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Longtime Hotel Chelsea Resident Faces Uncertain Future

By DNAinfo Staff on December 17, 2010 5:15am  | Updated on December 17, 2010 10:02am

By Tara Kyle

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHELSEA — Once a bastion of sex, drugs and rock and roll, now a hot real estate commodity, the Hotel Chelsea is a landmark in transition.

But for Merle Lister-Levine, it is simply home.

It was 1981 when the Toronto-born dance choreographer and her husband, theater lighting designer Leonard "Lee" Levine, wheeled their belongings up to a 7th floor studio within the West 23rd Street property.

And while the pair witnessed their share of chaos at the hotel — naked parties in the hallways, drug-fueled leaps from the balconies — Merle Lister-Levine never regretted the move.

"I felt comfortable with the people, I didn't care," said Lister-Levine, who has lived alone since her husband died in 2000. "It felt like family."

Merle Lister in front of the same fireplace, 2010.
Merle Lister in front of the same fireplace, 2010.
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DNAinfo/Tara Kyle

Today, that family isn't what it once was. Hotel residents entered a period of tumult in 2007, with the ousting of beloved, longtime manager Stanley Bard, known for his generous attitude to rental payments.

In October this year, the hotel's controlling families announced plans to sell the 128-year-old neighborhood institution, once home to an array of artists including Arthur Miller, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol.

And while Lister-Levine, a New Yorker since 1962, has kind words for the new management — elevator break-downs and other maintenance problems get resolved much faster than before — she acknowledged the uncertainties could be hard to cope with.

"We don't know what's happening; we have no idea," she said. "I think I have a protection being my age, and being there a long time, but we'll see."

Last week Lister-Levine, who declined to put an exact number on her age, picked up a letter from the landlord requiring her to set an appointment to have her apartment measured. While Lister-Levine initially found the document "very scary," talking to the front desk and other residents quelled some of her fears. She learned other tenants received the same notice, and its intent was to provide information about the never-before-measured rooms to potential hotel buyers.

"Exciting — never dull at the Chelsea Hotel," Lister-Levine said.

For now, Lister-Levine, who has a cheery, chatty disposition, is keeping a positive outlook. Recently, she presented "Chelsea on the Rocks," a 2008 movie about the Hotel, in which she appears, to a group of fellow seniors attending a neighborhood film series at the Hudson Guild.

Throughout the film, she repeatedly, enthusiastically interjected, sharing anecdotes and calling out the names of sometime residents and luminaries such as Czech director Milos Forman and Gen-X poster boy Ethan Hawke, as they appeared on screen.

Merle's husband, theater lighting designer Leonard
Merle's husband, theater lighting designer Leonard "Lee" Levine, in the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea.
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Courtesy of Merle Lister-Levine

In her nearly 30 years at the hotel, Lister-Levine's memories include watching Hawke's children run barefoot through the lobby, and visiting the top-floor home of composer George Kleinsinger, who kept a "menagerie of trees and snakes and rabbits."

During the hotel's centennial celebration in 1983, she choreographed a performance, "Dance of the Spirits," carried out in the stairwells.

Lister-Levine also lived down the hall for many years from actress and frequent Andy Warhol collaborator, Viva Hoffman. Once, Hoffman asked Lister-Levine to help her daughter, "Now and Then" star Gaby Hoffman, review a script for her first film, "Field of Dreams."

"She learned it in 20 minutes — she was a very smart girl," Lister-Levine said.

While no one has ever tried to force Lister-Levine out of the hotel — she always pays her rent — she did recall one incident with a short-lived manager from the post-Bard era. The man, who she said sported gold medallions and a half-buttoned shirt, once casually asked, regarding Lister-Levine's studio apartment, "oh, how's $50,000?"

"I said no, I'm not leaving this place," Lister-Levine said. "Maybe five million."

Today, amid all the changes at the hotel and around the rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood, Lister-Levine remains steadfast in that sentiment.

"I don't want to leave," she said.

The view from Merle Levine's 7th floor room at the Hotel Chelsea, 1988.
The view from Merle Levine's 7th floor room at the Hotel Chelsea, 1988.
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Courtesy of Merle Lister