I was lounging at a local bar when through the music system drifted the voice of Leonard Cohen lamenting the time he spent at New York’s Chelsea hotel. It got me thinking of other hotels that run in the same infamous vein as the Chelsea and the first one that popped into my head was The Watergate in Washington D.C.
On June 17 1972 a group of men were discovered trying to wiretap the Democratic headquarters located on the 6th floor. The murky details led all the way to Nixon’s White House and the rest as they say is history. While the Watergate signalled the death of Nixon’s presidency the Cadogan Hotel in London saw the demise of Oscar Wilde’s career. On April 6 1895 Wilde was in room 118 when police arrived to charge him with ‘committing acts of gross indecency with other males.’ After his release from prison Wilde went to Paris and stayed in room 16 at Hotel d’Alsace, now known as L’Hotel. Wilde took to his death bed there at the age of 46. His final words were supposedly ‘Either that wallpaper goes or I do!’ Another playwright who died in a hotel was Tennessee Williams. In 1983 while living in the sunset suite of Hotel Elysee in New York, Williams choked on a bottle cap from his collection of prescription drugs. In 1970 Janis Joplin finished her life in the Highland Gardens Hotel in Los Angeles. Known back then as the Landmark Motor Hotel, Joplin was found dead in room 105 from a heroin overdose.
Not all hotel deaths occurred in hotel suites, one death in a hotel occurred in its barber shop. In 1957 the gangster Albert Anastasia paid a visit to the Park Central hotel in New York and went for a hair cut in the hotel’s barber shop where an assassin shot him dead. In 1928 gangster Arnold Rothstein was shot dead while playing cards in the same hotel.
In 1949 Billie Holiday was busted for drugs possession in the Mark Twain Hotel in San Francisco when federal agents raided her room. In Joshua Tree California 1973, Gram Parsons checked into room 8 of the Joshua Tree Inn and overdosed on a mixture of drugs and tequila. A few days later Parsons body was hi-jacked by his manager who drove it out to Joshua Tree where the coffin was burned in the desert. In L.A. the Hacienda Motel played host to the death of soul singer Sam Cooke in 1964. Cooke met a nightclub singer and brought her back to his room where a fight broke out between them. The woman ran from Cooke’s room and he ran after her to the manager’s office where he broke down the door but the manager shot him, mistaking the singer for a thief.
Laying waste to hotels became something of a hobby for rock stars but one such rocker took it to the extremes. Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, caused mayhem at every hotel he checked into but in the Holiday Inn in Flint Michigan he caused legendary damage. Moon celebrated his 21st birthday in August 1967 in the hotel with a large birthday cake. Moon decided to throw the cake over his guests and started a food fight, which spread across the hotel. Fire extinguishers were set off while a number of toilets were blown up. Moon stripped naked when the police arrived and drove a Lincoln Continental into the hotel swimming pool. Moon tried to evade arrest by jumping out of the pool but he slipped on some cake and knocked out a tooth. A $24,000 bill for damages was sent to The Who. They also received a lifetime ban from all Holiday Inn hotels in America.
In 1969 Led Zeppelin checked into the Edgewater Inn in Seattle from where guests could fish out of their windows from the water below. A red-haired groupie willingly found herself in the band’s room while they fished and caught a red snapper. The fish was then supposedly used on the groupie in a sexual manner that can only be blurred between tales of fact and fiction but Led Zeppelin found themselves banned from the establishment anyway.
The Chateau Marmont in L.A. has been a favourite of celebrities for decades. James Dean jumped through an open window there to get into auditions for Rebel Without a Cause while John Belushi overdosed on a speedball there in 1983 but of course the most notorious hotel of them all is the Chelsea whose walls abound with stories of excess and death. In 1978 Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols was sharing room 100 with girlfriend Nancy Spungen who died there from multiple stab wounds said to be inflicted by Sid. In 1953 Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was staying in the Chelsea while pursuing a drinking binge. He fell into a coma there and was removed to St Vincent’s Hospital where he died some days later. In 1968 author of The Lost Weekend, Charles R Jackson committed suicide in his room while staying at the hotel. The Chelsea tended to draw self destructive individuals but it also attracted great minds such as Arthur C. Clarke who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey while staying there. Perhaps the Chelsea Hotel isn’t the worst when it comes to notoriety, but what is true to say about the old hotel is that it is a place and a time that might never be repeated again, so sing on Mr. Cohen, I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel…