At a moment when the once beautifully entangled fabric of New York life seems to be unravelling thread by thread—bookstore by bookstore, restaurant by restaurant, and now even toy store by toy store—it might be time to spare a thought or two for the Chelsea Hotel. At the hotel on Twenty-third Street, famously rundown and louche—the Last Bohemia for the Final Beatniks, our own Chateau Marmont, where Dylan Thomas drank and Bob Dylan wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and Leonard Cohen wore (or didn’t; people argue) his famous blue raincoat, and Sid Vicious killed (or didn’t; they argue that, too) Nancy Spungen—the renovators and gentrifiers have arrived. The plastic sheeting is everywhere, the saws buzz and the dust rises. In a short time, the last outpost of New York bohemia will become one more boutique hotel.
The Ansonia – which was turned into a condominium in the 1990s – boasted fewer legends. Musicians were said to like it because the walls were thick: Caruso, Toscanini, Stravinsky. Later Barry Manilow played piano in the basement (no wall thick enough). The building is beautifully described by Bellow in Seize the Day. The Chelsea makes many more star appearances, but it’s the denizens of the place, their celebrity and sheer numbers – from Mark Twain through several generations of artists, cranks and druggies, to Sid Vicious – that warrant its reputation. Almost no one on the New York arts scene fails to put in an appearance in Tippins’s book, starting with William Dean Howells and Stephen Crane, up through Thomas Wolfe, and on to anyone you care to name, sliding to an elegant halt with Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland.
Largely it’s the names, not the work. You almost get the impression that Arthur Miller might have written After the Fall there, but it was mostly done in Connecticut; or that Kerouac might have written On the Road there, but that was mostly done on West 20th. Wolfe’s two posthumous novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again, were drafted at the hotel in the late 1930s; Larry Rivers, who took up residence in 1963, had a studio in the building; Chelsea Girls was filmed there. Later, Dylan dreamed up ‘Visions of Johanna’, for Blonde on Blonde. Phil Ochs, another resident, must have slung some songs together before he killed himself in 1976. The Grateful Dead rehearsed at the hotel before gigs, and Abdullah Ibrahim, the great Ellington protégé, was living there – presumably composing – in the 1990s. James Schuyler arrived in 1979 and wrote out his last years there.