My Photo

the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

Follow 1michaelgray1 on Twitter

Monday, November 13, 2006


This is a piece I wrote for the Weekend Telegraph Travel Section, based on a trip done in October 2000. They published it in March 2001, under the title "Chelsea Hotel: Still Scuzzy After All These Years". Journalists never get to choose the titles of their newspaper pieces. You can submit the article with the best, wittiest headline in the world and the subs will change it for the sake of it. In the case of pieces on Bob Dylan, that's why they're always titled something naff like "The Times They're Still A-Changin'", or "Not Like A Rolling Stone". It's so embarrassing to be thought responsible. Anyway, this is the Chelsea Hotel piece. (It has not been updated, and since it was written prices have risen and DeeDee Ramone has died - in Hollywood in June 2002. Stanley Bard is still going, and the hotel now has a website, e-mail, WiFi in the lobby and even Skype; but you still can't make a reservation using e-mail...):

If you go down to the Chelsea Hotel, you’re sure of a big surprise. Unless you’ve been before, in which case the surprise is only that recent “refurbishment” (nice hotel word, that) has left this elderly Manhattan institution so unchanged.
How unreconstructedly scuzzy the place still is, and how humane. There is no concession to the tourist industry, or to the assumptions of all those taking degrees in hotel management.
The first thing you’ll encounter is the hopelessness of the Chelsea’s booking arrangements. Fax them in advance and they won’t reply. Phone to tell them, in puzzlement, that you faxed them and got no reply and they’ll say, as if this explains it, that they didn’t know quite what they should say, so they didn’t. Phone and try to book a room six weeks in advance and they’ll offer the endearing non-sequitur that they don’t have a computer so they can’t cope with bookings more than a month ahead.
The computer bit is said with the pride of people consciously fighting a noble rearguard action. And that’s what the Chelsea is all about.
It even manages to remain in an unfashionable location - quite a feat, for almost all Manhattan is fashionable now. The whole city is cleaner, safer, more polite and just a little bit less distinctive than it used to be, and all those once-impossible areas rather pleased with themselves. The dangerous junkie wasteland of the East Village is ridiculously bijou, its every sinister, stinking corner now an art gallery, coffee-shop, bookstore or vegetarian body-piercing salon. In the (West) Village, once the HQ of folkies and their civil rights activist compadres, of jazz musicians, writers and loft-living pioneers, whole blocks are now restaurants, the pavement cafés serve designer beer and there is rocket in every sandwich. The Village Voice has become a freebie, with barely any space for articles among its hundreds of pages of ads. And even in the former nomansland just north of the Chelsea and and across a bit, the galleries are getting a grip.
The Chelsea Hotel keeps its head down, and its little patch of West 23rd Street, near the corner of 7th Avenue, remains undistinguished, dirty and bleak. The shops are no smarter or better organised than at Elephant and Castle. The hotel’s thin, cheap awning, flapping above the warm breeze sidewalk, says look, here we are, we’ve seen better days, we promise.
And it’s true. Built in the 1880s, a hotel since 1905, and belonging to the Bard family since 1940, this red brick and ironwork monstrosity, this inefficient, grandiose, crustacean shell embraces 400 rooms in which an almost impossibly perfect castlist of bohemians of every generation have lived, loved, altered their minds and died. When, briefly, before Broadway, 23rd Street was theatreland, Lily Langtry was always popping in. Sarah Bernhardt installed herself with her own bedding and the coffin she claimed to sleep in. Mark Twain, O. Henry, Cartier-Bresson, Hart Crane, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Theodore Dreiser and Nelson Algren all stayed or lived here. Thomas Wolfe wrote “Look Homeward Angel” in Room 831. Composer Virgil Thomson had a five-room apartment, now sold off intact; fellow composer George Kleinsinger had a tropical apartment on the upper floors, with monkeys and a waterfall. His ashes were scattered on the roof.
Then there was Brendan Behan, Nabokov, radical/porn publisher Maurice Girondias, Tennessee Williams, Edith Piaf and eventually Dylan Thomas, whose plaque at the entrance notes that he “lived and labored here… and from here sailed out to die” (at the White Horse Tavern, Greenwich Village).
Arthur Miller wrote two plays at the Chelsea; Athur C. Clarke wrote “2001” here, William Burroughs “Naked Lunch”, Bob Dylan ‘Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands’. Other 1960s guests and residents included Allen Ginsberg and arts polymath Harry Smith, Robert Crumb, Joni Mitchell (who was prompted to write ‘Chelsea Morning’ here), Leonard Cohen (whose less sunny ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’ recalls Janis Joplin giving him head in Room 104), Jimi Hendrix, Claes Oldenburg and Warhol “superstars” Viva and Ultra Violet.
Patti Smith lived here with Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1970s. Milos Forman lived here while producing “Hair”. Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen here. Quentin Crisp lived here for over 35 years. DeeDee Ramone lives here still.
The walls ooze this history, and as everyone says, “the walls are thick.” Walk the dilapidated corridors and you’ll hear an opera-singer practising scales, or a trombonist barking, or a dog. In the lifts you meet these dogs, or people carrying up hot food from the outside world. The lifts are small and charged with an atmosphere of elaborate politeness, as those brought temporarily together for short, vertical journeys avoid prying. Once inside your room, you can’t hear much. You can be private and, if you’re a resident, feel that you belong: that big New York may knock you about, and funds may be short, but here is your haven. Your art or other travail is your own business but your artist-persona will be accorded respect.
As a guest you can feel a privileged temporary member of this iconoclastic club. Not everyone wants to, of course. You won’t be long in NYC before someone, learning that you’re staying at the Chelsea, will give you a perplexed and hesitant look, and decide right before your eyes not to cultivate you further. Then again, if you’re a Chelsea sort of person, this won’t matter. After all, you know how much it’s costing you. The Chelsea Hotel is no longer especially cheap. Perhaps it never was.
I entered after a gap of eleven years, and the lobby seemed only superficially tidied-up. Large canvases still shout from the walls and lolloping art installations, bizarre papier-mâché dolls and agonised metal skeletons, still jostle from the ceiling. The chairs remain ill-sorted and exhausted, the whole place too scuffed and crumbling to respond to even prodigious efforts of vacuuming and polish.
The desk at the far end looks like a 1940s film noir hotel set. The pigeon-holes behind the two elderly, shirtsleeved receptionists are filled with cumbersome, yellowing pieces of paper. A fire-extinguisher hangs at eye-level. The dark wood counter is covered with old telephones and newspapers. Standing on tiptoes to lean over it, and speaking in delicate tones, a succession of unshaven men tell the manager that they have not yet received their cheque, but that it is certainly on its way. Some are told they can leave it till next week to discuss it; others are told, “well, if you like we could move you to a cheaper room - number soandso is pleasant…”
I had never forgotten the unfailing courtesy of these exchanges, and that they still go on is the certain proof that the Chelsea is unchanged in spirit.
Stanley Bard is the remarkable man who has kept it this way. He’s in his sixties and ascribes his beanpole slimness to playing tennis in New Jersey, where he lives, and from where he commutes to become, daily, the abbot of this hushed retreat. It must puzzle many of the hotel’s residents that he is not one himself.
I ask how he handles the junkies and the suicides, the rock’n’roll casualties, the Sids and Nancys. He’s urbane, long used to coping with celebrity excess. He says quietly, remembering: “Really it was only bad when the Grateful Dead came in.”
He is anxious that when his son takes over, as he did from his father, things might change too much.
“If profit becomes the main motive,” he tells me, “if it goes commercial and becomes just a big hotel, it will lose a lot. It will lose the people who live here - who have no legal protection but who are protected, really, by my feelings for them. Creative people.”
You could regard paying for your room at the Chelsea as making an honourable contribution. Otherwise you might feel a bit done. The rooms may have been revamped and the stairwell restored but the corridors remain so astonishingly fleapit that on arrival you’re likely to regret that you’ve come. This is where Goth meets Gormenghast.
For less money, you could stay at one of the new breed of “budget” hotel where everything is clean and shiny. At the Habitat on E.57th, for example, en suite rooms start at $125 a night.
At the Chelsea, an ordinary double is likely to be $185, and could be $275. (There’s a sense, when you’re first at the desk, that they make up the price when they see the whites of your eyes.) But you could choose to pay $350 a night, for instance, for the small suite that is Room 822, the like of which you will not find at a Habitat: here, preposterous battered cream and gold Louis XVI meets leopard-skin dining-chairs and an 1950s coffee-table, and repulsive nylon curtains separate bedroom from sitting-room. It feels as if Dylan Thomas and Sarah Bernhardt had a fistfight right here on the floor. It’s very, very Chelsea Hotel. But are you?

© Michael Gray


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention that the famed hotel also has a non-corporate blog, Living with Legends: Hotel Chelsea blog,

8:48 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Hello anonymous...
Actually I didn't know that. But then again, they don't seem to know I have a blog either!

10:33 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home