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GREY MATTERS: Young and old memories of the Hotel Chelsea

by Matthew Seitz
August 12, 2011 10:00 AM
4 Comments
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By Ian Grey
Press Play Contributor

I loved Lance Loud from the first time I saw him on TV in his room at New York City’s Hotel Chelsea. He was a son in the troubled suburban clan profiled on PBS’s An American Family, television's first-ever reality show, which aired in 1973. Lance broke ground just by being himself — a young, out, gay man — in front of 10 million pairs of stunned American eyes. This was Nixon's America, remember. It’s really hard to convey to younger viewers how balls-out crazy-brave it was for Lance to act the way he acted in those caveman days. Whatever his personal situation, his blasé public bravura influenced countless other young adults — including me. And it was through his example that I became more assured of my sense of identity as I discovered and wrote my own story in this life. (You can watch HBO’s strangely inert retelling of the American Family story in Cinema Verite by clicking here.)

Following the filming of that legendary documentary, Lance moved from Santa Barbara, California to New York City. He had his own dreams — mostly all things Warhol-ian and Velvet Underground-ish — and he moved into the Hotel Chelsea, the one immortalized in Warhol’s three-hour experimental film, Chelsea Girls (1966).

Lance’s journey to the Hotel Chelsea wasn't unusual for its day. Between the time the hotel opened in 1884 to the 1990s (when its slow decline began), the place was a Mecca for countless artistically-gifted young adults seeking to create lives of their own — a haven for troubled young people with big dreams. If you were a musician, filmmaker, artist, writer, drag performance artist, pool hustler, theater queen, drug dealer, recovering addict who was a drag performance artist (not naming names!), or if you were friends with or financially supported any of the aforementioned people, you would, at some point, inevitably, as dawn follows night, end up climbing the grand black wrought iron staircase at the Chelsea.

The Hotel Chelsea was an iconic symbol of creativity. Its space represented artistic freedom. It was like nowhere else in the world — a place of irresistible cultural gravity. And given this period of atomized subcultures, nothing like it will ever exist again.

In my mind's eye I like to imagine Lance standing before 222 23rd Street, decked out in his trademark black tee, Levi 501s and Brando-style Schott motorcycle jacket, staring up in awe at the twelve floors of black iron balconies. I can sense the wonder he must have felt as his fingers touched the blood red brick façade for the first time.

I try to imagine what Lance must have felt as he signed in at the front desk that day: excited, perhaps, and humbled, but more likely intimidated. Over the past 100 years, the Hotel Chelsea has played host to some of the most influential names in art, music and fashion. Together, those names represent the plasma pool of the 20th century’s most essential working artists: Bob Dylan, Edith Piaf and Dylan Thomas; Tennessee Williams, Quentin Crisp and William S. Burroughs; Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg. All of them set head to pillow at the Chelsea.

In my imagination I see Lance walking through those hallowed, empty halls wondering if it was in this room that Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, or if it was in that room that Jack Kerouac penned On the Road. I see Lance stopping in front of room 328 and staring for a moment, because it was in this room that mad occultist and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith died in the arms of the poet Paola Igliori, singing as he drifted away.

I see Lance closing his eyes and imagining the ghosts of those that came before: Viva, Ondine, Nico and Edie Sedgewick.

The Chelsea was the place where ex-would-be Jersey-wife Patti Smith and sweet, Catholic Queens-boy Robert Mapplethorpe — then just kids together — found their artistic voices and felt free enough to create immortal, awesome things. A mystical whatsit force emanated from the Chelsea and it attracted both gloom-folk king Leonard Cohen and all-pop queen Madonna. The Material Girl would return to the hotel in 1992 to shoot the images for her way-iconic book, , American Film, Details and Vanity Fair. He also suffered a terrible physical decline resulting from a two-decade addiction to crystal meth and the effects of HIV-AIDS. He filed one last article, "Musings on Mortality," for The Advocate before dying in hospice of liver failure as a result of hepatitis C and a co-infection with HIV in 2001. He was 50 years old.

Rufus Wainwright, a close friend of Lance’s and fellow Hotel Chelsea alumnus, sang “Over the Rainbow” at his memorial.

But the Chelsea dream lives on, and its cultural gravity seems universal to me. It manifests itself in encroaching encampments all over the outer boroughs, in far Greenpoint, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and Coney Island. In Detroit, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, as the forsaken everyone — not just forgotten teens — try to mine liberal utopias from designated rustbelts.

Ian Grey’s Press Play column “Grey Matters” runs every Friday.

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4 Comments

  • Raymond Foye | February 26, 2012 10:04 PMReply

    Can we please stop this nonsense about Harry Smith singing as he died in Paola Igliori's arms? I was there at the time and he did nothing of the sort. He had a bleeding hemorrhage and died later at St Vincent's hospital.

  • Peter | October 6, 2011 5:27 AMReply

    Great article. Very complete, seems an artistic combination with anthropological insights. Chelsea is opening very soon, thanks god...

  • Ashly Montgomery | August 26, 2011 2:54 AMReply

    If you're bored at work tomorrow my friend and I do an internet radio show on http://www.uctcradio.com/. Tomorrows topic: The Chelsea Hotel dedication show! Check it out 10am CST! Houston, Texas supports the Chelsea Hotel!!

  • grace roselli | August 20, 2011 4:11 AMReply

    hey ian, fabulous!

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