Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel

Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel

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by Sherill Tippins

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The next best thing to having a room key to the Chelsea Hotel during each of its famous—and infamous—decades

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,…  See more details below


The next best thing to having a room key to the Chelsea Hotel during each of its famous—and infamous—decades

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. 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.

Today the Chelsea stands poised in limbo between two futures: Will this symbol of New York's artistic invention be converted to a profit-driven business catering to the top one percent? Or will the Chelsea be given a rebirth through painstaking effort by the community that loves it? Set against these two competing possibilities, Inside the Dream Palace could not be more fascinating or timely.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Tippins, who clearly has an inquiring mind (she wrote 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) here offers a history of New York's matchless hostelry.
Publishers Weekly
In this wide-ranging history, literary biographer Tippins explores the Chelsea Hotel’s role as a refuge for artists and eccentrics for over a century. Built in 1884 by a French architect, Philip Hubert, who had been deeply influenced by the utopian philosopher Charles Fourier, the Chelsea immediately became a center of counter-culture in New York City. Evolving and devolving through two world wars, the Great Depression, and ever-changing management, the Chelsea somehow managed to provide a haven for bohemians from around the world, even as the rooms were subdivided, the plumbing decayed, and pimps, junkies, and dealers roamed the halls. Tippins smoothly conveys the atmosphere at the Chelsea in its early days through her descriptions of Gilded Age luminaries like William Dean Howells, while she focuses on the hard-drinking Thomas Wolfe and the suave composer Virgil Thomson in her treatment of the Depression era. However, the prose comes fully alive as Tippins documents the shifting currents of New York bohemia in the decades after WWII. The list of luminaries who helped to create the Chelsea magic include Arthur Miller, Arthur C. Clarke, Edie Sedgwick, Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jack Kerouac, and many, many others—a veritable who’s-who of American postwar artists. A fascinating account of how a single building in New York City nurtured a community of freaks, dreamers, and outcasts whose rejection of the status quo helped to transform it. (Dec.)
From the Publisher

“An inspired investigation into the utopian spirit of the Chelsea Hotel.”

“Cool hunters will appreciate Sherill Tippins’s Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel, a social history of the city’s sanctuary for postwar artists and It girls.”

"Inside the Dream Palace opens door on a vivid Chelsea Hotel……[an] engaging, readable history"
The Los Angeles Times

"An impossible order for any writer: Get the Chelsea’s romance down on paper and try to keep up with Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell and Arthur Miller. But Sherill Tippins’s history does a vivid job of taking you up into those seedy, splendid hallways, now gone forever."
New York Magazine

"With her lively Inside the Dream Palace, literary biographer Sherill Tippins succeeds where other historians studying New York landmarks have failed: She understands that even the most splendid buildings are mere settings for the personalities that inhabit them, and wisely bypasses rote chronology for the vigor of cultural excavation… The Chelsea Hotel may face an uncertain future, but Tippins’s enchanting book guarantees its renown for generations to come."
Time Out New York

“An amazing history of not only the Chelsea Hotel but New York City itself. Thank you, Sherill Tippins, for this exciting story of how a building became a community and went on to be a legend. Inside the Dream Palace reads like the best fiction and never ever slows down from beginning to end.”
—Country Joe McDonald, activist and lead singer of Country Joe and the Fish

“Zealous, big-picture researcher Tippins not only tells compelling tales, she also weaves them into a strikingly fresh, lucid, and socially anchored history of New York’s world-altering art movements. Though its future is uncertain, Tippins ensures that the Chelsea Hotel, dream palace and microcosm, will live on in our collective memory.”
Booklist, starred

“A revealing biography of the fabled Manhattan hotel, in which generations of artists and writers found a haven...A zesty, energetic history, not only of a building, but of more than a century of American culture.”

“A fascinating account of how a single building in New York City nurtured a community of freaks, dreamers, and outcasts whose rejection of the status quo helped to transform it.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Not only essential to the understanding of this crucial New York City—and therefore American—cultural landmark but as majestic and populous as the edifice itself, and completely entertaining.”
—Daniel Menaker, author of My Mistake: A Memoir

“New York, the greatest city in the world, has been a magnet for bohemians since it was founded, and the Chelsea Hotel has been Bohemia's home address for more than a century. Sherill Tippins captures the mad magic of this storied building. She has written a history, not just of a hotel, but of a dream: the dream that art can change the world. Her serene and nonjudgmental eye gives coherence and shape to a story that resists any conventional frame. The Chelsea has had its high points and low, supreme artistic achievements and drug-addled suicides, sometimes in the same room. Tippins is an indispensable urban historian; her book is a guide to the lofty aspirations and crashing disappointments of America's artistic avant-garde over the last century and a half. An unforgettable read.”
—Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director, New York Public Theater

“The Chelsea Hotel is so much more than the place where Sid Vicious may or may not have killed his girlfriend; it was a social experiment turned incubator for creativity. It was home for the artists and weirdos that made this city so interesting—famous, infamous, and everything in between. Sherill Tippins has done a masterful job of condensing a history that could be volumes long, into a book that’s enthralling, enlightening and understandably wistful.”
—Judy McGuire, author of The Official Book of Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll Lists

Kirkus Reviews
A revealing biography of the fabled Manhattan hotel, in which generations of artists and writers found a haven. Turn-of-the century New York did not lack either hotels or apartment buildings, writes Tippins (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, 2005). But the Chelsea Hotel, from its very inception, was different. Architect Philip Hubert intended the elegantly designed Chelsea Association Building to reflect the utopian ideals of Charles Fourier, offering every amenity conducive to cooperative living: public spaces and gardens, a dining room, artists' studios, and 80 apartments suitable for an economically diverse population of single workers, young couples, small families and wealthy residents who otherwise might choose to live in a private brownstone. Hubert especially wanted to attract creative types and made sure the building's walls were extra thick so that each apartment was quiet enough for concentration. William Dean Howells, Edgar Lee Masters and artist John Sloan were early residents. Their friends (Mark Twain, for one) greeted one another in eight-foot-wide hallways intended for conversations. In its early years, the Chelsea quickly became legendary. By the 1930s, though, financial straits resulted in a "down-at-heel, bohemian atmosphere." Later, with hard-drinking residents like Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan, the ambience could be raucous. Arthur Miller scorned his free-wheeling, drug-taking, boozy neighbors, admitting, though, that the "great advantage" to living there "was that no one gave a damn what anyone else chose to do sexually." No one passed judgment on creativity, either. But the art was not what made the Chelsea famous; its residents did. Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Robert Mapplethorpe, Phil Ochs and Sid Vicious are only a few of the figures populating this entertaining book. A zesty, energetic history, not only of a building, but of more than a century of American culture.

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Read an Excerpt

For a young woman from a small Texas town — a lifelong outsider

who had drifted since she was eighteen from one bohemian

scene to another — life at the legendary Chelsea was a thrilling experience.

Through some fluke, Janis had been assigned one of the smaller rooms

initially, but once she’d had a chance to wander the corridors and

step out onto a balcony overlooking the snow-covered city, she realized

that this was where she belonged — street noise, clanking heating

pipes, and stained carpet notwithstanding. During those first

weeks, she would write to her sister of the aura of history and magic

that resonated through the halls of this "very famous literary type

intellectual hotel," whose current population of hippies and musicians,

artists and writers, superstars and regular working folks had

grown so large that it had begun to spill over into the twelve-story

Carteret building next door.

Stanley Bard also felt that Janis had found a home here. Looking

beyond her secondhand clothes and uncombed hair, he perceived

a powerful life spirit — a hard-working young woman with "good

energy and focus." He said later that he regretted that she hadn’t

become a teacher, something she told him she’d once planned to be.

He worried even then that this goodhearted Texas girl who’d strung

the beads her ex-boyfriend Country Joe McDonald had worn for his

performance at Monterey Pop — on the same day she herself had

stunned the audience with her no-holds-barred rendition of "Love

Is Like a Ball ’n’ Chain" — wasn’t prepared to handle the cutthroat

Warhol crowd at the trendy new Max’s Kansas City, even if "Janis,"

McDonald’s tribute to her, was playing on the jukebox for all the

hangers-on to hear.

To some extent, he was right. On February 17, 1968, Joplin had

earned ecstatic reviews with her gut-wrenching rendition of "Piece

of My Heart" at the Anderson, and the concert was followed by a

blast of publicity that promised a triumphant East Coast launch.

But as recording sessions began for Big Brother and the Holding

Company’s first Columbia Records album, later to be named Cheap

Thrills, the first week of March, the band learned that a quartermillion-

dollar contract from a major record label didn’t come without

some strings attached. To play its best, Big Brother had always

depended on its visceral connection with the audience. Now, there

was no audience, and their producer, John Simon, was appalled by

how poorly the musicians performed. Simon, with his perfect pitch,

actually had to leave the studio when the band performed off-key

or off the beat. Discussions about dumping Big Brother and getting

Janis a professional backup band began at Columbia and in Grossman’s


The musicians, shocked by the criticism, began to turn their resentment

against Joplin. The press attention she had received since

their arrival in New York, including a photograph in the New York

Times from which every band member but Janis had been cropped,

convinced them that she was on a star trip and intended to leave

them behind. This feeling of insecurity poisoned the air at the recording

sessions and put Janis herself into a foul mood. At the Chelsea,

she spent less time with the band and more time on her own,

roaming the halls at three in the morning, feeling lonely and isolated,

looking for some company and a drink.

Someone else was keeping the same hours at the Chelsea that

winter. Leonard Cohen had been through his own tribulations with

Columbia over the previous year. By April 1967, after further coverage

of his songs by Judy Collins and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Cohen had

done a few public singing performances and had even been offered

a college tour in the fall. Months before, Columbia’s John Hammond,

famed discoverer of Bob Dylan as well as Count Basie and

Aretha Franklin, had dropped in at the Chelsea to hear Cohen play

"Suzanne," "The Stranger Song," and other tunes. "You’ve got it," he

had announced before leaving, but it was not until the end of April

that he was able to persuade the record company to take a chance

on a poet-singer Cohen’s age.

Through the summer and fall of 1967, Cohen worked laboriously

to lay down the songs for his first album, first with the legendary

producer Bob Johnston, then with Hammond. It was a painful

process; the chance to take time out to perform "Suzanne" at the

Newport Folk Festival felt like being "released from jail."

In Newport, Cohen met a fellow Canadian singer-songwriter,

twenty-four-year-old Joni Mitchell, and when the festival was over,

he took her back with him to the Chelsea Hotel. For a few months,

they became an official item. Joni demanded a reading list from her

poet-lover, and Leonard recommended Camus, García Lorca, and

the I Ching. One day a limousine pulled up next to them, and Jimi

Hendrix, in the limo’s back seat, started talking to Joni; Cohen was

pleased that Joni didn’t jump into the limousine and run off with

the charismatic guitarist, as Nico had once done in a similar situation.

But in the end, Cohen’s relationship with Mitchell developed

into something more collegial than passionate. He quipped at one

point that living with Joni was like "living with Beethoven." She was

clearly on her own upward trajectory, and though they would remain

friends beyond their summer romance, she couldn’t resist dismissing

him now and then as a "boudoir poet," less a composer than

a "word man."

In the wake of the romance, Cohen faced the hard reality of the

recording process alone. In September, Hammond dropped out, and

the project was put on hold for a month. Cohen, devastated by the

prospect of having to start all over again, shut himself in his room

for a week, smoking hash and seeing only his friends at the Chelsea.

Then John Simon, Big Brother’s future producer, was brought in to

replace Hammond, and somehow the album was completed. Songs

of Leonard Cohen, its back cover sporting the image of a Mexican

saint like those seen in his neighborhood botánica, shipped in December

of 1967. Cohen went on a brief promotional tour. Now he

was back, roaming the Hotel Chelsea’s halls again, his album having

met with only limited success and the rights to "Suzanne" and two

more of his best songs somehow lost to a music publisher along the



By this point, as Cohen would tell a concert audience years later,

he had become expert at operating the Chelsea’s notoriously stubborn

elevators. It was "one of the few technologies I really ever mastered,"

he said. "I walked in. Put my finger right on the button. No

hesitation. Great sense of mastery in those days." One cold, dismal

night, returning home from a solitary dinner at the Bronco Burger,

he realized that the woman next to him in the elevator was Janis

Joplin and that she was enjoying the ride as much as he was. He

understood at once: with all the problems they had satisfying the

demands of their record label, here was something both of them

really knew how to do. Taking a deep breath, Cohen asked, "Are you

looking for someone?" She said, "Yes, I’m looking for Kris Kristofferson."

Kris Kristofferson? "Little lady, you’re in luck," responded

the silver-tongued poet. "I am Kris Kristofferson."

Joplin’s full-throated cackle at this remark made Cohen forget

all about his record, his lost copyright, and the burger he was still

struggling to digest. In no time, Canada’s poet of pessimism found

himself in an unmade bed with rock’s new gypsy queen. The tryst

would provide sweet if fleeting memories to this pair just beginning

to perceive the price they would pay for the fame they had wished

for. Too much thought and energy would be focused on "the money

and the flesh" in the coming years. Well, that was all right, Joplin

said, as Cohen recalled years later in his song "Chelsea Hotel No. 2."

"We are ugly but we have the music."

The Fillmore East’s opening concert on March 8 was a whopping

success, with people fighting to get in to watch Joplin belt out

"Catch Me, Daddy" in a wash of psychedelic lights. By late spring,

Janis was scheduled for photo shoots with Glamour and interviews

with Life and Look. Soon, her portrait by Richard Avedon would

appear in Vogue, where Richard Goldstein would describe her as

"the most staggering leading woman in rock . . . she slinks like tar,

scowls like war . . . clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging

it not to leave." As money started to roll in, Joplin lavished it on

her friends, presiding over El Quijote dinner parties where Harry

Smith and Peggy Biderman shared a plate of paella while Ginsberg

compared notes on book royalties with Cohen and a bevy of adoring

female fans looked on. Ginsberg, like Stanley Bard, found Janis to

be "a very sensitive, beautiful person" and added her to the list of

friends at the hotel whom he was likely to fetch for a confabulation

in some room at any time of the night or day. But at El Quijote, the

Spanish waiters observed the way she slugged Southern Comfort

and loudly flirted with every man who walked by, and kept their opinions to themselves.

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Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Japurol More than 1 year ago
History of great interest, including persons of attraction and accomplishments.....
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reads like a doctorate thesis. Lots of research and way to large in scope.