Hotel Chelsea, undead
THERE’S AN INFINITE AMOUNT OF STORIES BORN IN AND OF THE CHELSEA HOTEL’S CULTURAL GRANDEUR, AND TONY NOTARBERARDINO MADE IT HIS WORK TO IMMORTALISE THEM.
A year on, I still feel the shudder of the enormity of this interview with Australian ex-pat and photographer Tony Notarberardino. Who since 1994 found deep purpose in summoning characters from the circus of the Hotel Chelsea for portraits in his room’s entrance-way. Backdropped by a brutal post-war New York city, a grand socialist experiment led by Stanley Bard became both a sanctuary and haunt for all sorts of misfits. Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Arthur Miller and Syd Vicious all found solace at one time within the artistic commune, where it was rumored that Bard would forgo rent for art.
Hotel Chelsea’s history is littered with many notable residential flings of this kind. The building, a smaller than you’d expect relic in the jungle of New York, skylines a caliber of gilded notoriety we cannot retrieve. Its very walls are the hallmark of the kind of deadbeats, beatniks and bohemian depth our Tiktok world lives in the shadow of. Some say everything worthwhile saying has already been said. Residents of the Chelsea Hotel being some of the most remembered for doing so, best.
The stature of Hotel Chelsea’s exterior is solid and luminous as we peel off 7th onto West 23rd. I, like many others, suffer from the same lustful nostalgia of this notorious hotbed of deadbeat, beatnik, bohemian era that we try to insert ourselves into the vision of with our vintage cameras, record players and weeknight garage punk gigs. There is a sense of anticipation for me, as I wonder if I am Chelsea enough for the Chelsea Hotel. Arriving in an uber, I immediately feel not.
The vision of a newly renovated lobby greets us, not so distinguishable from any other 4 star establishment in New York. There’s a purposeful sterility to it, and a manufactured lightness that suspends my expectation of the veil-crossing between reality and legend to an itchy amount. The newly painted walls, largely artless except for the framing of newly installed ornate architraves, read clearly as erasure. Just like many of us, the Chelsea doesn’t like its own reflections, I note.
“We’re here for Tony Notarberardino please, room 629.”
On level 6, the door of 629 stands yellow, warmly worn and alien to the uniform, letter-assigned entryways of the other residential apartments in the hallway. “I have my own number”, Notarberardino says as he pulls the door back. A warm, red glow telescopes behind him. A white cat meows behind him turning down the hallway, flicking her tail past the first doorway and slinking out of sight into an opening at the end of the hall’s curve.
“That’s Coco, this is her place, we mostly just get in the way,” he says.
As my eyes adjust to the carmine saturation, Notarberardino leads us into a cozy boudoir, and scanning the leopard print and fringed ornaments, I notice instantly the humongous hand painted flowers spectacularly adorning the ceiling aglow in red and yellow. He tells us of the previous occupant of the apartment- bohemian artist Vali Myers- who left her essence upon the walls in the room 30 years prior. It was an essence I liked instantly.
After taking a few images, we pass through another doorway, snaking down a curved passage to arrive at a seating area, framed by a museum of artworks, books and a Fleetwood’s rendition of Mr Blue. Along the way he passes us a book of Vali’s drawings and a framed photo of Dee Dee Ramone he’d taken, and we note the large vintage 8×10 camera setup at the hall’s edge.
When you first got to New York, was this the first place you landed?
This is the first room I came to in New York in 1994 and I never left.
I didn’t even know much about the Chelsea. I was working in Sydney. I’d lived in Paris and in London. I always wanted to live in New York but I kind of left it to last on my list. I mean, I’d come here for work, and I absolutely loved it. It just felt like a movie to me. I feel like I’m walking around in a movie even today. So I love that. And I found America really photogenic- the light in New York and the whole of America is incredible to shoot. There’s so many subjects. I didn’t want to live in Paris. I loved Paris, but the language was too difficult. I couldn’t, it drove me crazy. London was just too much like Australia.
The colder version of Australia?
I was not leaving Australia just to live in London *laughs*. They gave me the shits, the English *laughs*. So I’d left New York until last and was coming for work. And so my assistant, a friend of mine, at the time he’d moved to New York and we kept in touch, and he was gonna work with me when I arrived here. You’ve gotta remember there was no Google, no smart phones, no emails. I just had a landline number. It was 212 243 3700. He had written it down on a piece of paper. And two weeks before I came, I called him to tell him I was coming. I ring and the Chelsea Hotel answer. I thought I had the wrong numbers. I hung up and called again and there’s this woman’s voice saying: “Hello, the Chelsea Hotel”. It was midnight here, and I’m like, “I think I’ve got the wrong number, but I’m looking for so and so”. And she put me straight through to his room. And I’m like, “Yo Cisco, what are you doing living in a hotel?”. And he goes, “Oh look, it’s a long story when you come here, I’ll tell you”. And so a few weeks later, I arrive at the Chelsea. It was 11 o’clock at night, I’m walking in and I’m like, ‘Wow, this place is great’. But back then it was like a dive.
As in busy?
It was like Bad Lieutenant. You know that film? Bad Lieutenant? Probably before your time, but you should watch it. It’s great. It’s about New York in the seventies, but it’s really grungy. It was a pretty rough place, this area. Chelsea back then, and Chelsea Hotel was really notorious for like rock and roll, and to score drugs and all kinds of shit. But I didn’t care. I mean when you first come to New York, you’re just so excited. And so I went up to his room on the ninth floor and it was this shitty room, about half the size of this. And he was living there with two other assistants and their girlfriends. And I’m like, “Dude, what the fuck? There’s shit everywhere.” And he goes, “Yeah, don’t worry about it, you can sleep over there.”
At this point I’m like, “You gotta be fucking kidding me, man”. Look, I’ve slept on park benches, on beaches, I don’t give a fuck. But I didn’t come to New York to do this. And by then it was midnight so he goes like, “Whatever, put your suitcases down, let’s go out.” And we went out and partied all night– hard– cuz he was mixed up in the whole photographic scene. He was assisting Mario Testino. He was second assistant to Mario Testino after he was assistant to me. So he had all the ins to the clubs and we went out and there was Kate Moss and so and so and I was like wow. My first night in New York. We got back to the Chelsea at like five in the morning, completely wasted.
So you probably didn’t care where you slept?
No, the opposite. I needed a room to myself. And then I thought, ‘Hold on, this is a hotel. What am I doing? I’ll just go and get a room’. So I went downstairs, went to the reception, and by that time the sun was coming up. It was six o’clock. And I said to the guy, “Do you have any rooms?”. And he said, “Short term or long term?”. And I went, “What do you mean long term?”. He goes, “You can get a room for a month or if you want longer”. He said, “But you have to talk to Stanley”- the owner. The hotel had been in his family for two generations. His father bought it in 1920. And he managed it from when he was like 30. He ran it right through the whole beat generation, rock and roll, sixties, seventies, eighties – Stanley was the man– he was the one that made it all happen.
And so I walk into his office, which is off the lobby, and Stanley’s inside yelling at someone on the phone. He kind of motions me to come in. I’m standing there and looking around. There’s all these paintings and books; this amazing collection; Warhols… Y’know the lobby also had amazing original art. And when he put down the phone, I introduced myself and he looked me up and down. I said “Listen, I need a room. They said I could get a long term room.” He said, “How long do you wanna stay?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I just arrived”. He goes, “Where’d you come from?”. And I said, “Australia”. He went, “Ah, as a matter of fact, an Australian just moved outta here and there’s a room right next to where she’s been staying. But her old room has already been taken”. So he grabbed the key and told me to follow. And he took me in here. That hallway was open, but it was still painted. But these were two separate rooms.
So when he walked me in here it wasn’t anything like this, just shitty furniture in a crappy hotel. And I walk over to the window, and I hadn’t looked out the street.
Come over here. *Tony beckons to the window*
You see the hotel sign?
Oh my God, are you kidding?
I was like oh my god, fuck this is crazy. The sun was just coming up, it was dawn. And I turned to him, I said, “Look, I’m really tired. I’ll take it”. He goes, “You gotta come and give me a month’s deposit and a month’s rent”. I’m like, “How much is that?”. And he goes, “1100 a month”. I didn’t have any idea back then. I’m doing the sums in my head. I had nowhere to stay. I wasn’t gonna stay in that room. So I said, “Look I’ll take this”. We went back downstairs and he gave me the key. And as I was leaving his office, he said, “You’re never gonna leave here, by the way”. He goes, “I got that feeling that you’re gonna be here for a long time”. And I went to myself, ‘Oh, you right fuck. Yeah right-o man’. I just wanted to go to bed. I was so tired because I’d been flying and then partying. But yeah, he was right. I never left.
He was psychic.
And then I took that room. So I moved in here and I’m like, this is cool, I’m loving it. Dee Dee Ramone from the Ramones was living in that room next door. Him and Vali Myers the Australian woman Stanley had told me about, were really good friends. Vali tattooed him, she used to do stick and poke tattoos. She’d tattooed the lightning bolt on Patti Smith’s leg in that bedroom. Amongst many others. And Vali was a legend. An underground legend. Women like Patti totally idolized her. So did Debbie Harry and Marianne Faithful. Val was their god because she was such an original person. And so I’m like, holy fuck, what a baptism, what a fire. My first three years of living in New York and my neighbor was Dee Dee Ramone, can you believe it? I wasn’t into the Ramones, I didn’t like them at all. It wasn’t my style.
Was there ever a moment where you thought you might leave?
Well, yeah it was tough because I had great covers in Australia, but in America, they didn’t give a shit about that, so I had to start again. It was really hard to get work in the early days. There wasn’t Instagram, there wasn’t anything to promote yourself. It took me four years to get an agent, and five years to get my first job here. Stanley was really looking after me with the rent.
I know it’s pretty amazing. Back then it was more apartments. It was like 40% permanent residence residents. And then the rest was transient. If he liked you, he’d help you. He was really sympathetic to artists over the years. I mean, he helped Warhol when he first started, and he let all of the factory people live here. Warhol lived here. He let Warhol film two movies here. It was underground speculation that he was taking art instead of money, from Basquiat too. When Stanley died, one painting that Warhol gave him was rumored to be worth 25 million. Just that one painting on silk screen.
Unfortunately it wasn’t the same with photography, he didn’t even take any of Robert Mapplethorpe’s. Like when Patti and Mapplethorpe were living here, he didn’t consider photography at that level of artistry. And he didn’t like Mapplethorpe’s work, as not many people did in the beginning. Because it was really confronting. It was like hardcore BDSM pictures of the gay community. And he had a hard time breaking in, which is why he did a series of flowers. If you look at Mapplethorpe’s career, he did like his really hardcore pictures but then he did flowers, and that’s what kind of got him in. And then he showed them all the other work. *laughs*
And then there’s the picture with the ball whip up his ass that made him famous, the self portrait.
Yeah, that one.
I offered Stanley pictures, but he wasn’t interested *laughs*. He said, “Look, just pay me whenever you can pay me.” So then I eventually started working and paid him back. That’s how the place operated back then. It was just an artistic, bohemian world here that I landed in. I mean, I had no idea. It was just kinda perfect.
Being so close to this glittering veil of humans with big names, how did that affect you and your art?
Well the Chelsea always attracted a kind of subculture or counterculture. So that really appealed to me. It wasn’t mainstream, it wasn’t like Hollywood. It was always this underground New York and I loved it. It was totally great. And plus it made for fantastic subjects to shoot. So, not long after I moved in, I realized I needed to start photographing these people. I said to myself, ‘I can’t let another day go by’. If you read my artist statement, it says that. Everyday I would see the most interesting people coming in and out of this place. And as a photographer I kind of felt compelled to document it. So I set up that camera there at the end of that hall and it basically hasn’t moved. And that’s where I shoot portraits on that wall.
The wall is curved, I didn’t realize!
Yeah you don’t realize in the pictures, but this is where they’re all shot. That’s my little studio. Well, that door frame was my front door once, but then you close those doors and yeah that’s the frame. If you understand this camera, you’ll understand that when you tilt the lens panel you can get everything sharp from here to here (gesturing with hands).
What sort of camera is this? I’ve never seen a camera like this before.
It’s an 8×10. This is a really old fashioned one where you look through the back and you put the cloak over your head. I know, I’m like I’m a dinosaur. But back then, when I was working, we used to shoot with these all the time because the quality was so beautiful. Meisel used to shoot American Vogue on them always. Steven Klein too. They all did.
How do you choose your subjects? How do you decide that one person is worth photographing over another?
I don’t. To me if it’s Sam Shepherd or Sam the Cleaner it’s the same. It has the same importance. In the book I’m working on, there are well known stories and not so well known stories. That composition tells the story of the Chelsea Hotel. They’re equally as important. It’s not about the names so much. It’s more about who you can get an interesting picture from. The Garbage Man is one of my favorite pictures. As well as the Homeless Guy that used to live at the front of the hotel. To me it’s like, you know, there’s Debbie Harry and then there’s the Garbage Guy. So I’d just drag him in as he’s collecting the garbage. It’s a documentation of people. At that point I was photographing anyone I could get my hands on. So some pictures are stronger than others, but they’re all great. To me, the hardest thing is editing the pictures. Deciding what to put in, what to take out. That’s the hardest part.
I love your definition of editing as simply what to include and what to exclude. In the modern day digi-world, editing seems to have a lot more to do with how to enhance things and manipulate them away from reality entirely.
Okay, well the way I see it, you can edit a book. To edit a book you have to just decide what goes in. To me, that’s editing.
That’s so beautifully simple.
I was shooting for probably about nearly 10 years and then I thought to myself, fuck, I better have a look at this and see if it’s gonna work. I knew it would definitely end up to be an exhibition, no question. But is it gonna work in the book room? So I bought an old inkjet printer and I printed everything and laid it all out. And I just got so depressed. It took me eight months because I didn’t want to take anything out.
The only time it started to work was when I could edit things out. Taking things out was the key, and cutting it right down. And when I did, when I finally had the courage to do that, then it all started. But that was hard because I loved every picture. You know, there wasn’t a bad picture as far as I was concerned. So it was really hard. But then once I got the formula in my head, then it started working. It’s basically art directing, but I did it myself. I didn’t get anyone else to do it because I think it’s important to know what you want. I mean, you can get other people’s opinions but you are the one that’s made the work. You’ve gotta trust the gut.
Did you find that when you went into that self-curation process, themes began to emerge? Things you hadn’t realized were present in your work until you got to that point?
It’s funny you should say that. At that time the hotel was home to a lot of performers. So the burlesque world was just opening up. And there were a lot of sex workers here. And I found that I was attracted to that, because they were very photogenic and so were their costumes. So that theme started to emerge. Not intentionally, it was just kind of a reaction to what I found myself in.
Do you think that fascination was because it was so different to what you had previously seen in the world?
I mean there was nothing like that in Australia. I’d only seen it in movies and caught glimpses of it in Paris. The photographers that I liked had a lot of that in their work too. And here I was living it. So it made sense to document it. I still call it a documentation. They’re like mugshots to me. It’s as if they’ve just been arrested and they are just standing there. I call it my fine-art, black and white mugshots.
You would’ve seen and heard so many stories here. What is one true one you’ve found hard to believe?
One in this book actually (holding up Dee Dee’s book). Dee Dee writes about me in this book. And there’s a whole chapter about this place because of the so-called Australian wing, ’cause of Vali. He changed my name to Frank because he was scared that I was gonna sue him. We had a strange relationship, me and Dee Dee, it was love-hate.
On what level?
Because you know, he was paranoid. He lived next door with Barbara, his young wife. I presumed they were shooting cocktails all night, smashing things. He was a nightmare. He’s not someone that would come in for a cup of tea. You know what I mean? I’d find him asleep in the hallway all the time.
I’d come home one night with a group of friends because it was so central we’d always come back here. And people loved to party at the hotel so we’d always come back to my room. So we came up in the elevator, my friends were walking in before me and one of them came back to say, “Yo man, there’s a homeless guy sleeping outside your door”. I’m like, “What?”. And as we’re walking in, I’m like, “Dude that’s Dee Dee Ramone”. My friends are like, “Fuck off! What?”. I’m like, “That’s Dee Dee Ramone, he lives here”. And he’s arguing with his wife so he’s sleeping on the floor with his big, black dog called Bamford, who was one of those big Irish Wolfhounds. Beautiful dog. Dee Dee and his dog would be sleeping outside my door all the time. So we had to crawl over him to get to my door and try not to wake him up.
So I bring my friends in here and they’re like, “Let’s bring him in here man. Let’s invite Dee Dee in”. And I’m like, “Good luck”. And they’re all like “C’mon”. So I said finally, “Okay, let’s go”. We go and open the door and they’re all behind me watching. And I’m like, “Yo Dee Dee. Dee Dee man, come on, don’t sleep on the floor. Come in, sleep on my couch”. And he used to have this real Queens accent and he’d go, “Fuck off”. He’d tell us, “Fuck off, leave me alone. Just fuck off”. That’s how he was. This is at four in the morning.
So then we all come in having a laugh, and we’d all try a few times. And then someone would say, “Come on, let’s put The Ramones music on really loud and wake him up”. So we put The Ramones records on really loud and that woke him up. He’d start banging on the door and tell us to turn that fucking shit off. *laughs*
That was my favorite party trick. I put the Ramones on the record player really loud and go, “Watch this”. Next minute there’s a fucking Dee Dee at the door screaming to turn that shit off. But then he’d be like, “Okay”. He’d be like, “Alright”. He’d come in with a big bong and a big bag of pot. And he’d sit here like just pulling bongs, one after another and then he’d fall asleep on the couch. Then he wouldn’t leave for three days and then it was like, oh fuck, now he won’t leave. Then we had the reverse problem.
That’s not my best story.
Give us your best story then.
There’s so many. I tried to bribe these two cops once. They found the dead body of a hooker in the opposite hall. You’ve seen the hotel like it is now, now that it’s almost five star but back then it was grungy. So what happened was Monday morning you know, we’d kind of been partying all weekend and there’s a knock on the door. It was like eight o’clock in the morning -bang bang bang- on the door. And I go to the door and I’m looking through the peephole and it’s just like, fuck. All I see is cops. And I’m wondering what’s going on? So I’m hiding all this shit behind me. And then I opened the door and I’m like, “Yes, Officer. What’s happening?” *laughs*. And when I looked past them and down the hall I could see a whole lot of commotion in the room across from us. And they said, “Um we found a dead body here. We wanted to ask if you’d seen anything suspicious over the weekend”. And I’m like, “No, not really”. And they took my name and asked me a few more questions.
I had some people staying here at that time. A couple of male models were staying as my place was the crash pad for my friends and models that were coming into town. And so, all day we’re out the door and we’re looking and we see there’s people coming in taking pictures of this dead body. And I’m thinking, ‘I wanna see this dead body. Somehow I gotta get a picture of this dead body.’ Anyway, so finally they all left and when they did, they left one cop there with the body. And at like six o’clock in the evening, we got friendly with the cop on watch, going, “You want a cup of coffee?”. Or we’d be trying to make noise standing right outside the front door and we let him use the bathroom. And so eventually I’m like, “Can we have a look at this man? Can we have a look?”. He’s like, “Yeah sure. Come have a look”.
So I walk in there and it’s like this dead body that they rolled over. They’ve been there for two or three days or something, this hooker. And I couldn’t believe it. And I’m like, fuck. Now I’m thinking I really need to take a picture of this somehow. I’ve gotta get my camera in there. So I said to the cop, “Do you think we could um, take a picture of this?”. He was like, “Oh, I don’t know. What do you mean?”. I’m like, “Well see this camera? I’m doing all these portraits. It’d be great if we could get you and the other cop to bring this body in to take a picture of it”. And he looked at me in a way that almost made me think he was gonna say yes, because they did have to move the body at some point. Like they were just waiting for the coroner to come. And the coroner actually came at like one o’clock in the morning after they’d left the body there the whole day. And then when the coroner came and did all the examination, he left the cop and this other cop, who had to get this body and put it on a stretcher and take it out.
Surely it’s starting to get stinky by then?
I’m like, that would be a great picture.
So did you actually offer them something?
Bribing a police officer is not a good move.
It’s jailable, no?
I didn’t get the pictures.
Was it an overdose?
Yeah. It was quite common. I’m telling you now, people used to come here to kill themselves.
Yeah I’m aware there were a lot of people whose lives ended here.
Well you know because the whole Sid Vicious thing, that whole Nancy story. The punks used to come in and well it was just crazy back then. They had to change the room numbers on the first floor because Room 100 became like in Paris how where Jim Morrison is buried. They just go with candles and play Doors music and hang together around the grave. The same thing was happening here on the first floor. All the punks would come in, lie on the floor and play Sex Pistols music and they wouldn’t leave. So they had to change the room numbers around to confuse everyone so that they wouldn’t know where it was or where it happened.
Do you feel that the energy of the deceased lingers?
I keep getting shivers.
It’s on the top 10 haunted list of hotels in America.
Have you had any paranormal experiences?
I feel the energy without a doubt. I mean living in Vali’s room, I mean her spirit is just so intense. But you know, some nights I just can’t even sleep. I mean I just feel the energy is there, but it doesn’t bother me because it’s a really creative energy. This place is haunted by some of the greatest artists that have lived. *laughs*
I just got shivers again. It’s so visceral. Every so often when you’ve been talking, I’ve been getting these shivers down my back. I don’t know what it is, but it’s something weird.
The place has definitely got a great energy. This place is like a vortex to some other world, the Chelsea. That’s what made it so famous. Because all the others used to come here and live here. Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Hendricks, Janis Joplin. So it attracted me for some reason. I don’t know what, but you can definitely feel it. But to me it’s a real positive, creative energy. It’s not anything that I’m scared of. I don’t really believe in that.
That’s really beautiful.
Yeah. So I made a pact with the spirits to leave me alone. Cause you know, it was always full on and I was like “You gotta leave” and I was saging the place all the time. The sage stick is still there, I was doing sage ceremonies and all my witches used to come and do cleansing ceremonies, so that helps. I’ve done that for a while.
When you say you made a pact, what did you offer them?
I just talked to them. When I first moved in I felt them and they were driving me crazy. I just basically told them and showed them the door and said, “This is it. You gotta leave. This is my space now. You can come back now and again, but you can’t stay here”. I actually talked to them. *laughs*
So it worked?
Someone told me that’s how you had to do it. So I did it. They’re still around though. The place is definitely still haunted.