HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 15 February 2014
It would be hard to imagine another hotel that has the reputation of the Chelsea in New York – a place known for giving shelter to those on the fringes of society; the artistic, the talented, the damaged and the tragic. Now suffering one of many temporary setbacks, being closed for over two years, the Chelsea was conceived in the 1880’s as a place where residents could come together in a new and creative way. This utopian society was to include writers, artists and musicians; a reminder of artistic life outside the commercialism of the city.
This book is full of endless stories about the famous, and the infamous. Yet, there is always a dark undercurrent in the corridors of a hotel which has seen more than its fair share of tragedies. In 1922, the young wife of a concert pianist severed her left hand before leaping to her death, leaving the hand for her young daughter to discover. Such personal disasters seem to stalk the pages of this fascinating book, which is not only the biography of a building, but of many of the people who stayed there – as well as following the city of New York from the conception of the hotel to the present. We are taken through the stock market crash and depression, through the war years and see the Chelsea fall into a sort of down at heel chaos.
As for names, well, there are plenty, from Peggy Guggenheim, Marc Chagall, Jackson Pollock, John Cage, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Brendan Behan, Arthur C Clarke, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Jerry Rubin, Patti Smith and through to the punk era and Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. In a way, it seems as if so many of these people – creative, talented artists, came to the Chelsea Hotel merely to self destruct. The tales of love affairs, drugs, alcohol abuse and just general eccentricity are breath-taking. The author takes us from a time of gentility and hope through to squalor, pimps, prostitutes and pushers. Through it all, though, the Chelsea had some kind of magnetic pull for those who were writers, musicians, artists, film makers or who were, perhaps, simply trying to create their own self image. For others though, such as Arthur Miller, newly divorced from Marilyn Monroe and fleeing with suitcases in hand, it offered a real refuge.
Wonderfully written, this book takes us through many different eras and introduces all kinds of interesting characters, but the author is always respectful of the people she writes about. She is careful to set the historical context and explain what is happening in New York during each time, in a changing city and in a hotel which constantly seems to reinvent itself, while staying somehow true to its original aims. This is a fascinating account of a place which certainly will remain as culturally important – if only for the enormous amount of outstanding work which has taken place there by an amazing array of artists, in so many different spheres – from Beat poets to Punk Rockers. Lastly, I received a copy of this book from the publishers, via NetGalley, for review.