One cold October morning in 1978, the NYPD received a desperate call from a British man, later identified as the bassist with punk pioneers the Sex Pistols, summoning them to his apartment. Having made their way up the ancient central stairwell of this hotel he was staying in, other residents peeking over the ancient iron balustrade at the commotion, police found his girlfriend Nancy Spungen lying in a pool of blood in the couple’s bathroom, a knife sticking out her side. The legendary but ailing drug addict Sid Vicious was charged with her murder and six months later was himself dead, following a heroin overdose.
Perhaps the most violent episode in the history of New York’s infamous Hotel Chelsea, it probably came as no surprise to anyone who’d stepped foot in this ramshackle asylum of artistes. Starting life in the 1880s as New York’s first co-operative apartment complex on a road that served as prototype for theatre land’s leading thoroughfare of Broadway, the place has always been a trailblazer; albeit an unconventional one. For a time the Chelsea found itself at the heart of everything, until the opening of The Empire started the theatre shift eastwards. By 1905 the Chelsea co-op was bankrupt and the building was sold for use as a hotel. From the 1950s onwards its director, Stanley Bard, made ‘creatives’ – a notoriously difficult type of clientele – welcome and soon it was overflowing with writers, painters, musicians and transients – many of whom are now world-renowned.
Celebrity deaths and decadence
It’s a certain type who’ve found their way to this Victorian/Gothic rest house in the formerly low-income, rapidly gentrifying area west of Broadway; those with a proclivity for over-indulgence. The poet Dylan Thomas uttered his last words in Room 206, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskeys and I think that’s the record”, fell into an alcohol-induced coma and died. Charles Jackson wroteThe Lost Weekend, the tale of a man destroyed by drinking here while in the ’60s it was colonised by the poets and writers of the Beat Generation. William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in his room while on a whole lot more than just drink and Jack Kerouac took a load of Benzedrine and cranked out his novel On the Road in 20 days on a single roll of 150-foot long Teletype paper.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Roots
It was the 1960s that heralded the invasion of another type of artist too: the who’s who of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Bob Dylan moved in to apartment 211 with his new wife Sara, produced his albumBlonde on Blonde and had his first son, Jesse whilst there. Joni Mitchell wrote her songChelsea Morning about the place, which in turn inspired that hip couple, the Clintons, to name their daughter Chelsea. Other musical residents included Jimi Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, Jefferson Airplane, Patti Smith, The Band, Iggy Pop, Frank Zappa and, of course, Sid and Nancy.
Artist and film maker Andy Warhol made his critically acclaimed, drugged-out, narcissistic, sadistic film Chelsea Girls in various apartments of the hotel and its mythical status was sealed on celluloid.
This assortment of creative figures bumped into each other as they crossed the antique and sculpture laden foyer or waited for the elevator, Parties were regularly held in their rooms; many living there for months or years and were entitled to a special rate.
Staying at the Chelsea Hotel today
The Chelsea continues to attract people looking for an oasis of eccentricity in an increasingly regimented world. The apartments, with their own kitchenettes, still give off an aura of potential with eclectic furnishing and unusual objects. Current residents consider themselves part of a community; a real thriving subculture surviving in a nuthouse.
If you want to plug straight into the power generator of New York’s creativity you can’t go wrong with a stay at the Chelsea; it isn’t cheap, the creaky elevators will wake you at 5.30 without fail but it’s probably got more celebrity ghosts per square foot than anywhere else in city.
The Hotel Chelsea
222 W. 23rd Street
New York City, NY 10011
For reservations call 212 243 3700