this article originally appeared at www.theawl.com
Every New Yorker worth their salt knows of and respects the history of the Chelsea Hotel with its vast hellish neon sign hanging over 23rd Street, a lamp for moths such as Dylan Thomas, Holly Woodlawn, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sid Vicious, Edie Sedgewick and William S. Burroughs. It is a ship for lost souls, a sort of Noah’s Ark of the damned - and the parties can be a lot of fun. Seeing those glowing letters forty-odd feet high through a fogged or rainy night can send a thrill up my spine rather reliably.
Naturally any vast sprawling old thing with a predilection for murder, suicides, murder-suicides and overdoses (perhaps we can just use the umbrella-term ‘loose cannons’) is going to attract its share of ghost stories, and I have my own little tale to add to the apocrypha of one of New York City’s most venerable institutions of art, madness and hedonism starring one of it’s most famous permanent residents.
A friend of mine and film producer I work with has a large grandfathered apartment on the 10th floor of the Chelsea, with a roof-deck, that he inherited from his mother who lived there at the place’s height of notoriety in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Every year in the spring he throws a rooftop party where friends and his neighbors all gather to eat, drink and smoke joints on the roof, and there are usually more than a few photographs and super 8 movies being taken as some of the most notorious New York artists mix with some of the most notorious New York derelicts, and for a few hours in June everything is as it should be.
About a year ago in the late fall, my friend and his wife were out of town for a long weekend and he had asked me to stop in once or twice to feed his cat for him and told me I was welcome to hang out at his place and spend the night if I wanted. On the Saturday night of this weekend my friend Lauren and I had gone to see ‘Milk’ at the Chelsea Clearview and as we left I said ‘hey I have access to an apartment and rooftop at the Chelsea Hotel, why don’t we go hang out there?’
After quick shopping for pate and two bottles of Prosecco we were in the elevator (that the ghost of Sid Vicious has been rumored to haunt). Then we were having a cocktail on the antique leather sofa and making a plate of snacks to take out onto the roof.
As a brief interjection to the narrative thrust: the particular ghost which is supposed to haunt the 10th floor of the Chelsea is known as the Gray Man, and he is (to put it mildly) not predisposed to kindness, so to speak. He lurks in the stairwell of the 10th floor and tries to get people to leap to their deaths (mainly children). Keep in mind, I was not thinking of this legend and Lauren had never heard of it at the time.
The roof of the Chelsea Hotel is a dark, twisty and brambling place with towers, odd little doorways to rooftop apartments, narrow alleys and idiosyncratic cornices, and many many dark and shadowed corners. Being up there at sunset with a large gathering of people is an entirely different experience then say, being two waifs in skinny jeans scurrying around a gothic rooftop in the dead of a November night.
Lauren, I will let you know, is a very level-headed and critical person, not prone to flights of fancy, and so we sat on the roof talking about its architecture and various events in our lives when she stopped mid-conversation and turned and looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face. “Chris! Did you hear that?”
I hadn’t heard anything outside of the traffic down on 23rd Street and the occasional jet engine, and when I asked her what it was she said “I keep hearing a man’s voice saying ‘jump, go on jump. You’ll be fine, just go ahead and jump” and explained to me that a bizarre and inexplicable urge to jump off the roof of the Chelsea Hotel had entered her mind and would not be shaken. She asked that we move away from the edge of the roof where we had been perched, which is when we saw it.
A few yards away, half obscured by a chimney-stack was the darkened silhouette of a man, watching us from an inkwell of a corner. It could have been my eyes playing tricks on my mind and I tried to convince myself this was the case. That is up until it moved, stepping back into the darkness behind it.
Lauren and I quickly gathered our things and made our way across the roof, through coal black alleys that felt filled with eyes all the while feeling a menacing presence following behind us, just out of our field of vision - and it was not until we were safely back inside with the sliding glass door closed and locked behind us that we began to feel safe.
My friend has told me before that he feels his mother is still in the apartment she left to him, and so perhaps she kept at bay whatever angry presence dwells on the 10th floor of New York City’s answer to The Overlook. Lauren was visibly and deeply shaken, and we quickly finished the first bottle of Prosecco and did considerable damage to the 2nd before our nerves began to calm. We left soon after.
Later I shared with Lauren the story of the Gray Man, who urges people to jump from the 10th floor stairwell. Having never heard the legend she became positively aquiver and dropped the phone when I told her.
As a final footnote, two years later I had been devouring Patty Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ which recounted her life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; a large portion of which was spent in the Hotel Chelsea. On pages 197-98 (paperback ed.) she mentions the composer Lee Crabtree, a fellow resident, and “after several days I asked around for him, and Ann Waldman told me that, facing the loss of his inheritance and the threat of institutionalization, he leapt to his death from the roof of the Chelsea.
Is Lee Crabtree ‘the Gray Man’ or just one of his victims? One of the many casualties of the Chelsea. The incident has never left her mind and to this day Lauren is absolutely terrified of the Chelsea Hotel and refuses to set foot within its walls. Others, it seems, never leave.