Book review: Inside the Dream Palace

By Mick Brown

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What the Chelsea lacked in amenities it more than made up for in character - and attracted a wealth of characters including writer Quentin Crisp.
What the Chelsea lacked in amenities it more than made up for in character - and attracted a wealth of characters including writer Quentin Crisp.

It is hard to think of a single building - let alone a single hotel - in the world that over 125 years could have entertained such a diverting and deranged array of residents as the Chelsea Hotel in New York. Alcoholic writers, suicidal artists, Trotskyites, drag queens, punk rockers - the Chelsea has been home to them all, and that's before we even begin to consider the magnificent George Kleinsinger, composer of the children's symphony Tubby the Tuba, who transformed his room in the hotel into a tropical rainforest with 4m trees imported from Borneo and Madagascar and a menagerie of exotic birds, a monkey, a pet skunk and a 1.5m iguana.

Sherill Tippins' book is a requiem. The Chelsea closed its doors two years ago amid the kind of fond eulogies more often accorded to a loved and slightly batty great-aunt. A lesser writer might have been content to simply recite the register - from O. Henry to Quentin Crisp to Sid Vicious - but Tippins leads us on a vivid, informed and entertaining ramble through the history of New York's nonconformist and artistic classes: from political malcontents, the literary avant-garde and the countercultural upheavals of the 50s and 60s.

There are six degrees of bohemian separation that connect Mark Twain to Abbie Hoffman, Arthur Miller to Andy Warhol.

The Chelsea was built in 1884 as "a co-operative club" by architect and developer Philip Hubert, inspired by the utopian ideas of French philosopher Charles Fourier for an "urban phalanstery", where people of "congenial tastes" would live harmoniously sharing intellectual and creative interests and enjoying unfettered sexuality. The last, at least, would become an enduring characteristic of life at the Chelsea.

The hotel originally comprised 80 flats, occupied by artists, writers, government officials and wealthy widows, but in 1905, after going into bankruptcy, the Chelsea became a residential hotel and was subdivided into more than 300 rooms and suites.

Presided over by its avuncular owner David Bard, and later his son Stanley, the Chelsea happily threw open its doors to people who would have been thrown out anywhere else.

The pipes knocked, the heating was haphazard and the decor, as Arthur Miller - who lived there while recovering from his divorce from Marilyn Monroe - observed, leaned less towards "grand hotel" than "Guatemalan maybe, or outer Queens". But what the Chelsea lacked in amenities it more than made up for in character.

It was here that Thomas Wolfe struggled to complete You Can't Go Home Again, in an apartment strewn with unwashed clothes, half-empty coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays; four months after his editor collected the manuscript from his room, Wolfe was dead, at the age of 37, from a brain abscess. Here Jackson Pollock signalled his uncompromising attitude to the art establishment, vomiting on the carpet of the private dining room where Peggy Guggenheim was trying to introduce important collectors and experts to his work. (Her sister Hazel had the presence of mind to advise the restaurant manager to frame the vomit-stained carpet on the grounds that it would one day be worth millions.)

It was where Jack Kerouac and Gore Vidal retired to Kerouac's room, resolving that "we owed it to literary history to couple", and where Dylan Thomas capped a monumental bender by collapsing and being carted off to hospital to die. It is a moot point whether the Chelsea attracted drunks, or staying there turned the otherwise sober to drink, but the tally of ruined livers and consequently ruinous behaviour rises by the page.

Tippins argues that it was in the 60s that the hotel reached its zenith of the communal ideal: a "liberated zone", animated by the collective intelligence that emerges when a group of people focus on the same ideas or goals - in this case the "authentic" life and a willingness to live in the moment, "neither worried about the future nor tethered to the past".

It was a group that included Allen Ginsberg, the tragically wilting Edie Sedgwick and the obstreperously saintly Harry Smith, who inhabited a room cluttered with occult books and vintage 78s and thick with marijuana smoke. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was just one of many who sat at Smith's knee, rapt at his expositions on the subject of Enochian (angelic) magic - only to be presented with a bill afterwards.

In the 70s, when New York entered a period of recession and lawlessness, the Chelsea went into decline. There were junkies in the lobby and shootings in the corridors, poet Gregory Corso running naked through the halls and cockroaches everywhere.

Some semblance of respectability was restored through the 80s and 90s - a period that, quite rightly, seems to interest Tippins less. She ends her book in 2011, with the hotel, finally succumbing to the escalating prices of real estate in New York, falling into the hands of developers, its future uncertain. According to its website, the Chelsea is currently closed "for restoration" - no doubt purging what the Russian poet Yevtushenko once described as "a smell of Dachau" in the rooms. It was probably just George Kleinsinger's iguana.

Inside the Dream Palace by Sherill Tippins (Simon & Schuster $50).

- Daily Telegraph UK

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