Life and death at the Chelsea Hotel

The friend who showed me the Chelsea Hotel killed himself three months later. A month after that, the Chelsea was taken over by developers, and its long, seventy-plus years of bohemian excess and wonder was finished. Inadvertently, I’d managed to see an iconic building, one that had always figured large on my list of artistic landmarks, just before its essence was forever destroyed.

Mark Kramer (image from Facebook)

The friend who took me around the hotel in 2011 was called Mark Kramer. He’d been my friend for 15 years, yet this was only the second time I’d ever met him. As with the Chelsea Hotel itself, blind luck had prompted me to visit him just before his life also ended. He was the embodiment of American openness, and especially of New York. We’d become friends when, randomly, I’d tracked him down online in 1997, and asked him to do an article on dwarf-tossing. The Chelsea Hotel was home to many people whom I imagine to be like him, described by one-time resident Patti Smith as “gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder”.

The Chelsea in New York was no stranger to suicides, and indeed to murders. The roster of deaths is extensive. Sid Vicious killing Nancy Spungen, poet Dylan Thomas dying after a drinking binge, and many more. But that’s just the trite part of its mystique, and it’s not the reason it’s one of my favourite buildings in the world. What makes it special is how it nurtured artists and musicians, prostitutes and pimps, and the strange and wonderful way its heart spread out to the rest of the world, making us believe in a certain type of freedom that is only incidentally American.

The playwright Arthur Miller, who lived in the Chelsea after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe, said, “This hotel does not belong to America”, and he was right. It’s an embodiment of much that makes American culture great, and of the essential engine of that culture: openness, and the willingness to share.

For a building to be great, it not only has to translate its surrounds, cultural and physical, to the people who have to live with it. It also has to open up a conversation with travellers from afar, and give them something to take back that changes the way they see their home. When I was looking around the eccentric lobby of the Chelsea, I noticed a bust of President Truman on the mantle, with a plaque that read: Sculpture by René Shapshak. Coincidentally, I was only in New York for an afternoon, on my way to Texas to meet up with South African tech journalism legend Toby Shapshak. It made me love the Chelsea even more when I learned that Toby’s grandfather had lived at the Chelsea, and like so many other artists there, paid his rent with artworks.

It’s a deeply encouraging thing to realise, that the world of counter-culture is just that: an interconnected world. But what makes that world mean something is its fragility, its mutability, the way it always teeters on the edge of change. After showing me around the Chelsea, Mark took me for lunch at the famous adjoining restaurant, El Quijote, opened in 1930. As with the Chelsea, there is a long list of famous people who’ve hung out there. Lola Schnabel, daughter of artist Julian, would do her homework at the bar. If I’d read her memory of the place, I might not have munched the tapas quite so devoutly: “I would always order a croquette, until one day, when I found a human tooth in my croquette. Then I stopped eating food there.” El Quijote is also dying now, bought by the same group who are redeveloping the Chelsea.

Chelsea Guitars and El Quijote (image from NY Chronicles)

After our meal, Mark takes me outside, and we stand and look at the Chelsea’s dourly redbrick front. At this point, I have no idea that I’m saying a final goodbye to both my friend, and to the dream of the Chelsea Hotel. Next door is Chelsea Guitars, and so I blithely pop in to buy a guitar strap. The one I choose is emblazoned with skeleton figures from the Mexican Day of the Dead, when people remember friends and family who have died. Now, when I look at that strap, and remember my dead friend and the Chelsea Hotel he showed me, I hear the Velvet Underground’s Nico singing about one of the Chelsea Girls: “Her perfect loves don’t last / Her future died in someone’s past”.

(This column was first published in the excellent April edition of Visi magazine. If you’re a fan of local architecture, design and beauty, go buy a copy, it’s full of interesting and new stuff.)

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