Down at the Chelsea — Village Voice


The Chelsea Hotel made news last month when its board ousted its longtime gatekeeper, Stanley Bard, and replaced Bard family management with BD Hotels, a company that turns historic places into high-end boutique inns. With the rumored help of hotelier Andre Balazs, who oversaw the revival of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, the Chelsea—long a haven for artists—will be getting a face-lift.

In truth, it could use one. Built in 1883 as one of city’s first co-ops, the Chelsea went bankrupt and became a hotel in 1905. The rooms, once artfully planned by their individual buyers, were chopped up into SROs, leading to startling differences from room to room.

Though the Chelsea’s in better shape than it was back in its ’60s and ’70s heyday, it still gives new meaning to the term “shabby chic.” Art of varying quality by lesser-known former residents hangs on the walls of the stairwell; decrepit blue vinyl and mirrored benches that should have been tossed years ago sit between the elevators; fresh coats of paint have completely covered the door numbers, leading residents to fashion handwritten signs so visitors can find their apartments. Though some of the original touches are intact—stained-glass windows and wood molding on the hallway walls—there’s no consistency. In the lobby, which was updated in the 1990s, the gold velveteen furniture is now dated and worn. The old girl is getting a little rough.

The funkiness is one of the reasons the residents love it so much, and why tourists who want to experience bohemia stay there. But it doesn’t bring in the big spenders.

Much has been written about past residents of the hotel: Sid and Nancy, Dylan Thomas, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur C. Clarke. And several of the current full-time residents handpicked by Stanley Bard, who comprise 60 percent of the hotel’s occupancy, are key downtown tastemakers: activists, musicians, painters, photographers, writers, actors. People like nightclub queen Susanne Bartsch and her gym-magnate husband, David Barton; Vogue fashion news editor Sally Singer; gallery owner Daniel Reich; Zaldy, the Scissor Sisters’ fashion designer; painters David Remfry and Philip Taaffe, who lives in composer Virgil Thomson’s preserved apartment; and Arthur Weinstein, the Studio 54 photographer who is battling cancer.

But most of the residents aren’t so well-known. Some came to the Chelsea hoping that some of its good luck would rub off, that by association they might become part of the hotel’s lore. Some pay market rate for decrepit single rooms that wouldn’t pass muster in a Lower East Side tenement just so they can be a part of the Chelsea. Some have been there for nearly half their lives; others just want a place to work. With its nearly soundproof, sand-filled, three-foot-thick walls, the Chelsea has always been good for that.

Gerald Busby
photo: Alana Cundy

Gerald Busby, 71
Composer. Resident since 1977.

Best known for his score for Robert Altman’s Three Women, Busby lived in a spacious four-room apartment until his partner died of AIDS-related causes in the mid-1990s. Then the HIV-positive Busby himself hit bottom, succumbing to a crack addiction. He credits Bard with not throwing him out on the street. Instead, the sweet, bearded man followed through on a promise to clean up after moving to a smaller room.

Stuffed with composition papers, music books, and a piano, Busby’s room is blessed with high ceilings, a bathroom and kitchen (a rarity), and two curved windows that look onto a tiny balcony. He can barely pay his below-market rent and survives on Social Security, welfare, and the occasional ASCAP royalty check.

When Busby first came to the hotel in 1972, he had been a traveling book salesman for Alfred Knopf and Random House. A friend invited Busby, also an accomplished chef, to cook for Virgil Thomson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and former classical critic for the New York Herald Tribune, who lived in the hotel for 50 years until his death in 1989 at age 92. Thomson took a liking to the openly gay Busby, then a budding composer, and rang up Bard on the hotel’s house phone. “This is the kinda person you’re supposed have here!” Busby says, impersonating Thomson in a deep Texas drawl. “That meant I was in.”

As a 30-year resident, he’s seen his fair share of shenanigans. “In those days, every year there was some major catastrophe—a fire, a suicide, there was a murder,” he says. “There was a couple across the hall who argued constantly—I mean yelling and screaming and calling each other horrible names and slamming doors. And one day while that was going on, I left the apartment, and the man was standing in the hall drinking beer from a can, kind of leaning against the wall. I said, ‘Hi,’ and I started towards the elevator. And suddenly 20 policemen rushed in and grabbed him and ran into his apartment. He had just shot and killed his wife and was waiting for them to arrive. That was kind of the Chelsea.”

So far, residents haven’t been told whether they’ll be able to stay under the new management. Busby, however, says he’s heard that the new company will be reviewing the portfolios of the current renters. And by portfolios, he doesn’t mean sketches and poems.

Victor Bockris, 57
Writer. Resident since 2004.

As fate would have it, the only room available when writer Victor Bockris moved in was next to his greatest enemy in the world: Rene Ricard. “We had an altercation in a restaurant during a party in 1977,” says Bockris, a petite Englishman. “I threw a glass of wine in his face; he was trying to flick a glass, and I sort of fell into it and it cut my face wide open. It was down to the bone,” he says, the scar still visible. (Ricard, who appeared in Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls, returned a Voice interview request on a slip of paper with the word “NO” scrawled dramatically over the whole thing.)

Why did Bockris throw the wine?

“I was bored,” he says, and takes a drag from the Indian cigarettes he’s been chain-smoking.

Bockris, who seems manic even while lying down, had visited the Chelsea Hotel since the late 1960s, when he was attending college in Philadelphia. Now an accomplished biographer and chronicler of punk and Beat culture, he’s written 11 books, including biographies of Andy Warhol and Lou Reed.

Lying on a tattered black leather couch under a wooden bunk bed, with newspaper clippings of famous friends and heroes tacked to the wall (Mick Jagger, Edie Sedgwick, a picture of John Waters holding a baby), Bockris notes that the hotel’s past residents—many of whom he’s known and written about—produced important works, including Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and William Burrough’s Third Mind. But he’s really not one for nostalgia. “The Chelsea is kind of a litmus test for the culture. We’re in this odd time now, and I think that’s also true here at the hotel. I don’t think any great art has come out of this hotel for some time. The last great piece of art that’s come out of this hotel was an album by Ryan Adams called Love Is Hell.”

While Stanley Bard’s father filled the hotel with war-torn Hungarian refugees, Stanley had a different idea, explains Bockris, who pays $1,775 for his spot. “Stanley had this vision of this cross-fertilization between fields in the arts, and also between generations,” he says. “I really think of Stanley as an artist, and the hotel as his canvas.”

Ed Hamilton , 46
Blogger and author. Resident since 1995.

When aspiring novelist Ed Hamilton moved to New York with his girlfriend in 1995 from Washington, D.C., the Chelsea was the first place the Kentucky native thought he’d like to live. “This was our first choice. We’d always heard about it as a place where Thomas Wolfe lived, William Burroughs and the rest of the Beats.” He wears a baseball hat and glasses and looks like a regular guy rather than a tortured artist. He got in on a lark: After being turned down by Bard, he answered an ad for a sublet—which turned out to be in the Chelsea.

Hamilton’s abode isn’t glamorous. Like many of the other spaces, it’s a worn single room, with a blue ceiling, no bathroom or kitchen, and a drab green carpet. However, the original single-paned but cool-looking curved windows are still intact. The centerpiece of the apartment is a foosball table. On his walls are bright, primitive paintings by a Japanese artist named Hiroya, who had lived at the hotel in the ’90s before dying from a heroin overdose.

Hamilton and his girlfriend pay $1,500. Like all of the rooms in the Chelsea, his is rent-stabilized. And though he’s indignant about Bard’s ouster, he’s filed a complaint for the overcharging of rent—along with several other tenants—with the city’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal. (Though Bard is no longer running the hotel, he still owns a piece of it.)

Hamilton runs the unofficial Hotel Chelsea blog, Living With Legends, which led to a book deal with Da Capo press; the book, Legends of the Chelsea Hotel: Living with the Artists and Outlaws of New York’s Rebel Mecca, is due out in October. Hamilton revels in classic, quirky Chelsea stories. How Stormé Delarverie ran off the junkies shooting up in the bathrooms by brandishing a pistol, for example. And his favorite: the neighbor who started banging on his wall because he thought Hamilton was making a racket.

“I opened the door and there was Dee Dee Ramone, and he’s in his underwear—just his jockey shorts. I was like, ‘Oh, hi, Dee Dee.’

“I’ve never been at a loss in 10 years for something to write,” says Hamilton. “That is the best thing.”

Tim Sullivan, 52
Surf musician. Resident since 1982.

Before he was in a four-man rockabilly band that shared a single room in the Chelsea, Tim Sullivan was a ballet dancer on a scholarship at the Joffrey Ballet. A straight single guy who took classes to meet girls, he knew he was anomaly in the dance world. Now he’s in a surf band called the Supertones, and he looks more like a wave rider than a dancer. His room is stuffed with guitars and other instruments, some of which he sells for a living. A giant surf-board rests between the two windows, which are covered by towels and sheets to darken the room and keep out the heat.

He’s lived in four different rooms at the hotel. “When I lived in 220, we used to rehearse in the room as a full band. That was one of the nicest things about the hotel: It was pretty open. There were classical musicians, and they’d practice in the hallway. There was always someone getting together and gathering round. It was kind of like a dormitory.”

He’s been in his current spot since 1986. He no longer shares it with bandmates but with three cats, one of whom cost him $10,000 to cure its fatty liver disease. That caused Sullivan to fall several months behind on his $1,325-a-month rent. But he eventually caught up. “I always pay up,” he says, scoffing at the misconception that people there are living on the cheap or rent-free. Stanley Bard’s system was just more forgiving, he says, letting people slide until they sold a painting or got a large commission.

One of the most vocal opponents of Bard’s ouster, Sullivan thinks the new management will miss the point if they renovate the building and relocate the residents. “This place is an enchanted building, and the reason why it’s enchanted is because of the people who have lived here and who live here now. It’s the only reason why people come to the hotel.”

Linda Troeller, 58
Photographer. Resident since 1994.

Photographer Linda Troeller, like many Chelsea residents, has an introductory story so outrageous, it almost seems made up: When Stanley Bard showed Troller her first room in 1994, she was greeted by a snake in a cage. “He was like, ‘Don’t worry—it’ll be out when the tenants are gone.’ He didn’t know that it was there.”

She ended up across the hall from Beat poet Hubert Huncke, who was then 82 years old. “He invited me over for drinks and he would read his poetry. He scribbled on the walls. And on that floor, a Japanese magazine had someone write poetry in a room, and then they had a big party with like 300 or 400 people. So the entire floor was busy.”

Troeller’s room is lined with giant C-prints of ethereal images—moody visions of water and shimmery light. Troeller says that just being at the Chelsea has opened doors. She met fashion designer Alexander McQueen in the lobby, as well as countless European art dealers, who stay at the hotel for its proximity to the galleries. The building shows up in her work: She’s published eight books, including the acclaimed The Erotic Lives of Women (Scalo), which contains several images shot in the hotel. Before the management switch, she’d been putting together another book, Atmosphere: An Artist’s Memoir of the Chelsea Hotel.

Once an assistant for Ansel Adams, Troeller also has a house in New Jersey, but she still calls the Chelsea home. “[This place] is just a continuation . . . . There’s an attitude at the hotel, with new people coming with their fresh dreams: ‘Let’s stay at it.’ Herbert Huncke died here at 84, still making poems. You don’t have to stop because you’re a certain age. You can have a creative life.”

Martabel Wasserman
photo: Alana Cundy

Martabel Wasserman, 19
Artist. Resident since spring 2007.

Harvard student Martabel Wasserman is living in the Chelsea Hotel on her summer break. Her comparatively spacious room, with its curved windows and full kitchen and bathroom, is nicer than the apartments of many longtime residents. Her rent is being paid by her well-off father; she’s blissfully unaware of what it costs. (Though the Chelsea stopped letting new residents in long ago, her dad, David Wasserman, called in a favor to Bard.) Yet she feeds as much from the Chelsea’s energy as the old-timers. “Someone once said, ‘It’s like a club—once you’re in, you’re in.'” She even has an old-school Chelsea connection: Her first art show, at 14, took place at Gracie Mansion and consisted of photos she’d taken at a party at the house of Warhol superstar “Baby Jane” Holzer.

While most people in Wasserman’s position might spend their nights partying on the Lower East Side and their days sleeping in, Wasserman fills her hours with work: three days a week at an internship for Human Rights Watch, overseeing the relaunch of the Harvard sex magazine H-Bomb, and working on her own art (she’s just closed a show at the I-20 Gallery)—curious collages that depict shopworn women in empty doll houses.

At Harvard, she took a class taught by a member of Galaxie 500 about ’60s culture. “It was cool to see all these legends that I was studying from an academic perspective, and then to share the same space that they were in. . . . I guess I am sort of nostalgic for a time that I wasn’t even alive, but that’s something that draws me to this place.”

She’d rather hang with the elder statesmen of the hotel, but says she has yet to meet them because she’s intimidated. Wasserman has little affinity for people her own age. “The Williamsburg hipster is contrived. This is the authentic version. People are really themselves here—they are not subscribing to some trend. People here are really living their own way.

“One thing that’s different about the Chelsea is how the hallways always smell like pot, and no one does anything,” she says, finally sounding like the teenager she is. “It’s awesome!”

Stormé Delarverie, 86
Stonewall veteran. Resident since the 1970s.

On most days, a living legend sits in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, greeting her neighbors. An African-American woman with a snow-white Afro, Stormé Delarverie wears her trademark denim hat and matching denim button-up shirt, the pockets bursting with papers. She watches people come and go. It is in part because of Delarverie that the Stone-wall riots happened—she reportedly threw the first punch at the cops when they invaded the West Village bar that fateful night on June 28, 1969, and every year she heads the Gay Pride Parade in New York.

A singer and drag-king performer who ran a traveling gay cabaret, the Jewel Box Revue (“I never once sang ‘Stormy Weather,'” she clarifies), Delarverie has been a Chelsea Hotel resident since she wore “long hair and high heels” in the ’70s. Though she doesn’t like to dwell on the past (“Once it’s gone, I put it away”), she does still tell tall tales (“Everybody knows I’ve been shot once, I’ve been stabbed in the back once”). And though she’s 86, and her mental lucidity comes and goes, she’s still tough. She is what they might have called a pistol in her day.

“I can bench-press 135 pounds,” she says. “Everybody knows: Don’t try and come here and do anything to anybody that lives here. If you do, you’re gonna have a problem,” she adds, eyeballing the room. She says she stared down a board member who voted Bard out. “He’s sitting there and staring at me. I said, ‘Excuse me—I don’t like anyone looking at me. I’m 86 years old. Do you got a problem, or is my fly open?'” Still, for the most part, she loves the Chelsea. “I just like it. I like the people. It’s peaceful here. Nobody bothers me.”