Alumnus writes well in the Chelsea Hotel
December 19th, 2007
By Kevin Hyde
When University of Louisville graduate Ed Hamilton and his girlfriend Debbie Martin moved to New York City in 1995, their first stop was the legendary Chelsea Hotel — a place Hamilton calls the city’s “Rebel Mecca.”
Theirs was no pilgrimage; it was a homecoming.
Because if you’re going to move to New York to pursue writing, you might as well live in a place where the creative juices course through the halls like blood through the arteries. For so many of the artists, writers, bohemians, exhibitionists and lunatics who have lived there throughout the decades, the Chelsea Hotel is a living, breathing thing.
Hamilton is one of them. His home has provided both the inspiration and subject matter for his first novel, “Legends of the Chelsea Hotel,” recently released nationally by Thunder’s Mouth Press.
“It’s a book of anecdotes — basically the story of our lives there,” said Hamilton, a Louisville native who earned his master’s in philosophy from UofL in 1989. “It also delves into the history a lot, too. It’s an eclectic mixture of different things, kind of like the Chelsea itself.”
The Chelsea has been a haven for creative types from its beginning. When it opened as a luxury apartment co-op in 1883 it was surrounded by opera houses and theaters. At that time, its 23rd Street address was the heart of Manhattan’s theater district. French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, known in the late 19th century as “the most famous actress in the world,” stayed at the Chelsea. So did famous American actress and singer Lillian Russell.
“There’s never been a real history of the hotel,” Hamilton said. “Somehow it doesn’t lend itself to that.”
But its history is ever-present.
“The history is just a common subject of conversation,” Hamilton said, “and it has an influence too on the people who live there to kind of live up to the example that’s been created.
“That’s what the book is about — how the history influences the present-day residents.”
How could it not? The Chelsea is where Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again,” where William Burroughs wrote “Naked Lunch,” where Andy Warhol made the film “Chelsea Girls” and Leonard Cohen wrote the song “Chelsea Hotel #2.” It’s where Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died at age 39 and where Nancy Spungen, the girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, was found stabbed to death in 1978.
“It’s amazing what you turn up as you start to research the place,” Hamilton said. “Everyday you learn something new. Bob Marley used to stay there back in the ’60s before the Wailers. Janis Joplin stayed there. The Grateful Dead played a concert on the roof one time.”
Hamilton said he’s never had writer’s block while living at the Chelsea, but it wasn’t a spark of creative fire that inspired the book. It was a real fire.
“Everybody was coming down from their rooms — all of these artists and writers hanging out in the lobby,” he recalled. “We sat down there with them, passing around a bottle of wine and telling our stories. And we talked about what a shame it would be if the Chelsea would just pass away without someone documenting it in some way.”
The residents’ answer was to start the “Living With Legends: Hotel Chelsea Blog,” to which Hamilton contributes the weekly “Slice of Life” column.
“I was just going to write a year’s worth of stories — discussing all the crazy people I’ve met there over the years and all the strange incidents,” he said. “After a year, I didn’t see any reason to stop. It was interesting, and I never ran out ideas.”
Over time, Hamilton’s columns began to sort themselves into different categories and a book was born.
The residents began to document Chelsea’s stories because of a physical threat to the hotel; now the hotel’s character is threatened. Since the mid-’90s, the Chelsea has evolved from what Hamilton called a “drug-infested flophouse to something that is a little more gentrified, something a lot easier to take.”
The change, Hamilton said, is “a good thing in some ways,” but there is a foreboding of even more drastic changes to come.
This summer, the hotel’s board of directors fired manager Stanley Bard after 50 years on the job. He was, Hamilton said, a sort of impresario of the Chelsea.
“Everybody has a different theory about the creative current that flows through the building,” Hamilton said. “Part of it is Stanley and the collection of people he has assembled — all of these eccentric writers and artists coming together and just playing off each other. They’re not all writers and artists. Some of them are just plain crazy.”
Now, the board of directors envisions the Chelsea as a boutique hotel, he said, and has hired a corporation to manage the building. That company has met with opposition and has been unable to carry out all of its plans, but it has made some changes — including driving off some of the artists who no longer can afford to live there.
Bard would “bend over backward to extend a little bit of extra help to struggling artists who might not be getting regular paychecks,” Hamilton said. Corporations don’t.
“In a way,” he said, “it’s the passing of an old way of life.”