Hidden History

The Guardian of the Chelsea Hotel

At Manhattan’s fabled artists' enclave, new owners are determined to turn the page on a bohemian past. But for one longtime employee, the hotel’s rock stars, icons and ghosts will always live on.

The Guardian of the Chelsea Hotel

“If you’re walking down past the room and you take a deep breath,” Jerry Weinstein recalls, pausing for emphasis, “you would be high before you got to your room.” He sighs, shaking his head. “That was always a problem.”

“I can’t think of the name,” he says of the culprit behind the haze. “Jerry something, he was a very talented guy. He had some kind of Hispanic name, you know, he was in that band.” After a few minutes, he comes to the conclusion that it was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead who was responsible for smoking up the hallway.

But Weinstein has no problem with rock stars. It was the fans who really drove him crazy.

“They had a following. Two people, three people would rent the room, and then you ended up with forty. They brought dogs too. All sorts of animals.”

That’s par for the course when you’re working the front desk at the Chelsea Hotel and Jerry Garcia has booked a few nights.

Weinstein, now 79, never wanted to be in the hotel business. But it turns out the notoriously eccentric Chelsea was a perfect fit for the former social worker. After accepting the job from a childhood friend, he worked as the front desk manager and later as a tour guide for a total of three decades, until things got rocky a few years ago when new owners changed the landmark hotel for good.

“So thirty odd years later, I left,” Weinstein says, shaking his head.

Jerry Weinstein with his collection of photos and articles about the Chelsea Hotel.
Jerry Weinstein with his collection of photos and articles about the Chelsea Hotel.

Weinstein sits at a table in the downstairs common room at his apartment building in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just over the George Washington Bridge. It’s quiet. One family plays board games in a corner while other residents flip through copies of National Geographic and Reader’s Digest. Weinstein is peeling apart papers from a large stack he’s brought to show off.

On top of the pile is a demure print ad describing the hotel as a residence for artists, writers and “characters of the most singular and eccentric stripe which the imagination might conjure.”

Tucked behind that, a large card featuring a black-and-white photograph of a man and his dog wearing a puffy dress. The elaborate script invites the reader, cordially, to the birthday party of “Wallis, Duchess of Pug” in the Chelsea Hotel Lobby at 6:00 p.m.

A New York Times Sunday feature from 1993 details the eclectic collection of hotel tenants past and present, from playwright Arthur Miller, poet Dylan Thomas and actress Edie Sedgwick to Susan Hoffman (a.k.a. Viva, as she was named by Andy Warhol) and her daughter, Gaby, who would go on to become a successful film actress. Other articles mention the ghosts of Janis Joplin or Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen (whom he allegedly killed in room 100) that supposedly haunt the place.

A colorful flyer from the bottom of the pile brings a smile to Weinstein’s face as he reads the text aloud. “The Chelsea Hotel Presents Jerry Weinstein’s Hotel Chelsea Art and History Tour.” In his later years there, he led daily tours for $40 a person, continuing even after he retired from the front desk. But that all ended when new owners took over in 2011 and began the process of re-designing the Chelsea.

The problems really started in 2007, when the hotel’s board of directors ousted Stanley Bard as its official manager. A childhood friend of Weinstein’s, Bard—whose own father managed the hotel from 1939—was the one who got him the front desk gig.

“Stanley did the managing,” Weinstein says, “I had all the fun.”

As a child, Weinstein lived with his family near Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. In 1944, Bard’s family moved in across the street. Both boys were 10 years old; they became fast friends and remain so today.

“I’m having breakfast with him this Thursday,” says Weinstein.

Some of Weinstein's collected papers.
Some of Weinstein’s collected papers.

The pair never lost touch, despite going to different high schools and colleges and pursuing different careers. Bard went on to manage his family’s business—the hotel—while Weinstein took a more academic route, heading to City College in 1952 to study sociology and later winning a scholarship to Fordham University to pursue social work. He became a caseworker, taking various jobs with youth organizations around the city. For a while, Weinstein ran the teen program at a YMCA, was executive director of the Gramercy Boys’ Club and ran a daycare center. He loved the work, but with a wife and three kids at home, it became more difficult.

“I was always in social work, but it was hard to make a living,” he says. “I always had to have second jobs.” So he jumped at an opportunity to get into the restaurant business with a friend in the Financial District, becoming co-owner of QuickTime Deli.

It didn’t go well. “I cut my fingers all the time,” Weinstein laughs. “You ever see how quick those guys are? I wasn’t quick.”

Despite the fact that Weinstein was up at dawn every day to work, the business was short-lived. As the neighborhood changed and more condos were built, their customers dwindled. Eventually, Weinstein gave in to an offer from Bard to come on board as the hotel’s front desk manager.

“Stanley said, ‘You know, what are you knocking yourself out for? Come and we’ll have a good time.’”

In 1979, Weinstein took the gig, telling himself he would work the desk until he could find another job. It grew on him, and his academic background proved helpful after all.

“I used a lot of my social work,” he recalls. “It’s a different culture, hotels.”

Weinstein points out a former tenant.
Weinstein points out a former tenant.

The majority of residents were long-term or permanent, and there were more than a few families living at the hotel. Weinstein had an almost familial relationship with his tenants, and often found himself doing everything from settling disputes to looking after children running around the lobby.

To say the guests at the Chelsea were unique is an understatement. Many were writers, musicians or actors who were entirely devoted to their art and not much else. These eccentric personalities were not just tolerated, but cultivated, especially by Bard. The Chelsea was known for offering massive amounts of credit to guests who had literally nothing, which fostered the artistic environment that made the hotel famous.

“Everyone owed something,” Weinstein says with a wave of his hand. “Twenty, thirty grand sometimes. There was a time you could go to any art opening and everyone in that opening either owed us money at one time or another or still owed us money.”

“It is unusual for a hotel,” he concedes, but explained that this strategy of inviting permanent residents kept the place doing well if business was slow. Plus, filling your hotel with artists and celebrities has its perks. Ethan Hawke is apparently a great tipper. Madonna would come back for parties or a photo shoot once in a while in a beautiful room on the first floor. Arthur Weinstein (no relation), the nightclub mogul of the 1970s and 1980s, would give Jerry’s daughters V.I.P treatment at his clubs around the city.

“They made a big fuss about my daughters, “ Weinstein says. “My daughters weren’t used to having a big fuss.”

Many guests would later return to the Chelsea, even after they had moved onward and upward in their lives and careers.

“They felt they had to come in to read something, to write something or do something in the hotel,” says Weinstein, who still doesn’t fully understand how the hotel ever became so popular with this crowd. “I don’t know why, I mean, what are all these people doing here?” he wonders. “Why do all these people, you know, like Arthur Miller—” he muses, but interrupts himself to start on a story about the famous writer.

“He called up and told Stanley Bard’s father, who was the manager at that time, and said ‘I don’t want anyone to know I’m here.’”

Weinstein is suddenly animated, telling the story like he’s sitting at the desk watching it happen, though it occurred thirty years before he arrived.

“Let’s say he did that Monday; Tuesday the place was full of press. Everyone. Every photographer was there trying to get something from him.”

The Chelsea hotel today, mid-transition.
The Chelsea hotel today, mid-transition.

For years, Weinstein led tour groups around the hotel to go through rooms of famous former guests or see the current residents working on projects. Painters, writers, musicians and designers would open their spaces to the visitors in a kind of impromptu art show. Residents would re-arrange their rooms to showcase their work. Often, he would stop tours to sell works of art right from the hallway.

“People would say, ‘Oh, I like that,’ and you’d have the artist there, you know, and I’d say ‘$300, $150, take it!’ They would pay the guy and he would be happy.”

He recalls one resident—a dressmaker and designer—whose room always made for an interesting visit.

“Half the space was taken up with machines and everything hanging down, materials and things,” he says.

This was Nile Cmylo, who has worked on projects for Michael Jackson, Sex and the City and other high profile clients. As Weinstein remembers, it was difficult to get a whole tour group of 25 people inside her room.

“She lived in a small studio,” he says, pointedly. “With a kitchenette and a cat.”

Weinstein continued the tours even after he stopped working at the front desk. But it all stopped when the Chelsea was sold to new owners who wanted to do things differently. Joseph Chetrit—a real estate mogul and head of the family firm that owns the former Sears Tower in Chicago and the Sony Building on Madison Avenue (which they bought a few months ago for a cool $1.1 billion)—bought the hotel for nearly $80 million in 2011. Since then, he’s been re-designing the place with plans to turn it into an upscale hotel amid bitter legal battles over eviction of the long-term residents and disputes about ownership of artwork found on the premises. The tenants who have already left didn’t go quietly.

Weinstein at his home in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Weinstein at his home in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

“It was bad. I mean really bad,” Weinstein says. “It was good guys vs. bad guys. You know if you come in with a little honey you could always do better. They didn’t.”

He didn’t hear back from them when he offered to step in and help ease the tension.

“I said ‘look, let me work with the permanent residents. I know them well. I’ll handle them and you’ll have much less trouble—I guarantee it.’”

For all the legends and boldfaced names who filled the Chelsea over the years, Weinstein’s stories focus more on the guests’ personality or details of their room. Telling another story, he struggles to remember the name of a scriptwriter who had lived in the hotel for a long time while on credit. “He was working on a script or something, and he was waiting until they finished it.”

“I was starting to get worried,” confesses Weinstein.

But soon enough the movie was made and his bill was paid.

As for the writer’s name?

“David. David in 417.”