Chelsea Girls: 11 Badass Women Who Lived at the Chelsea Hotel
“Everybody passing through here is somebody, if not in the outside world,” Patti Smith wrote in Just Kids of New York City’s famous Chelsea Hotel. Since the Chelsea’s unveiling in 1883, some of the world’s most celebrated creatives have called it home: Smith, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, William S. Burroughs, Tom Wolfe, and scores more, all of whom make cameos in Sherrill Tippins’s comprehensive history of the Chelsea, Inside the Dream Palace. Recently Tippins wrote a piece about the writers who lived, worked and indulged their vices there (often simultaneously), and while we enjoyed it, we found it conspicuously short on women. We’re picking up the slack by remembering 11 of the most fabulous ladies ever to dwell at the Chelsea, from the muses whose verve and beauty inspired classic songs to the superstars who stayed there before finding the spotlight.
Before “Holiday” made her a star, Madonna was a Michigan kid just trying to make her way. “She was a singer, around 23, quite unknown, but even then carried a method-acting book,” former Chelsea resident Roger Jazilek told the Village Voice. They hooked up in his room, Jazilek claimed, before they parted ways and Madonna moved into a room of her own. Years later she returned to shoot her infamous 1992 photo book, Sex, in Room 822. Sadly, the site where it all went down is no longer: It was torn up during the Chelsea’s renovations in 2011.
Patti Smith and her photographer boyfriend Robert Mapplethorpe were just getting started as serious artists when they settled at the Chelsea Hotel in the early 1970s. Filled, as she wrote in Just Kids, with "guitar bums and stoned-out beauties in Victorian dresses" and "junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors," it was a breeding ground for creatives that fostered Smith and Mapplethorpe's artistic growth during formative years. “I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively,” Smith recalled in her memoir. “So many had written, conversed, and convulsed in these Victorian dollhouse rooms.”
Viva and Edie Sedgwick
Two of Andy Warhol’s most famous Superstars, Viva (a.k.a. Janet Susan Mary Hoffmann) and Edie Sedgwick both lived at the Chelsea. Warhol frequently produced his artwork at the hotel and both women figured prominently in it, appearing in his experimental film Chelsea Girls and several others. Around the halls they were well-known: Once, Sedgwick inadvertently started a fire in her room after falling asleep with candles lit. Viva, meanwhile, wrote a novel (1970’s Superstar) and raised her daughters there, including actress Gaby Hoffmann. Viva chronicled her adventures in a never-published kids’ book, Gaby at the Chelsea—an edgy play on the Eloise series.
The list of musicians who lived or stayed at the Chelsea in the '60s and '70s reads like a fantasy festival lineup: Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Smith, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin. Of course, the most famous story about Joplin at the Chelsea involves her famous tryst in Room 415 with Leonard Cohen. They’d met cute in the elevator. “Are you looking for someone?” Cohen asked, to which Joplin replied, “Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson.” Cohen wrote a pretty graphic song about it, “Chelsea #2,” which, if you missed it, was covered by hipster darling Lana del Rey earlier this year.
Okay, so essayist Sarah Vowell never took up formal residence at the Chelsea, but she did stay there for a few days. As she describes in her essay “Chelsea Girl,” anthologized in the book Take the Cannoli, things got real pretty quick: “At the Chelsea, I know from the first night that my impulse to wear shoes at all times I'm not in bed is sound when my left sneaker crunches down on something as I'm talking on the phone. A quick, horrified glance down at my foot reveals the roommate who would keep me company for my entire five-day boho holiday: a condom wrapper, empty.”
Jane Fonda was, is, and always will be a stone fox, and in the '60s, she was never short on bedfellows. Fonda took lots of them to the Chelsea: her first husband Roger Vadim, Warhol groupie Eric Emerson, her Klute costar Donald Sutherland and her second husband, activist Tom Hayden, to name just a few. After touring war-torn Vietnam in the early '70s, she holed up with Hayden at the Chelsea to decompress. "As we lay in bed in our funky Chelsea Hotel room, I told Tom that I wanted us to have a child together as a pledge of hope for the future," she recalled in her memoir, My Life So Far. "We held each other and wept."
“I left a husband [John Cale] in 1969 and went to the Chelsea with a toothbrush. I meant to stay for a couple of days, and I stayed eight months,” Betsey Johnson told Vanity Fair of her time at the hotel. Before the wacky-haired designer made a real dent in the New York fashion scene, she set up shop in a “huge loft,” she said. “I was making costumes for the movie ‘Ciao! Manhattan.’ I would dress up in them and sit in the lobby to see if they got any reaction. I sat there with cone ears, cone tits, cone knees, in a stretch black knit. I looked a little strange, but I can’t remember any laughing or harassment. It was no big deal.”
Moroccan-born installation artist Jeanne-Claude moved into the Chelsea with her husband and work partner, Christo, in 1964. Already well-known in the European art scene, they palled around with fellow residents Claes Oldenburg and his first wife, Patty, and worked on their art. At least once they covered their rent by handing over one of their pieces; longtime Chelsea manager Stanley Bard made a practice of taking his poor-but-brilliant tenants’ artwork in place of cash. After several years in the city, Christo and Jeanne-Claude began formulating the idea for what would become one of their most famous works ever: “The Gates,” a succession of 7,500 16 ft.-tall gates that spanned 23 miles of walkway in Central Park.
Renaissance woman Rebecca Miller (novelist, screenwriter, painter, director, actress, mother, wife to Daniel Day-Lewis, daughter of legendary playwright Arthur Miller, partridge in a pear tree) spent part of her childhood at the Chelsea. Her family (including her dad and her mom, photographer Inge Morath) lived in Suite 614, above which, Miller recalled in an interview with the Guardian in 2006, there lived "a man with a very large snake." Here she is talking about her latest novel, "Jacob's Folly."
The best-known Chelsea Hotel story about Theodore Roosevelt’s socialite, novelist granddaughter Theodora Keogh had to do with her pet margay. As legend has it, the wild little kitty took Keogh’s ear off one day after Keogh passed out drunk on the floor in her room (a tale Tippins debunked). That wacky story notwithstanding, Keogh was a woman ahead of her time. From her novel “Meg,” about a man obsessed with his school-aged daughter’s friend, to “Gemini,” about incestuous twins, her sexy, racy, raunchy books flouted every one of the era’s sexual mores.
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