The Hotel Chelsea: A Cultural History

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Although it’s been embattled and its legacy tarnished in the past few years, Manhattan’s Hotel Chelsea remains a spiritual landmark for those who remember (or simply romanticize) the old, weird New York. So it’s jarring news to learn that the Chelsea is now up for sale. Its owners claim that the place’s legacy will be preserved, and we sure hope they mean it.

To understand exactly what’s at stake here, we’ve put together a timeline of cultural events that took place at or were inspired by the Hotel Chelsea in the past 60 years. Of course, since its relationship to the art, music, and literary world is too enormous to measure, we’ve had to leave a lot out. Add your favorite Hotel Chelsea moments in the comments.

The death of Dylan Thomas (1953)

The Hotel Chelsea has been home to many poets, but perhaps its most famous was Dylan Thomas, who also died there. Notorious for consuming heroic quantities of liquor, he succumbed to an alcohol-related affliction on November 9, 1953, at the age of 39. Since then, rumors have swirled over whether it was pure quantity of drink or something to do with diabetes or a bad drug interaction that killed Thomas.

The Beats (1950s-60s)

Around the time of Thomas’s death, another group of literary rebels moved into the Chelsea. Rumor has it that William S. Burroughs wrote some of Naked Lunch and that Jack Kerouac could even have done work on On the Road at the hotel. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso also hung out, did drugs, and talked philosophy there.

Yves Klein’s Chelsea Hotel Manifesto (1961)

A year before his untimely death at the age of 34, and at a time when his work was just beginning to get the recognition it deserved, painter Yves Klein composed what came to be known as his Chelsea Hotel Manifesto. A bold missive responding to his detractors, it was full of statements like, “The shape of the body, its lines, its strange colors hovering between life and death, hold no interest for me. Only the essential, pure affective climate of the flesh is valid… Having rejected nothingness, I discovered the void.” Read the entire manifesto here.

Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966)

Shot at the hotel and featuring Warhol superstars from Brigid Berlin and Nico to Ondine and International Velvet, Chelsea Girls remains one of the artist’s best- known films. Comprised of a series of vignettes and co-directed by Paul Morrissey, the movie was a critical flop but remains a cult favorite. Fun fact: Warhol and Morrissey filmed a segment with Edie Sedgwick, but it didn’t make the final cut.

Nico’s Chelsea Girl (1967)

A year after Chelsea Girls was filmed, Nico released her debut solo album, which took its name from the movie. The song “Chelsea Girls” takes up the same subject matter as the film, describing residents ranging from artists to poseurs to junkies. The video above, shot much later, shows Nico performing and discussing the song in a room at the hotel.

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

An expanded version of his 1948 short story “The Sentinel,” Arthur C. Clarke wrote the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Chelsea while co-creating the screenplay for the film with Stanley Kubrick. In 1999, when the New York Times conducted an interview at the hotel with Clarke, who died in 2008, he still had kind things to say about it: “This place is my spiritual home. Everyone is surprised that I come to this hardly five-star hotel.”

Leonard Cohen, “Chelsea Hotel #2” (1974)

While Cohen’s original “Chelsea Hotel” song never made it onto an album, the more famous “Chelsea Hotel #2” appeared on New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The track is known as the musician and poet’s recollection of a tryst with Janis Joplin — something he later regretted revealing.

Recently, it’s come to light that Chelsea Clinton — who was long said to be named after Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” — was named after the song, a favorite song of her dad’s.

Bob Dylan, “Sara” (1976)

One a few great songs Dylan wrote for his first wife, “Sara” actually recounts the tortured period he spent writing an earlier classic for her: “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/Writin’ ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.”

The death of Nancy Spungen (1978)

Dylan Thomas’s was hardly the only controversial death that took place at the Hotel Chelsea. On October 12, 1978, Spungen was found stabbed to death in the bathroom of the room she and Sid Vicious shared. Although the knife had been owned by Vicious and many had noted their abusive, drug-ravaged relationship, the murder remains a widely disputed mystery. Vicious was arrested, released on bail, and then killed himself in February, 1979. To this day, debate continues over whether Sid was framed.

9 1/2 Weeks, 1986

Of course, not every work of art in the Chelsea’s orbit can be a good one. The infamous Mickey Rourke-Kim Basinger BDSM flop 9 1/2 Weeks also features some famous scenes shot at the hotel — including an intense moment when Rourke’s character leaves Basinger’s bound in a room there, with a prostitute.

Madonna, SEX (1992)

Because all cool New York things must at one point be appropriated by Madonna, the pop legend shot a portion of her 1992 photo book Sex at the hotel. The book was also bound with a mini comic called Dita in “The Chelsea Girl”, a story written by Madonna about a Chelsea party.

Chelsea Walls, 2001

Ethan Hawke’s attempt to depict a new generation of artists at the hotel, Chelsea Walls tells the stories of struggling creative types who live there. (Never mind that no starving artist could ever afford to take up residence in that part of Manhattan in the 21st century.) The star-studded cast included Uma Thurman, Rosario Dawson, Kris Kristofferson, and Vincent D’Onofrio. Jeff Tweedy composed the music.

Okkervil River, “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979” (2008)

The Chelsea’s influence on musicians continues into the 21st century, with a host of indie rockers paying tribute to it. Along with this gorgeous, wistful Okkervil River track, The Antlers make reference to the hotel in their song “Bear.” And Jeffrey Lewis even pokes fun at Leonard Cohen in his “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song.”

Joseph O’Neill, Netherland (2008)

Just as it remains relevant to musicians, Hotel Chelsea is still an inspiration for authors. This beautifully written, deeply contemporary 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award winner follows a Dutch oil-futures analyst working in New York, post-9/11 and living the hotel. When his family returns to Europe without him, he immerses himself in the odd, immigrant-filled world of cricket.

The Pretty Reckless, “Make Me Wanna Die” video (2010)

Earlier this year, the Hotel Chelsea Blog noticed that at least part of the video “Makes Me Wanna Die,” by Taylor Momsen’s band The Pretty Reckless, was filmed in Room 822, where Madonna shot Sex. Blogger Ed Hamilton was less than starstruck:

I actually saw Taylor standing outside the room during a lull in the shooting, though of course I didn’t recognize her at the time. (She was wearing the same funereal black outfit she has on in the video, which is what jogged my memory.) At the time I figured she was just another young, pretty model of the kind who grace our halls for fashion shoots and the like. I did notice that Taylor was looking at me as if she expected me to shriek with delight and run over and ask for her autograph at any moment. And I would have too, obviously, except for the fact that I didn’t know Taylor Momsen from Taylor Swift or even Taylor Meade.