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Book Review: Legends of the Chelsea Hotel by Ed Hamilton

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For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with Andy Warhol, his Factory and his superstars. This, of course, means a fascination with the Chelsea Hotel. The Chelsea, built in the 1920s in New York, was initially a very high-end residential hotel, populated by many stars of the day. Over the years it has deteriorated and become something of a bohemian flop house, home to artists and junkies. The hotel is now on the verge of gentrification, something that would strip the  landmark of its history.

Legends of the Chelsea Hotel is a collection of anecdotes by 10-year Chelsea resident Ed Hamilton. Most of the tales are things that Hamilton himself saw, heard, or experienced. The most interesting anecdotes are the ones that talk of the weird and wonderful Chelsea denizens. One character in particular, who has numerous stories dedicated to him, is a crazy Japanese painter named Hiroya who is loved by some, annoying to all. Or the unknown tenant who plays the Willie Nelson Christmas album over and over and over, at top volume. Or the junkie who keeps breaking into the eighth floor bathroom, who may or may not be the famed Herbert Huncke.

Hamilton doesn’t move into the Chelsea until 1995. Sadly, some of the most interesting characters are long gone: Sid Vicious & Nany Spungen; Edie Sedgwick; Andy Warhol and his Chelsea Girls; club kid Michael Alig; voodoo Satanist Harry Smith. The author does manage to weave in some tales about these and other former famous residents, often times linking them to something he has personally experienced. Hamilton runs into a few famous and infamous residents though: Storme DeLarverie, the drag king who threw the first punch at Stonewall. Rene Ricard, the last link to Warhol’s Factory. Dee Dee Ramone, in all his cranky glory.

Some of the stories feel like filler. There is an entire chapter on indie rocker Ryan Adams, though the author has no feelings towards the musician, positive or negative (in fact, Hamilton isn’t even certain it was Ryan Adams). Another anecdote is about a Chelsea resident pulling a tangle of driftwood and cables from a drainage ditch. Luckily all the anecdotes are short, and the boring ones are few and far between. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 brief chapters, it isn’t long before you find a story more to your liking. Definitely a worthwhile book for any fan of the Chelsea or the lifestyle it offers.

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