a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

An icon is sold; an era ends

New Yorkers would never let it happen, right? The Hotel Chelsea sold? To someone who appears to want to do away with…everything that makes it the Hotel Chelsea. It’s an icon of the city at its creaking, decrepit, artistic best. Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Kerouac, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas visited or lived in this residence, which caters to both long- and short-term tenants. Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy to death here!

Many artists could not afford the rent, and paid with paintings, sculptures and other creations that filled the walls and lined the stairwells. Some of these gifts became extremely valuable items; others turned out to be basically junk, albeit well-intentioned junk. In the lobby was, among other bizarre attractions, a sculpture of a fat lady on a swing, a gift of Renatta Goebel. It surveys paintings in various styles, some of them derivatives, sure, but none of them boring. Conformity does not exist inside the bounds of Hotel Chelsea. It’s a self-contained fantasy land, a trip of its own, someplace that could only exist in New York or Paris. And it exists in New York.

Or used to. It’s still there, but the new owners removed the art, fired the long-time staff, and evicted most of the tenants. It’s unclear where the art went, or why the new landlords want to disrupt something that’s been going strong since 1883. It seems like one of the dumbest ideas one could think of, sort of like buying the Louvre and taking out all the paintings. New plans for the building are not known at this point. The owner, real estate developer Joseph Chetrit, says he wants to renovate the place while preserving its past. While no one doubts it needs some renovation—just read the reviews on Yelp—there’s some question about preserving its past when they’ve removed all the artwork. There’s also doubt that the new owners will allow deadbeat artists to flop there, the way the three Hungarian families who owned the property since 1946 famously did. The new owners appear to be mired in debt and are, of course, in the same soft real estate market the rest of the country is facing.

Yet there’s reason for hope. I haven’t heard any report that the art has been sold or done away with in any way. Hopefully it’s in storage  and is just being protected from the grime and dust of renovation. It would seem foolish to turn the place into just another upscale hotel/bar/lounge. Doesn’t New York have enough of them?

Why is this tidbit of news appearing on this blog? Because part of Entertaining Welsey Shaw takes place there, most of the third act in fact. I know it’s not terribly original these days setting a novel in the Chelsea, but that was part of the point: our protagonist Daniel goes off to live somewhere to feel more “real”—and chooses this cliché of Bohemia, something Welsey remarks on in disdain. (She also doesn’t care for the fat lady sculpture.) For as many novels that have been written there, it seems as many have been partially set there. Most recent is Joseph O’Neill’s magnificent Netherland, and O’Neill, along with his wife, Vogue Editor Sally Singer, are long-time residents, who even moved away once before deciding they wanted to live there again. O’Neill even writes himself in in a cameo, I am convinced, while describing a laundry-list of tenants: There was a family with three young boys who ran wild in the hallways with tricycles and balls and trains. (p. 33). Incidentally, a movie version of Netherland is reportedly in talks. If it happens, will they now have to recreate the Chelsea on a set?

Fortunately for me, my novel takes places in the days and recent years leading up to “now,” so I don’t have to worry about the fact that the Chelsea will likely be forever changed, just as I don’t have to worry that Callicoon, New York, the small town where I set much of the rest of the story, now has cellular service, and a key plot element hangs on the fact that when these events took place it did not. As Bob Dylan might say, the times they are a changing … BUT, while that’s true, I’ll  offer another observation: it ain’t over till the fat lady swings.

More about the Hotel Chelsea deal here and here.

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