I first heard of the Chelsea Hotel—which, incidentally, is actually named the Hotel Chelsea) back in the late 1960s, when Arthur C. Clarke related an anecdote in an essay about UFOs. The thrust of his argument was that most UFO sightings are easily explained by a thoughtful observer, but that a few remain a puzzlement.
He said that when he was staying in the Chelsea Hotel, simultaneously writing the novel 2001 and working with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay for the movie, that one evening he and Kubrick got together. At one point, a bright object appeared in the sky, came closer and closer, and then remained hovering, seemingly gazing in the hotel window. Both of the men were a little punch-drunk from hammering away at the rather transcendental script, and for a time they both felt certain that alien powers had been alerted to the 2001 storyline, and were descending to stop them from relating a tale that was too close to the truth.
Eventually the light retreated, but Clarke, even with his wide astrophysical and aeronautical contacts, was never able to glean any clue as to what they had seen that night.
I was so enamored of Clarke in my early teenage days that the Chelsea was forever branded into my memory. Imagine—the kind of hotel where the world’s greatest sci-fi writer elected to stay! (Of course, in my estimation his masterpiece was Childhood’s End, not 2001, but still…) I pictured it as a shiny, austere, modernistic sort of building, perhaps similar to the set in 2001 where Dave, having passed through the monolith, finds himself in a sterile environment where he passes through old age, death, and eventual rebirth as the StarChild.
It wasn’t too long before I discovered I was wrong about the Chelsea. It started showing up in songs (notably Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2 and Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning), and then in things I read. Not all of these were positive, mind you. The hotel is perhaps best known to many as the site where Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death, but it has witnessed many other passings, some far more august: Dylan Thomas wrote his last poems there before dying there of alcohol poisoning, and Thomas Wolfe spent his last, anguished days as a permanent resident. Many stories and books were written there, although it’s hard to see how the writers were able to concentrate with the racket from all the musicians who stayed there. (Dylan Thomas’ namesake Bob Dylan composed the double album Blonde on Blonde at the Chelsea.) So, while it was indeed Clarke’s choice of residence in NYC, it was more bohemian than futuristic. (n.b. Back in those days I was also unaware that Clarke was gay. That might have made me suspect a higher degree of incipient bohemianism, even if his author photos suggested he would be best suited for a job as an accountant with a 1950s aerospace firm.*)
I've been to New York City before, but the choice of where to stay has never been up to me. So, that’s where I’ve been for the last few days—at the Hotel Chelsea. And I’m happy to report that it is neither vastly expensive nor wholly gentrified; it’s still a bit funky, rather low-key, and cheap by Manhattan standards. Nice location, too—just south of Madison Square Gardens, just north of Greenwich Village and Soho, just northeast of Union Square (which has my novel stocked in the local Barnes and Noble), and convenient to, well, Chelsea. (n.b. Yes, the Chelsea district is named after the district in London. NY’s Soho district, however, is a syllabic acronym invented by real estate agents to mean SOuth of HOuston Street, which New Yorkers insist on pronouncing as “Howston Street.” [Tribeca, TRIangle BElow CAnal Street, is carrying this idea to a silly extreme.])
Could I feel the ghosts of artists past lingering in the building? Sure. But it’s pretty easy, given that the lobby and hallways are decked out with examples of eclectic art, much of it, one suspects, rendered up by previous residents in lieu of cash payments.
It’s easy to imagine working there. The rooms aren’t elegant—in fact, far from it—but they are relatively spacious, and designed for long-term occupancy; the desks are designed for workspace rather than fiddly little plastic signs and piles of brochures. And the clientele still seems to be composed of artists or poseurs. (If you can give me a way to distinguish between the two, I’ll be grateful.)
We had time to fool about on this trip, and even to catch Jude Law doing an astonishing, and highly idiosyncratic Hamlet on Broadway. (Who knew he was that good?) We also had plenty of Walkabout time, and traipsed all over the island, and not only across the Brooklyn Bridge, but back across the less-revered Manhattan Bridge. (Though I believe it is the even-longer Washington Bridge that Parker trudges across in the opening to Point Blank. We only drove across that one.)
Nonetheless, the best part of the trip for me was the Chelsea. I can’t really imagine living in NYC…but I could imagine living at the Chelsea for a while.
*Arthur C Clarke was never an accountant at an aerospace firm. He was, however, one of the inventors of radar; and, though he never even considered applying for a patent, he outlined the operating principles for the communication satellites that now encircle the globe.