By Claudia Buccino
“I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,” Leonard Cohen croons famously, to Janis Joplin, in “Chelsea Hotel #2.” Though Joplin insisted in an interview that he did not ‘ball’ her, Cohen describes her, “giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street.” West 23rd, that is, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, now one of the chicest neighborhoods in the city; in the late ’60s, when Cohen and Joplin were both living in the hotel and the alleged love affair took place, it was one of the seediest. “Those were the reasons, and that was New York,” he explains wistfully, then concludes matter-of-factly, “I don’t even think of you that often.”
The Hotel Chelsea’s long-term residencies, reasonable rates, and legendary art collection made it a popular hangout for the who’s who of New York cool. Everyone from Warhol Factory Girls and several members of the 27 Club to Beat poets and punks like Patti Smith called the Hotel Chelsea home at one point in time. Creativity was at the fulcrum of the Chelsea’s identity, and its existence as a haven for the most outlandish and exuberant of personalities allowed it to transcend what we think of as a hotel. It was not merely residential; it was iconic, with Madonna in room 882 and Joplin in 441, among countless others. Their lives – and deaths, often untimely and sometimes at the Chelsea – added to the spooky allure of the hotel over time. Now, although closed to guests, the hotel exudes the gritty-glitzy glamour of 1960s-1990s New York, of which 222 West 23rd Street was zenith.
Stories about the hotel’s hallowed halls are told with reverence and slander in equal measure. Its legendary residents are remembered as much for what they were wearing, the words they were spewing, and the great works of art and music they inspired. In this way, the Hotel Chelsea has become synonymous with style in the same way Bryant Park or Lincoln Center has. But just as we might associate the latter two with a decidedly contemporary aesthetic, with fashion week’s sprawling plaza and refined grounds, the Hotel Chelsea has come to represent something more authentic and hard-shelled.
When she fell out of Andy Warhol’s good graces, Edie Sedgwick packed her drugs, leotards, kohl eyeliner, and chandelier earrings and fled to the Chelsea, where she met and romanced a married Bob Dylan. Sid Vicious allegedly stabbed his 20-year-old girlfriend,
“Nauseating Nancy” Spungen in the bathroom of the first-floor room they were living in after the Sex Pistols disbanded. This couple’s history of drug and domestic abuse – as well as their mesh clothing, leather pants, spikes, studs, and unruly hair – make Courtney and Kurt look like copy-and-pasted wannabes, poser punks. October 12th, 1978, the day of Nancy’s death, has been called “The Day Punk Died,” as photos of her body being carried out of the hotel’s lobby still harken back to the recalcitrant and often dangerous spirit of the era. Yet, with its mystifying corridors and boundless folklore, the Hotel Chelsea has kept punk alive well beyond the lifespan of its early pioneers, casting an indelible mark of the history of New York.
Originally published 05/12/15