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Photograph: Alvina Lai

Book review: Inside the Dream Palace by Sherill Tippins

Swift and effective narrative makes Tippins' biography of the Chelsea Hotel, with all of its resident artists and fantastical stories, sparkle


By Sherill Tippins. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30.

Stand long enough in Times Square, promises one variant of an old Gotham saying, and you’ll see the whole world pass by. The same might be said about lingering in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel—fabled home of artists, giants of letters and bohemians of all kinds—through much of the 20th century. With her lively Inside the Dream Palace, literary biographer Sherill Tippins succeeds where other historians studying New York landmarks have failed: She understands that even the most splendid buildings are mere settings for the personalities that inhabit them, and wisely bypasses rote chronology for the vigor of cultural excavation.

Taken in small doses, Tippins’s prose rarely transcends the serviceable, but in treating the Chelsea as a 12-floor palimpsest, the author achieves a masterful totality. Driven by clear storytelling, the narrative spins like a revolving door on hyperspeed. The days of Arthur Miller, Brendan Behan, Patti Smith, Thomas Wolfe and other residents fly by in a dizzying approximation of the transience of NYC life, suggesting a fragility behind the nation’s strongest artistic creations. The Chelsea Hotel may face an uncertain future, but Tippins’s enchanting book guarantees its renown for generations to come.

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