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.