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Chelsea Dreams

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The Chelsea Hotel, November 18, 1983

The Chelsea Hotel, November 18, 1983

Inside the Dream Palace
The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel.
By Sherill Tippins.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 457 pp. $30.
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This Ain’t No Holiday Inn
Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel, 1980–1995.
By James Lough.
Buy this book

Though Tippins provides many proofs for the familiar cliché about the Chelsea’s atmosphere—to make creative people comfortable, Bard told reporters, he had to “allow things to go on that you couldn’t do in the Hilton Hotel”—she has little interest in sorting out its constituent elements, instead resorting to a feeble idealism that many of the artists whose lives she chronicles would have found naïve. In an early chapter about the mid-career travails of Boston transplant William Dean Howells—who lived briefly at the Chelsea in the late 1880s and returned there often to visit friends—Tippins misses the satire in Howells’s treatment of the young art student Charmian in The Coast of Bohemia (1893). A rich city girl whose ostentation far surpasses her middling artistry, Charmian introduces her talented friend Cornelia to her carefully appointed attic studio: “I’m going to show you where I live, where I dream.” Tippins even uses these words as the chapter’s epigram—and borrows “The Coast of Bohemia” for the chapter’s title—while ignoring the novel’s not-exactly-subtle point that Charmian’s studio is more a symbol of her pretentiousness than her imagination. “What I want is to have the atmosphere of art about me, all the time,” Charmian gushes to Cornelia. “I’m like a fish out of water when I’m out of the atmosphere of art.”

Far from replicating or even recognizing the mockery, Inside the Dream Palace exudes more of the same rosy reluctance to question cherished notions of creativity that marred Tippins’s first book, 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 (2005), which has lately been adapted into an Off-Broadway musical. (Sample passage: “If we don’t act now, when will we? they asked themselves in choosing this shared creative life. If we don’t use our talents to find a new way to live, who will?”)

In a December event for Inside the Dream Palace at New York’s Strand bookstore, Tippins described as “addictive” her technique of drawing timelines of famous artists’ lives and focusing on the “little hotspots” where these lines intersect. “That was how I structured the book, just moving from one big knot to the next,” she told the audience. The result, while engrossing, is a skewed emphasis on the successful and their twice-told tales. That would be Tippins’s trip, as they used to say, and none of our concern, if only it did not omit a vital element of what made the Chelsea such a dynamic place—and why its fate is so symbolic.

It is of course tantalizing to read about Edgar Lee Masters pausing in the lobby to receive news of the Pearl Harbor attack and “thinking immediately of the things he had left to do”; of Gore Vidal discovering, in a steamy shower after a night of drinking, that Jack Kerouac was circumcised; of a white female tourist asking Jimi Hendrix, en route to the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, to carry her luggage upstairs. But no matter the scene or the year, all sorts of interesting and not uncreative plebes were occupying most of the rooms at the Chelsea, serving as ornamentation for the now-canonized artistic celebrities whose doings are (somewhat contrary to the Fourierist spirit) what really count for Tippins. The few snippets we do get of the Chelsea’s ordinary people and their extraordinary lives—“the fat lady from Barnum and Bailey’s circus, who took up all the space in the narrow elevator; the tall, gaunt figure called the Preacher, who roamed the halls in a black trench coat looking for a chance to minister to the bereaved; the sweet-faced burlesque dancers Patti Cakes and Cherry Vanilla; the solitary woman who talked only to God; the pretty West Indian maid with her hair dyed bright red”—are entirely derived, like most of her material, from secondary sources on the subject.

More instructive as to the peculiarly generative climate of the hotel than even the most detailed recitation of its well-known lives and deaths and works—not to mention more relevant to its current predicament—is a passage in Arthur Miller’s brief memoir, published in Granta in 2002, about Mendel Rubin, an ex-marine who was the hotel’s engineer.

Between bouts with his oil burners, Mendel would occasionally surface to help hang pictures in the lobby or strike up little time-passing artistic conversations with the guests. Learning of the astronomical sums [Chelsea resident Larry] Rivers got for his work, Mendel saw no reason not to begin scribbling designs of his own on leftover linoleum tiles he had found in the basement, splashing them with orange, green and black paint from leftover cans down there. These tiles he would display here and there in the lobby, and a lady visitor from Iceland, I think, or possibly New Zealand bought several, and paid him in money. He would never be the same. All his time now was spent on his tiles and he even managed to have a show in a downtown gallery.

Aside from a nominal coda (“As the 1980s became the 1990s…”), Tippins’s book climaxes with the murder of Nancy Spungen, most likely by her boyfriend Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, whose “lack of musical talent” does not prevent him from being implicitly included by Tippins as part of the same narrative of great American art at the Chelsea that began with William Dean Howells.

She extends the honor to other punk rockers as well: “The Ramones might work by day at the dry cleaner’s or in the mailrooms of office buildings, but at night they could transform themselves into rock-and-roll heroes just by copping an attitude and producing a lot of fast, hard noise,” Tippins writes, before quoting Chelsea resident Dee Dee Ramone’s memoir Lobotomy: “It wasn’t about ‘thinking that you had to be it, or work for it. You just had to shout and demand it…. That’s revolution.’” Hardly. In his Granta memoir, Miller observed that “a kind of fog of exhausted enquiry suffused” the Chelsea. Tippins suffers from much the same, viewing her subject through eyes, like Charmian’s in The Coast of Bohemia, “filled with a romantic iridescence that danced before them and wrapt it in a rainbow mist.”

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