“Each room at the Chelsea remembers the people who have passed within its walls, as if the names and dates had been etched on the grubby doorframes.” So writes Fiona Davis in her new novel “The Chelsea Girls.”
Hazel and Maxine met as USO entertainers during World War II. By 1950, after years of separation, the former is a Broadway playwright/director, and the latter is a Hollywood actress seeking the legitimacy which only the New York stage can provide. They’re reunited as residents of the red brick hotel, “a handsome melding of Victorian Gothic and Queen Anne styles,” looming large over West 23rd Street. Furthermore, their friendship is revived when Hazel hires Maxine to star in her new production on the Great White Way.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Hotel Chelsea. Even though I’ve lived here all my life, I’ve never set foot inside the landmark closely associated with Warhol and his factory cohorts, because quite frankly, I was never cool enough.
Here’s who was: Mark Twain, O. Henry, Dylan Thomas, Sam Shepard, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Charles James, Julian Schnabel, Diego Rivera, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Stanley Kubrick, Miloš Forman, Lillie Langtry, Ethan Hawke, Dennis Hopper, Uma Thurman, Elaine Stritch, Russell Brand, Edie Sedgwick, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull, Édith Piaf, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Alice Cooper, Bette Midler, Jimi Hendrix, Sid Vicious and Janis Joplin. This, by the way, is the short list.
I was ready to settle into what I thought would be a frothy read a la “Two Broke Girls” in the Truman Era trying to make it in the greatest city in the world, and their antics within the walls of the famed downtown residency. Instead, I found much meatier subject matter relevant to the politically charged climate in which we currently live.
Nowadays, no matter where one goes, it seems civil discourse by contrasting parties is almost unheard of. Back then, it was everything The Chelsea stood for. It was a place “where people with opposing opinions mix and mingle without forcing one side or the other to leave.”
Perhaps that’s why this bastion for freethinking creative people came under surveillance when the House Un-American Activities Committee headed east to NYC to probe communism within the Broadway theater community.
After Hazel is served a subpoena, for tagging along with her brother to a political rally back in 1938, and her testimony at the hearing pretty much puts the committee in its place, she feels confident about going back to the theater, putting on her play, and being free of any more Are-you-now-or-have-you-ever-been-a-member-of-the-communist-party? accusations.”
But Julius Rosenberg has just been arrested for passing secret nuclear technology information to the Soviet Union, and other “red” spies are running scared and willing to do anything to keep from being caught — even if it means throwing friends under the bus. That’s where Hazel lands, never realizing that the crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy had been so close to home all along.
“The Chelsea Girls” is chock full of blacklists, conspiracy theories, boycotts, collusion with Russia, witch hunts, rallies, marches, testimonies before Congress, and the FBI railroading people. Not only that, but derailed careers, drained finances and destroyed lives. Sound familiar?
It’s like nothing’s changed in 70 years.
Then as now, a difference of opinion could mean irreparable rifts between friends, colleagues, neighbors, family members and even spouses — plus knock-down drag-outs among strangers.
Right after the presidential election, I was with a bunch of people and Trump happened to be on the venue’s television. As my husband is a “tie guy,” always on the lookout for a new pattern to add to his collection, I mentioned The Donald was wearing a rather snazzy one. You would’ve thought that I’d whipped out a MAGA hat the way I was verbally attacked and accused of “supporting” a man one person in the group acknowledged was, “Not my president.”
What I learned from Hazel and Maxine is that crusades often drift into oblivion, and those who saber-rattle for them usually move on to the next cause célèbre. None of them are worth losing loved ones over.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels “Fat Chick” and “Back to Work She Goes.”