For the lively This Ain't No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel 1980-1995, Lough interviewed dozens of former long-term residents to compile an oral record of the hotel’s “grand finale” as sanctuary for artistic, Bohemian personalities under manager Stanley Bard.
How different is the Chelsea Hotel of today from the one you describe?
The Chelsea isn’t even a shadow of its former self. The rooms famous for housing well-known artists are being gutted, and long-time residents are being kicked out and harassed. The artist-loving attitude is gone. In 2007, the hotel’s board kicked Stanley Bard out as manager because, as I understand it, they didn’t believe the hotel was making the money it could have been making during the real estate spike (which turned out to be a bubble). But subsequent managers haven’t done as well as Bard did. He knew how to navigate the hotel through economic ups and downs while preserving its unique status as a haven for artists.
Despite some of the heavy subject matter, the residents tell their stories with gusto and a sense of nostalgia. Still, you write that this group was pretty insular and might have been “cagey” about agreeing to talk to you. What is it about the hotel that provokes these reactions?
Despite the hardships many of the artists lived through at the Chelsea, none of the folks I interviewed about their time there regretted it. (Well, one woman wished she’d gotten out more). The fact was the Chelsea was a locus of infinite toleration. The residents were free to behave as well or as badly as they wanted, as long as they didn’t disturb the other residents too badly. When artists felt that toleration, they felt like they’d been set free. Anytime you feel freed up from social convention, it’s exhilarating and liberating. So they took advantage of their freedom. Sometimes that led to creative inspiration, and sometimes it led to some very dark places. One of these dark places was the realm at the other side of the law. Drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes, con-men, and petty criminals could all take advantage of the same freedom as the artists did at the Chelsea. Of course they were cautious about talking to me because the law is the law!
How important is it that creativity and potential destruction (“the danger of failure”) go hand-in-hand?
It’s a very Romantic idea that creativity and self-destruction go hand-in-hand. Historically, it’s a rather new idea, only about 200 years old, and it’s obviously not always true. I teach at an art college, and some of my students have told me they need to suffer more to become better writers. I tell them they don’t have to seek out suffering—it’ll gladly come their way. But what may be true about the Romantic attitude is that artists tend to be like antennae, very sensitive to what’s going on around them. All the stimulae can be painful and hard to sort out, especially when you’re young. Drugs and alcohol can pad you against the pain for a while, before they themselves become a source of pain. Too much of a good thing in an atmosphere as tolerant as the Chelsea, and artists, as one resident said, “can burn out rather spectacularly.”
What favorite tidbits did you uncover in the course of your interviews?
The first tidbit I discovered about the Chelsea wasn’t so much a tidbit as a jaw-dropping realization. I thought I was going to go into the hotel and write the “definitive” book about the place. After a day or two there, I realized a definitive story would require a set of encyclopedias. The stories there were endless, coursing through the rooms and halls.
No matter how zany and decadent artists like the Beat writers and punk rockers were, the artistically successful ones like Herbert Huncke and Gregory Corso and Dee Dee Ramone had a very traditional work ethic. I guess you could call it the Protestant work ethic turned toward artistic work. They knew the work didn’t just happen—they had to make it happen over and over. Sure, lots of artists who lived at the Chelsea never made much of an artistic or commercial mark on the world. But the ones who did knew that real artists are self-disciplined. And the Chelsea, with its thick, sand-filled walls, could also provide lots of quiet space for artists to work in.
Also, there was a very evident class system at the Chelsea, indicated by which floor you lived on: rich artists lived on the top floors; poor fledglings lived on the bottom. And I could be wrong, but I never heard stories of snobbery there (except one about Picasso). Whether rich or poor, successful or not, the attitude was, “We are all artists and nonconformists, and we have found a place where we feel at home.”
You write, “now only the wealthy can live in a city like New York.” Is the true alternative lifestyle incompatible with the economic realities of big, metropolitan cities?
Sadly, I am of that current, sad opinion that you put so well. Maybe it’s not in Detroit, where it’s still affordable, though I’ve heard depressing. But most big cities that once attracted young artists are just too expensive unless they’re upper-middle class or above. I just returned from San Francisco. The Mission District there, which was half-Latino and half Bohemian paradise, has been bought out by corporate elites from Silicon Valley. These big private, black-windowed Darth Vader buses (colloquially called Google buses) circulate throughout the Mission, ferrying employees in the high-tech industries between San Francisco and San Jose, because none of them want to live in San Jose. I don’t blame them. We didn’t either, when I lived in SF. But it’s money that pushed half the Latinos and Bohemians out of the Mission. There’s still a trace of Bohemian life surviving there, but it’s on life support.