Inside the Dream Palace
The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel
By Sherill Tippins
Simon & Schuster; £20 hardcover
Sherill Tippins is the author of The February House (which I heartily recommend), about a townhouse in Brooklyn Heights that was home to a coterie of artists. Now she’s penned a bigger, more ambitious book along similar lines about the life and times of an enclave justifiably famous as the home of artists, authors, musicians, filmmakers and reprobates, Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel.
The hotel is both famous and notorious. It is where Nancy Spungen was murdered, and where Dylan Thomas collapsed for the last time. It is where Gore Vidal enjoyed sexual congress with Jack Kerouac because he felt literary history demanded it, and where Arthur Miller wrote much of his play After the Fall, afterwards expressing surprise that people might think it was about his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe.
Whether you’re a dedicated follower of fashion, a passionate Punk, or a fan of classical music, chances are you have heard of the Chelsea. Even an incomplete list of its long- and short-term denizens will dazzle, since it includes: Virgil Thompson, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Viva, Edie Sedgwick, Arthur C Clarke, Charles James, Thomas Wolfe, Brendan Behan, William Dean Howells, Childe Hassam, Mary McCarthy, Holly Woodlawn, Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper, Bob Dylan, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Shirley Clarke, Dee Dee Ramone, Phil Ochs, Sam Shepard, Isabella Gardner, Abbie Hoffman, Yves Klein, George Kleinsinger, Edgar Lee Masters, and Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain.
Passing by in 2005, recalls Tippins, she “saw” the familiar building as if for the first time, and wondered, “Who in the 1880s had thought to build an oversize palace for artists at a time when American writers and painters were socially on a par with tailors and parlour maids? And what had kept it going as a creative nexus for a hundred and twenty-five years?”
She discovered that the twelve-story building, with its original 80 flats, was conceived not only as a dwelling for corporeal forms, but as a container for an entire philosophy. Architect Philip Hubert’s grand mix of Gothic and Queen Anne styles was built to last, with thick, soundproof walls coated in fireproof plaster. Among its modern conveniences were pressurised steam for cooking, dumbwaiters for room service, electric lights (as well as gas jets), speaking tubes, and a communal telephone in the manager’s office. The lobby was designed to resemble a lodge where guests were encouraged to congregate. Also on the ground floor were three private dining rooms, a public café, and a ladies’ lounge. The stairways and ornamental wrought iron balconies facing Twenty-Third Street boasted cheerful sunflowers, while skylights gave the building light and air.
It sounds idyllic and that was the idea, for Hubert based his plans around the Utopian philosophy of Charles Fourier, who held that modern life was inefficient and corrupting, but that this could be solved by giving people what they needed to live happy and fulfilled lives. In such an environment, he reasoned, everyone would find their natural level, the classes would intermingle harmoniously, and all would be well.
And for a long time the Chelsea “home club” was fairly spectacular on that score. Along with communal pleasure gardens, the rooftop contained fifteen artist’s studios. The building immediately attracted musicians, actors, and writers. Flats could be purchased or rented, with prices staggered to reflect the size, location, and opulence of each unit. Judging by some of the older photographs, these must have been beautiful dwellings.
Economics put paid to this idyll. As troubled times arrived in waves, the building would, in 1905, become a residential hotel. Over the years the original flats were divided again and again, into almost four hundred rooms. Some lovely, larger units remained, and composer Virgil Thomson lived in one for roughly half a century. But things were so bad by the 1970s that the hotel’s manager lived behind bulletproof glass, and every effort was made to contain the junkies on the first floor, where staff could keep an eye on them.
What never changed was the building’s artist-friendly ambience, especially under the management of the Bard family. Its scion, Stanley, was famous for extending credit almost indefinitely to treasured guests. One such resident, author and filmmaker Harry Smith, did a flit one night owing tens of thousands of dollars in back rent.
For many people, myself included, the Chelsea Hotel occupies a special place in their imagination. We already know a lot about the place – or think we do. Tippins caters for us, as well as neophytes, dishing up stories both familiar and surprising. I didn’t know that the Museum of Modern Art was born at the Chelsea, nor that the hotel had no black residents until the 1950s. Here, too are very familiar stories about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe (not to mention Sam Shepherd), many of which which seem to be harvested from Smith’s recent memoir Just Kids.
Arthur C Clarke was a resident of long standing, and wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey in his top floor flat. Tippins tells us about a drunken Brendan Behan singing “I Should Have Been Born a Tulip” on the central staircase, and how, in the 1960s, with the arrival of the druggy rock and roll crowd, “it became a common late-night experience to see hallucinating residents crawling back to their rooms on their hands and knees.” Germaine Greer is photographed by Diane Arbus at the Chelsea, and writer Barry Miles is woken by policemen inquiring as to the identity of the corpse stationed outside his front door.
In other words, there’s no shortage of fabulous gossip and readers will keep turning pages in search of the next jaw-dropping revelation.
Still, I have some complaints. Ironically, Inside the Dream Palace spends far too much of its time outside the dream palace. It’s understandable that Tippins wants to support her central premise by illustrating and contextualizing the achievements of the hotel’s residents, but ultimately it’s frustrating. I didn’t crack this spine to read a potted history of Twentieth Century popular culture, but to learn more about one of Manhattan’s most compelling buildings. I wanted more about what people got up to inside its walls, and less about what happened when they went to the West Coast or overseas.
These frequent, and extremely long digressions mean Tippins has to overlook other residents whose stories sound rather interesting. We find out that Bertolt Brecht’s son Stanley, a poet, “was documenting the downtown alternative-theatre scene from his top-floor studio”, but none of the details. Ditto the time the Rolling Stones threw “a party so wild that two of the hotel’s bellmen wound up in Bellevue Hospital.” Really? Tell us more. I want to know the story behind the box of love letters Stanley Bard held on to for years, entrusted to him by Agnes Boulton, former wife of Eugene O’Neill. Or about the time when Ethan Hawke’s marriage to Uma Thurman began coming apart at the seams, and Bard offered him and their kids with a free suite for a month provided he try to repair things with his wife. We never find out how Bard felt about their divorce, or whether Hawke had to pay up.
I can’t help thinking there would have been more space for these and other stories had Tippins not lingered so long over her digressions.
There is also a paucity of information about the building itself in later chapters. We are told that floral wallpaper replaced oil paintings after 1905, that linoleum covered marble floors and that the building was a hotchpotch of wiring and plumbing in need of constant renewal. But I wanted more about how, precisely, the original flats were broken up (and broken up further), and better descriptions of what the interior of this great building actually looked like. Perhaps I took the title too literally, on that score.
Finally, there’s something flat about the tone. Tippins is a fine writer, yet the book never comes fully to life – which is fairly astonishing given the richness and often downright bonkers-ness of her material. Other critics have suggested that it’s because she relies too heavily on written sources, rather than her interviews with former residents – and that she failed entirely to interview a great many still-living former residents.
If you’re a fan of the Chelsea, and a fan of popular histories, Inside the Dream Palace is a rewarding read and deserves pride of place on your shelf. Unfortunately it’s just not the definitive work that I was hoping for.