Wednesday, July 17, 2013

No Room At The Inn


by Daddy X

Wow- Back to the reading topic already? Seems we just wrote about this, and in fact, that was the first topic for the ‘new crew’ when OGG invited me to join, along with several others.

It’s been difficult times with Momma X’s emergency operation in early May and subsequent complications, now resolving. Thanks to all who knew and expressed concern, both on and off-list. 

Three days after returning from a trip back east for my 50th high school reunion, we ended up in the ER.  Earlier that night, we had been out with poet Michael McClure and his wife, sculptor Amy Evans McClure, for a Jason Moran evening at SF Jazz. That may seem like TMI at this point, but there is a tie-in below re: the ‘Beats’.

I did have a chance to finally finish Charles Jackson’s “Lost Weekend”, the novel behind the 40’s film of the same name, starring Jane Wyman and Ray Milland. Depressing stuff, a painfully accurate portrayal of a binge drinker, but so well written I couldn’t put it down. Although I knew a few, I never was a binge guy. More of a sip, sip, sip, all day long sort of a thing. But still kinda got too close to home, as you may have seen in my bio.

Then there was Paul Auster’s “Brooklyn Diaries”, a bit of a lightweight for Auster. In his older years, he seems more sentimental and employs less symbolism than when he first came on the scene with one of my faves, “The Music of Chance”. Auster can be quite a straightforward storyteller as well as surreal symbolist, evidenced by the seemingly random events that coalesce neatly at the end, putting one in mind of a ‘Seinfeld’ TV episode.

Most recently, I read an as yet unreleased book on the famous/infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York. Written by James Lough, “This Ain’t No Holiday Inn” will be out by the time of this post. Momma X and I had the pleasure of meeting him at a local reading last month at The Lovable Rogue bookstore.

The Chelsea is located on W. 23rd St., New York. At eleven stories, it was the tallest building in the city when built in 1883. Around the turn of the century, the business was purchased by the Bard family, Hungarian aristocrats and great patrons of the arts, who targeted an artistic clientele for their ‘residence hotel’. The mercurial manager, Stanley Bard, loved and feared by all, became the soul of the operation in 1955. He often gave artists a break, taking art (or promises) in lieu of rent. The policy lasted until the 1990’s when it was sold to a conglomerate, with money rather than community now the top priority.

And what a community! The eleven floors created a sort of social structure that went up in respectability as the level from the street increased. On the lower two floors were what the hotel labeled ‘transients’, and at the top lived luminaries like Tom Waits and Virgil Thompson, music critic for the now defunct New York Herald Tribune. 

It has been called the world’s longest-running art colony cum insane asylum, among other things. Everyone stayed there: from Mark Twain to Sarah Bernhart, Arthur Miller (nursing wounds from his failed marriage to Marilyn) Vladimir Nabokov, Gore Vidal, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, who blew Cohen in a room at the Chelsea. (See: Chelsea Hotel #2 by Leonard Cohen.)  There were also many hangers-on and wannabes roaming about—poseurs among the royalty.

Viva and daughter Gaby Hoffman, Edie Sedgwick and others of Warhol’s ‘Factory’ scene were considered aristocracy. Jimi Hendrix, Sid & Nancy (she was stabbed to death in room #102) and Dee Dee Ramone all spent time there. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe roomed together. Stanley Kubrick argued with Arthur C. Clark in a Chelsea room over “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Dylan Thomas died in a drunken stupor at the hotel. And don’t forget male impersonator (and bouncer) Storme’ De Larverie’, who threw the first punch at Stonewall.

The major focus of the book is the Bohemian scene. In a pseudo-Terkel oral history, the author introduces us to the real deal. He examines the period between 1980-1995, at the end of which, the Chelsea, like other New York institutions, abandoned its roots and went upscale. The outlaw life led by the likes of Marty Matz and Gregory Corso is gone away now. Herbert Huncke, a beat writer/junkie who had a 100mg daily Methadone habit at 80 years old, still did heroin to get high. He is the acknowledged coiner of the term ‘beat’ —“How ya doin’, Huncke?” … “I’m beat, man. (See: “The Herbert Huncke Reader”) 

That’s all unlikely to return in modern Manhattan, where struggling artists are now literally priced out. Up until then, anybody in the arts who was down and out just knew: “Well, I can always get a room at the Chelsea.”

Some of these Bohemians were not lovable folks. Many had done hard prison time, and thought nothing of hustling the street (or each other). It’s all the same to junkies, pimps and con artists. Drugs of all persuasions were freely available at the Chelsea—visible   mostly on the lower floors, but accessible pretty much everywhere in the building.

The last chapter, IMO the best and most insightful writing of the book, is a lament of the loss of these low-rent enclaves for artists in major cities and contemplates our cosmopolitan artistic future. Although the book has neither the depth nor skill of something from Studs Terkel, there’s a bounty of information for anyone interested in the beat culture (not what SF columnist Herb Caen labeled ‘beatniks’, which the beats hated).  

 “This Ain’t No Holiday Inn” is a fun read that investigates an endangered slice of artistic history. Chances are some of us have stayed there or know people who did. The arts and artists the Chelsea embraced have provided a lasting memory of our modern culture.

The Chelsea Hotel is now closed for renovation by the new owners. It will reopen as the Hotel Chelsea.





11 comments:

  1. Damn! The Auster Book is "The Brooklyn Follies." Sorry about that.

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  2. i've got the Chelsea Hotel on my wish list, Daddy X. thanks for the recommendation. i love the LC song. it's also been covered by a lot of people too. amazing how time flies during times of crisis, isn't it? & then it slows right down at some scary points.

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  3. I'm afraid the Chelsea won't be the same when it reopens. It'll still have the history, though. And the staircase. Who knows what muses will be hanging about.

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  4. Hi, Daddy,

    I knew bits and pieces of the Chelsea's history, but this book sounds fantastic.

    Off to Goodreads to add it to my "Want to read" list!

    P.S. Say hi to Momma!

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  5. Will say hi for you, Lisabet. You'll enjoy the book, if not as a literary masterpiece, at least a fun and informative read.

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  6. I want to read that book too, Daddy X. Thanks for telling us about it. BTW, for fans of Canadian lit, Nairne Holtz (brilliant, quirky writer aand former librarian who wrote a book about Canadian lesbian writers in which my name is mentioned) wrote a novel, The Skin Beneath, with a climactic scene at the Chelsea Hotel in NY -- the place seems atmospheric on the page.
    I knew that Dylan Thomas died of his drinking while on tour, at the height of his fame (much like a rock star), after having loud, public, plate-throwing fights with his wife Caitlyn (sp?). But I didn't know this happened at the Chelsea. I wonder if his ghost is still there.

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  7. Boy, Daddy X - you gave me a whole new list of books to find!

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  8. Jean- How perceptive. There's a chapter in the book about the ghosts.

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  9. Funny, JP- Amazon sent me something to purchase "Lost Weekend" on my PERSONAL e-mail. They must just troll for titles. Who knows how they put it together. Fuckin' scary!

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  10. The book about the Chelsea sounds like something I don't want to miss. Lately when I'm in NYC I've been staying at the Hotel 17, which claims to have some literary history of its own, although the only bit I remember is that scenes in Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery were shot there in one of the apartments, and calling that a literary connection is somewhat of a stretch. I go because it's cheap as NY hotels go (shared bathrooms down the hall--always clean, never any problem,) I can get a single room (small but with semi-antique furniture touches,) and it's pretty well located when I'm doing readings at Bluestockings Books, as I am, in fact, tonight. (Writing on the train right now, when the sporadic wifi lets me.) I'd love to dig farther into the struggling-writer history of NY.

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  11. I forgot to mention in my short revue of "Lost Weekend" that the author, Charles Jackson was gay, and a strong thread runs through the book. When it was made into the movie, however, all that was expunged from the script, to Jackson's dismay.

    Sacchi- That clean bit sounds pretty good, considering all the press about bedbugs in the best hotels in NY.
    Best of luck at the reading. You go, grllll!!

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