In the heyday of Manhattan hotels, the Chelsea Hotel had its own special niche. The Pierre exuded wealth and exclusivity, the Plaza a sort of bourgeois glamour as the place where the bridge and tunnel crowd would throw caution to the wind and rent a corner suite for big occasions, and the Algonquin, with its round table and Hamlet the cat, radiated intellectual chic. The Chelsea had a sleazy, dangerous style, a place where almost anything went, where famous edgy artists got up to no good. It is no surprise that when, on a hot summer night in 1953, Gore Vidal and Jack Kerouac decided that they owed it to literary history to have it off, they chose the Chelsea for the momentous coupling. Even in late 1970s Manhattan, among a certain group to have sex at the Chelsea was considered almost a rite of passage.
But the Chelsea has been more than just a fashionable dosshouse. Sherill Tippins’s lively history portrays a place where the ideal of a communal group of artists and like-minded people living together in harmony was regularly shattered by a combination of egos and economics, and just as regularly attempted again.