now you just need to find the opportunity to describe someone as having Steerpikean cunning and ambition. I spent one night in a hotel in Tel Aviv in the '70s that was equally awful: no door on the communal bathroom, a spring sticking out of the middle of my mattress, and a burglar on my card table-sized balcony at three in the morning. It was horrible, but the memory of it is far more valuable to me than a night in a Holiday Inn would have produced.

Sheiler said...

I loved the music from Inside Llewyn Davis but didn't like the characters a tall. It also gave me familiar feeling of panic and dread and fatigue from my own long drives in that scene where they're trying to stay awake while driving in a snowstorm.

I had a girlfriend who was a banker and I demanded that we stay at the Chelsea. It was the late 1990s. We saw a reprise of Lily Tomlin's excellent Search for Signs of Intelligent Life at the Booth Theatre.

It was a bit like going to Naropa. I kind of knew the history (not like now where the internet is the Magic 8 ball), but actually seeing it was a bit like seeing old crabby horny Allen Ginsberg, out of his prime. And drunken stupored asshole Ken Kesey and his idiotic performance one Boulder summer night. The hotel was junky. I liked it because of the contrast with the banker girlfriend, but I knew I had arrived too late.

Brendan O'Leary said...

My missus always insisted on a made bed.

Brendan O'Leary said...

Hey Sheiler,
I was thinking the depiction of the music on Llewyn Davis was a bit mocking - but when he sang Shoals of Herring to his old man was genuinely moving.

adrian mckinty said...

Cary

I'm too old for that kind of shit now but you're right when you're younger its a good experience.

Maybe Mervyn Peake cd be the next Game of Thrones?

adrian mckinty said...

Sheiler

The feeling of panic I got was from the idea of trying to break through and knowing that you were never ever going to make it.

On a 2nd viewing I liked the lead character - you can see where he's coming from & and he's only really deliberately mean twice: once to the cat by leaving it with John Goodman (which he feels guilty) and once heckling that lady (which he gets beat up for). The incident in the apartment is more of a breakdown which he also feels guilty for.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

I thought the music was pretty good - except for the fake Clancy Brothers. I dont much care for the real Clancy brothers though...

Brendan O'Leary said...

Llewyn wasn't a nasty character, just gloomy and self-obsessed.

He was turning his back and walking out on the scene, figuring he'd exhausted the possibilities of the folk revival and didn't really clock You Know Who turning up at the end making something new out of an old song ...

So, you know, don't give up.

The film itself is full of character, incident and detail (if not narrative, more a slice of life)and could easily stand several watchings.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

I did notice one little goof though: The Incredible Journey is a Nov 63 release and the film is set in Feb 61.

seana graham said...

Of course you did.

Brendan O'Leary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brendan O'Leary said...

Adrian, I think there were several anachronisms - e.g Shoals of Herring was only written in 1960, so would hardly have made it to teh USA and he couldn't have sang it as a youngster (The Guardian spent several paragraphs on that one). It doesn't matter to me.

What I really liked was its complete lack of sentimentality about that era. You don't get many depictions of the early 60s scene like that.

Sheiler said...

Hey Brendan, I didn't know what to expect when I went to movie theatre. I was tagging along with family who were keen to see it. I'm the laziest bastard when it comes to films. I'll generally go along to whatever as long as I don't have to decide - and as long as it's not horror.

I was thinking the music would be spoofed or just lame and I was greatly surprised. Then I learned T Bone Burnett produced it, which explained everything, everything.

Sheiler said...

I guess that feeling of panic from the lead hit(s) a little too close to me.

It was an entirely uncomfortable film. I too appreciated the lack of sentimentality. I understood where the characters were coming from but I didn't like any of them.

And yet I loved it.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

I liked the fact that he even screwed up his chance of going to sea.

adrian mckinty said...

Sheiler

Hits close to the bone for me too, although I did think hey at least he has a crowd at his performances - I remember all those book readings when only 1 person wd ever show up.

Brendan O'Leary said...

I think I'll have to watch it again. There was a lot of detail. The wet sock incident sticks in my head. It was just one thing after another - I'd almost forgotten the seaman's book/union dues part.

I went with my wife and her friend who normally hate anything arty or without a strong story but they loved it. A tribute to the Coens' film making skill and the quality of the music which did give it backbone. Oh yeah, and I just remembered "Please Mr Kennedy" - just hit that JD Loudermilk sweet spot between folk and the Coasters. Quality novelty song. Try "Callin' Doctor Casey" if you don't know what I mean.

adrian mckinty said...

Brendan

I think in that universe Please Mr Kennedy becomes a hit and even though he doesnt get any royalties Justin Timberlake's character takes Davis on a tour with him and they get on a Dick Clark style TV show. So hopefully it does work out in the end. Oh and the cat comes back Incredible Journey style and she doesnt go through w the abortion.

Brendan O'Leary said...

A bloke in my local, good musician, who is now on disability benefit I think did the hit recording of the Birdie Song. He took a fixed payment of £75. There was no tour.

Hotels in indore said...

I am so grateful to find your particular post. I have bookmarked this website and I will keep visiting you for further such interesting posts.