Inside the Dream Palace: The life and times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins, book review

Everything was permitted at the Chelsea, apart from attachment parenting

Reading this book, transported me back to the blissful few weeks I spent at The Chelsea, in the late 60s. Room 103 was far from salubrious: stained carpets, coughing pipes, but a sanctuary nonetheless. By happy chance, my heroine the communist party member and activist Elizaeth Gurley Flnnn was my close neighbor. In rooms of our own, with no need to interact with the other guests or each other, Flynn and I could focus on the matter in hand. As Flynn had said in her column in the Daily Worker decades before.

‘A hotel. This is a sample for the future, what every woman should have a room to herself and release from domestic tasks.’ In a hotel, ‘the telephone doesn’t ring incessantly, no doorbell, bill collector, laundryman or grocer interrupts my thoughts.’ 

In these propitious circumstances, I blossomed creatively, completing a book of imagist verse, several confronting immersive ‘happenings’, and edited the second volume of Flynn’s memoirs in my down time.

The level of detail in my false memory is a tribute to Sherill Tippins writing. The reader feels as if she was there, mildly irritated by some of the guests, but in love with the idea of an artistic community which allowed you to be yourself, and participate in a social experiment.

There should be a word to describe nostalgia for something that never happened. An internet search turned up many fellow sufferers, with less glamorous false memories. One older woman feels nostalgic about being a teen in the 90s. ‘I am alone?’, she asks.

The older I get, the more I want to live in a hotel, and my false memory gets more detailed and elaborate with every passing year. Cleaning up after two young children and not being able to hear myself think are two of my main motivations, but I worry that freeing my consciousness would come at a price. Would I die alone, like Margaret Thatcher in The Ritz, unmourned by the family I’d cast off in favour of la vie boheme. A fairly typical Chelsea resident Edgar Lee Masters, freed his mind by sending his two year old child away to live with his wife’s parents while he and Ellen remained in New York.

It seems everything was permitted at the Chelsea, apart from attachment parenting. No one knew that resident Arthur Miller had a downs syndrome child. With his son institutionalized, Miller was free to focus all his creative energies on a play that was meant to honestly probe how a moral man like him could cause so much pain – to his 2 ex wives, one of whom was Marilyn Monroe. The son he had abandoned and expunged is denied a third time by being written out of this autobiographical play. The critics disliked After the Fall, complaining that it struck a false note!

This unknown boy was the absent presence in this book, a reminder, as if any were needed that the Chelsea was a haven for narcissists, as well as utopians, and a number of narcissistic utopians. I would have avoided talking to the larger than life characters like the ‘jungle man’ on the top floor who had a menagerie or one of many ‘potbellied guru’s’ if I met them in the lift, though my father has a soft spot for all self-defined eccentrics with no back-story. Like the many Chelsea residents with dark secrets, he believed in self -invention and not looking back. The past caught up with him in middle age (but that’s another story.) He used to drink with Brendan Behans brother in a pub called the Geese in Brighton and would have fallen hard for the writer’s Irish everyman Irish schtick, even though Behan himself was thoroughly sick of it, and drank heavily to escape the conflict between his public and private selves.

There are a lot of conflicted people in this book! Many of the big names fell apart when they were successful, declaring themselves charlatans and frauds before anyone else did, with the notable exception of Bob Dylan. Jackson Pollock said his action paintings were shit: he was making a virtue of necessity; he couldn’t draw, and feared exposure. Tippen tries to distinguish fact from fiction, but happily, her history still reads like a tall tale; as gossipy as any of the Chelsea denizens.

Like America, the Chelsea has had it’s ups and downs. Periodically, it succumbed to the darkness, when the repressed returned and started banging vengefully on the pipes. The toxic atmosphere that led Miller to finally check out, was created, but not owned, by all the artists who pictured utopia as a private island full of hip (or hep) cats, like Richard Branson’s Necker.

Sitting in the lobby in 1967 with a gun in her bag, Valerie Solanas was seeking retribution on behalf of all those who had ever been excluded from an ‘in crowd’ of self proclaimed outsiders. I know just how she felt. In an interview a few years later, explaining her reasons for shooting Andy Warhol, Solanas said ‘I just wanted him to pay attention to me! Talking to him was like talking to a chair.’ I’ve spent many hours being buttonholed by bohemians; their idea of a dialogue is the conversational equivalent of one hand clapping.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'