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One building, one million stories

Our writer Maysa Monção unexpectedly stumbled across the iconic Chelsea Hotel while in New York covering the Tribeca Film Festival, and she finds out that every corner of the building exudes film history

I arrived in New York a week ago in order to attend the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. Oddly most of the screenings I wanted to go were not in Tribeca neighbourhood, but in Chelsea instead. I soon remembered the Chelsea Hotel and all the legendary people who once lived there and I started wondering to myself where the building might be.

So I asked the Festival staff where iconic hotel is. “It’s just outside to your right”. “What do you mean? On the same block?” “Yes.” So I went outside and I was petrified by what I saw. I had literally passed through a passage on the sidewalk that was covering the entrance of the hotel and I didn’t realise it was Chelsea Hotel. The sign was not lit. Dozens of workers were getting in and out carrying paint and wires. Was this the same place where Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odissey? It couldn’t be true.

I tried to get in and take photos inside but there was a sign in the lobby: “No pictures”. I asked the porter if I could take a picture of the sign that says “No pictures” and that wasn’t possible, either. Oh, well, then Chelsea Hotel, which originally opened in 1885, is just an abandoned museum locked away from trespassers, I thought.

So I went away and did some research, and I found out that the hotel has been undergoing major restoration for more than five years. Two companies had abandoned the works due to all sorts of challenges, from legal to structural. The tenants sued the hotel developer Joe Chetrit in 2011, because he shut down water and electricity. Now BD Hotels Group bought the hotel and it’s being converted into luxury accommodation. They were knocking down walls, this is a major and complete revamp.

The Chelsea Hotel doesn’t look particularly iconic and glamorous right now.

One hotel, many films

I thought of all the artists – filmmakers, musicians, etc, that had created some of their finest pieces at the Chelsea Hotel. I thought particularly of the films that we’ve written about on DMovies in the past 15 months. First I thought of Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (Fenton Bailey/Randy Barbato): this is where the late photographer lived with Patti Smith. They didn’t have any money to pay the rent, but Smith convinced the owner Stanley that it would be a temporary stay. They paid only $55 a week for the rent In 1969. Mapplethorpe took his first photographs in their flat. – here for our review of the movie.

I remembered Shirley Clarke collaborating with Sam Shepard, who has recently worked in Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, 2016). Clarke lived in the penthouse. She filmed junkies waiting for their drug dealer The Connection (1961) and she shot the very controversial doc about Jason Holliday, called Portrait of Jason in 1967. The documentary Jason and Shirley (Stephen Winter, 2016) reveals how Shirley manipulated Jason in order to create a grotesque circus of homophobia and racism around him – click here for our review of Winter’s outstanding doc.

I wanted to know what happened to the room in which Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen lived their last days – click here for our review of the biopic Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy (Danny Garcia, 2016). The Chelsea Hotel porter told me the room in the first floor was shut forever (I soon found out that this wasn’t true; but just hang on for now). The stairs that led to the first floor were blocked for many years because people used to come around and leave flowers at the front door (now this is very true).

There is no plaque marking the room where Sid and Nancy spent their last days, and it was thanks to a serendipitous resident that Maysa snapped this.

A pooch’s poo opens doors

The following day I came back to pay homage to the Chelsea Hotel from outside. I had almost given up taking pictures and writing about the hotel, when suddenly a nice young lady came out of the building with her pooch. The creature stopped just beside me and emptied its bowels.

Maybe Biggie, the dog, thought I was Divine in John Waters’ 1972 classic Pink Flamingos. It’s true that earlier in the same day a man believed I was a drag queen (I’m the one pictured at the top of the article, so you can decide that yourself). But eating dog shit is a no-go for me. Instead I started talking to the lady, whose name is Man-Laï. She invited me to her flat, room 111, which is on the same floor as Sid Vicious’s room. And being in the company of a resident, I was finally allowed to take pictures. She pointed the famous room to me and I quickly snapped the picture above. She told me that an architect now lives there. Some time ago, a classic piano player used to wake her up playing Debussy. That’s very different from a punk riff.

Maysa photographs Man-Laï in the comfort of her own flat, while she shares film anecdotes of the past.

Mingling with the resident

Man-Laï has been living in the Chelsea Hotel for many years. She raised her twin daughters as a single mom there. Her first room was where Jim Morrison lived. She doesn’t think that the Chelsea Hotel is a weird place. “It is home!”

She shows me the balcony and shares some precious information. “You know, I could see the shooting of House of D. (David Duchovny, 2004) with Robin Williams from my balcony. And last year, Olivia Wilde was here.” She played the role of Devon Finestra in the TV series Vinyl for HBO.

It seems even during the restoration, the Chelsea Hotel continues to inspire filmmakers. Man-Laï also remembers how crowded the lobby was when Natalie Portman played a 12-year-old New York girl in Leon: The Professional (Luc Besson, 1994). The shooting lasted two weeks.

She shows me all books about the Chelsea Hotel she keeps as close as a Bible to a Christian. Chelsea Hotel is her home, even though right now it is a old building full of cracks. “I saw a dead body once here. The men fell from the tenth floor. They wouldn’t allow me to get into my flat. The elevator was blocked, but I said it was my home. I had to jump over the dead body.”

By Maysa Monção - 29-04-2017

Maysa Monção is a Brazilian writer, teacher, translator, editor and art performer who currently lives in London. She has a Masters Degree in Film Studies from Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, ...

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