All hotels are full of stories. In hotels, men and women behave differently, as if granted escape into a world that operates under an alternate set of rules or morals. Often in such places, the great human drama unfolds in a heightened state. Usually, the players are anonymous souls, and their stories are of the sort rendered by authors in short fictional works.
But, there are a small few establishments whose stories are wide-ranging enough to fill a book, and whose tales to one extent or another are part of the public record. The Ritz in Paris, which Hemingway claimed to have liberated in 1945 comes to mind. There is New York’s Algonquin, with its rich literary history, it’s famous ‘Round Table’ of pundits and wits. The Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue, into which the Fitzgerald’s dived, watched by the ghosts of aristocrats, past and present. And then, far more threadbare and flea-bitten, there is the Chelsea Hotel, on Manhattan’s 23rd Street—home to poets, playwrights, rock stars, and junkies.
There is a wonderful book to be written on the Chelsea, but alas, Ed Hamilton’s Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with Artists and Outlaws in New York’s Rebel Mecca is not it.
Hamilton has been published previously in a number of small presses, and contributes regularly to two Chelsea community papers. He has lived at the Chelsea Hotel for over a dozen years, and his book was inspired by a blog he originally began in attempts to chronicle the misadventures and eccentricities of every day life there. Indeed, he does offer a vivid sense of the chaos and discomfort that comes with living at the Chelsea, and his book is not entirely bereft of untold stories. Still, the seeds of it disappointing lie within the inconclusive resolution of two distinct issues, both relating to its conception.
To begin with, Hamilton wasn’t interested in telling the stories of the hotel’s more celebrated residents—Thomas Wolfe, Arthur Miller, Leonard Cohen, Edie Sedgwick, Sid Vicious, etc—the creative misfits who’ve contributed in large part to the hotel’s legend. Yet to write about the Chelsea Hotel without including something of that history would be a dereliction of duty, and most likely, would also render the work unpublishable. And so something of the more famous stories has seeped into the text, but only in the most salutatory way.
Hamilton provides a brief career overview of several celebrated artists who passed through the Chelsea’s doors, and then all too often, offers little in the way of how living at the hotel impacted their lives or careers, or what made it an integral part of their story. Nor does he record the circumstance that drove them to live there in the first place. There are few colorful anecdotes or revelations beyond perhaps, a requisite note of the room number.
Let’s take, for example, Edie Sedgwick and the notorious fire she started. Sedgwick receives two pages here (four if you include a story about the making of last year’s Edie biopic). One and a half pages of this loosely outlines her history, and the remainder tells how she fell asleep in her room one night with candles still aflame, in the process almost burning the building down and landing herself in hospital. We are told that her cat, ‘Smoke’ failed to escape, and there it is: Edie at the Chelsea.
In fact, there are numerous worthy stories of Sedgwick at the Chelsea. But in this particular instance, not worthy of mention apparently is Leonard Cohen’s visit to Sedgwick’s room on the day of the fire. Cohen, who was also living in the hotel at that time, was deeply superstitious, and noting that evening the layout of candles on Edie’s floor, suggested to her friend Danny Fields that they would bring ill luck, ‘fire and destruction.’ Not through any particular lucidity on her part, Edie ignored his advice. The outcome has filtered through to legend.
If we learn little about what these artist’s lives actually were like at the Chelsea (except maybe for the not entirely accurate revelation, reported three times by page 37, that William Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch here), then worse still are a number of contemporary stories told through Hamilton’s own personal experience. One section titled ‘Chelsea Soundstage: Sean Penn at the Chelsea’ amounts simply to this: ‘Sean Penn was filming a scene of the a movie at the hotel. I rode the elevator with him and he acted surly.’ Then there’s the Ryan Adams chapter. In this instance, Hamilton notes that Adams ‘definitely lived at the Chelsea at some point’ but admits in telling his story, ‘addled by drink as I typically was then, I can’t swear it was him.’ The story itself? Hamilton sees ‘Ryan’ moving out and offers to help –
‘No thanks, I’ve only got a few things,’ Ryan said.
‘All right, well good luck,’ I said. He seemed like a good guy. Too bad I never got to know him. I went into my room and closed the door.
Although there is a postscript. Later, Hamilton cites Adams’s song “Hotel Chelsea Nights” which, he says, offers a description of strung out Christmas lights used as a metaphor to describe the singer’s own emotional state ... and possible drug use?
All of which leads me to wonder if he was one of the junkies nodding off in my bathroom in the bad old days. Were those his dirty needles I had to pick up? Was that his blood left strewn on the floor and the fixtures. Son of a bitch!
(Actually, I’m only joking bout the drugs. I have no evidence of that ...)
So there you have it. Ryan Adams at the Chelsea—maybe.
A few of the vignettes on lesser-known personalities are better; one on Storme DeLarverie, a drag king reputed to have thrown the first punch at the Stonewall riots in 1969; another on Gerald Busby, a classical composer, pianist and one time protégé of Virgil Thomson, who lost his way to drugs after his partner had succumbed to AIDS, and who was also diagnosed with the illness himself.
Mostly though, the book is made up of transposed blog posts, several hundred words long ... and herein lies book’s the second problem.
Blog posts may offer light grazing when waking over coffee and mindlessly browsing the Internet, but they surely don’t provide sustenance when we sit down to engage a book. Indeed, perhaps the most instructive thing about Hamilton’s book is what it tells us about our reading habits and what effect the Internet is likely to have on them. For now at least, we expect a more rigorous prose from our books than we find in posts online; also, we require a greater penetration of subject. And while it’s true that Hamilton makes no attempt here to write a formal history of the Chelsea, if you’re attempting even a loose history and writing in a conversational style, then you’d better be more than a decent raconteur. Devoting a full page to an anecdote about a Japanese artist blocking the drain of the communal shower with his long black hair isn’t going to cut it.
Alas then, while Legends of the Chelsea Hotel captures much of the mundane underbelly of its subject, it barely summons any of the place’s restless creative magnetism.