Sunday, May 21, 2017

299. The Chelsea, the Craziest of Hotels

          The release date for Bill Hope: His Story was last Wednesday, May 17, so those who have already ordered it from Amazon should be receiving it shortly, and anyone who wishes to order it can do so and have it promptly shipped.


         For six LibraryThing prepublication reviews of Bill Hope: 
His Story by viennamax, stephvin, Cricket2014, Shoosty, terry19802, and graham072442, go here and scroll down.

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         Imagine a landmarked hotel with a handsome wrought-iron interior stairwell and walls adorned with art, but now described as a junky-infested flophouse pulsing with creative energy.  A hotel where young singers check in, write a few songs, and check out, then use the illustrious name of the hotel to help sell their records.  A hotel where young would-be starlets stay  for a few weeks to suck up the bohemian atmosphere, then check out and hopefully go on to greater things, or maybe never check out and grow old  and weird, becoming fixtures in the weirdest of scenes.  A hotel where young punk rockers in black leather jackets, tattered clothing, and mohawks lounge about in the lobby, adorned with black eye makeup and tattoos, and at intervals beg to stay in room 100, only to be told, “There is no room 100!” 
         Imagine a hotel where film crews suddenly arrive with trailers blocking the street, set up tables on the sidewalk, and pile junk in front of the door, then crowd the lobby and stairwells and elevators, shooting TV episodes and even big-budget Hollywood films, yelling all the time and running noisy machines that blow the hotel’s fuses.  A hotel where residents might come home to see a naked model posing for a film crew right in front of the door to their room.  Where the tenants wear black leather or the latest high fashion, or blue hair, or a rumpled suit that makes them look like Dylan Thomas, or T-shirts and khakis like they wore in college.  Where the bathroom may have a floor, sink, shower curtain, and tub caked with black, greasy grime, or blood on the toilet and floor, and old needles and baggies strewn about, deposited by trespassing junkies.  A hotel where, whenever tenants complain to the manager, he denies flat-out that anything going on is illegal or out of order or wrong.

         Welcome to the legendary Chelsea Hotel, a venerable 12-story Victorian Gothic structure at 222 West 23rd Street in Chelsea, long a haven for struggling writers, artists, musicians, outlaws, freaks, and crazies.  Built in 1883 as a lavishly decorated co-op apartment residence, in 1905 it became a residential hotel catering to theater luminaries like Sarah Bernhardt, who reputedly slept in a coffin, as well as Lillian  Russell, Mark Twain, and (under various names, in hiding from the law) O. Henry.  In the 1930s the brooding novelist Thomas Wolfe lived in room 831, where he wrote You Can’t Go Home Again.

File:Hotel Chelsea 2010.jpg
Beyond My Ken

          The 1940s and 1950s were hard times for the Chelsea: stained-glass windows, mirrors, and ornate woodwork were torn out, as spacious suites were divided up into tiny rooms, and the hotel became little more than a flophouse.  Many of the old residents refused to vacate, thus preserving some of the original architectural detail, and impecunious writers continued to flock there.  It was at the Chelsea – where else? – that the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, having imbibed heavily at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, collapsed, and was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he died a few days later.  In the 1960s various Andy Warhol superstars checked in, and Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls was shot there in 1966.  Bob Dylan resided there from 1961 to 1964, as did other cultural luminosities and oddities, including Valerie Solanas, famous for shooting Andy Warhol.  Punk rockers and gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe frequented the hotel in the 1970s, followed by Madonna and various artists in the 1980s and beyond.  Indeed, one might ask who of the cultural elite didn’t show up there at one time or another.  Or at least, who of the avant-garde crowd of the time, usually in the early and less recognized phase of their career.

The Chelsea's wrought-iron stairwell.
         Presiding over this weirdest and most creative of hotels was its proprietor, Stanley Bard, who was born in the Bronx in 1934 to Jewish immigrants from Hungary.  His father had bought an ownership stake in the place in 1947, and the son began working there as a plumber’s assistant just ten years later.  After that he got a B.A. in accounting from New York University and served in the Army following the Korean War.   When his father died in 1964, Stanley took over, thus inaugurating the Chelsea’s era of greatness … and weirdness.  Round-faced with blue eyes and a hearty grin, he was partial to creative types of every stripe and hue, welcomed them with open arms, and was amazingly indulgent when it came to lapses in behavior and the payment of rent.  Word of his benign management soon spread, which explains the influx of creative personalities mixed in with assorted deadbeats and weirdos.   
         Not that the Chelsea of recent times was the elegant hostelry of yore.  The halls were dimly lit with long fluorescent tubes; the walls had cracked plaster, peeling paint, and exposed wires; the furniture was old and crumbling, the carpets stained and dirty; and pests roamed freely in the utter absence of exterminators.  But if anyone complained of roaches or mice, or a lack of heat or running water, or violence in the halls, or a filthy bathroom littered with the paraphernalia of junkies, Stanley Bard simply denied the facts put forth to him.  According to him, the writers and artists on the premises were happy, brilliant, and prosperous, glad to be living in the Chelsea’s luxurious accommodations.  Con man or perennial optimist gazing through rose-tinted spectacles, he maintained this illusion for over 40 years, while tolerating or even encouraging the eccentricities of tenants.  If an artist who owed him two months’ rent came to him in tears, fearing eviction, he would say, “Don’t worry, keep painting, keep painting.”  In spite of the hotel’s deteriorating conditions, creativity flourished and evictions were rare.

The lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in 2010.  

         In Legends of the Chelsea Hotel Ed Hamilton, himself a resident, chronicles the strange people and stranger doings typical of the hotel.  For instance:

·      An underground filmmaker who claimed he had become a voodoo priest in Haiti and had a Zombie slave in his apartment.
·      A drunk resident who scared his neighbors by practicing swordsmanship in the hall, having got a role in a Shakespeare play.
·      A white-haired lady who threatened junkies with a gun whenever they tried to shoot up in her bathroom.
·      An aging actress living on food stamps who hadn’t paid rent in seven years.
·      A delusional photographer who claimed mysterious intruders were trying to steal his photographs.
·      A young woman who worked off and on as a model and put off paying rent, promising to pay it when she sold a Larry Rivers painting worth fifty thousand dollars, but who finally had to move out.

         But there were famous residents as well.  After his breakup with Marilyn Monroe in 1960, playwright Arthur Miller moved in, wanting a quiet place where he could work in peace, but was soon badgering Stanley to send someone up to his room to vacuum a carpet caked with grit.  Jack Kerouac may or may not have written On the Road on the premises (accounts differ), but evidently had sex there with Gore Vidal.  Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were there in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it was there that Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch.

         And there were grim doings as well.  When a junky died in one of the rooms, the police took over the ninth floor, and tenants were barred from going up, until a body bag was removed on a stretcher. 
         “What’s going on on the ninth floor?” someone asked Stanley Bard.
         “Nothing,” said Bard.  “Why would you ask that?”
         “There were cops all over the place!”
         “No there weren’t.”
         “Yes there were!”
         “You may have seen one or two policemen.  They probably have a room here.”
         “Joe’s dead, isn’t he?”
         “Joe?  Oh no, Joe’s fine.  He just went on a little vacation.  Europe, I think.  He’ll be back in a couple of years, I’m sure.”
         Stanley Bard’s denial of unpleasant reality was absolute and unflinching.  Nothing of the incident appeared in the papers, and tenants almost wondered if they had seen a body bag or not.

Sid Vicious, January 1978.
Chicago Art Department

         Room 100 – the one the young punk rockers kept clamoring to stay in – had witnessed another horrendous event not easily denied.  On the morning of October 12, 1978, Sid Vicious, formerly with the punk rock band the Sex Pistols, woke up in a drug-induced stupor, found his girlfriend Nancy Spungen stabbed to death in the bathroom, and called the police.  In his confused state of mind Vicious confessed to the crime and then denied it, and was promptly arrested and charged with murder.  Four months later he died of an overdose while out on bail awaiting trial.  His guilt seemed obvious to many, but some have argued that a drug dealer killed her while Vicious was unconscious, and others have asserted that Nancy killed herself.  So began the legend that brought young punk rockers flocking to the Chelsea in hopes of gaining access to the room; when management denied its existence, they carved their initials into the door with their switchblades, and improvised memorials by putting roses in empty liquor bottles with cigarettes, joints, used needles, and love notes.  Some even carved the wall with slogans:


Bard replaced the door several times, then tore out the walls and divided up the rooms in the apartment between the two adjacent rooms.  So from then on, when he told the rockers there was no room 100, he was telling the truth.  But the young punk rockers still flocked to the hotel.
         To stay in the Chelsea Hotel required nerves of steel and endurance; it wasn’t for the timid, the sensitive, or those needing rest and quiet.

         And the hotel today?  It was overtaken by the relentless gentrification of the Chelsea neighborhood, which doomed its status as a sanctuary for artists and weirdos.  In 2007 Stanley Bard was forced out by the heirs of the other co-owners, who then sold it, and in 2011 it was closed for renovations.  When Bard died in Florida in February 2017, he rated a lengthy obit in the Times. 
         Long-time residents remain in the hotel to this day, harassed by construction noises.  The present owners plan to reopen it in 2018, but, renovated and scrubbed up, it will not be the Chelsea of legend.  I walked by it recently and found the fa├žade masked by lofty blue scaffolding above, and the ground floor fronted by tunnel-like scaffolding with a plaque beside the entrance announcing the building’s listing with the National Register of Historic Places.  Flanking it in the tunnel is Doughnut Plant on one side and Chelsea Guitars on the other. 

         Source note:  For much of the information in this post I am indebted to Ed Hamilton’s Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with Artists and Outlaws in New York’s Rebel Mecca (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2007).  For more about the Chelsea, you can’t do better than read this memoir.

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BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon: Strange occupations in New York City.  Who cares for the fine chinaware and filigreed brass room numbers from the Waldorf Astoria's legendary past?  Who made Jackie Kennedy Onassis's wigs?  Who brings the ships in safely through the shallow, sandbar-ridden Outer Harbor?  Who calls himself the keeper of 40,000 souls and says good-bye to them every night when he leaves for home?  More where-but-in-New-York stories.

©   2017   Clifford Browder

Sunday, May 14, 2017

298. Matriarchs

         For six LibraryThing prepublication reviews of Bill Hope: 
His Story by viennamax, stephvin, Cricket2014, Shoosty, terry19802, and graham072442, go here and scroll down.

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         In honor of Mother’s Day I have decided to discuss matriarchs, though a matriarch is not necessarily a mother, and a mother is not necessarily a matriarch.  Even in supposedly patriarchal societies, matriarchs rule with a heavy hand.  They come in all sizes, shapes, and persuasions, but for me the quintessential matriarch is WASP to the core: dominant, often prejudiced and set in her ways, but with an admirable sense of social responsibility and justice.  If someone does her a service, she will certainly repay them in some way; not to do so would be reprehensible.  Interspersed in the text that follows are photographs of matriarchs of various societies; see if you can find any common denominator.

File:Mathilda Wahlberg von Reis c 1897.jpg
Mathilda Wahlberg von Reis (1827-1917),
a Swedish matriarch.
         Long ago, reading a biography of Edith Wharton, I encountered a description of one of her grandmothers who was certainly a matriarch.  An elderly widow, she could no longer handle the stairs in her brownstone, so she had moved downstairs into a rear parlor.  When, at her insistence, the family assembled in the front parlor, her ample presence, enthroned in an armchair, was carried by four sweating cousins.  That brief mention sets the scene perfectly; who can doubt but that this woman radiated power?

File:Analea Keohokalole (PP-97-13-001).jpg
Analea Keohokalole (1816-1869), a Hawaiian matriarch.

         Have I myself known matriarchs?  My maternal grandmother was a soft and gentle soul, the wife of a judge, but no matriarch.  My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, had a firm and spiny quality to her, and was full of sound, good sense.  She must have shown rare intelligence right from the start, for her father had her attend a local college in Indiana that was just beginning to admit women.  When her husband, my father’s father – a brilliant young lawyer spoiled by his adoring mother and sisters – became a hopeless alcoholic with no sign of recovery, she divorced him, wanting no alimony, and sent her four young sons out on the street to sell newspapers.  Divorce was rare in those days, but Grandmother Browder wanted no more of a pathetically addicted spouse. 
         Living with my Aunt Emma and her husband on the near south side of Chicago, my grandmother often visited us in Evanston, just north of the city.  I can still see her arriving at the door dressed in sober black, a rather lean and bony figure with a tasseled cane.  She often sat down with me and told me stories from the Bible, which she didn’t take literally, usually finding some natural explanation for seeming miracles.  But she was full of practical advice as well.  “Hal,” she told me more than once, addressing me with my childhood nickname, “don’t ever be afraid to talk to a politician.  They have to listen to you.”  She should know; by approaching local politicians she got all her sons jobs as pages in the state legislature in Indianapolis, and by approaching Indiana’s two senators and her congressional representative she got her youngest son into Annapolis.  And this back when women were supposed to stay locked in the domestic sphere and couldn’t vote.  She was a great talker, but so were all her family.  At the dinner table they would all talk at once, voicing strong opinions, and she often found herself looking from one diner to another to find a listener, and usually settled on me.  Since in such circumstances she was hardly dominant, perhaps she isn’t quite the quintessential matriarch.

File:Phoebe hearst.jpg
Phoebe Apperson Hearst (1842-1919), matriarch of the Hearst family,
mother of the journalist William Randolph Hearst.

         A true matriarch was the maternal grandmother of my friend Spenser, who told me stories of her.  She was from south Evanston, nearer Chicago, and viewed residents of north Evanston like my family with just a trace of suspicion; we were newcomers, definitely not old money, intruders muddying the waters of settled Evanston society.  Even her son-in-law, Spenser’s father, was slightly suspect, bringing to the family solid money but little social position or prestige.  When Spenser was about nine he heard Grandmama tell his mother, unaware of his presence nearby, her opinion of  King Edward VIII of England abdicating the throne so he could marry Wallis Warfield Simpson, an American socialite and – horrors! – a divorcee.  “He has abandoned the ship of state,” she announced, “for a tramp steamer!”
         Poise and presence of mind she certainly had.  Spenser told me how she hosted the family’s Thanksgiving dinners.  On one memorable occasion Lily, her African American servant, entered with the turkey on a platter while beaming a triumphant smile, then tripped and, to the dismay of all, sent the turkey rolling across the floor.  “That’s quite all right, Lily,” said the grandmother.  “Bring in the other turkey.”  So Lily retrieved the fallen turkey, disappeared into the kitchen, and minutes later, walking very carefully, entered the dining room again with the “other” turkey, and a good dinner was had by all.

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Neneh Houca, circa 1981, a Senegalese matriarch.

         Matriarchs have often been presented in films.  Joan Crawford repeatedly played variations of the queen bee, and Jo Van Fleet could do such roles marvelously.  They are the kind of role that veteran character actresses long for.  In theater, Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest usually steals the show with her mannered speech and arrogance.  A more recent example is found in Tracy Letts’s award-winning play August: Osage County, where Violet Weston dominates her family, reassembled after the death of her husband; though addicted to prescription drugs, she is ruthlessly assertive.

         In his novel A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul describes an Indian family in Trinidad, the Tulsis, who live together communally in the same decaying house and are dominated by a matriarch.  Whenever anything untoward occurs – usually the fault of a son-in-law – the mother falls into a state of collapse, and the daughters cluster attentively around her, while the sons-in-law stand about helplessly, and the children, seeing that no one is watching over them, run wild.  Which shows that seeming vulnerability is yet another way to dominate a family.

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Queen Victoria, 1887.  They don't come more matriarchal than this.

         A matriarch of a different sort was the mother I heard about in a moving story narrated by one of her sons on the radio.  When he announces to his family that he is gay, all seems to go well, but he soon learns otherwise.  While he is away in college his mother instructs the family to assemble all his belongings in the back yard – his books, clothing, photographs, everything -- and when they have done so, she sets fire to the pile and watches as the flames consume the last vestiges of her absent son.  Her authority is such that no one objects or interferes.  The son soon learns that he is no longer welcome in the house and spends the next several years in a state of shock and dismay.  Finally, having received no answer to his letters, he confronts his mother at her office.  When she comes down the hall and sees him there, unannounced, she quietly turns her back on him and retreats, having said not a word.  They never see each other again, and only after her death is he able to communicate with other family members, who did not approve of her action but could not in any way change it.  Such is the matriarch at her fearful worst.

         Another breed of matriarch was described to me by a friend of a friends who once visited acquaintances in a small Southern town.  Dominating society there was a lady of the old school, perhaps a widow, who when she walked down the street was greeted respectfully by name, with a tipped hat, by every man who crossed her path.  When the Northern visitor, whose name was O’Malley, was introduced to her in her home, she quietly remarked, “I don’t suppose a Yankee has been in this house since the Civil War.  And your name is O’Malley – Irish, of course, and that means Catholic.”  A long pause, then: “Mr. O’Malley, I hope we can be friends.”  With this invitation, and the handshake that accompanied it, history was made.

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BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon: The legendary Chelsea Hotel, where artists and writers rubbed elbows with junkies and deadbeats, and the manager denied that anything was amiss, when the police brought a tenant down in a body bag.

©   2017   Clifford Browder