Patti Smith on the Hotel Chelsea

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Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe at the Hotel Chelsea
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe at the Hotel Chelsea

Following news that the infamous Hotel Chelsea is ceasing operation, we revisit issue 18 in which AnOther published legendary punk poet and musician Patti Smith's memoirs. Smith resided there with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the early 70s...

“Eyeing the traffic circulating the lobby hung with bad art. Big invasive stuff unloaded on Stanley Bard in exchange for rent. The hotel is an energetic, desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder. Guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors. Everybody passing through here is somebody, if not in the outside world.” Patti Smith in the S/S10 issue of AnOther Magazine.

This is Patti Smith’s description of the infamous Hotel Chelsea, extracted from Just Kids, a memoir of her early life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The legendary punk poet and musician lived at the hotel with her best friend and sometime lover Mapplethorpe in the early 70s (and returned in the late 90s, alone) and thought of it as her “home”. She wrote about it extensively and fondly, “I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively”. An oasis within the breeding grounds for New York’s Beat Generation it was here where the pair spent the formative parts of their careers writing poetry, making music and art and photographing one another.

Smith and Mapplethorpe are two of many who hold the hotel in close regard, from countless leading personalities to lesser-known faces who have lived there for decades. Sadly, the hotel announced last Friday that it was closing its doors to guests for the first time in its history as of August 1, following its sale to developer Joseph Chetrit. Extensive renovations are expected to take over a year.

The red-brick building, situated on West 23rd Street, features flower-ornamented iron balconies and a grand staircase and at the time of its opening, in 1883, it was the tallest building in New York, standing 12-storeys high. It opened as private apartments until the cooperative went bankrupt, and later reopened in 1905 as a hotel. Bankruptcy occurred again in 1939 and the hotel was purchased by partners Joseph Gross, Julius Krauss and David Bard who kept it profitable in its 50s and 60s heyday. The management fell to Bard’s son, Stanley in the 70s who was seen as more of a ‘curator’ than hotel manager, deciding who stayed and how much they paid. The much-loved character was ousted in 2007 and the new management company has since been terminated.

The hotel’s history is rich with memorable and iconic anecdotes – from the worlds of music, film, literature, fashion and art. In April 1912, it was one of several New York Hotels to take in survivors from the Titanic. As well as Patti Smith, the hotel has been the home of those including Bob Dylan, Charles Bukowski, Leonard Cohen, Vincent Gallo, Dennis Hopper, Janis Joplin, Stanley Kubrick and Uma Thurman. Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Jack Kerouac wrote their respective books, 2001: A Space Odyssey and On The Road, whilst staying there. Poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso chose it as a place for philosophical and intellectual exchange. Madonna, another resident, decided to shoot her photographs for her 1992 book, Sex, in room 882. Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, was found stabbed to death in a room on October 12, 1978. Regularly cited in films, music and literature – from Andy Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls and Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning – the Hotel Chelsea has had an unprecedented impact and lasting impression on its residents, their respective work and that works audience.

Patti Smith’s Just Kids is published by Bloomsbury.