The world's most decadent hotel, where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death and rock stars bedded (and murdered) their lovers closes after a century
By Tom Leonard
Every room has a story, most of them memorable and few of them printable. Dylan Thomas drank himself to death in 205, playwright Arthur Miller got over his break-up with Marilyn Monroe in 614 and Bob Dylan stayed up for days in 211 ‘writin’ Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’.
Sid Vicious claimed he couldn’t remember stabbing his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, to death in 100. But singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen never forgot what he got up to with Janis Joplin in 415. In fact, none of us will, because he wrote a song about it called Chelsea Hotel #2 (and later regretted his indiscretion).
Surely no other single building can lay claim to so much creativity, destruction and sheer scandal as the Chelsea Hotel in New York. For decades it was a byword for Bohemian eccentricity and hellraising excess, an imposing but squalid sanctuary for writers and artists too penniless or troublesome to live anywhere else.
Chelsea Girl: Edie Sedgwick in a bodysuit by Venus and flower studded stockings by Givenchy
Jack Kerouac wrote his Beat Generation bible On The Road there, in one drug-fuelled, three-week marathon. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there, too, training his telescope not into space but at the apartment windows opposite.
And composer George Kleinsinger kept a tank of piranhas by his piano so he could dip his fingers into the water to bring him to his senses whenever he felt drowsy.
From writers such as Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, through the hippies and on to the nihilist punks of the 1970s and beyond, ‘the Chelsea’ has more than lived up to its understated description of itself as a ‘rest stop for rare individuals’.
According to Arthur Miller, you could get high just by standing in one of the hotel lifts and inhaling the marijuana fumes.
Now, however, the hotel faces what its residents and fans fear is its final curtain. A property developer recently bought the down-at-heel building for $80 million (£48 million) and has turned it over to an architect best known for designing bland Holiday Inns.
Listed building: The Hotel Chelsea, 222 West 23d Street, New York, built in 1883 and listed in the United States Registry of Historic Places
The management has closed its doors to new guests, putting paid to the stream of spikey-haired young tourists trailing in to ask for a night in the ‘Vicious room’ (they couldn’t have it anyway — the room was deemed too notorious even for the Chelsea and was knocked into adjoining rooms long ago).
Today, nearly half of the hotel’s 220 rooms are occupied by old-timers whose rent deals cannot legally be terminated without their agreement. Those who remain are resigned to being bought out to make way for a run-of-the-mill boutique hotel.
If they aren’t still spinning from the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, the Chelsea’s famous ghosts will be turning in their graves.
Sitting in the 100ft-square hotel room he’s shared with his wife for 16 years, writer Ed Hamilton competed with the sound of squeaking mice in the wainscot this week as he described how successive owners had ‘destroyed the soul of the Chelsea Hotel’ since the old management was ousted in 2007.
‘It’s an endless source of inspiration because there’s such a weird bunch of characters here,’ he admitted. ‘They’re always doing something crazy.’
Bad reputation: Welsh poet Dylan Thomas allegedly died of drink at the Chelsea Hotel, but the post mortem showed pneumonia
It wasn’t always like that. The Chelsea was built in 1884 by Philip Hubert, an Anglo-French immigrant, as a socialist experiment in which rich and poor would live in the same building. As a foretaste of its later eccentricity, Hubert stuck a pyramid on the roof.
But the 12-storey building hit hard times in 1905 and was reinvented as a hotel. From the start, it attracted writers, artists and musicians, including Lillie Langtry, Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko and Edith Piaf.
Superstar: American model and actress Edie Sedgwick with her mentor, pop artist Andy Warhol
The arty crowd didn’t always have the place entirely to themselves — survivors from the Titanic were put up there briefly in 1912, and some of the rooms were given to visiting young British merchant seamen in recognition of their countrymen’s service in the First World War I.
According to Chelsea Hotel historian Sherill Tippins, it was Dylan Thomas who was later responsible for the hotel’s Bohemian reputation.
The hard-drinking Welsh poet lived there for the last months of his life, competing in alcohol consumption with the Irish poet Brendan Behan (who became so notorious for chasing the Chelsea’s chambermaids that none would enter his room until he was fully dressed).
In 1953, a few months before Thomas collapsed in his room and later died after claiming to have drunk 18 whiskies at a local bar, the Beat poet Jack Kerouac and writer Gore Vidal pitched up at the hotel hoping to find him.
Thomas was away, but the pair — both bisexual — got horrendously drunk and spent a night of passion at the hotel together.
The general anarchy was presided over by the hotel’s famously indulgent manager, Stanley Bard, whose family bought it in the 1930s and who ran the place for 50 years from 1957.
Arthur Miller — who lived in the hotel for seven years from 1960 — recalled alerting Bard to a ‘young woman with eyes so crazy that one remembered them as being one above another’ who would come into the hotel lobby and threaten violence against men.
Mr Bard ‘pooh-poohed the idea of her doing anything rash . . . he was simply not interested in bad news of any kind,’ Miller wrote. Two days later, the woman — a radical feminist named Valerie Solanas — shot Andy Warhol, though he survived.
Famous faces: Leonard Cohen's song Chelsea Hotel recalls an intimate meeting with Janis Joplin in one of the rooms
Bard liked to assign different types of people to different floors — musicians on the second, tourists on the third, people he wanted to impress in the elegant suites on the eighth and ninth, and unstable people close to reception.
The final category included Sid Vicious, but also Edie Sedgwick, the drug-addled model/actress and protégée of Andy Warhol played on the big screen five years ago by Sienna Miller in Factory Girl.
After an unhappy affair with fellow guest Bob Dylan (his song Like A Rolling Stone is one of several written about her), Sedgwick set a new standard for bizarre Chelsea Hotel behaviour in 1967.
Glueing on her thick false eyelashes by candlelight one night, she set fire to her room and, after trying to hide in her wardrobe, barely escaped with her life.
Resident: Bob Dylan, US folk singer, in 1969
There was equally odd stuff in the form of Harry Smith, a wild-haired avant-garde film-maker and occultist. His dabbling in the dark arts attracted other would-be wizards to the Chelsea.
It all ended badly after a 15th-century alchemist’s manuscript went missing, and civil war broke out, with the magicians casting spells and loudly denouncing one another in the lobby.
That decade saw the Chelsea invaded by rock musicians, mainly because no other hotel in New York would take them. Dylan was joined by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, the Grateful Dead and, later, Patti Smith. Inevitably, the musicians weren’t all good guests. The death of Nancy Spungen in October 1978 was a sobering moment, driving home to its management that things were getting out of hand.
A heroin addict like her Sex Pistols boyfriend, Spungen was found in their room, dead from a single knife wound to her abdomen. The knife was traced to Vicious, who was charged with murder, but he died of a heroin overdose before he could come to trial.
Dee Dee Ramone, bass player in punk band the Ramones, once holed himself up in his room for two weeks to kick his drug habit. Finally emerging, he stepped out of the hotel’s front entrance only for a woman to land just feet away after throwing herself off the ninth floor.
Ghosts: Nancy Spungen with Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols
The notoriety garnered by Spungen’s demise did nothing to drive away the celebrities.
Madonna lived there in the 1980s and returned to shoot her raunchy book Sex in suite 822. The most famous recent resident, actor Ethan Hawke, moved in after breaking up with film star Uma Thurman, playing guitar to his neighbours and making Chelsea Walls, a film about Bohemians living there.
Today, however, the hotel is living on a reputation that has long gone, haunted by the ghosts of the hellraisers, hippies and chancers who lived and died among its famous guests.
Ah... All things must pass:( I stayed there myself back in the day.