At Home With: Childhood Tales From the Chelsea Hotel

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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).

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).

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.

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.

Others, like Ms. Rips’s family, agreed to have their apartment renovated in exchange for a new one; the family had hoped to stay put during the construction, but the dust has been overwhelming. Also, the construction elevator is installed right outside Ms. Rips’s bedroom window. On this afternoon, it was operating nonstop, darkening the apartment with every pass.

For nearly two years, the family has been camping in a rental on West 64th Street, though each weekend they trek downtown to stay in their apartment. Inside is a wonderland, a relic of the Chelsea’s wilder, weirder days.

Though pruned of much of its furniture, which moved uptown with the family, the apartment is filled with Ms. Berger’s artwork: glinting steel and glass sculptures and mobiles and her delicate and lovely encaustic paintings. Plaster casts of hands fill a wall of shelves, a ghostly audience.

In Ms. Rips’s tiny room, a fairy is tucked into a chandelier, and the walls are still emblazoned with the mottos (from Coco Chanel and others) she painted there in middle school: “You live but once, might as well be amusing” and “Things turn out for the best for people who make that the best.”

Ms. Rips wore a billowy coral-colored dress that fell to her ankles.

“I would come home and tell my parents all these fantastic tales,” she said. “Well, not fantastic. These humiliating experiences. And my dad was always of the mind-set that I should write things down, so I started doing that. By the time I got to eighth grade and I needed a project, I, who had inherited my father’s tendency to not like hard work, thought: ‘Ah, I already have a project. I can just smoosh them together.’”

Afterward, her father suggested she work the tales into a book. The two spent the next few years editing drafts, a sometimes frustrating task, Ms. Rips said, because her point of view kept evolving. “A story would be completely fine and polished and then because I was a year older, it didn’t really sound like me.”

Paulina Porizkova, the model, actress and author, was an early reader. She and Ms. Berger had been friends in their modeling days, and reconnected when they had children and husbands.

“My husband doesn’t like many people, but he does like Michael,” Ms. Porizkova said. “Also they are both complete and utter dandies.”

It was Ms. Porizkova who saw more in the book than just the diary of an unpopular girl. “It felt like the story of a girl looking for approval and finding it in a really unusual place,” she said. “Her Chelsea Hotel is like a hotel of fairy godmothers. They are drunk and strange, but fairy godmothers nonetheless.”

A year ago, father and daughter sent the finished work to Mr. Rips’s agent, Nicole Aragi, who was poised to auction the manuscript when Simon & Schuster made a pre-emptive bid. For how much? “We’re very happy,” said Duvall Osteen, who represents Ms. Rips along with Ms. Aragi.

Another early reader was Kurt Andersen, who marveled at the stranger-than-fiction exploits of the Rips-Berger family.

“We grew up simultaneously in Omaha,” Mr. Andersen said of Mr. Rips, though they didn’t become friends until after college. “But I was living in the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ version and he was living in the ‘Twin Peaks’ side of town. The most extraordinary things seem to happen to him, and he’s set up his life to maximize the possibility that they will.”

Mr. Andersen and his family visited the Rips-Berger clan during the year they spent in Sutri, Italy, when Ms. Rips was a baby and about which Mr. Rips wrote his memoir, out in 2001, called “Pasquale’s Nose.”

“Michael didn’t speak any Italian,” Mr. Andersen said, “and made no attempt to learn, and yet would sit with all the old Italian men in the square as if they were comrades. So then out of that came this book. If I hadn’t been there, I would have thought he’d made the whole thing up.”

Mr. Rips does seem more like an escapee from the Edwardian era than the product of Nebraska. On this hot day, he wore a dark blue suit and a crisp white shirt, and offered Champagne, while his daughter teased him. “Ah, the master appears,” she said.

As much he loves the hotel, Mr. Rips said he did worry about its effect on his only child.

“What does a child expect from themselves in that environment?” he said. “A lot of these people were old, and a lot of them were ill, mentally or physically, and that kind of extremely creative but decaying circumstance was a concern. And it was so out of the ordinary in terms of the other kids Nicolaia was meeting in school.”

In her book, Ms. Rips writes of one memorable (her only) children’s party there, when the Capitan showed up in his underwear and Mr. Crafty shouted an expletive, the nicest thing he ever said, she writes.

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“Of course,” Mr. Rips continued, “that adjustment is the crux of the book. I’m proud she was able to navigate that.”

Ms. Rips beamed at him. “Thanks Dad!”

Stanley Bard, the hotel’s fretful, anxious manager and impresario, who was booted out in 2007, was another of Ms. Rips’s protectors and mentors, albeit a distracted one. “You are like a daughter to me,” he tells her. “A beloved resident of the Chelsea. Your father, on the other hand …”

While on the topic of Mr. Bard, Mr. Rips shared this anecdote. Many years ago, he and Ms. Berger were hosting a bris for a nephew. The mohel was late, and Mr. Rips found him in the lobby with Mr. Bard, who announced to whomever was milling about down there: “Today is a historic moment. This is the first circumcision in the history of the Chelsea Hotel.” Mr. Rips recalled that Mr. Bard paused a moment before continuing, “Though not the first mutilation.”

The thing about middle school is that it eventually comes to an end. The mean girls, having peaked early, stumble from their lofty perches; and the misfits, having grown sturdy and resilient from years of battering and loneliness (and the enduring solace of literature), go on to conquer in arenas that value brains more than brawn.

Well, sometimes. Ms. Rips finds her liberation at La Guardia, the music, art and performing-arts high school memorialized in the movie “Fame.”

“I think it’s a mistake they are allowing me to graduate,” said Ms. Rips with typical self-deprecation, citing lax punctuality (because of her parents’ daily entreaties to stay and have another cup of coffee) and wildly underestimating her accomplishments (acceptance to Brown University).

It was two years into high school when “the Chelsea diaspora,” as Ms. Rips said, emptied the hotel. But Ms. Rips had internalized the gifts from her fairy godmothers. Having finally found her own tribe and her own talents, she no longer needed the support of mythological creatures.

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