The last installment of this series, which focused on the artists, writers and filmmakers in residence at the Chelsea Hotel, ends on a piece written by a man who has helped define New York’s nightlife and now designs some of the city’s most talked about venues. If you happen to meet him, you will probably have a conversation you won’t forget. And for some time after, you will think about him and the conversation, alternately.
Steve Lewis once lived in the Chelsea Hotel and has many stories of his times hanging out with this city’s most notable personalities, himself excluded, some of whom were featured earlier in the series. In his own words Steve Lewis, who writes the BlackBook column “Good Night Mr. Lewis,” tells us what it was like to live in the hallowed corridors of one of the city’s most venerable institutions. Rozalia Jovanovic
I walked a newbie through the lobby of the Chelsea the other day after first stopping to read the bronze tributes frozen in time on the façade. The Chelsea hotel seems asleep or at least at rest. After a century of comfort, debauchery, and sustenance of downtown culture, it now lays prone for violation by the just above hostel crowd. The lobby now sanitized and almost Disneyfied still features the significant art procured by the Chelsea’s now put-out-to-pasture owner, gatekeeper, visionary Stanley Bard. I lived in the hotel when Stanley and his son David ruled it. He was a benevolent king or sometimes father scolding his subjects, his children, for being late with the rent or making too much noise or stinking up the hallways with weed. My newbie friend tried to understand why so many brilliant outcasts had made this place their home. As we strolled through the lobby I found myself talking in whispers. In the past I shouted and laughed, told boisterous tales to boisterous gatherings of onlookers. I couldn’t figure out why I was whispering. Stanley is long gone. There was no one to chastise me. I guess it feels more like a church nowadays—a place to worship old ideas. It had been a place where people like me and unlike me could have a home, a sanctuary a place where we could be our eccentric selves. The Chelsea hotel understood us. It had seen our ilk before.
Officially, I lived there a little over a year. However I am no stranger to the old gal. Over 25 years I had crashed, house-sat or shacked up for months at a time under her roof. When a lease was up somewhere or I needed to get away from someone a room with character surrounded by characters was always available for me. The Chelsea never asked for security deposits, references, or long leases. It never complained about my cat or who else I had with me. If Stanley liked you, you were in. He was the Steve Rubell of the Chelsea.
When I had my lease there, I occupied a penthouse apartment with a white baby grand piano and a priceless view. It was a room where John Wayne, John Garfield, Isabel Duncan and Arthur C. Clarke had resided. “They” say Clarke wrote 2001 up there. “Somebody” told me the old school financier and scallywag Henry Clay Frick kept a mistress there. They say her ghost still runs around the joint. The person who told me that is now a ghost himself.
The romanticism, the history of the place was ever present to the residents. Living legend and beat generation author Herbert Huncke was always around to tell me a thing or two. Rumor has it that William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg paid his rent. Dee Dee Ramone and I would talk of gin and beer and rock and roll hootchie coo. Interview Magazine’s Richard Bernstein, with his winning smile, would talk of Andy [Warhol] and Edie [Sedgwick] and Ondine and leave me limp and jealous. I room hopped to Arthur Weinstein and Venice and past comedian Eddie Izzard in the hall or icon of New York nightlife Susanne Bartsch. I’d avoid Ultra Violet, smile at the Mercuria sisters and see what so and so was painting. It was like a small town. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody knew when you were flush or broke…when you needed to be alone or needed to be talked to. Half the hotel was for guests and each day new meat would check in or pass through. Sometimes it would be a Nina Hagen or a Grace Jones. Sometimes a hooker setting up shop for a week or an artist looking for inspiration.
The art that lined the walls were characters in themselves. This one was payment for 2 months rent this one for 5. This one was now worth a fortune, this one just hiding a crack in the wall. Though many of the most significant figures of downtown culture from the last twenty years still dwell at the Chelsea Hotel, for me it was over when they booted out the bards. The rumored conversion to a boutique hotel hasn’t happened. The kicking to the curb of the last generation of inhabitants is yet to come. For a while a sign hung from an ancient balcony pleading “bring back the bards.” It may as well have said bring back the 80s or the good ol’ days or my youth or my lover. There’s a difference between nostalgia and living in the past.