Ghostly Guests of the Chelsea Hotel

Just a drafty old building–and that uncontrollable weeping is coming from the expanding pipes—of a dead woman! Sleep tight, at the Chelsea Hotel. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

BY TRAV S. D, | Halloween! Or All Hallows’ Eve, that traditional night when tourists from the nether region burst their bounds and come to the surface for a little sightseeing. Fortunately, here in NYC, we have the perfect place to put them up: The Chelsea Hotel. Located at 222 W. 23rd St. (btw. Seventh & Eighth Aves.), this 12-story Queen Anne style curiosity looks the Gothic part, with its wrought iron balcony railings, peaked roofs, red brick façade, and chimneys. Those antique architectural elements are due to the fact that the building dates to 1884. It is, in fact, considered the second oldest extant skyscraper in New York City, after the Temple Court Building. Twelve stories qualified as a skyscraper in the late 19th century. At the time it was built the city had fewer than a half-dozen buildings of comparable height.

Originally built as a co-op, the Chelsea was converted to a hotel in 1905. Many of the original apartments were broken up and made into smaller hotel rooms. For years, the Chelsea has housed a combination of long-term tenants and “transients” (temporary guests), and during the 20th century it became known as a preferred stopping place for artists and creative types of all sorts, lending heft to its motto “A Rest Stop for Rare Individuals.” The Chelsea’s famous occupants have included Mark Twain, O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, Edgar Lee Masters, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Boroughs, Gregory Corso, Charles Bukowski, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, Viva, Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Valerie Solanas, Nico, Bob Dylan, Buffy St. Marie, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Harry Smith, Sam Shepard, The Grateful Dead, R. Crumb, Lance Loud, Quentin Crisp, Patti Smith, Dee Dee Ramone, Tom Waites, Dennis Hopper, and Madonna.

A lot of these artists enhanced the Chelsea’s legend by immortalizing it in their work. Leonard Cohen’s song Chelsea Hotel #2 relates a sexual encounter the poet/singer had there with Janis Joplin. There was also Lou Reed’s Chelsea Girl (recorded by Nico), Jefferson Airplane’s Third Week in the Chelsea and Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning. Movies that have been shot there include Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966), an episode of PBS’s An American Family (1973), Ethan Hawke’s Chelsea Walls (2001), and Abel Ferrara’s Chelsea on the Rocks (2008). And there are novels sets there by former residents like Sparkle Hayter’s The Chelsea Girl Murders (2000) and Dee Dee Ramone’s Chelsea Horror Hotel (2001).

The Chelsea’s dark history goes back to the early 20th century. In 1912, Titanic survivors were briefly put up there, given the hotel’s relatively close proximity to the Chelsea Piers. Society girl Almyra Wilcox died of an overdose of sleep medication there in 1908, a probable suicide. The following year, artist Frank Kavecky blew out his brains after he was robbed of moneys belonging to the Hungarian Sick and Benevolent Society. In 1922, Etelka Graf, the daughter of a well-to-do silk merchant, in a fit of pique, cut off her own hand with industrial shears and leapt out a fifth-floor window. Dylan Thomas was living there in 1953 when he drank his fatal 18 whiskeys at the nearby White Horse Tavern. In 1967, Edie Sedgwick, high on a speedball, set her room on fire. Charles R. Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, committed suicide there in 1968. In 1974, Billy Maynard, a photographer who specialized in glam rock acts and trans performers like The Cockettes, was beaten to death in his room. Sid Vicious and girlfriend Nancy Spungen were living at the hotel when the latter was fatally stabbed in 1978. Vicious died of a heroine overdose four months later. (These events were portrayed in Alex Cox’s 1986 movie Sid and Nancy, shot on location at the hotel.) In 1989, composer Virgil Thomson (a long time resident) and club kid “Christina Superstar” both died at the hotel.

By the late 20th century people were checking into the Chelsea as much for its legends as for as its amenities. Probably more, as the place grew increasingly run-down, threadbare and “atmospheric.” Actor Jamie Burke called it “a vortex, an artistic tornado of death and destruction and love and broken dreams.”

Since 2011, the Chelsea has been mostly empty, as new owners have been slowly renovating the building. But that doesn’t mean that it is uninhabited. For the Chelsea Hotel is widely reputed to be one of the most haunted resorts in New York City.

“The ones I thought had interesting stories were the good folks working behind the front desk,” says multi-media digital artist Brian Bothwell, a longtime Chelsea Hotel resident. “They always had to address the ghost problem and move overnight guests from one room to the next. There was always a guest calling the front desk wanting to change rooms due to something they saw or something they felt. Creepy!”

A night security man named Timor told resident Timothy Connor Sullivan (a musician) that a call girl named Victoria who dressed and styled herself like Betty Boop died of AIDS while living at the hotel. Some time later, the room’s new tenant called Timor asking that her room be changed. She’d looked in the mirror and seen the image of Victoria staring back at her, Boop bangs and all.

Ed Hamilton’s Living with Legends: Chelsea Hotel Blog is a delightful resource for all sorts of Chelsea Hotel stories, including ones with incorporeal main characters. On this site one can encounter accounts of The Vain Woman (a Victorian spirit who primps in front of a fifth floor mirror), as well as such things as a blurry-looking apparition that walked right through a bedroom wall; a skeleton in a photograph that “wasn’t there before” and a Depression-era urchin who kicked a woman in the shins and vanished; a floating, disembodied clown head that “might have been Dylan Thomas” as well as hypnotic voices luring a passerby to enter a “womblike, purple room”; an old-fashioned woman near the ice machine, reeking of patchouli and sobbing about her “beloved”; an “energy” that handed a guest a glow-in-the-dark frisbee in room #915; and let us not forget Larry, the Talkative Hipster Ghost. One hears and reads about many unexplained “voices,” “presences,” and “energies;” lights and faucets going on and off, vague feelings of fear and sadness and “a chill” at various spots in the hotel.

Punks, pooches, and poets are among the guests who never made it to the great beyond say some, as said to our Trav S.D. re: the Chelsea Hotel. | Photo by Scott Stiffler

Some of this may probably be chalked up to the fact that we are talking about a very old building with antique wiring, plumbing, and heating. And some to the widespread consumption of drugs and drink, not to mention the artistic imagination. Yet there are some sources we must hear out. For example, the respected novelist Sparkle Hayter has her own story to tell. Hayster tells the site that she once occupied a third floor room that had previously been lived in by a drug dealer who was into bestial porn and had been wanted by the police for imprisoning a woman there. The couple who moved in after this man were known for their violent domestic squabbles. This backstory informs Hayter’s testimony that when she was away on book tours and her apartment was empty, the neighbors from her floor could hear typing going on inside. And that’s not all. “I often saw the shadow of a crouched woman in a corner of my room late at night and heard weeping, reported Hayter, noting, “When I walked towards it, she disappeared.”

One of the best-known spectral encounters at the Chelsea was reported by Michael Imperioli of The Sopranos on the reality show Celebrity Ghost Stories in 2010. He spoke of having lived in the hotel for a couple of months in 1996 (prior to his fame) and encountering a weeping woman in the hallway. Dressed in 19th century garb, she lay hunched on the floor weeping inconsolably. Then a light fixture behind him made a popping sound behind him, the bulb having burnt out. He turned to look, then looked back—and the woman was gone. It wasn’t until a week or two afterward that he spoke with some neighbors in the building and learned about “Mary.” Many had had similar encounters previously. The lore was that Mary was the wife of a Titanic passenger from Buffalo who was staying there to meet her husband when she learned of his death in the sinking. She subsequently (according to the story) hanged herself in her room. Imperioli says that upon hearing this story he moved out a week later.

Artist Jennifer Elise Schaperow reports, “There was definitely something going on, on the 10th floor. I could feel the energy. I’ve had some moments where my hair just stood up and I knew I had to run and get off that floor. One time [circa 1997], my roommate saw the ghost of a man standing in our kitchen in the middle of the night, around two in the morning. It was crazy. It scared me.”

Lindsey Nobel, an abstract painter who is one of the talking heads in the film Chelsea on the Rocks, lived in room #507 from 2003 through 2005. She says she had been residing there a short time when she was visited by what she was certain was the ghost of William S. Burroughs. “He was floating above me,” she recalled. “When I breathed in, he breathed in… Then I introduced myself. I said, ‘Hi, I’m Lindsey, I’m an artist. I’m going to be living here and could you please keep the other ghosts out of my room?’ After that [there were] no more ghosts.”

As we mentioned, renovation work on the building began at the start of the last decade. According to the make-up artist and Chelsea Hotel resident Meli Pennington, the disruptions were felt by all of the building’s inhabitants, living or not. “The only ghosts I’ve encountered there were the ones that crowded into our apartment as the demolition progressed in 2011-2012,” she says, “I noticed that it slowly got harder to do anything in the apartment as the air felt thicker and thicker. I assumed that they were hiding from the construction, but they were also getting on my nerves. I also wondered if they had any choice about being there. If I were a spirit, I think I would try to got a better place until the hotel re-opened. So I did some research into stuck spirits, spirit residue, etc, and did a cleansing ceremony for them to move on to their better place. I only noticed one ‘personality’ in the bunch, a lecherous-looking guy in a wife-beater. He was especially invited to leave. I think a lot of spirits don’t want to be on earth, but also are afraid of judgment for their ‘sins’ in the afterlife. Think how common fire-and-brimstone religions were in the past, then think about what lots of people went to hotels like the Chelsea to do…Offering them healing and a move to a better place helped a LOT!”

Celebrity photographer Lisa Ackerman lived at the Chelsea between 2000 and 2013. Her ghost is unusual because she knew her personally… and she was never human. “The only ghost I can say I encountered was my dog, Maggie’s,” says Ackerman,. “After she died in 2012, I’d feel something jump up on my bed and plop down at my feet. When I’d look, I didn’t see anything. This would happen from time to time until I moved away.”

Elisa Bocanegra, now the producing artistic director of L.A.’s Hero Theatre Company was at the Chelsea at around the same time. “I was staying there when Hurricane Sandy hit [2012],” she reported. “No lights. No electricity. It felt like a haunted house. Since I’m a glutton for punishment I decided to take the stairwell and walk to the apartment where Sid killed Nancy. I had never been to that floor, though I spent many years at the Chelsea. There is definitely something there. It was so scary.”

Sherill Tippins is the author of the 2013 book Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel. She had so much of value to contribute on this topic, we quote her at length:

When I first began researching the history of the Chelsea Hotel, I decided to do what I could to research the stories of Chelsea’s hauntings as well, since there were so many of them. I did this by checking into the hotel with a medium I knew, so that she could give me her take on the ghost situation. We stayed together in Room 325 (I believe it was) for four nights or so. The medium confirmed that the building is extraordinarily well-populated with ghosts. She said they fill the lobby, constantly trying to tell their stories to the people sitting there. They linger disconsolately in the elevator, riding it up and down. At night in our room, she said, they crowded in around our beds by the dozens while I was sleeping, dressed in clothes from different eras from the 19th century on, anxious to advise me, the writer, on how the Chelsea’s story should be told. 

But most could not get in a word edgewise because one of the ghosts—dating from the1960s, evidently from his clothing style and speech—dominated the crowd each night, pushing to the front of the others and talking over them so that the medium could understand only his voice. His name was Larry, he said. And he wanted me to know that the point of this story was not the art that was made at the Chelsea, but rather the life that was lived there. To quote him directly (via the medium), he said, “It’s not about the art, man. It’s about the life!” He told me to look for a “McKinley,” whose story was very important in the Chelsea’s history. (I never did find a McKinley, aside from the president.) And he advised me to inspect the entire hotel from the basement, where he said a terrible energy remained (I did learn of a death that occurred there during a fire in the 1800s)—to the roof.

So I explored the entire building with the medium. At each floor, she seemed to have a profound emotional experience: on one floor, a child-ghost kicked her; on another, she saw an elegantly-dressed female ghost eternally arranging her hair before a now-nonexistent mirror; on another she sense a “grey eminence” that others have called the Chelsea’s “Gray Man.” In the basement, she felt overwhelmed by the remnants of a sense of evil.

 By the end of our time there, we were exhausted, as though we’d spent months there instead of days. Riding downtown to my apartment in a cab, in the bright afternoon light, we felt as though we’d left one world for another entirely different one. The medium said she never wanted to go back to that place, which she described as more haunted than any building she’d ever encountered, except for the New York Public Library at 42nd Street.

So—that was it. I went on with my other research and wrote my book based on what I could confirm. The time spent with the medium was mostly for fun, but I don’t regret having done it. It gave me a unique view of how so many people experience the hotel.

Scholar, writer, and part-time resident Amanda Chemche did her Yale thesis on the Chelsea and is now working on a book called The Ghosts of the Chelsea Hotel. Says Chemche, “I look at ghosts as a metaphor for the many people who lived and died in the building over its 100 year plus history. I also look at ghosts as a metaphor for trauma, and talk about trauma imbedded in the architecture of the building.”

There is undoubtedly as much psychology as parapsychology at work in the old hostelry. One thing is for certain: whether walking among artists or the ghosts of artists, it would be wise to tread carefully.

 

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