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Chelsea Hotel

by Charlie Finch
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The New York tabloids are currently sticking the fork in the Chelsea Hotel, now that it is being turned into apartments. The big revelation from the New York Post is that longtime Chelsea major domo Stanley Bard, famous for trading living quarters for art, actually overcharged his tenants all those years ago, with those still in residence complaining that Bard charged them a cool grand in 1970 for 100 square feet -- worth about $40 at the time.

After many visits to the old 23rd Street dump, I recall only two paintings of interest, a group grope by Larry Rivers, which all the habitués always described as "the only valuable painting here" and a heavy Jay DeFeo on the fourth floor stairs. I first became aware of the Chelsea in 1966, because Brice Marden was the only artist invited to Bob Dylan’s parties there. This made, and continues to make, Brice’s career.

The other great Chelsea legend, pre-Nancy Spungeon, was that Leonard Cohen balled Janis Joplin there and sung about it in his song Chelsea Hotel #2, for which Lenny is still roundly condemned. My own personal memories of the old hotel are pretty warm. In 1974, when my late brother Will matriculated to Sarah Lawrence, he banned me from having any relations with the Sadie Lou bathing belles while he was in residence there. (Un)fortunately, Will held his 1978 graduation party on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel. Free at last, I worked my way through seven of his female classmates, married number eight, and now our son is a celebrated mystery novelist, so you can’t say that the Chelsea never produced any new talent!

Also in 1978, my cousin Dabney Finch, a rough customer, married one of her husbands, the owner of the defunct bistro Chelsea Commons, on the Chelsea roof. A product of the New Rochelle public school system, where she was the girlfriend of Don "American Pie" McLean, Dabs worked her way through law school dancing in Times Square, in spite of (or because of) the fact her father was a famous Wittgenstein scholar. On that one Chelsea night, I actually got into snow.

But the Chelsea for me was not just sex and dope. In 1988, I had tea with Viva there, because I wished to involve her in a show at the Tunnel night club. Viva copped all her mannerisms from Jackie Kennedy: the low, breathless voice, the flip of the hair, the studied indifference. Yet, tea at the Chelsea with Viva was run by her then-11-year-old daughter, the precocious and exceptional actress Gaby Hoffman, who was, on that day and later on, more star-powered than Ondine, International Velvet and her mother combined.

A year later, my partner Melinda Hackett and I, of Realart, Inc., successfully visited the Warholian stand-in Allen Midgette, ultimately getting him to do a show with us. Allen had a tiny closet of a space, in which he was painting huge versions of Andy’s great "Russell Means" portraits. So hot was his space in August that Allan had to leave the front door open all night, for a breeze -- and unwelcome visits from the local talent.

Midgette took us through the Chelsea apartment of one of my heroes, the composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who had given Allen a key. Thomson’s seraglio was the jewel of the Chelsea, two apartments joined together with an elaborate, Byzantine series of doors. It’s only equivalent in Manhattan was Edwin Booth’s preserved apartment at the Players Club on Gramercy Park.

Well, goodbye Chelsea, goodbye Bard, goodbye marijuana actually grown in the ground and sold at the old dump. You shoulda been there.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).