The Chelsea Hotel in New York has provided a bed to some of the finest minds and talents in human history, serving as an inspiration for Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas and others. From Simone De Beauvoir to Jack Kerouac, some of the most celebrated works of some of the most celebrated writers of the past were composed within its walls, and its beautiful facade and iconic ‘Hotel Chelsea’ sign have become a must see for many tourists to New York.
The front of the hotel has several plaques upon it, in honour of some of the figures closely associated with the premises. One of these plaques marks the connection between the Chelsea Hotel and Leonard Cohen, who has sung of the Hotel in his song named in its honour. Thomas Wolfe and Dylan Thomas are among other writers remembered in bronze. Among these great names is that of a Dubliner, Brendan Behan:
The Behan plaque was photographed for wheresmybackpack.com, who took some beautiful images of the building you can see here.
Behan spent some time in New York, though the period was towards the end of his life. Clifford Irving wrote of Behan in America that “he was a vicious tank of a man rolling relentlessly through the minefield of America, crushing everything in sight until he blew up.” The New York media and art scene were both fascinated by the Dubliner, falling for his charm. Novelist Norman Mailer once asked Brendan if he usually had a police escort at home in Ireland, to which Brendan joked “I do, but I’m usually handcuffed to the bastards!” It was said that when in New York Brendan stuffed $80 in the pockets of Allen Ginsberg, hero of the Beat Generation types.
Brendan’s niece Rosemary visited New York in 2001, and followed in the footsteps of her uncle. Reflecting on that visit she noted:
I wasn’t overly impressed with the Chelsea, either. The hotel, a seedy red-brick Victorian building of more than 100 rooms, trades on its past, on a guest list of literati that included Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller and William Burroughs. It wouldn’t be my choice as a base in New York. It has too little of the promise that Brendan loved about the United States and which he summed up in a sentence preserved in a plaque at the front door: “To America, my new-found land: the man that hates you hates the human race.”
But there is no doubt that he felt at home at the Chelsea. In a disorganised office, filled with piles of books and papers spread across several desks, Stanley told me: “Brendan would come in just as you did now and stand right there where you are standing. I would be on the phone to my wife and he would grab the phone off me and start singing to her.”
By his own standards, though, he was reasonably well-behaved. “We are interested in helping the artist and he respected that,” said Stanley. “He never abused the hotel or anyone in the hotel.”
Brendan Behan’s New York was published in 1964,though it was a ‘talk book’, far removed from the classic novels and plays the Russell Street native had produced before it. Behan’s best days as a writer had passed him as he succumbed to the drink, his untimely death robbing Dublin of one of its most celebrated voices, and as his brother Brian would recall “greater writers have graced the literary canvas than Brendan in Ireland’s history, but not greater characters- before or since.”