By James Lough
New York’s Chelsea Hotel has a special place in American culture. It has surely been a home, or a home-away-from-home, to more influential artists than any other building in the nation. To list the famous names in American art and literature that have stayed there would require more words than can be devoted to one book review, and would serve as an encyclopedia of the last hundred plus years of U.S. history.
While these names have included veritable superstars, the hotel did tend to attract the more Bohemian elements of the culture. As such, it has played home to numerous characters associated with the Beat Generation and subsequent counterculture movements. Jack Kerouac is rumored to have written part of On the Road there, and Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs also stayed at the Chelsea when visiting Manhattan in the fifties.
The focus of Lough’s book is not a general overview of the hotel’s colorful history; consequently, he passes over many of the famous names in favor of those who resided there in its final decades, and avoids recounting stories – such as the death of Nancy Spungen – which have been told countless times before. Instead, after many years of painstaking research, Lough has managed to piece together a wonderful picture of the lives of some of the hotel’s famous latter-day guests. Of particular interest to the Beatdom reader will be the stories involving Herbert Huncke and Gregory Corso, parts of which were excerpted in issue eight of Beatdom. (For issue twelve, Beatdom contributor and author, Spencer Kansa, conducted an interview with Huncke at the Chelsea.)
Throughout the book, Lough provides some wonderful descriptions of the building itself, which has come to mean so much to so many people. He refers to it as a “monstrous red brick eco-system of creativity.” The stories of artists sharing ideas and work with one another attest to this poetic phrasing. In these rooms, the exchange of songs was common, as poets and musicians drank and took copious amounts of illegal substances in one another’s “houses” (the rooms, Lough informs us, were more commonly referred to as “houses” despite their diminutive size).
Lough’s attitude towards the Chelsea’s owners – the Bard family – is somewhat negative, despite their fostering of artistic talent. Seemingly showing a phenomenal awareness of future trends, Stanley Bard famously accepted artwork in lieu of rent, yet Lough is quick to observe that much of what Bard accepted was worthless; and the hotel’s famous art-decked lobby is home to some truly awful pieces of work. He calls the collection “Awkwardian.”
In 2011, the Chelsea finally succumbed to the gentrification of New York and closed its doors to artists, gangsters, and Bohemian types, instead charging extortionate rates to more sophisticated clientele. Lough is scathing of this and appears to tie its demise to that of American Bohemia, and to a wider decline in creativity and culture throughout the Western world.
Despite this lament for the death of art, and the end of an important and productive era, Lough’s writing belies a true passion for this “beautiful old whore” of a building. His research is clearly a labor of love, and the book, while informative, is incredibly readable, thanks to his wit and a liberal dose of amusing stories that have otherwise been lost to history.
Buy the book: