Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Haunted Bohemian Hotel Chelsea

The Chelsea was built in 1884 on 23rd Street in New York’s original theatre district. It was built originally with 100-units as a co-op apartment building with soundproof walls and fireplaces. It is a ten story red brick structure in the Victorian Gothic style with wrought-iron balconies on the front. Its roof is crowned with turrets and gables. Its grand wrought-iron staircase still stands proudly in the center of its interior.

In the Hotel Chelsea’s halcyon days its stain glass windows and ornate woodwork gleamed. Today this woodwork is covered in several layers of paint. Over the years the plate glass mirrors that still adorn its walls have reflected some of New York’s most creative residents-- artists, actors, writers, and musicians. These same mirrors have reflected some of New York's worst vises—drug use, alcoholism, and crime.

By the 1900s the Chelsea was turned into New York’s version of a hotel. Its original 100 two and four bedroom units were split into 400—100 of the units became hotel rentals while 300 of them remained homes for long-term residents. The rooms at the Chelsea though stayed unique in the sense that each have their own features. 

Most of the Chelsea’s long-term residents have always been considered counter culture or creative artistic types. One recent writer described the Chelsea as “The Tower of Babel of creativity and bad behavior.” But there has always been a mixture of residents. After the Titanic sank several survivors of this disaster stayed at the Chelsea. During and after World War ll many refugees moved into the Chelsea.

By the late 1950s when the son of an owner, Stanley Bard, became the resident landlord the Chelsea became "the place" for people in the counter-culture to live. Bard became apart of the artistic crowd that surrounded him. He often let tenets’ rent slide and would take art pieces instead for payment. Many of these resident art pieces still adorn the Chelsea today.

It is said people did not stay at the Chelsea for peace and quiet—they lived there instead because of its innate sense of “excitement”. Through the years many famous people have taken up residence in the Chelsea. Eugene O’Neil, Thomas Wolfe, and Arthur C. Clarke—who wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey” while in residence at the Chelsea--, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Frank Zappa, Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, and the poet Dylan Thomas all stayed or lived at the Chelsea. Madonna shot her Sex book at the Chelsea Hotel.

Dylan Thomas actually died at the Chelsea in room 206 in 1953 after going on a drinking binge that led to alcohol poisoning. Dylan’s last words are said to have been, “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskeys, and I think that is a record.” Charles R. Jackson— who wrote “The Lost Weekend,” committed suicide in his room in 1968. Charles James often referred to America’s first couturier died in his room in 1978, after living at the Chelsea for fourteen years.

Another death to take place at the Chelsea in 1978 in room 100 was that of former Sex Pistol musician Sid Vicious's girlfriend Nancy Spungen. They were living at the Chelsea after Sid’s career took a plunge. After a drug binge on October 12, 1978 Nancy was found stabbed to death. Sid had no idea if he did it or someone broke in and killed Nancy. Before he could stand trail he died of a heroin overdose. Some think his mom gave it to him because he told her he couldn’t go back to jail.

Because of the Chelsea Hotel's history many feel it is haunted. There is a wonderful blog entitled “Living with Legends: Hotel Chelsea Blog,” about the Chelsea Hotel and the ghosts people have reported feeling, hearing and seeing. Some say that amidst the various residents and bugs that reside at the Chelsea today that the resident ghosts outnumber them.

Nancy Spungen and several others mentioned above haunt the Chelsea to this day. 

But one of my favorite stories is about a long-standing ghost named Mary. She was one of the Titanic survivors who came to live at the Chelsea in 1912. Mary having lost her husband when the Titanic sank lived on the eighth floor of the Chelsea. Not being able to adjust to her loss she hung herself in her room. Since, her ghost has been seen always looking in mirrors—specifically at one on the west side of the building where a hall archway is located now--this area once was an apartment’s entryway. 

She is known as the “vain” ghost because she is forever checking out her appearance. She is described as wearing a hat with a plume, her hair is swept up in the Gibson style. Some witnesses have reported that her demeanor sends the strong message, to the living, that she thinks they are just a bother.

In a future post I will write about another one of my favorite ghosts who haunts the Hotel Chelsea.

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