IT IS a fair bet that no hotelier in New York was prouder of his trade than Stanley Bard. For him, it was a strange and wonderful calling, and what he made of his red-brick empire was something beautiful.

His Hotel Chelsea—the inverted name conferring a certain elegance—sits on West 23rd Street in Manhattan, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Mr Bard believed firmly that the area was named after his building, which was once the tallest around, and is on several historic registers. Its style is Victorian Gothic, with floreate cast-iron balconies, and it rises to 12 storeys of somewhat gloomy aspect. It contains, according to most city guides, 250 rooms, though Stanley—as everyone knew him—averred there were around 400. He liked to say that if it were divided up today, without the same regard for high ceilings, outsize rooms and marble fireplaces common in 1883, you could fit in at least 1,000.

The lobby of the Chelsea, which rises to a wide dank staircase, housed his art collection, including several fleshy nudes, flying papier-mâché figures, a portrait of a horse and a plaster-of-Paris pink girl on a swing. Below these, most days, milled a crowd of exotic, addled or entranced human beings. Stanley liked to preside on the reception desk. He was a short, smooth-skinned man, who combined energetic exaggeration with a mysterious vagueness. When he answered the telephone, his native Bronx would give way to the tones of an English butler. Callers were made to realise that this was a special hotel.

Apart from tourists, whom Stanley admitted on sufferance and charged more, most guests were struggling artists or writers, and two-thirds were long-term residents. The arrangement was highly unusual for New York. In the 1970s the monthly rate was $60: very reasonable, Stanley thought, for the city. Nonetheless he sometimes let tenants off their rent, or lent them money for food. The average stay was nine years. Virgil Thomson, the composer, stayed for 50. Artists came to paint and sculpt, writers to write, deadbeats to die, and a large share to drink and misbehave.

From 1964 all were vetted first by Stanley, who considered whether they and the hotel could get along. He let in, among others, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jackson Pollock, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Stanley Kubrick, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Wolfe, Jean-Paul Sartre, the Grateful Dead and all the women associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory. Bob Dylan wrote songs in Suite 211, Madonna filmed her sex book in Room 822, and Woody Allen shot three films on the murky marble stairs. Short-stays were sometimes billetted with the famous, separated by a bead curtain and on sagging camp beds.

Stanley’s theory of management was that all tenants, whom he viewed as friends, should be largely left alone. They could change the furniture, put up antique wallpaper, plant palms, sleep in their coffins and keep any sort of child or pet. Privacy was paramount. Housekeeping happened once a week, if that. Arthur Miller, recuperating here from his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, objected to the lack of vacuuming and the disintegration of his carpets, at which Stanley expressed great surprise. He thought the suite “perfect”.

He also believed that guests could do what they liked, as long as they did not destroy his hotel. The very thick soundproofing in the walls, and decent insulation, meant that although some rooms were set on fire, it never took hold. When anyone mentioned the deaths in the hotel, he put these to one side. Dylan Thomas was ill at the Chelsea, he admitted, having drunk 18 straight whiskies; but he drank them elsewhere, and died in the hospital. Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen died of stab wounds in their room, but Stanley saw this as a suicide pact that went wrong, which was the sort of thing creative people did. Some guests threw themselves, stoned, down the stairwell, on the same artistic principle. Any police seen in the hotel were, in fact, more guests. Unexplained disappearances were probably vacations. His hotel was so serene, bathed with perfect northern light, that people either returned again and again, or never left.

Heart and soul

He did not live in the hotel himself. From the mid-1990s he owned an apartment on tonier Park Avenue. Nonetheless the hotel was also a family home. His father had bought it, with two other Hungarian Jews, after the war, with a loan from the Emigrant Bank next door. It was then a flop-house, having fallen from its pinnacle at the centre of the then-Theatre District; the area has since come up again. Stanley’s boyish adventures involved exploring behind the walls with the hotel plumber, and riding up and down all day with a tolerant bell-captain in the ancient gated elevators.

Since his hotel had heart and soul, it had no business plan—beyond fostering a community of unfettered, energised, even wild artists in the heart of New York City. In this he succeeded wonderfully, but not commercially. In 2007 he was shoved aside by the board. His beloved hotel is being redeveloped; a few nervous tenants remain in their dusty rooms. At his last tenants’ association meeting at El Quijote, his favourite restaurant, it seemed that the light had gone out of his eyes. He was mourning the loss of beauty that he had spent his life creating.