Manhattan, New York
It stands as a relic from another time. Twelve stories of brick and iron, the structure seems like a hundred movie flophouses in which the guests stay for lack of any other place to go. Of course, appearances can be deceiving. Once through the doors, visitors find themselves in a mix of a bohemian museum and antique road show. There is energy here, a specter that follows the visitors as they step from room to room. Far from frightening, it puts the visitor in touch with feelings and senses never before imagined. Some call it the muse. To others, it is simply inspiration. To many, however, the spirits of those geniuses who came before linger on to provide an experience beyond any other.
Certain places hold mystique in spite of, or perhaps because of, their run-down exterior and gritty appearance. Hollywood is famous for its places of famous deaths and celebrity sleepovers. However, California is not the only place to encounter the souls of departed famous folk. One only needs to go to the birthplace of the Bohemian movement, Manhattan, to find that spot where masters once tread ? and a few still do.
The building that would become The Chelsea Hotel began life in 1884 as New York’s first cooperative apartment complex. Brilliantly naive, the owners thought they could live free in the building, renting out apartments to others to generate income. It actually worked for a while until developers began to change the landscape around the building, followed by the financial panics of 1893 and 1903. By 1905 the owners were bankrupt, and the Chelsea was sold as a hotel.
When it reopened, the Chelsea found a different sort of clientele. Its thick, soundproof walls and low rent attracted not only the lower ranks of society but also a different iconoclastic breed that marched to their own beats. Artists of every type came to the Chelsea to relax, recharge, and open their minds through the use of perception altering drugs. Luminaries such as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Dylan Thomas moved in for extended stays in the hotel, creating some of their most memorable works from their rooms. Kerouac, loaded out of his mind on Benzedrine, wrote his novel On the Road in just twenty days and on a single 150-foot long roll of Teletype paper. Burroughs completed his drug- and paranoia-filled Naked Lunch there as well. It was during this time that death appeared over the famous in the hotel when Dylan Thomas, after an extended stay and a nightlong whiskey bender, died in 1953. His final words, uttered in Room 206, were, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskeys, and I think that’s a record!” He promptly lapsed into an alcohol-induced coma and died.
Poets and writers were far from the only ones who claimed the Chelsea as their primary residences. Pop artists Jackson Pollack, Robert Maplethorpe, and Andy Warhol used the rooms for backdrops to their creativity. Warhol used several of the hotel rooms for his gleefully sadistic nudie-fest called Chelsea Girls.
Musicians of every sort stayed at the Chelsea, resulting in drug-induced parties that have since reached epic proportions. Iggy Pop and Frank Zappa stayed, as did Jimi Hendrix. Bob Dylan and his new wife, Sara, produced his Blonde on Blonde album while living in Room 211. His first son, Jesse, was also born in the room. Joni Mitchell wrote “Chelsea Morning” as a loving tribute to the lifestyle, which in turn inspired a couple of hipsters named Bill and Hillary Clinton to name their daughter after the hotel.
Such creative types all in one place created a magical energy, but as with any place, there was a dark side. Drugs flowed through the rooms like a tide, and in 1978 their effects were felt in a big way. Former Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, lived at the hotel while Sid tried to rebuild the wreckage of his career. What money they had was being spent on alcohol and heroin. One morning in October the police received a call from Vicious begging them to come to his apartment. When they arrived, they found Spungen dead in a pool of blood, a knife protruding from her side. Vicious was arrested and charged with her murder, but he died of a heroin overdose before he could ever go to jail.
Whatever the power of the Chelsea is, it is potent and still reportedly felt today. There is a sense of being watched when walking down the halls that persists into several of the rooms. Most feel the presence to be non-threatening but can reportedly feel the creative fires of inspiration whenever it is upon them.
Other manifestations include cold spots and objects moving of their own accord. There are also some reports of strange noises coming from Sid’s old room as well as the room of Dylan Thomas.
The inside is no longer stained yellow with nicotine, the walls having been painted white long ago. The rooms still seem bohemian in style, if only in appearance. The mismatched furnishings are now by design rather than happenstance. The downstairs is a veritable museum of art with souvenirs from many of the famous guests adorning the walls. Now registered with the National Registry of Historic Places, The Chelsea Hotel is still the place for artists and others who wish to tap into some creative spirit, but it is no longer for those living the poor bohemian lifestyle. Rooms begin at $175 a night with extra charges for staying in specific rooms.
While many claim the strict anti-drug policy and no smoking signs may have driven away the ghosts of Janis Joplin and others, there is still little question that some of the former guests never left, having found a place where they, the creatives, are welcome.
Brilliance knows no schedule, nor do the ghosts of the Chelsea. However, the room in which Sid and Nancy spent their last nights becomes a little more eerie as the anniversary of their last spat approaches. Those wishing to honor a great poet, truly one of a kind, rent out Room 206 on November 9th and raise a glass of whiskey to the memory of Dylan Thomas. Just don’t be surprised if the man himself shows up to join you.
See you in two weeks!