A conversation with the author
Why the Chelsea hotel?
To be honest, the idea of using the legendary Chelsea Hotel as the key location in my new book intimidated me at first. So many famous artists, poets, writers, playwrights, and musicians had passed through its doors on West Twenty-Third Street, that researching the place was a little like peering into a kaleidoscope. Where on earth should I focus? There were so many rich eras to mine for inspiration, from the literary, boozy days of Dylan Thomas to the rock-n-roll, drugged-filled epoch of Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen. I began slowly, interviewing people who’d lived there during its glory days, getting insights from authors who’d written histories of the hotel, visiting current residents, and getting a peek inside. Floorplans that showed a secret tunnel helped me envision the plot, as did the many photos and documentaries that were shot inside the building over the years.
how did you get the idea to explore broadway theater and the mccarthy era blacklist?
The decision to focus on New York’s theater world came after an interview with Virginia Robinson, a terrific actress who was born in 1909, traveled with the USO Tour during World War II, and settled in Manhattan just as the McCarthy era sprang to life. Robinson, who was ninety-eight years old when we first met, spoke with such venom about the treatment of actors who were suspected of being communists that she practically levitated into the air. Most of what I’d learned about the Red Scare was limited to the travails and persecution of the Hollywood elite, but she set me straight with tales of New York actors who were made to take loyalty oaths if they wanted to work for CBS Television, of booklets listing the names of suspected communist actors, rendering them unhireable. And how the same organization that blacklisted actors offered up a chance to clear one’s name – for an enormous fee, of course.
DID YOU DRAW ON YOUR OWN EXPERIENCES AS AN ACTRESS FOR THE BOOK?
Robinson’s account differed drastically from the decade I spent happily working in the New York theater world in the 1990s. I was invited to join a theater company of close friends who put on three shows a year, from Shakespeare to Genet. We hung the lights, pulled the costumes from thrift shops, and sold tickets at the front door (before running backstage to get ready for curtain). As a highlight, one of our shows moved to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award. They remain my closest friends to this day. For THE CHELSEA GIRLS, I drew on my own experiences as well as those of actors who faced the buzz saw of political chicanery in the mid-century, like Lillian Hellman, Judy Holliday, Michael Howard, and Lee Grant.
THE CHELSEA GIRLS draws from my two first loves, New York City and the theater world. It was a joy to research and write, and the Chelsea Hotel – that eccentric, soaring refuge of artists and visionaries – turned out to be the ideal setting.