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When Edie Sedgwick almost set the Chelsea Hotel on fire

Vaseline 2 months ago

A million stories were written in real time in the hallowed halls of the Chelsea Hotel. As home to countless artists and a hub for their comings and goings and creations, the West 23rd Street venue has seen it all. But that was almost cut short by one of its most renowned and reckless residents, Edie Sedgwick.

Before Nancy Spungeon met her end in Room 100, Madonna could take her infamous Erotica photos in 822, or the place could be immortalized in a long playlist of songs or a reading list of poems and novels; it almost ceased to exist. The story is simple on the surface: Andy Warhol’s superstar Edie Sedgwick fell unconscious with her candles still burning in the haze of a drug-fueled haze. Soothed to sleep by their dim, warm light, everyone knows this is a surefire way to start a fire.

It wasn’t the first time this happened to Sedgwick. It was another fire that had landed her in Chelsea. After doing a speedball, the name for a double shot of heroin in one arm and amphetamine in the other, she was laid unconscious on her bed when her cigarette fell out of her mouth and got stuck in the sheets. As she quickly burned through her money and brains at the whims of her addictions and social lifestyle, the burning of her house was the last straw for her circle. They thought that moving her into the hotel, to room 105, would at least make her a little safer, since the various residents would be there to watch her.

That’s how Chelsea always operated. Rent could be paid late or not at all, with the manager, Stanley Bard, regularly accepting art or holding portfolios as a form of payment. The place ran on a kind of cultural and care exchange, with guests sharing ideas and concepts and helping each other creatively, but also generally giving each other food, support and labor, whether physical or emotional. Everyone seemed willing to lend a hand or offer some advice and wisdom.

Leonard Cohen certainly was. It’s his involvement that makes this a typical Chelsea Hotel story, always a little strange with some sort of fateful intervention or strange occurrences. In oral histories of the place, several people have pointed out a spiritual feeling in the hall. Whether it was the atmosphere of a creative god that blessed the place and the legends that lived there, or a ghostly, paranormal energy that brought tragedy to the building again and again, we will never know. But since Cohen was a prophet on this one night, the power of the place was proven again.

“Edie Sedgwick lived a few doors down,” he said in a live question-and-answer session, talking about his time at Chelsea in the mid-1960s. ‘Through her door came the most attractive men and women of that period. I was not among them, but I longed to be among them.” Despite his reputation as a ladies’ man, Cohen’s mind was elsewhere at the time as he began to really delve into spirituality.

(Credit: Alamy)

“There was, on the corner of 7th Avenue and 24th Street, a Mexican magic shop, with potions, candles and powders that could be used to attract influences into your life – to secure love affairs or to guarantee success,” says he. remembered. “My situation at the time was such that I believed in it, so I bought some candles and a book about candles – I just read that, and the I Chingalthough I couldn’t follow anything from one paragraph to the next.”

Coincidentally, this new interest coincided with his long-awaited introduction to Sedgwick. “At one point, by graceful accident, I was invited into Edie Sedgwick’s room. It was filled with very beautiful young people. It was dark and lit by candles, thirty to forty candles, burning everywhere, on plates, on the stove,” he continued. Imposter syndrome hit the young upstart hard at a time before there was any significant success and before his name was made. He added: ‘I had no login details at the time, I couldn’t say anything.’

But something caught his attention: the layout of Sedgwick’s candles. Drawing on his research into magic, and especially racking his brain to say something to this new, glitzy crowd, he mustered the courage to share a warning: “This display of candles is extremely dangerous.”

“I presented myself as…an expert on The Candle. And this did not go down well. So I left at an opportune time,” he joked. But he had read it correctly. While some would say that magic doesn’t exist and that the arrangement of the candles made no difference to whether recklessness would have consequences, Cohen’s prediction came true. “The next day her apartment burned down and my prestige soared,” he said.

There is a now infamous photo of Sedgwick, curled up and still dazed, placed in the hotel foyer with a bandage on her burned hand. Fortunately, the fire was caught and stopped before it could spread and before the world would miss that photo, this story, and all the hundreds of other stories that came from the site in the years that followed. But if Cohen’s warning had come true, the potential for a history-changing disaster could have been avoided.

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