The Story Of New York's Most Infamous Hotel

From punk murders to Hollywood heartbreak, the Chelsea Hotel was at the heart of golden era New York.
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Matt Allen
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From punk murders to Hollywood heartbreak, the Chelsea Hotel was at the heart of golden era New York.

Much like the celebrity guests that would ultimately descend upon the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, the building itself was created in an eccentric mold. An Anglo - French immigrant called Philip Hubert was the man responsible for the birth of this great building with the original intention of using his architectural creation to house rich and poor people together in an artistic statement to remove the great class divide. Built in 1884 the 12-storey building was at one point the tallest in all of New York; however the social experiment that the building was meant for did not share the same success as the heralded architectural design. In the early 1900’s the reinvention into a hotel was forced to save the building from dilapidation. What followed over the coming decades showed that the Chelsea attracted eccentric and surreal characters from around the world with a magnetic allure. Artists, writers and musicians came in their droves and left behind them bizarre and traumatic tales. To this day it is famed for its alcoholic excess, a safe haven for those in the public eye who were deemed too troublesome to live anywhere else.

Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, the Grateful Dead and Patti Smith, Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, Virgil Thomson, Brigid Berlin, Brendan Behan, Sam Shepard, Charles Bukowski, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Viva, Gaby Hoffmann, Jim Carroll, Madonna, and Larry Rivers. With a residential list bursting with names that wouldn’t look out of place on a Hollywood walk of fame it is no surprise that the building has been home to the creation of some of the most influential pieces of literature, film and music the world has seen over the years. The ground breaking novel 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke was written in one of the many rooms and the composer George Kleinsinger wrote some of his finest work there. His secret to motivation whilst inside the building was to keep a bowl of live, deadly piranhas by his piano so he could wiggle his fingers into the water to bring him to his senses whenever he felt the pull of a loss of interest and tiredness. The list goes on, famous poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso chose it as the perfect setting to have philosophical and artistic exchanges aiding their creativity. The hotel has also been a place for spurned men to go to lick their wounds and mend broken hearts. Bob Dylan penned Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands whilst locked away in one of the many rooms and playwright Arthur Miller got over his break-up with Marilyn Monroe within the buildings long corridors. Recently the trend continued with the most famous resident of recent years, actor Ethan Hawke, who moved in after breaking up with film star Uma Thurman.

In amongst the lovelorn sadness there has also been tales of unadulterated sex and passion. This is wonderfully portrayed by the narcissistic Janice Joplin who scrawled a tasteful review of herself on her suite wall which proclaimed, “I am the best fuck in the world.” Another review of her bedroom performance was the musical piece by singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen who felt the need to tell all in song about exactly what occurred in his room with her. The song Chelsea Hotel #2 caused a stir in the media and resulted in a public apology for his indiscretion. Another creative soul Jack Kerouac embarked on a month long drug fuelled rampage and bisexual passion with writer Gore Vidal that resulted in the creation of the Beat Generation bible On the Road. As if all this wasn’t enough the hotel suite 822 was the setting for the uninhibited Madonna to shoot her raunchy book Sex. She was a resident there in the 1980’s and her memories of the hotel were the inspiration for making this the venue for the risqué publication.

The consensual events occurring behind these closed curtains pail into insignificance when researching the other events that have unfolded at this famous Manhattan address. Dylan Thomas, the hard-drinking Welsh poet famously resided there for the last few haggard months of his life, regularly pushing the limits of alcohol intake with the Irish poet Brendan Behan. Behan himself a resident was so infamous for his drunken advances towards the Hotels chambermaids that none would enter his room until they had been given the assurance that he was fully dressed. The weeks of drinking between the pair took its toll and It was in room 205 that Dylan Thomas eventually drank himself to death after having drunk 18 whiskies at a local bar.

The bizarre behavior continued throughout the years, none more so than what was ushered in with the arrival of Edie Sedgwick. The actress and model was a good friend of the artist Andy Warhol and battled against drug and alcohol addiction. A dysfunctional affair began between her and fellow resident Bob Dylan, again the creativity flowed and his song Like A Rolling Stone was written about her. Whilst Dylan was literally making sweet music with Sedgwick her erratic behavior and mental state became more bizarre. She nearly lost her life in a fire one evening after setting fire to her room and rather than look to escape took solace in her wardrobe. The cause of the fire was attributed to her attempting to glue thick, false eyelashes by candlelight. This wasn’t the only bizarre event in the hotel; Harry Smith was a surreal film-maker and occultist. His well-known fondness of the dark arts attracted other likeminded individuals to the Chelsea. It will come as no surprise that this cosy antichrist love in ended badly. A fall out amongst the occult few resulted in fighting and spells being cast on one another in the vast lobby.

As with any establishment that blatantly flaunts the rules of civilised behavior it is not at all shocking that death would become a fairly common occurrence. Dee Dee Ramone the bass player in punk band the Ramones, once locked himself away from public view for weeks on end to go cold turkey, ridding his body of its need for drugs. After a physically and emotionally demanding struggle he emerged from his room and stepped out of the hotels front entrance. Suddenly he was yards from an unexpected and harrowing event. A woman had thrown herself from the ninth floor and landed just a few feet from him. The most infamous death to be associated with the Chelsea Hotel was that of Nancy Spungen the girlfriend of the Sex Pistols front man Sid Vicious. On October the 12 in 1978 the body of Nancy was found in room 100, a single stab wound to the body being the cause of death. The knife that was used was linked back to Vicious who denied any memory of the fatal incident. Whilst awaiting trial Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose.

So what is to become of this building that is notorious for having lifts that are so full of marijuana smoke that you could get high just from riding a few floors in one? The ‘rest stop for rare individuals’ as it is fondly known is seemingly facing a fate that is nowhere near as spectacular as those of its previous residents. A property developer recently bought the building and has turned it over to an uninspiring architect best known for designing bland Holiday Inns.

Room 100, also known as the ‘Vicious room’ was closed and knocked into adjoining rooms to do away with its notorious and gruesome reputation. The management has closed their building to new guests and now nearly half of the hotel’s 220 rooms are occupied by those who are old enough to benefit from a protected tenancy meaning that they cannot be removed without their consent. With each resident that departs it is apparent that the building and its creative, surreal soul is being slowly eroded, you almost crave for the hotel to be euthanised to put it out of the misery of a slow lingering death that is not fitting of its hell-raising past.

The once home to everyone from survivors of the Titanic to modern day heartbroken Hollywood actors is now in a sorry state. A shell of its former self and the ghosts of this great building must wander the halls with a sense of despair, unless they are still enjoying the hallucinogenic highs that they enjoyed throughout their stay.

@Mr_Mallen