Childhood Tales From the Chelsea Hotel


Like many an only child, Nicolaia Rips grew up largely in the company of adults. While other Manhattan youngsters were being herded into Mommy and Me classes and the soccer leagues at Pier 40, Ms. Rips, who grew up in the Chelsea Hotel, was spending her afternoons with the unruly oddballs on West 23rd Street.

There was Robert Lambert, a painter, and his irritable half-paralyzed screenwriting friend, nicknamed Mr. Crafty, who traded insults and nicknamed Ms. Rips “Lttle Crafty,” awarding her entry into their tiny, profane club of two. There was the Angel, a young man whose uniform was a pair of enormous white wings and a sort of diaper.

There was the Capitan, a man of mysterious, and probably inflated, martial origins who had a black Newfoundland that Ms. Rips would ride through the halls. Arthur Weinstein, the night-life impresario, was the father of her babysitter Dahlia; he didn’t say much, but every now and then would toss Ms. Rips a chocolate bar.

Now 17, Ms. Rips has written a memoir about her time there. The jacket copy for “Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel” calls her a “bohemian Eloise for our times,” billing that brings to mind a self-consciously precocious imp.

To be sure, Ms. Rips, the child of an author and an artist, imagined herself as imbued with the spirit of her hero, Groucho Marx (he died on her birthday), and was once celebrated by her father in a preschool interview for her ability to deliver an after-dinner toast (she got in).

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The cover of Ms. Rips’s book, “Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel.”

But the young woman who spent her formative years in the boisterous landscape of fabulists that was the Chelsea Hotel did so more as an amused observer — preternaturally wise and self-deprecating — than an egocentric performer.

Memoirs of that fractious, febrile ecosystem erupt every year or so (Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” being a notable example). Last October, Linda Troeller, a photographer who lived there from 1994 to 2013, published her own impressionistic photo memoir. Ms. Rips’s contribution to the canon is one of the better entries.

Halloween was the hotel’s special holiday, the one night, as Ms. Rips writes, “its residents would be praised for what had typically isolated them.” Tellingly, the first book Ms. Rips was able to read on her own wasn’t “Charlotte’s Web” but Jerry Seinfeld’s “Halloween.”

The memoir began as Ms. Rips’s middle-school diaries, the tragicomic sketches of an unpopular girl who was bullied, as outsiders and misfits are, for the very qualities that will eventually make her a fine writer: a keen sense of the absurd, a passion for books and less than stellar motor skills.

The child of eccentrics, she made clothing choices that were unusual (flea-market finds, and a bit of T.J. Maxx mixed with Moroccan textiles) and her behavior was sometimes more so, at least to the mean girls who shunned her.

Ms. Rips’s parents came late to family life. Her father, Michael Rips, 62, is a lawyer turned author who had dedicated himself to hotel living (before the Chelsea, Mr. Rips roomed at the Regency) and hanging about in coffee shops (when drawing up a list of likely preschools for his daughter, Mr. Rips chose those closest to his favorites).

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Ms. Rips, in a window of her family’s apartment in the Chelsea Hotel, with her parents, Ms. Berger and Michael Rips.

Credit
Bryan Derballa for The New York Times

Her mother, Sheila Berger, 56, is a former model, artist and committed vagabond; when she discovered she was pregnant, she took off for a three-month tour of the Silk Road. Ms. Rips has been traveling with her mother ever since, and corrected the proofs for her book in Ladakh, India.

Her father read her whatever he was reading at the time, mostly Thomas Carlyle, which had the peculiar effect of delaying her reading skills until the end of third grade while at the same time imprinting her speech with the rhythms of that Scottish philosopher and essayist. None of this training did anything to help Ms. Rips fit in with her peers, a situation that had become horribly acute by middle school.

Luckily, living at the Chelsea meant that she was awash in misfit neighbors, a motley army that hung out in the building’s infamous lobby and were eager to share their support and offer up their particular skills.

Most impressive, perhaps, was Storme DeLarverie, a male impersonator, bouncer and singer with a storied reputation as the first person to throw a punch at the Stonewall uprising in 1969.

After one particularly hideous day in school, Ms. Rips slumped home to the lobby, her misery clearly written on her face. Ms. DeLarverie called her over in a gruff New Orleans drawl and showed Ms. Rips the pink revolver strapped to her ankle. “That, baby doll, is my best friend,” Ms. DeLarverie told her, promising to take it to Ms. Rips’s school should anyone there give her more trouble. With a mythological creature like Ms. DeLarverie watching her back, Ms. Rips writes, “who really needs to be afraid of couple of prepubescent girls?”

One recent afternoon, Ms. Rips and her parents had picked their way past the construction debris of the Chelsea’s halls, now sheathed in Sheetrock and fire-retardant fabric, to the door of Apartment 602. Its white fabric seal had red zippers and a sign, framed in duct tape, that proclaimed: “Tenant Occupied.” The hotel has been a blown-out landscape since 2011, when its owners at the time began to renovate the place and exhume its colorful tenants.

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The book is based on the diaries Ms. Rips has kept.

Credit
Bryan Derballa for The New York Times

Many lawsuits and two owners later, the place is somewhat stabilized, though only a handful of its original denizens remain. Some, like Mr. Lambert, fled the chaos early on. “It was just too much strife,” he said recently.

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