Articles

Hotel Chelsea: The World’s Most Infamous Writer’s Retreat

by Neil Fitzgerald

Henry Miller famously said that most writing is done “away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game.”

But while creative thoughts may ferment during the mundane chores of everyday life, eventually one must put these thoughts down on the blank page. Eventually, even the most roaming writers need “to get black on white,” as short story specialist Guy de Maupassant put it.

How and where writers write has long provoked curiosity and fascination. A writer has several options about howhe chooses to do so.  Some opt to stand up, as Charles Dickens did (and Philip Roth still does), while others write lying in bed, channeling Marcel Proust.

Some writers, like Jonathan Franzen and John Updike, chose a more routine approach: renting an office and clocking in from nine to five.

Whatever the modus operandi, the bare essentials remain the same: a writer needs a space, some tools, a conducive atmosphere, and some time to complete their task.  Since 1905, a whole host of writers have found that elusive space and atmosphere at the Chelsea Hotel, deep in the heart of downtown New York City.

The Hotel Chelsea, as it is formally called, is one of the world’s most notorious writer’s retreats, having housed – and inspired – some of the 20th century’s most famous luminaries, from avant-garde poets and counter-culture writers to eccentric dramatists and rive gauche philosophers.

It is a rather forbidding edifice – twelve-storeys tall, red-brick, with stark black cast-iron balconies adding to its Victorian Gothic architectural roots.  Indeed, the building was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966.

It was built in 1883 as a private apartment cooperative that opened in 1884, and stood as New York City’s tallest building until 1899. At that time, the Chelsea district had evolved as the center of New York’s Theater District. A few years later, an economic downturn and the relocation of the theaters forced a rethink, and in 1905 the building was purchased and opened as a hotel.

Since 1946, the hotel has been managed by the appropriately-named Bard family, and until 2007 was run by Stanley Bard who took over as managing director from his father in 1955.  This live-in family of landlords has helped foster the eccentric atmosphere that has prevailed by presiding over their tenants with a feather-light touch.  This has allowed those of an artistic temperament both the room (and leniency) to lie fallow and grow fertile, while they await that spark of inspiration.

Since opening its doors, the Chelsea Hotel has played host to a whole gamut of literary giants such as playwrights Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs, novelists Thomas Wolfe and Charles Bukowski.  Listed among a long list of infamous obituraries is Welsh bard Dylan Thomas, who went into an alcohol-induced coma there in 1953, having, in his own words, drunk “eighteen straight whiskies” at The White Horse bar.

French libre-penseurs and famously ‘open’ couple Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir stopped by to swap bon motsand smoke Gauloises in the hotel’s famously dingy corridors and humble chambers.

And the aura of creativity exuded by the Chelsea’s distinct atmosphere was not restricted to scribes: singer-songwriters, including Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, penned songs within the red-bricked masonry of this Manhattan den. Andy Warhol, pop-art boffin, stayed long enough to warrant making a film, The Chelsea Girls.

For those looking for more information about the past and present residents of this artistic melting pot, then the first port of call in today’s web-literate age will be the www.hotelchelseablog.com, Ed Hamilton’s online diary or ‘blog’ of his ten-year sojourn at the legendary flophouse.  This is a sort of free symposium, where visitors can post experiences and share photos and videos, since it today’s web 2.0, user-generated content way.

Hamilton is also the author of a unique book on the Chelsea, entitled Legends of the Chelsea Hotel Living with the Artists and Outlaws of New York’s Rebel Mecca, published by Da Capo.

As well as interesting stories regarding the eccentric tenants and struggling artists, Hamilton gives his own take as a resident of the Chelsea, its oddities, the quirky/kooky set who have made it a home, and the ghosts of the past which one constantly encounters. It offers both myths while inadvertently demythologizing the Chelsea, by showing the more prosaic side of day-to-day life within the fabled flophouse.

We corresponded by e-mail regarding his work and the idea of living with legends.  He began by explaining this leitmotif:

“The book is about legends and how they influence the lives of the artists and writers of the present, how the greats of the past figure in the collective memory of the hotel.”

One senses that these legends infuse the very walls of the building, as if residents and visitors continually rub shoulders and risk bumping into these historic ghosts.  Such apparitions would include the short story writer O. Henry, who was reputed to have been a regular at the Chelsea.

Hamilton says the legend is that O. Henry stayed here for extended periods of time around the turn of the century – always under an assumed name – to escape creditors.

He is believed to have composed many of the New York stories whilst here, as featured in the collection, Gift of the Magi.

During our correspondence, Hamilton directed me to an essay by playwright Arthur Miller, entitled “The Chelsea Affect,” published in Granta magazine. This was where Miller fled after his separation from Marilyn Monroe, in a bid to bunker down and get on with writing his play, After The Fall, whilst simultaneously avoiding the prying eyes of the media.

Arthur Miller’s contribution to Chelsea folklore is a brilliant piece of penmanship.  It seems he lived through a typically turbulent and momentous Chelsea epoch.  For instance, he recalls seeing Irish poet Brendan Behan’s tragic demise, noting with regret how “people were . . . encouraging him to drink and perform his cute Irish act with his salivating brogue which Americans adore.”

Interestingly, Behan’s drunken excesses have now been memorialized in a play – Brendan At The Chelsea, written by his niece, Janet Behan.  It follows his final inebriated days at the flophouse. The picture Miller paints of Behan is of the husk of his former self – from roaring talent to roaring drunk.

This brief article provides a fantastic insight – at once wry, perceptive, and tragic-comic – into those lost times, demythologizing by lifting the veil of ‘glamorized’ squalor and revealing a more authentic picture of the drama of those lives and that time. It is with a lucid detachment that he retrospectively recounts the vagaries of Chelsea Hotel life: random shootings, bizarre robberies, and the constant aroma of marijuana.

Miller mentions another famous writer-in-residence residing at the hotel during his Chelsea stint: the late Arthur C. Clarke.  Clarke was at work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, now hailed as a classic of the sci-fi genre. It is with a withering tone that Miller speaks of the conversations the two had concerning the colonization of other planets over coffee.

Miller distills those heady days in a nice summary of what the Chelsea meant to those artists-in-residence: “The Chelsea in the Sixties seemed to combine two atmospheres: a scary optimistic chaos which predicted the hip future, and at the same time the feel of a massive, old-fa