Life and Death At the Chelsea

Jann Paxton is something of an enigma around Manhattan’s most mythical inn, the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street.

“I’ve been told that people call me ‘the ghost of the Chelsea,’” he said, “because I’m never seen. I’m kind of a hermit. … I almost never leave my bedroom—let alone the apartment.”

And yet, he may soon have to: On May 12, the 46-year-old Norfolk, Va., native is expected to pay more than $59,000 that he allegedly owes in back rent, according to a recent court order, or else lose his spacious isolation chamber on the hotel’s fifth floor.

“It’s not looking promising,” said the cash-strapped former singer-songwriter, who long ago divested himself of the “millions” he made in the music business, recording and touring around the turn of the millennium with his eponymously named band, Paxton.

“I’ve toured with Michael Bolton and Dee Snider and Stephen Stills. I’ve been featured on NPR. I have a couple of music awards. I was the real deal,” said Mr. Paxton, who lately relies on friends for groceries and packs of cigarettes. (He has threatened to sell some of his more valuable guitars in order to pay for more smokes.)

Even the recent firing of BD NY Hotels, the management company led by Richard Bron and Ira Drukier, hired last summer to replace longtime Chelsea Hotel proprietor Stanley Bard, seemed to offer little hope. (The judgement in his case was handed down beforehand.)

His dreaded eviction would add to a growing list of disappearing inhabitants at the old bohemian enclave in recent months.

At least 15 hotel tenants have already been expelled during BD’s relatively brief 10-month stint in charge of hotel operations—a statistic the firm has proudly touted on a list of purported accomplishments included in court papers contesting its sudden termination.

Mr. Paxton would bring that number up to 16.

Not that BD seemed to be waiting for a final tally. The fired managers had already beaten him out the door on Monday, leaving residents wondering who’s in charge, while lawyers for both sides prepare to squabble over incentive fees, renovation delays and the inability to bring in chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten for a new eatery, among other issues mentioned in court papers.

For those guys, it will likely come down to dollars and cents. For Mr. Paxton, meanwhile, it’s a matter of life and death.

“A court-appointed guardian is trying to get a stay of the eviction,” he noted, as next week’s deadline for payment rapidly approached, “because of my health.”

Complicating matters far beyond his financial woes, Mr. Paxton is terminally ill, stricken with cancer and a host of other ailments. “My health is so bad that if I’m evicted, I probably will die, living in an SRO or welfare hotel or something,” said Mr. Paxton, whose prior threats to take his own life, if evicted, prompted a number of court-ordered psychiatric evaluations.

HIS CASE SEEMS an apt metaphor for the hotel itself at this critical juncture in its 125-year history: a decaying relic of wilder times long gone, slowly succumbing to the effects of its own past excesses, yet stubbornly refusing to die, struggling to emerge anew amid the crushing pressures of modern times while, hopefully, not compromising its integrity.

It’s easy to understand why any hotel manager would want to free up a large living space like his. “I’ve been told I have the nicest apartment in the building,” Mr. Paxton said during an interview on Monday night in his apartment, where he lives with his 13-year-old pit bull, Ginger, for whom he named one of his albums, Ginger’s Dish.

Life and Death At the Chelsea