- Fortress Bohemia
In James Lough’s oral history, This Ain’t No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel 1980–1995, ex-junkie Dimitri Mugianis describes the building as “almost like a beautiful fortress” and like “a beautiful old whore whose beauty was fading.” Call it Fortress Bohemia in its last years, when it was studio, living space, music room, dungeon, heroin den, bar, pharmacy, insane asylum, and last place of refuge for hundreds of permanent and transient eccentrics, where one might see in the lobby a fine painting beside complete kitsch, encounter a dominatrix one week and a suicide on the floor of the lobby the next (“checking in to check out”), a male impersonator and a drag queen in the same hour, and where pimps became unwitting patrons of the arts. Lough transcribes into readable, fluent prose the memories of eighteen current but mostly former residents, most of whom have extraordinary stories to tell about other residents living and dead.
Five describe the life of Marty Matz, a poet, “master smuggler,” and “Santa Claus for junkies” who, after 9/11—“This is it. After this attack, the government’s going to go totally berserk, and this is going to become a country I don’t really want to be around in”—decides not merely to commit suicide, but to beg money from his friends to throw a “suicide party,” with “the best booze and food from the Second Avenue Deli…a really good bottle of cognac and a bag of heroin.” Among the most amusing characters is a painter named Adrian who accidently takes (read the book to find out how) forty hits of acid and borrowing “elaborate S&M gear” from a gay couple dresses up like a “heavy metal Samurai” and approaches David Letterman trolling for “weirdos” to ridicule on his TV show. Letterman sees the sword and an acid-crazed face and yells to his limo driver, ‘“Get me the hell out of here!’ They peeled rubber. Adrian got his fifteen seconds of fame,” Paul Volmer says.
Among the key figures in the book are Dee Dee Ramone and “The Three Wise Men of Dope: Herbert Huncke, Gregory Corso, and Marty Matz.” Huncke, the beat writer and hustler, receives the most attention, not only because he lived there the longest of the three, but because he was either admired, loved, despised, or feared, and who had his own Bohemian code of honor—“among the brotherhood of Bohemians,” Paul Volmer says, “your not going to rip off your Bohemian friends.”
But the most important character is owner and manager Stanley Bard, “the steel fist in the velvet glove” and “alpha male” who ran the hotel for over a half century. An art lover, he liked artists and tolerated all manner of misbehavior and unpaid rent (when Robert Campbell gave up on his dreams of becoming a musician and checked out for Charlotte, North Carolina, he was over 10,000 dollars in arrears). “So Stanley picked out these people, these artists,” Campbell says, “and if he felt like they were creative, he gave them five years to get on their feet and get going. After five years, if you didn’t get there, you were out the door.” But they were also “an investment used to attract the higher paying tourists.” “Desperate artists,” Lough writes, “or unprincipled ones, could take advantage of Bard’s generosity. But being an adept businessman, he adopted a strategy for squeezing as much money out of poor artists as he reasonably could. It was a complex strategy befitting his complex artistic clientele.”
In the epilogue, “Fauxhemia,” Lough asks if the loss of Bohemian life the Chelsea Hotel represented finally matters. Suffice it to say the chapter is a compelling essay on the historical and current antagonisms between the middle-class and down-and-outers. What does it mean when only the rich can afford to live in Manhattan, that the Chelsea has become a boutique hotel, a parody of its...