The list of those who have stayed at the Chelsea Hotel in the New York district of the same name reads like a kind of Who’s Who of 20th century western culture: Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, Sid Vicious, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Jack Kerouac, Brendan Behan, Miloš Forman, Robert Crumb. I could go on for a lot, lot longer.
Now the Chelsea Hotel is the focus of two shows at Prague’s Dox gallery. Its artistic director is Jaroslav Anděl.
“There are a couple of exhibitions devoted to the Chelsea Hotel. The first of them is entitled Ghosts of Bohemia. In this case of course bohemia is not meant to be the Czech Republic [laughs], but the other meaning of the word. That is a group of people, usually artists, who are living in a way which is not part of the mainstream.”
What’s the second exhibition?
“The second exhibition is Julia Calfee: Inside the Chelsea Hotel. It’s an exhibition of photographs taken by Julia Calfee, who lived in the hotel for several years.”
What drew you to the subject?
“The Chelsea Hotel seems to be a really unique place. If you want to look at culture in the 20th century then there is probably no other place in the world where so many important painters, writers, dancers, filmmakers, composers, musicians lived, especially in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s.
“They created many, many important works there which had a major impact on modern culture. And the fact that there had not been any substantial show on the subject inspired us to do this.”
Ghosts of Bohemia turns the spotlight on three decades of the Chelsea’s existence. The 1950s are represented by the art of the multifaceted ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, who is probably best known for the Anthology of American Folk Music. He lived and died in room 328 at the Chelsea. The 1960s part of the show focuses on Andy Warhol and his Factory associates, many of whom were residents at the hotel, and includes a screening of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, which was mainly shot there. The third decade the show takes in is the 1970s, with the focus on the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. He lived at the Chelsea with Patti Smith.
Inside the Chelsea Hotel by Julia Calfee features photographs that previously appeared in a book, but are now being shown in an exhibition for the first time. I asked Calfee what she regarded as the cultural significance of the hotel.
“It has very big significance, because so many artists could have never found the space and the time to create really masterpieces without the Chelsea Hotel. Because they could live in the Chelsea Hotel without having to pay the rent, without having a social security number, which is very difficult, even without having a passport. You did not have to give a formal type of identification.
“If the manager somehow felt – he had this great sixth sense – that this person could do something, or if he liked them, then you were in that hotel. So that incredible pressure from the outside world, or judgment like, this guy is worthless because he’s not making any money, didn’t exist in the Chelsea Hotel.”
Who are the subjects of your photographs?
“The subjects of my photographs are of course the people who were living in the hotel at the same time I was…Also it was believed in the Chelsea Hotel that there were always the ghosts of the other people that lived there, that somehow the walls themselves and the floors themselves had been imbued, like some sort of strange humidity, the genius had gotten into the walls and floors. And actually late at night when I walked down the hallways and I looked over the staircase it was really possible to sort of feel other presences.”
I know you were there for four years. When exactly were you there? And who were your contemporaries at that time?
“I was there from the end of 2002 to 2007, when the manager and owner was evicted from the hotel…For example, one of my very good friends was 86 years old. Her name was Stormy, she was also a very good friend of [late photographer] Diane Arbus, and she was the first female gay bouncer. She lived in the hotel for something like 45 years. Another person…was Ethan Hawke when he was doing all his plays. I think he’s a great actor.”
In your book there’s a foreword by Miloš Forman, the great Czech film director. What does he say in the foreword?
“He says basically that he’d always dreamed of coming to America, as a place of freedom. Finally when he arrived he found the Chelsea Hotel and it was the only place that he could’ve ever lived his dream. Because he could live in the Chelsea without having to pay his rent…He said he had some of the worst times in his life there, he had some of the best times of his life there. But the fact is, he could not have come to the US and been what maybe he is today without the Chelsea Hotel.”
How did this not paying rent thing work? That’s fascinating to me.
“[Laughs] There was a manager and owner, who was the son of the original manager and owner, and the guy is an extraordinary genius. He has a seventh sense or eighth sense of being able to feel out people before they become famous or well-known…When he feels it – OK, so maybe he’s half-wrong, and we only hear about his successes, but it doesn’t matter, it’s already a lot. When he felt that, the rent didn’t matter to him.”
What’s it like there today? Is it still vibrant?
“The Hotel Chelsea really died on June 19, 2007, because the owner and manager was evicted forever. Then all artists who owed back rent had to either pay it or leave, so most of them left. The new managers even had to have bodyguards to protect them. So the spirit left the hotel."
Inside the Chelsea Hotel runs at Dox until the middle of February, while Ghosts of Bohemia closes at the end of March.
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