Sherill Tippins
AUTHOR

Sherill Tippins

Sherill Tippins is the author of Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel, and of February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee Under One Roof in Wartime America. She lives in New York City. AUTHOR Q&A Why and how did you come to write about the Chelsea Hotel? Like many New Yorkers, I was initially thrilled, during my early years as a New York City resident (in the late ’70s and early ’80s), to venture through the doors of the famous artists’ residence, to take a look at the art in the lobby and to attend parties upstairs. Over time, however, I ceased to think about the hotel. It was only seven or eight years ago that my curiosity about the place was piqued again. A friend’s enthusiasm for the place and his recommendation that I look into its origins prompted me to do some research. Right away, a host of bizarre stories turned up — everything from paeans to the Chelsea as a “living temple of humanity” to a report of a concert pianist’s wife who cut off her hand with a pair of shears and then leaped to her death from the hotel’s fifth floor. Still, I resisted what promised to be an enormous research project, until the day I was crossing West 23rd Street during a rainstorm and was stopped cold in mid-intersection by the flash of an enormous bolt of forked lightning directly above the hotel. One doesn’t ignore an omen like that. There are some fantastic anecdotes in the book about artists who inspired each other. Is there one unlikely or surprising collaboration in particular that struck you? Perhaps one of the most surprising to me was that between the artist Arthur B. Davies and the socialites and arts patrons Lizzie Bliss and Abby Rockefeller in the 1920s. Davies led a fascinating life: married to one woman who was raising their children in upstate New York, married to another with their daughter hidden away in Europe, and romantically involved with a beautiful young singer who posed for him in his top-floor Chelsea studio. Davies, who had been the greatest force behind the seminal 1913 Armory Show, had a great passion for the modern artists. He had filled his studio with so many paintings and sculptures by Cézanne, Seurat, and Picasso that he eventually had to rent a second studio in order to house all his treasures. As a result, when Davies died unexpectedly, during a visit to his second wife in Europe, Rockefeller and Bliss were moved to commemorate his vision by together creating New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1929. Why do you think the Chelsea attracted so many legendary residents? The Chelsea is, above all, comfortable — socially comfortable even when the clanking furnaces and dusty drapes make it physically challenging. Arthur Miller wrote that the attraction of the hotel was its utterly classless social structure — celebrity actors were treated with no more or less deference than aged residents struggling with dementia — and artists in particular have always found this richly diverse and egalitarian environment especially conducive to a pleasurable life. In practical terms, the Chelsea serves creative types because it was designed to facilitate their work, with soundproof walls three feet thick, a comfortable, un-ostentatious lobby for socializing with neighbors, a tradition of respect for privacy during work hours and conviviality at other times, and, at least until recently, a manager dedicated to protecting residents’ ability to conduct their lives free of unwanted intrusion and with an understanding of the financial ups and downs of the typical artist’s life. You chronicle many different eras of the Chelsea, from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression to the post-World War II bohemian revolution to the punk-rock days. Which era is your favorite, and why? I found its birth during the 1880s Gilded Age the most fascinating, because it was the most surprising. Researching the life of the Chelsea’s creator, the French-born architect Philip Hubert, I discovered that his father had served as the architect for the utopian philosopher Charles Fourier and had in fact designed the only Fourierist community created during Fourier’s lifetime. The family emigrated to the United States with a wave of fellow idealists in the wake of the 1848 revolution in France, and many of Fourier’s ideas about the importance of social diversity, the need for society to adapt to individuals’ needs and desires rather than the other way around, and especially the role of avant-garde artists in pointing the way toward social evolution, informed the creation of the Chelsea Association Building, one of the city’s first cooperative residences and the first to mix people of different economic classes, not only in the same building but on the same floor. Hubert effectively designed the Chelsea to facilitate a creative communal life. And even after the shared dining area was removed, the cooperative was bankrupted and turned into a hotel, and the original Association and its members were long gone and forgotten, the Chelsea continued to sustain a uniquely sociable and creative atmosphere. What are some of the most famous pieces of art that were created at, or inspired by, the Chelsea? Bob Dylan began work on his seminal album Blonde on Blonde during his days at the Chelsea Hotel. Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, the most successful American underground film ever made, was shot partly at the hotel, with co-owner Stanley Bard’s blessing. Patti Smith wrote some of her earliest poems and songs in the lobby of the Chelsea, including her poem “Oath,” whose opening lines, “Christ died for somebody’s sins / But not mine” would serve as the introduction to her early, fabulous rendition of “Gloria.” Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” was, of course, inspired by his encounter with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea one lonely winter’s night. Shirley Clarke’s groundbreaking film “Portrait of Jason” was shot in her pyramid-shaped apartment on the Chelsea’s roof. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey for Stanley Kubrick at the hotel. Arthur Miller rehearsed After the Fall, his play about his failed marriage to Marilyn Monroe, in his Chelsea suite. The French artist Yves Klein was so outraged by Americans’ lack of understanding of his work that he fired off a “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto” while staying at the hotel. The artist Christo created his first American storefronts in his room at the Chelsea, incorporating in one of them the brass doorknob from his bathroom door. Downtown performance artist Penny Arcade staged her play A Quiet Night for Sid and Nancy at the Chelsea Hotel in one of the rooms at the Chelsea. Numerous books of photography, and a BBC documentary, have documented the life there. The list goes on and on. Is the Chelsea is haunted? What are some of the best ghost stories you discovered in your research? There’s a widespread rumor among those who believe in such things that the Chelsea is the second-most-haunted building in all of New York City, trailing only the New York Public Library in spiritual infestation. Certainly dozens upon dozens of visitors have reported “sightings” at the Chelsea. Many of the long-term tenants refer to the spirits almost like family members. Stories abound about the “Grey Man” lurking at the top of the stairs, about Larry, a 1960s spirit who offers advice on the meaning of life at the Chelsea Hotel, and about Mary, the widow of a drowned Titanic passenger, who continues to weep and tear at her hair at the Chelsea for all eternity. What is the state of the Chelsea now? In 2011, the Chelsea was sold by its longtime consortium of owners to the real estate mogul Joseph Chetrit. Chetrit shut down the hotel, and proceeded to empty it of its long-term residents to the extent legally possible in order to reinvent the Chelsea as a boutique hotel. Renovations have lagged, however, as legal disputes between landlord and tenants have languished in the courts, and plans for alterations, such as adding a rooftop bar, have met with challenges by people in the neighborhood. The hotel remains closed; most of the unoccupied rooms have been gutted, with many subdivided spaces returned to their former larger size; an additional elevator line is being added; and the roof gardens have been torn down and the surface of the roof razed. Recently it was announced that Ed Scheetz, a minor partner in Chetrit’s Chelsea Hotel syndicate, had bought the hotel, intending to proceed with the renovations in a manner more respectful of both the hotel’s history and the tenants’ rights. What do you think the new ownership means for the Chelsea? My hope is that the new owner will understand, as clearly as did Stanley Bard, the value of the hotel’s artistic tradition — in both cultural and monetary terms. It should not be necessary to turn the Chelsea into a Hard Rock Café–style theme hotel, or a boutique residence only for the rich, in order to turn a profit, as the Chelsea has always attracted more than enough guests who appreciate it for what it is — a veritable factory for the arts. Ed Scheetz, whose passion for the Chelsea is clearly sincere, has said that he would like to create a kind of urban MacDowell Colony by donating a half dozen or so rooms to visiting artists; turn one of the original residents’ dining rooms into a performance space where residents and guests can give readings and display artwork; and perhaps even install a recording studio in the hotel for musicians’ use. If Scheetz succeeds in carrying out these plans while respecting the integrity of the Chelsea’s design (that is, keeping the public areas downstairs and the private spaces above), it’s possible that the hotel could continue to reward both its owners and its city even more in the coming generations than it has in the past. What do you hope readers take away from your book? I hope readers will gain a greater appreciation for the role of the Chelsea Hotel as a major cultural force in America for the past 130 years. I hope, too, though, that through the lens of the Chelsea’s development they will understand how the American arts tradition grew and expanded throughout those decades. Just as the Chelsea’s interior climate has always reflected — and affected — the larger environment outside its doors, so its story serves as a microcosm for the past and future of our culture as a whole. For this reason, I believe the story of the Chelsea serves as a kind of parable, useful for granting new insight into society today.
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