Ed Hamilton is one of the voices behind the Living With Legends blog, which reports on the Hotel Chelsea -- from the Hotel Chelsea, where he has lived for over a decade. More recently, he put out a book of tales from his hotel home -- an establishment that provides endless material. Legends of the Chelsea Hotel is part satirical and part historical, and Hamilton will be around town reading from it this month. Catch him on November 8th at 192 Books, and on November 12th at The Half King.
What came first, the idea for the blog, or the book?
The blog, which was my girlfriend Debbie Martin’s idea. The Chelsea seemed way too anarchic to describe in a straightforward, linear way. There were always a thousand things coming at us all at once: if you sit in the lobby for an hour you will be witness to any number of strange incidents and intrigues, good, bad and indifferent. The more open-ended blog form, on the other hand, seemed tailor made for the job, since from day to day we could just write about whatever struck our fancy. But I love books, and with everything I write, the idea of somehow transforming it into a book is never far from my mind. About half the content of Legends of the Chelsea Hotel appeared originally as blog posts, while the rest is new.
When did you start the blog?
April, 2005. We saw the changes coming in the hotel and the neighborhood, and we thought, hey, someone has got to do something to chronicle this bubbling caldron of inspired madness—all these wacky people and their comic and tragic stories--before it passes away. I didn’t want to do it, because it seemed like too much work—which is one reason nobody had done it before—and besides that I was working on a novel, but luckily Debbie convinced me. That was two and a half years ago and I’ve only recently been able to get back to the novel.
What did you hope to let the world in on through the blog, and has that changed?
I wanted to give people a look beneath the surface of the coolest building on earth, an insider’s perspective into the lives and struggles of the working artists, outlaws, con-men and the insane who populate this divine maelstrom of creativity.
And yeah, my aims have changed. It’s become increasingly difficult to focus on day-to-day lives, artist’s exhibits, things like that. Now I want people to see how the greed of corporate developers has ruined a beautiful (and successful) experiment in living. It’s now become almost impossible for young or struggling artists to move to New York and dedicate themselves to the creative life. The Chelsea was one of the last places where they could do this.
With the blog, and now with the book out, have you felt any direct pressure from the new management for your outspokenness?
Actually, outside of occasionally glaring at me as I go through the lobby, surprisingly little. They seem to have decided to ignore me as they go about slowly yet surely dismantling the Chelsea Hotel community. Others have not been so lucky, as BD Hotels has been jacking up the rent on everyone they think they can get away with forcing out—either because these tenants owe money, or because their apartments are subject to luxury decontrol, or for other, less defensible reasons.
Given it’s around Halloween, do you think any ghosts haunt the hotel?
The ghost of Sid Vicious famously haunts the first floor, where he stabbed Nancy back in 1978. Periodically the elevator will stop of its own accord on that floor, the doors will open, but no one will be there. How else to explain it but to say that it’s Sid’s ghost? Sid’s old room also has a ghostly aura associated with it, especially the bathroom, where Nancy expired.
The building, being a hotel, is a way-station for traveling ghosts. But there are a number of recognizable ghosts in permanent residence. There’s Larry the hipster ghost, who speaks in the lingo of the sixties, punctuating his discourse with lots of “dude”s and “man”s and terms like “groovy” and “far out”. Larry is very talkative, and somewhat obnoxious, and his message—as attested by various living residents over the years--is that the Chelsea is the only place that’s real, and that what’s outside the building is an illusion.
There is also a flapper ghost who resembles the cartoon character Betty Boop, complete with pageboy haircut. She inhabits a specific room—I forget which one—and appears over your shoulder in the mirror when you look into it.
There are other ghosts stories on the blog, as well, which we ran for this Halloween and last year’s.
Can you explain your dedication to Japanese painter Hiroya in your book?
Hiroya typifies the Dream of the Chelsea, which is the dream of all New York: to move here and give your artistic talent free reign to develop, and ultimately to succeed in your chosen field. Hiroya was an absolute weirdo, who could never have fit in anywhere else but the Chelsea. And yet he was completely at home here, where people like him could understand where he was coming from. Unfortunately, Hiroya typifies the dark side of the dream as well. He had a huge ambition, and a willingness to do what it took to achieve fame in his art, but ultimately it was these very qualities that consumed him. He was a comic figure, a sort of artistic trickster, but there was a tragic side to him as well—just like the Chelsea, where failure is always the unspoken possibility.
Do you have a favorite tale from the hotel? Did anything not make it into the book?
In 1922 a monkey escaped from a pet store on 23rd Street and climbed up the drain pipe into the Chelsea Hotel. For the rest of the day, the night, and part of the next day, the monkey traveled from room to room in the hotel via the balconies, killing birds, frightening women, and in general instituting a reign of terror. Even the animals are crazy at the Chelsea. I meant to put that story in the book but never got around to it.
Whenever anyone has a grievance they generally tell us about it. You wouldn’t believe the stories people send us for the blog. I would like to report all this stuff on the blog, since it’s so entertaining, but I don’t want to be knifed in the hallway. So yeah, there were a lot of really good stories that didn’t make it into the book.
Please share your strangest, only-in-New York story.
Debbie and I were walking in central park one Sunday, up near the reservoir, and we stopped and got in line to get a drink of water at the fountain there near Fifth Avenue. Before we could get to the fountain, however, a young guy, college age, got in front of us with his big husky and, as we watched, aghast, let the dog hop up and, paws in the basin, slurp from the water spigot. It was actually more humorous than anything, because the dog was young, scarcely more than a puppy, and goofy and cute, and because the college boy was so clueless, completely unsuspecting that anyone might have any problem in drinking after a dog. Several other people were standing around and we all exchanged meaningful looks, chuckling and shaking our heads in disbelief. The college boy saw us laughing, and he laughed too, apparently believing that we were just admiring the dog.
If you’ve ever been to this water fountain, however, you know that it’s a big one, and that it has a special dog water fountain at ground level—which is another reason the incident was so unbelievable. Because nobody else seemed to be thinking to do it, I got out of line and went up to the dog fountain, pushing the button and showing the college boy how the water ran out and filled up the dog basin. “Look, he has his own special fountain,” I said, smiling, hoping he would take the hint. “So he doesn’t have to drink after the humans.”
“Ah, he doesn’t mind,” the college boy said. “He likes standing up here.”
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
Andrew Berman, Executive Director of Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation. He sometimes seems to be almost the only one who’s doing anything to stop the city from being sold piecemeal to the rampaging corporate developers whose only interest is making a buck. (I know there are others, however, and I admire them too.) Oh, and also A-Rod.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York?
I would take private cars off the streets. One of the few good things that Bloomberg is trying to do is to impose a congestion tax in midtown. Another is to impose a tax at all the bridges coming into Manhattan. Very few people who actually live here need a car, and those coming into the city can park them and ride the train.
Besides that, I would landmark more buildings in order to preserve the historic character of our city. There are plenty of areas of the city that have not been developed, such as Ground Zero, to give just one example. There’s no need for developers to tear down hundred-year-old structures in places like Chelsea, the Village, or the Lower East Side.
Also, I would impose greater rent protections, so that middle and working class people could live in the city without predatory landlords harassing them out of their homes. This is the human side of preservation. We need to keep the workers who have made this city great, and not let the place be turned into a shopping mall for the idle rich.
Under what circumstances have you thought about leaving New York?
In my twelve years in New York I’ve only lived in one place, and so the Chelsea is inseparable from my experience of the city. If they kick me out of here, I’ll most likely leave New York. Even if I decided I wanted to stay, I wouldn’t be able to find an affordable apartment.
Do you have a favorite New York celebrity sighting or encounter?
I guess it would have to be when Dee Dee Ramone came to my door, in only his jockey shorts, to tell me to quit making so much noise. When I told him it was the construction workers on the floor above, he hung his head out the window and challenged them to a knife fight. Besides that, in the nineties I saw Patti Smith in the stairwell in the early morning hours, looking gaunt and ghostly. I recount both these stories in the book. I saw Tony Bennett walking his little dog in Central Park, and that Earl guy from “My Name is Earl” in the elevator.
What’s your current soundtrack to the city?
I’ve been listening a lot to “Einstein on the Beach” and “Hydrogen Jukebox,” both by Philip Glass. While I don’t know if Glass ever actually lived in the Chelsea Hotel, he has a lot of friends here and he’s been a frequent visitor over the years.
Your best cheap-eat in the city?
Dojo on 3rd Street in the Village. My favorite used to be La Chinita Linda on 8th Ave., but it inexplicably closed not long ago, probably a victim of gentrification like everything else.
Best venue to see music?
The Village Vanguard. It’s still a smoky old jazz club like it was in the fifties—even if they have banned the smoking. Also, Washington Square Park, before the city decimates it with their ill-conceived renovation.