The phrase 'if these walls could talk' is over-used to the point of cliché. But the Chelsea Hotel is a worthy candidate; its hallowed walls have seen more debauchery than one's most scintillating nightmares could conjure. From Andy Warhol's muse Edie Sedgwick setting her room on fire, to the bloody murder of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious' girlfriend Nancy, to Jackson Pollock projectile vomiting at an event intended to introduce him to the art world elite - and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Built in the late 1880s in the New York borough of Chelsea, the hotel was a bohemian haven for artistic and philosophical exchange. The guest list reads like a reverie to the creative explosion of the 1970s. The who's who of rock n roll, art, poetry, theatre and film honed their craft and their intellect within its chaotic chambers.
Many of its residents paid tribute to their digs through their art. Marilyn Monroe's ex-husband Arthur Miller, who moved into the Chelsea after the divorce, offered a succinct summation of the bohemian ambiance: "This hotel does not belong to America," he wrote. "There are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and shame (...) A scary and optimistic chaos which predicted the hip future and at the same time the feel of a massive, old-fashioned, sheltering family."
Joni Mitchell's 'Chelsea Morning' name checks the hostelry, as does the Lou Reed-penned 'Chelsea Girl', Leonard Cohen's 'Chelsea Hotel #2' and Jefferson Airplane's 'Third Week in the Chelsea.' Jack Kerouac pounded out 'On the Road' in his room and Yves Klein wrote his Chelsea hotel manifesto.
It's no surprise that the Chelsea's carnival-like atmosphere was a breeding ground for many romantic affairs; from hot-headed trysts to marriage. These encounters were fraught with lashings of euphoria, chaos and tragedy. The frenzied state of their surroundings, rampant drug use and the pleasures and pain of romance were like an addictive fuel for the creative process.
At their worst, Chelsea romances ended in bloodied murder, but at their best, they spawned a symbiotic relationship, the silent alchemy and constant dance of two minds whose cogs turn in synchronised motion.
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Punk poetess Patti Smith and the man she describes as ‘the artist of her life’, legendary photographer Robert Mapplethorne, moved into the Chelsea Hotel in 1969. Room 1017, famous for being the smallest in the hotel, became hers and Mapplethorpe’s for just $55 per week. It was, in Smith’s words, ‘a tremendous stroke of luck to land up there... to dwell in this eccentric and damned hotel provided a sense of security as well as a stellar education’. That education included, crucially, Mapplethorpe’s introduction to photography. The artist Sandy Daley, whose room was completely white, save for silver helium balloons, lent him her Polaroid camera and Mapplethorpe’s first pictures were taken within it.
Brett and Wendy Whiteley In 1967, prolific Australian Painter Brett Whiteley won a Harkness Fellowship Scholarship to study and work in New York. He moved into Room 1028 at the Chelsea with his wife Wendy and three-year-old daughter Arkie, which opened out onto a private roof garden over-looking Manhattan. It was here that Brett made his now famous work ‘The American Dream’, capturing on a single canvas the ‘immediate mouth-open power, exaltation, fear, wonder’ of the city: ‘The hope. The violence. The latent goodwill. The unreality of it all too.’ It was also here that Brett began to experiment with LSD and opium to fuel his creativity, a drawn-out collision course that would eventually lead to his fatal drug overdose in 1992.
Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Sid Vicious, bassist of the Sex Pistols and Nancy Spungen, a former prostitute and regular on the punk rock scene, met in London in 1976. During a tumultuous 19-month relationship, their heroin use intensified and the tabloids dubbed Spungen ‘Nauseating Nancy’ for her frequent public displays of verbal abuse and violence. After the Sex Pistols broke up in January 1978, Spungen and Vicious moved to the Hotel Chelsea in New York City. Their volatile relationship ended in 1978 when she was found dead in room 100 from a single stab wound. The knife that was used belonged to Vicious, who was accused of her murder, but four months later he, too, was dead, from a heroin overdose.
Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick. Edith Minturn ‘Edie’ Sedgwick was an American heiress, socialite and actress, best known for being one of Andy Warhol's muses. All the self-dramatising of Andy Warhol’s world was epitomised by its starriest of superstars setting fire to her room at the Chelsea Hotel in 1966. Despite a warning from Leonard Cohen, Sedgwick fell asleep with candles burning and was thereafter considered such a liability by the hotel’s staff that they moved her into a room above the lobby, where she could be monitored. The footage of Sedgwick shot for Warhol’s movie Chelsea Girls (filmed in the hotel) was removed in the end and that same year she suffered a nervous breakdown and moved out of the hotel.
Bob Dylan and Sara Lowndes. Dylan, who was supposedly inspired by fellow Chelsea guest Dylan Thomas to change his surname from Zimmerman, references the hotel in ‘Sara’, his 1976 song to his first wife, Sara Lowndes, with the lyric: ‘Staying up for days in the Chelsea hotel/ writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.’ Dylan lived in room 211 during the 60s and the room was nearly destroyed in 2008 before horrified fans and residents put a stop to proceedings: they’ll be hoping that the times aren’t a-changing in this particular rock’n’roll enclave any time soon.
Leonard Coen and Janis Joplin. Of the many songs written about the Chelsea, Cohen’s ‘Chelsea hotel #2’, from his 1974 album, New Skin for the Old Ceremonies, is the most famous. It begins, with carnal candour: ‘I remember you well in the Chelsea hotel/ you were talking so brave and so sweet/ giving me head on the unmade bed/ while the limousines wait in the street’, and in 2005 Cohen reluctantly confirmed that the lover in question was fellow Chelsea habitue Janis Joplin. ‘She wouldn’t mind,’ he said, ‘but my mother would be appalled’.
Jimi Hendrix and Devon Wilson. Former prostitute and fashion model, Devon Wilson met Jimi Hendrix in 1965 in New York, where they began an on-again, off-again relationship. While it’s supposedly well known that the 1970 death of guitarist Jimi Hendrix was caused by an overdose of barbiturates, rumours have swirled in recent years that Devon, described as a ‘troubled soul with a penchant for drug abuse’ made him a cup of coffee and put a tablespoon of heroin in it which caused the overdose. Wilson was so overtaken with grief that she ‘tried to throw herself into the open grave’ at Hendrix’s funeral. The following year, Wilson ‘plunged to her death out of a ninth-floor window at the Chelsea.’