These days, with Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery opening around the country (in LA at the Nuart and in Portland, OR at the Cinema 21 on Friday 1/21/11) [note: this blog was first published on January 21, 2011] and his second great film Come Back Africa slated for release later this year, we here at Milestone are just embarking on our next big project. It is a little early to announce the topic, but in preparation, we are busy doing research. And my line of inquiries led me to an absolutely wonderful book and an amazing writer and person: At the Chelsea, a memoir written by Florence Turner.
Florence Turner also worked in the film business; she was a theatre scout (a “minor executive, a term that still sounds ridiculous,”) for MGM in New York in 1964 when good fortune (for her and her readers) landed her at the Chelsea Hotel, which would become her home for many years. Much has been written about the Chelsea and its storied guests (including Thomas Wolfe, Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Twain, Sid Vicious, Arthur Miller, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin), but Turner’s At the Chelsea isso much more than who-slept-here-and-with-whom book. It is the self-portrait of a very perceptive older woman (that is, around my age—mid-50s) who is as honest with (and about) herself as she is kind and perceptive about the people she meets.
A refugee from the Upper East Side (after several neighborhood murders and a break in of her apartment), Turner found a home at the Chelsea and quickly came to appreciate the hotel’s unusual zeitgeist: “the rare quality of the place where we could be ourselves without the wariness or the sense of critical eyes. We could work and dream and even starve with the knowledge that we were not alone, or as far as possible as it is not to be alone.”
While conveying her love and respect for the hotel denizens and staff, Turner observes them in all their weird glory. Her voice and sense of the absurd are hard to resist. One of the most celebrated inhabitants of the Chelsea was composer Virgil Thomson, famed for his Four Saints in Three Acts (written with Gertrude Stein). Turner encountered Thomson in the hotel lobby one day, “carrying his dirty laundry.” When he noticed she was reading a biography of Edith Piaf, Thomson told her “she lived in the house, you know.” Turner later learned that Thomson, who had been the music critic of the Herald Tribune, came to the defense of the greatchanteuse when other reviewers savaged her performances—and then brought “the little sparrow” home to roost at the Chelsea. Turner’s interweaving of the banal and the immortal is charming—and I especially appreciate that sack of soiled clothing.
Turner is not a great airer of dirty laundry—but she does not go out of her way to hide it either. During her tenure at the Chelsea, the hotel’s owner, Stanley Bard welcomed artists, writers, musicians, dancers and filmmakers and sometimes overlooked their delinquent payments… at least for a while. When times got especially lean, Bard would rent rooms to pimps—at double the price he usually charged. As Turner writes, “the pimps were, unknowingly, patrons of the arts.”
Turner brings great attention and affection to all the people she came to know at the hotel. Of Irene, the maid on her floor, she wrote: “she was black and from the South, with a healthy cynicism, a regal bearing and huge kindness… Later, when I was jobless, her friendship proved to have great depth.” She was well acquainted with the members of the hotel staff and tells each one’s story with care—Charles Beard, captain of the bellman was a church warden and had trained as a welter-weight with Canada Lee; John Dorman, the night man, was a talented actor whose imposing size made it hard to find jobs; Josephine Brickman, the queen of the switchboard, had been a telephone operator with the WACS in World War II England.
The vibrant community of the hotel provides a rich cast of characters and Turner also writes about luminaries like actress Viva (who starred in several Andy Warhol films), poet Gregory Corso, couturier Charles James and the woman who shot Warhol, Valerie Solanis.
Turner gives special care and time to her closest friends at Chelsea. Dr. Helen Johnson, a distinguished black expert on the history of the black theatre introduced Turner to legendary jazzmen like Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. The two women often conversed at the bar of the hotel’s restaurant, El Quijote, Florence drinking whisky, Helen enjoying bourbon.
Because I am an expat New Yorker (now living out in the ’burbs) I am especially drawn to Turner’s lovely evocations of everyday life lived in a great, scruffy city. New York in the 1960s and 1970s was not the imperial city it had been, and is now again. It was distinctly tattered, often smelly, sometimes dangerous and vibrant. She writes: “The hippie days were gradually changing. We had all eaten soul food, hummed songs from Motown albums, enjoyed ourselves in a blackout, which resulted in the best kind of conviviality where the entire hotel met in the lobby, paired off, lit candles, enjoyed walking in the shifting light and shadow up the lovely shallow steps of the Chelsea stairway…. The summers were still wonderful…. From my window I liked to watch the Leonardo da Vinci come silent up the Hudson, set against a sunset sky the colour of the inside of an abalone shell.” I remember summer evenings like that.
But more than anything else, I love Turner’s courage. An unmarried woman, the mother of grown sons, Turner launched her life in New York and then at the Chelsea in a spirit of openness and adventure. She made friends, found lovers, took risks and lived her life fully. But fully does not always mean happily, and Turner bravely tells all aspects of her story—sometimes with humor, sometimes with throat-catching honesty and sadness.
When she was laid off from MGM, Turner went through several very hard years. The grind of poverty, the humiliation of being unable to pay her bills and most of all a profound depression born of “job hunting day after day without success,” wore her down. She struggled to fill her time and earn a living. When Maurice Girodias, publisher of Olympia Press and a Chelsea resident, suggested she write pornography for him, Turner pulled out her typewriter and started work on a novel titled The Naked and the Nude (she had wanted to call it Wait for Me I’m Coming!).
But her depression deepened and became overwhelming—her sobbing uncontrollable. A doctor at St. Vincent’s Hospital eventually took her “tear-sodden” condition seriously and admitted her to the psychiatric wing. During the six weeks she was a patient, Turner was able to finish her pornographic novel. As she described it, the Virgin Mary smiled down from the walls of the Catholic hospital, as she wrote about “cocks and cunts.” The book earned her $1700—and helped her stay on at the Chelsea.
That year, Turner met a new young man—a Russian photographer in his 20s who was “both exceptional and non-serious.” They spent a magical spring day together at Coney Island where they ate “disgusting” pigs ears and watched as the giant QE2 sailed silently by. (Curiously, Patti Smith, fellow hotel resident and a friend of Turner’s, describes an unforgettable day spent at Coney Island with Robert Mapplethorpe in her extraordinary book, Just Kids.) That winter, Turner and her photographer friend attended an uptown party together. On the cab ride home, the tipsy young man told the driver to stop. He ran into Central Park, whooping and leaping with drunken joy. “As I watched,” Turner wrote, “Time lurched with a jolt and a grinding into the season and slot of my old age.” I don’t think I have read a more nakedly honest sentence, or one that chilled me more.
Eventually her money and luck ran out and Turner packed her bags and relocated to Edinburgh, Scotland. Her friends threw a party for her, lent her some money, poured champagne and drove her to Kennedy Airport. “Thus I left the Chelsea, my heart and New York City behind me on February 5, 1975.”
It took me quite a bit of searching to learn the end of Turner’s story. No amount of googling yielded anything except the fact that she had written a volume of short stories that was published only in the UK. Finally, through Yahoo, I learned of an obituary in a 2001 edition ofThe Scotsman. I signed up with High Beam Research so that I could read it all. And it was worth it the $29.95 it will end up costing me.
According to Todd McEwen’s loving tribute, Turner moved to Scotland to be near her children and grandchildren. She lived there for 26 years (she died at the age of 91!) and was the mainstay of a group of Bohemians in the city. Turner was a frequent habitué of the bar of the Drummond Hotel, where she enjoyed the “indifferent whisky and, still the cow-girl, the excellent steaks.”
McEwen describes Turner as a colorful dresser and “in all things a writer, a believer in the life of the artist, in the energetic, rich feeding of the senses. Skilled in handing out big, American-style kisses to everyone, she made no secret of the fact that she found growing older a distinct disappointment and ‘pain in the arse.’”
A coda to this long rambling book review/homage: After reading At the Chelsea on loan from my local library system, I got online and bought a copy along with a copy of Turner’s book of stories, All the Little Wars. When they arrived, I opened the short story collection and discovered, hand-written on the title page:
“To Helen Johnson my dear friend of many years with love from the author—Florence Turner.”
I felt as honored and delighted as if I had been actually able to welcome these remarkable ladies into my home.
A final footnote: the Helen Armstead Johnson Collection is now part of the New York Public Library and items from the collection are on display at the “What’s up @ the Schomburg” exhibition at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, NY 10037-1801, (212) 491-2200 (through February 27). The Johnson collection includes historical photos, posters, theater memorabilia, and rarely seen scrapbooks of black entertainers of the 18th and 20th centuries.
Turner, Florence. At the Chelsea. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers. New York. 1987.
Turner, Florence. All the Little Wars. Hamish Hamilton. London. 1987.