Every room can tell you a good story

By Graham Reid

Stanley liked to talk but, to be fair, he had a lot to talk about. Stanley - portly, smiling and intense - was the manager at New York's famous, notorious even, Chelsea Hotel at 222 West 23rd St.

He had inherited the position from his father, David Bard, who bought it in 1940. Stanley had grown up in the corridors of this building, which was the tallest in Manhattan when it opened in 1884. Back then it had been at the centre of the theatre district. Sarah Bernhardt loved the place.

It had originally been 100 apartments but most had been split into smaller rooms and suites.

The Chelsea, declared a New York landmark building in 1966, always had many permanent residents. Stanley told me of the painter Alphaeus Cole, who lived there for 35 years until he died at 112.

Composer and critic Virgil Thompson stayed even longer, 54 years.

The list of famous residents and guests is long: Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, the boozers Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas, and Patti Smith with Robert Mapplethorpe. Then there was William Burroughs, who wrote The Naked Lunch while staying at the Chelsea. Stanley Kubrick would come to see author Arthur C Clarke when he was working on the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Warhol's crowd frequented the Chelsea in the 1960s and Janis Joplin had sex there with Leonard Cohen (who wrote about it).

Chelsea Clinton is named after the place. Actually she's named after the song Chelsea Morning , which Joni Mitchell wrote about the hotel.

Jimi Hendrix was once mistaken for a bellboy as he waited in the lobby, and Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in a room upstairs. It was coverted into an apartment and you can't rent it.

I'd stayed a few nights in a front room beneath the famous sign. The television picked up only static, the bedlamps didn't work and the bathroom was clean but the water flow was almost nil. But it was an experience.

Sometimes I would just sit in the lobby and look at the art which had been given as payment in lieu of rent by the likes of Larry Rivers. (The Jackson Pollock has long gone - to Stanley's place, they whisper.)

Every day there was a parade of the famous, the near-famous or the barely breathing who would make their way to the rickety elevator by the desk. One day some people set up for a Mariah Carey video shoot. Two films a year are shot in the corridors and rooms, 9 Weeks among them.

On my final morning after paying the reasonable bill I asked if it was possible to meet the manager, explaining that I was a journalist.

"Don't worry about it, Stanley always likes to talk to journalists," said the middle-aged man I had observed dispensing keys and wisdom to guests.

And so I sat in Stanley's front office, which was a landslide of papers, letters, accounts and old newspapers. He indicated a stacked bookcase.

"All of those books were written here at the Chelsea," he said.

He didn't rate the one by the self-confessed bad pornographic novelist Florence Turner, who lived here for a decade until 75 and wrote about the residents. Maybe that was because she suggested Stanley was tight with money.

He told me of the hippies who took over the place in the 60s, how Sid Vicious was very polite, that residents keep to themselves, and how each room has its own character.

"Every room here is different," he said. "Lemme show you."

He led me through the long and tatty corridors on the third floor and opened a door. "Here's the room Angela Bowie just stayed in," he said gesturing around a spacious suite where the former Mrs David had luxuriated.

Another smaller room had an unexpected view over what appeared to be a small garden.

Then he took me to the room he had decorated himself.

The door opened to reveal a migraine in the making.

The table and bedhead were designed like a snail's shell, there was a mirror the same shape, spirals were on the carpets and a wall-hanging. It was mad.

"I call it the Snail Room," said Stanley with obvious pride.

I must have been two blocks away before I realised I was still laughing.

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