Tag Archives: Chelsea Hotel

The Beat Hotel

27 Mar

A couple of years ago, I was ravaging the shelves at the New York Public Library, when I came across Barry Miles’ The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963.  It was around Memorial Day, and I remember sitting by the fountain in the East Harlem section of Central Park, marveling at the ingenious writing methods of my favorite writers and their fascinating lives.  While Burroughs was making his cut-ups and Ginsberg was writing poetry at night and typing them up in the morning, Corso was off wooing girls into buying him dinner.

Here’s what the overview of the book says:

Called “a vivid picture of literary life along the Left Bank in the late 1950s and early 1960s … [and] fun reading” by Library Journal, The Beat Hotel is a delightful history of a remarkable moment in American literary history. From the Howl obscenity trial to the invention of the Cut-up technique, Barry Miles’s extraordinary narrative chronicles the feast of ideas that was Paris, where the Beats took awestruck audiences with Duchamp and Celine, and where some of their most important work came to fruition — Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” and “To Aunt Rose”; Corso’s The Happy Birthday of Death; and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Based on firsthand accounts from diaries, letters, and many original interviews, The Beat Hotel is an intimate look at a place that “gave the spirit of Dean Moriarty and the genius of Genet and Duchamp a place to dream together of new worlds over a glass of vin ordinaire” (San Francisco Chronicle).

Wikipedia gives a little background on the Beat Hotel:

The Beat Hotel was a small, run-down hotel of 42 rooms at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur in the Latin Quarter of Paris, notable chiefly as a residence for members of the Beat poetry movement of the mid-20th century.

It was a “class 13” hotel, meaning bottom line, a place that was required by law to meet only minimum health and safety standards. It never had any proper name – “the Beat Hotel” was a nickname given by Gregory Corso, which stuck on [2][3]. The rooms had windows facing the interior stairwell and not much light. Hot water was available Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The hotel offered the opportunity for a bath – in the only bathtub, situated on the ground floor – provided the guest reserved time in beforehand and paid the surcharge for hot water. Curtains and bedspreads were changed and washed every spring. The linen was (sometimes and in principle) changed every month.

The Beat Hotel was managed by a married couple, Monsieur and Madame Rachou, from 1933. After the death of Monsieur Rachou in a traffic accident in 1957, Madame was the sole manager until the early months of 1963, when the hotel was closed. Besides letting rooms, the establishment had a small bistro on the ground floor. Due to early experiences with working at an inn frequented by Monet and Pissarro, Madame Rachou would encourage artists and writers to stay at the hotel and even at times permit them to pay the rent with paintings or manuscripts. One unusual thing that appealed to a clientele of bohemian artists was the permission to paint and decorate the rooms rented in whichever way they wanted.

The Chelsea Hotel is kind of like New York’s answer to Paris’ Beat Hotel.  Patti Smith brings the Chelsea Hotel to life in Just Kids, where she also talks about meeting Burroughs, Corso, and Ginsberg and about the idea of improvising in writing.  But I digress….

If you follow me on Twitter, you may remember my recent post lamenting Barney Rosset’s death.  Rosset didn’t shy away from experimental work, publishing the revolutionary works of the Beats at Grove Press. Upon his death, Regina Weinreich wrote an article about his involvement with the Beat Hotel.

Alan Govenar is directing a new 82-minute documentary, with First Run Features and produced by Documentary Arts,  called The Beat Hotel.  Here’s the press release:

1957. The Latin Quarter, Paris. A cheap no-name hotel at 9 rue Git le Coeur became a haven for a new breed of artists fleeing the conformity and censorship of America. The hotel soon turned into an epicenter of Beat writing that produced some of the most important works of the Beat generation. It came to be known as the Beat Hotel. Opening March 30 in New York City, to be followed by a rollout to other cities across the country, Alan Govenar’s feature documentary THE BEAT HOTEL explores this amazing place and time.

Fleeing the obscenity trials surrounding the publication of his seminal poem Howl, Allen Ginsberg, along with Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso, happened upon the hotel on rue Git le Coeur and were soon joined by William Burroughs, Ian Somerville, and Brion Gysin. Run by the indefatigable Madame Rachou, the Beat Hotel was a hotbed of creativity and permissiveness, where Burroughs and Gysin developed the cut-up writing method; Burroughs finished his controversial book Naked Lunch; Ginsberg began his poem Kaddish; Somerville and Gysin invented the Dream Machine; Corso wrote some of his greatest poems; and Harold Norse, in his own cut-up experiments, wrote a novella, aptly called The Beat Hotel.

British photographer Harold Chapman‘s iconic photos and Scottish artist Elliot Rudie‘s animated drawings capturing Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Corso, Burroughs, Gysin, Somerville and Norse just as they were beginning to establish themselves on the international scene bring THE BEAT HOTEL to life on the screen. The memories of Chapman and Rudie interweave with the first-hand accounts of French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, British book dealer Cyclops Lester, and 95 year old George Whitman. Together with the insights of authors Barry Miles, Oliver Harris, Regina Weinreich, and Eddie Woods, among others, they evoke a time and place where Chapman, mentored by Cartier-Bresson, roamed around Paris photographing nuns, bums, and the idiosyncrasies of street life; Corso took scissors to Marcel Duchamp’s tie in a Dadaist statement while Ginsberg kissed his knees; and Burroughs, with the help of Somerville’s lighting, learned to disappear before an audience’s eyes.

Director Alan Govenar is a writer, folklorist, photographer, and filmmaker. He is president of Documentary Arts and has a Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities from the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of 23 books, including Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper’s Daughter, which won first place in the New York Book Festival (Children’s Non-Fiction), among other prizes. The off-Broadway premiere of his musical “Blind Lemon Blues,” co-created with Akin Babatunde, received rave reviews in The New York Times and Variety. Govenar’s film Stoney Knows How, based on his book by the same title about Old School tattoo artist Leonard St. Clair, was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and was selected as an Outstanding Film of the Year by the London Film Festival. Govenar also has produced and directed numerous films in association with NOVA, La Sept/ARTE, and PBS for broadcast and educational distribution, including The Voyage of Doom, Le Naufrage de la Belle, The Devil’s Swing, Texas Style, Everything But the Squeak, The Human Volcano, The Hard Ride, Dreams of Conquest, and Little Willie Eason and His Talking Gospel Guitar.

Judging from the trailer, The Beat Hotel looks like it will be a documentary not to be missed by any fans of the Beats.

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Writing Wednesday: If You Miss a Beat, You Create Another

14 Mar

I had the great privilege of hearing Patti Smith read from Just Kids at The New School a while back.  She read from the priceless scene in which she meets Allen Ginsberg at an automat.  I’m quite fond of kitsch automat culture, and used to frequent the one down on Saint Marks when it was still around.  Basically, an automat is fast fast food: you don’t even have to stand in line to order a burger and fries; you just slip a few quarters into a vending machine and out comes surprisingly delicious warm food.  Whenever I ate at the Automat, I felt like I was a character straight out of The Jetsons.  I was hooked on their mac-and-cheese egg rolls.  The resurgence of The Automat only stuck around for a few years, but as a whole they were big a few decades ago.  When Patti Smith was in her early twenties, scraping by to survive, she fed a few quarters into an automat to get some quick, cheap food.  When she turned the knob she discovered the price had gone up.  The machine had sucked up her meager coins and she was about to go hungry when Allen Ginsberg offered her the additional cents and even paid for a cup of coffee.  They get to talking, she knowing perfectly well he is the great poet, and he thinking the whole time she is a handsome boy!

I knew for a long time that I wanted to read Just Kids.  It had all the makings of a book I knew I’d love—New York City, Beat poets, artists, The Hotel Chelsea, Andy Warhol, music, and memoir.  The only problem was that I was inundated with reading assignments for classes and bills to pay for tuition and books for said classes.  Just Kids wasn’t constantly checked out of the library, which was probably for the best because I didn’t have the time to read it anyway.  But!  I have at last read it—savored it.  I so greatly enjoyed Smith’s poetic voice and her obsession over Rimbaud.  I liked reading about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s relationship, their strivings toward art, their fashion!  And I was so happy to discover that in addition to the Allen Ginsberg connection, Smith also befriended poet Gregory Corso, whose poetry I revere.

Patti Smith also began a relationship with Sam Shepard, and they end up collaborating on a play together.  I find great reassurance in reading their exchange.  Smith was nervous about the prospect of improvising during the play, and on page 185 of the first edition (HarperCollins, 2010), Smith asked, “What if I mess it up?  What if I screw up the rhythm?”  Shepard replied:

“You can’t,” he said.  “It’s like drumming.  If you miss a beat, you create another.”

From Just Kids I learned a lot about being part of the “scene,” which comes across as important to the evolution and success of one’s career.  However, this little line spoken by Sam Shepard is a solid reminder that in writing and in life the beat goes on.  If you miss a beat, you improvise and create another.

Writing Wednesday: The Shrinks Are Away

10 Aug

If you ever get a chance to take a writing class with Susan Shapiro, do it.  I took a Saturday personal-essay workshop with her last semester, and even though it only met twice I got so much out of it.  Unlike most of my classes, which have focused on the Art and Craft of writing, Shapiro understands that as much as we enjoy writing for writing’s sake, we also want to get published.  She gives helpful tips on how to do so, and even provides editorial contacts for newspapers, magazines, and print publications.  Talk about generous!

The Lighting Up author also puts together a reading series every August called The Shrinks Are Away.  When Susan Shapiro mentioned it to me in an email, I knew it would be too good to miss.

The lineup was impressive: Molly Jong-Fast (The Social Climber’s Handbook), David Goodwillie (American Subversive), Lindsay Harrison (Missing), and poet Harvey Shapiro (The Sights Along the Harbor). This is what serious literature looks like.  It reinvigorated my hope for the current state of literature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

After all the writers had given a speedy reading, there were a few minutes left for Q&A.  I always love hearing writers talk about their process because their honesty is so encouraging.  I feel like in other industries there’s this unspoken rule of putting on a façade of perfectionism, but writers openly talk about their failed manuscripts, their false starts, their grappling with the industry.  The writers in The Shrinks Are Away reading opened up on how their books came to be.  Harrison revealed that she wrote about her mother’s passing not long after it happened, and that writing was part of the cathartic process.  Goodwillie talked about being part of a generation that doesn’t find its career callings until late 20s or early 30s, and that it was only after trying on a number of jobs—and getting fired from them—that he took writing seriously, renting a maid’s room at the Chelsea Hotel to spend a year working on his manuscript.  Harvey Shapiro, who worked for years and years at the New York Times, confessed that he’s seen that it’s not always the most talented writers who succeed—rather, it’s the ones with the most persistence.

The Shrinks Are Away event took place at McNally Jackson Books, a wonderful bookstore in Soho (52 Prince Street), where the literature section is broken up by country.  For upcoming events at McNally Jackson, click here.  To sign up for a class with Susan Shapiro, click here.