Author Sherill Tippins talks about Chelsea Hotel, Dylan, Ginsberg, Bowles, Harry Smith and Andy Warhol

"The original utopian ideals resonating in the Chelsea’s halls are the same ideals that informed the creation of the artistic communities downtown."

Sherill Tippins: The Blues of Chelsea Hotel

Sherill Tippins is the author of Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel, and of February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee Under One Roof in Wartime America. She lives in New York City.

The Chelsea Hotel, since its founding by a visionary French architect in 1884, has been an icon of American invention: a cultural dynamo and haven for the counterculture, all in one astonishing building. Sherill Tippins, author of the acclaimed February House, delivers a masterful and endlessly entertaining history of the Chelsea and of the successive generations of artists who have cohabited and created there, among them John Sloan, Edgar Lee Masters, Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Sam Shepard, Sid Vicious, and Dee Dee Ramone.

Photo © by Deborah Lopez

Now as legendary as the artists it has housed and the countless creative collaborations it has sparked, the Chelsea has always stood as a mystery as well: Why and how did this hotel become the largest and longest-lived artists’ community in the known world? Inside the Dream Palace is the intimate and definitive story.

As for February House, its residents included, among others, Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Paul Bowles, and the famed burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. This ramshackle Brooklyn brownstone was host to an explosion of creativity, an extraordinary experiment in communal living, and a nonstop yearlong party fueled by the appetites of youth. Here these burgeoning talents composed many of their most famous, iconic literary works while experiencing together a crucial historical moment–America on the threshold of World War II.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What has been the relationship between music and literature in your life and writing?

I was trained as a pianist, and so have always identified with writers who approach their literary work as a kind of musical composition, or her as well as poet-songwriters who rely on literary techniques in their work. In a sense, the two forms of expression strike me as not so much separate disciplines as points along a single continuum, both reliant on rhythm and structure. I was interested to find, when researching the writings of the young novelist Carson McCullers – one of the subjects of my book, February House – references to her sense that her own musical training enabled her to manage the complex planning, the simultaneous short- and long-term vision, and the emotional nuance needed for literary work. (Of course, MRI scans have since demonstrated that brain activity is very similar for the two pursuits.) Likewise, I felt both fascinated and vindicated, when researching Inside the Dream Palace, by all the evidence of the impact on Bob Dylan’s music of his days spent in the reading room of the New York Public Library and of his relationship with Allen Ginsberg.

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Because I made music before I began writing, I’ve always included music as part of my writing routine. When writing February House, I listened to the opera composed by W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten in that house as I was describing it, and the process of repeated listening helped me understand how the themes present in that work were repeated in the novels of Carson McCullers and in the poetry of Auden himself. When writing Inside the Dream Palace, I immersed myself in the American roots songs of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the re-tooled tunes from The Little Red Songbook that inspired such Chelsea Hotel residents as the socialist painter John Sloan and the labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and recordings by Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and so many other Chelsea Hotel denizens whose work was grounded in the same material. Certainly, this music influenced my writing style as well as its content – particularly, I’d say, in my description in Chapter Three of Sloan’s and Flynn’s efforts to use the arts to improve the lot of industrial workers, and my evocation in Chapter Nine of Patti Smith’s concert atop the Hotel Diplomat.

What do you miss most nowadays from the bohemian era of Chelsea Hotel?

I miss the cheap rents, naturally, and also the pervading sense of those times that any individual’s ideas and actions might alter the course of society’s future. In fact, I believe these two elements are profoundly related, since people who must constantly work and worry to keep a roof over the heads are unlikely to have the energy or time to imagine different ways to live. The general drift toward economic division, with basic subsistence in the cities becoming more and more difficult for the city’s young and poor, is not only unfair but is robbing cities of their cultural capital. Without its culture, no city can thrive.

Why the Chelsea Hotel is connected to the Counterculture and what characterized the philosophy of hotel?

The Chelsea was a countercultural institution from the very beginning, when Philip Hubert, an idealistic refugee from the 1848 uprising in France, created it as a cooperative residence aimed at encouraging interchange between artists and businessmen, apprentices and masters, producers and collectors, old and young, and rich and poor. To do this, he created eighty apartments ranging from twelve-room palaces to modest three-room suites, along with such spaces for socializing as the lodge-like lobby, the ornate, winding central staircase, extra-wide corridors, and a roof with gardens, a jointly-owned pyramid, and a brick-paved promenade. To avoid accusations of “promoting socialism,” Hubert gave his experiment in living the cozy name, “Hubert’s Home Club,” but the city’s critics and newspaper editors recognized its utopian influences and praised it on those terms. Set in the middle of the city’s theater district at the time, the Chelsea attracted a so-called “adventurous” group of founding members who initiated the word-of-mouth process that has drawn counterculture residents to the Chelsea ever since.

Australian artist and frequent Hotel Chelsea resident, Vali Myers - Photo © by Eva Collins

What are the lines that connect the legacy of underground culture and music with Chelsea residents?

The Chelsea was once called the Waldorf-Astoria of downtown New York, and that’s perhaps the best way to think of its relationship with the underground culture that had begun to emerge below Fourteenth Street even as the Chelsea’s walls were rising. Ever since its original young, under-appreciated bohemian American artists, writers, musicians, and theater people, first began working to create a genuine American voice independent of European dictates, generations of New York artists have moved back and forth between the gritty tenements of the Village and the Lower East Side and the more comfortable, hospitable refuge of the Chelsea. As the Frohman Brothers were succeeded by Isadora Duncan, then by the painters John Sloan and Arthur B. Davies, then by Virgil Thomson, Paul and Jane Bowles, Mary McCarthy, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Jackson Pollock, and the Nouveau-Réaliste artists from France, a dense web of personal connections was formed that soon drew the downtown Beat writers in. It was admiration for Hotel Chelsea denizen Dylan Thomas that inspired Jack Kerouac and Gore Vidal to check in for a night of lovemaking in August 1953. Allen Ginsberg became a regular presence at the Chelsea due to his friendships or acquaintanceships with hotel residents Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Virgil Thomson, Arthur Miller, the artist Stella Waitzkin, the underground filmmakers Shirley Clarke and Jonas Mekas, and many others. When it became clear that the musicologist/filmmaker/occultist Harry Smith was spending too many nights roaming the downtown streets and drinking with the bums on the Bowery, Shirley Clarke rented a room for him at the Chelsea, where he remained for decades. Bob Dylan arrived in pursuit of his girlfriend, Sara Lowndes, who had in turn moved to the Chelsea in the wake of her boss, cinema-verite filmmaker Richard Leacock. Andy Warhol, initially drawn to the hotel through his contacts with both the Nouveau-Réaliste artists and the underground filmmakers, recommended it to his Factory superstars and then made the hotel itself a superstar with his film “Chelsea Girls.”

   By 1969, when Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe arrived at the Chelsea, the ties between the Chelsea and the underground culture were so tight as to make the two communities almost indistinguishable (and, in fact, basically identical). At the Chelsea, Patti Smith was encouraged to write poetry by Bob Dylan’s former sidekick Bob Neuwirth, took lessons in presentation from downtown poet Jim Carroll, socialized with Allen Ginsberg and Harry Smith, and collaborated with underground playwright Sam Shepard. Mapplethorpe forged the connections that would lead him to Max’s Kansas City and the Warhol coterie. An influx of rock bands, booked to perform at the Fillmore East, further blurred the lines between the Chelsea and downtown. In the late 1970s, the tradition continued as the New York Dolls, Jobriath (America’s first “openly gay” rock star), Iggy Pop, the Ramones, Blondie, and Sid Vicious discovered the Chelsea’s charms.

   The original utopian ideals resonating in the Chelsea’s halls are the same ideals that informed the creation of the artistic communities downtown. It’s no wonder, then, that the two communities have formed a permanent connection, with each enhancing the other’s power.

"When writing Inside the Dream Palace, I immersed myself in the American roots songs of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, the re-tooled tunes from The Little Red Songbook that inspired such Chelsea Hotel residents as the socialist painter John Sloan and the labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and recordings by Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and so many other Chelsea Hotel denizens whose work was grounded in the same material." (Photo: "Screen Test: Harry Smith", Andy Warhol 1964)

Since 40s – 50s what has changed towards the best for our civilization and culture and what has gone wrong?

I am not much of an optimist regarding changes since the 1950s, but one thing that has certainly improved has been the ability of ordinary people to communicate with friends and strangers anywhere in the world. At the Chelsea, this future was imagined as early as the 1950s by Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey there, and his friend Shirley Clarke, the experimental filmmaker. There are recordings of the pair excitedly discussing the ways the world would change once people were able to send words and images around the globe instantly via communications satellite—exposing dictatorships, expanding democracy, and turning the urban creative synergy of their own world into a global, multi-cultural phenomenon.

            Unfortunately, a corresponding rise in the power of the enormously-enriched global corporations has dulled those potential effects to a large degree. It was interesting, while researching the lives of the Chelsea Hotel artists, to observe how systematically each generation’s creative or political output was co-opted by the corporate world--more efficiently with each decade. It was this drive for corporate profits that pushed Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and others to embark on punishing tours that led ultimately to their death or destruction. It was this drive that led to the runaway development toward the end of the recent great recession, raising rents and lowering wages and resulting in such great difficulty for young artists and activists in finding time for creative work.

What are your hopes and fears for the future? If you could change one thing in the world what would that be?

My greatest concern is the danger of climatic breakdown as nations continue to avoid the responsibility to work together to prevent the worst aspects of climate change. This is just the sort of problem that Arthur C. Clarke and Shirley Clarke had imagined could be solved via the technology they experimented with at the Chelsea, and yet it’s proved among the most intractable, and it’s certainly the one thing in the world I would change if I could.  I suppose my hopes are, in my pessimistic viewpoint, somewhat tied to those fears, though, as I imagine a society that has moved beyond the industrial and technological ages to live more in synch with nature. I confess that I’ve sometimes imagined the Chelsea in such a world – strong enough to withstand extreme weather, designed to function without air conditioning or even electricity, and possessing a roof space large enough for all the solar panels and gardens the residents might need. If I’m still alive if and when such a world comes into existence, perhaps I’ll become a Hotel Chelsea resident myself.

"The Chelsea was a countercultural institution from the very beginning, when Philip Hubert, an idealistic refugee from the 1848 uprising in France, created it as a cooperative residence aimed at encouraging interchange between artists and businessmen, apprentices and masters, producers and collectors, old and young, and rich and poor."

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

There are always things at the Chelsea that make me laugh when I visit. The Chelsea has been bought by a developer, resold to the owner of a chain of hotels, and shut down for renovations for the past two years.  The unoccupied rooms have been gutted and the works of art have been stripped off the walls, but 80 or so residents remain, protected by New York City rent regulations. One way they survive their life in a “zombie” Chelsea is through the use of sardonic humor. Last time I visited, for example, I noticed a label taped to the dirty white wall where a Larry Rivers painting once hung, reading “George Chemeche – White Christmas in Pennsylvania, 2006.”

The Chelsea is a source of emotional connection as well. There have been so many stories of neighbors who have cared for one another in times of illness or need, but the most recent one involves the great gay-liberation activist and drag king performer Stormé DeLarverie. Stormé moved into the Chelsea in the 1980s and quickly became a friend to many and a mentor to some. In recent years, when dementia intruded on her life and she was removed to a substandard nursing home, the artist Michele Zalopany, a former neighbor and friend, saw to it that she was moved to a more acceptable place. She died just this year, and hundreds attended her funeral. I know Michele is grieving deeply, but at least she knows that she gave this great citizen of New York a dignified and honorable end to life.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

 The best advice ever given me is the same I would give to the new generation, and it’s also the philosophy promoted by the composer Virgil Thomson and the painter John Sloan: live frugally, recycle, keep your expenses low, so that you can dedicate a minimal degree of energy and time toward making a living and spend the rest of your time on creative work. As Sloan pointed out, the creative person is the only truly free citizen of the world—free of wage slavery, free of the need to compete for outward symbols of achievement, free of the misery of having others control his or her time or tell him what to do. Hanging onto that freedom is worth almost any sacrifice.

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

I would include the print of a drawing by 1920s Chelsea Hotel resident Arthur B. Davies, given to me by 21st-century resident Scott Griffin. I would add copies of my copies of handwritten documents by W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Virgil Thomson, Jane Bowles, and Gypsy Rose Lee. I would add copies of my books. And, on a personal note, I would add the audio tape cartridges of myself reading books to my children, along with a cassette player (and batteries!) on which to play them.

What would you say to Arthur Miller? What would you like to ask Allen Ginsberg & Patti Smith?

I would ask Arthur Miller to explain how he could have written his play “After the Fall” without realizing that it was in fact a portrait of his recent marriage to Marilyn Monroe – even after his leading lady, Barbara Loden, began appearing in rehearsals in a blonde Marilyn Monroe wig and even as Monroe committed suicide while Miller was writing the play. And I would ask him why he spoke to virtually no one about his son with Down’s Syndrome whom he ordered institutionalized for life near his Connecticut country home. I don’t judge Miller for these actions, but I worked so hard to understand how they fit into his moral universe while writing Dream Palace that I would like to hear his own explanation directly from him.

            As for Allen Ginsberg, I supposed the only question I have would be how and why he managed to pull himself away from lovely Cherry Valley, New York, to keep interacting with and trying to improve the larger world, even as that world seemed to be heading for destruction in the 1970s. That’s something that fascinates me – what compels some people to place the general welfare above their own comfort and needs, and how they defeat what must be repeated small moments of potential rebellion when they wish they could just stay home, be with their loved ones, and read.

            I would pose the opposite question to Patti Smith: Why did she decide to more-or-less abandon her public in order to start a family? Does she regret that decision now? Did she always assume she would move into the public realm again once her children were grown? Does she consider her situation fundamentally different from Ginsberg’s because she is a woman?

What do you think Paul Bowles would tell us? How you would spend a day with Andy Warhol & Janis Joplin?

I have to say, I think Paul Bowles would tell us all to prepare ourselves, that the times are going to get tougher in the years to come. What a wonderful companion he would be during what’s likely to be a bleak period of history.

            If I were to spend a day with Andy Warhol, I think I’d just try to make myself useful – sweep the Factory floor, organize some files, negotiate with creditors or pay the bills. Andy struck me as so isolated at the head of his commune – paying for his group’s meals while being lambasted for not sharing the supposed profits of his films, and so on. It seems to me that he could have used some silent support and a little peace and quiet.

            I’m afraid I’d probably facilitate Janis’s worst habits, spending my day with her drinking at El Quijote. I imagine we’d have plenty to talk about, both having grown up in small Texas towns and both having expected to become teachers as adults. We could exchange gossip about her neighbors at the Chelsea, and maybe she’d show me her room. ­I’d have to stagger home by the end of that session, but at least I’d never forget it.

Sherill Tippins - official website

Sherill Tippins receiving the Washington Arts Club's Marfield Prize, National Award for Arts Writing, for Inside the Dream Palace

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