Ray Donovan, Showtime’s new drama about a Hollywood private eye, is the sort of show in which a macho action-movie star about to be ruined by box-office-busting revelations of homosexuality saves himself by (falsely) claiming to have just awakened in a hotel room beside a (real) dead girl after a night-long orgy of cocaine and sex. That’s all in the first five minutes, by the way. So you’re wondering, who thinks of this stuff? Well, one of us, of course.
Ann Biderman, the veteran Hollywood screenwriter behind Ray Donovan, is the product of an improbable (and ultimately unsuccessful) Miami marriage between a quintessentially 1960s Bohemian mom and a typewriter-salesman dad. Growing up, she split her time between a rambunctious Miami Beach political crash pad and New York’s legendarily weird Chelsea Hotel. And even back then, she concedes, her brain was oddly wired.
“I was a really nutty kid,” she recalls amiably. “I didn’t watch TV. I was obsessed with Meyer Lansky. I was obsessed with Frank Sinatra. I was obsessed with the Rat Pack. I made my father take me to the hotel where they shot [Sinatra’s bleakly comic movie] A Hole In The Head ... .
“My mom was a very free spirit, very politically involved. She was the secretary of CORE [the Congress on Racial Equality, a militant civil rights group], and I marched around the federal building in downtown Miami before I could really walk. People would get out of prison in the Deep South and our house would be where they would land. FBI agents would come to visit all the time.”
And that was practically Leave It To Beaver compared to the summers in New York at the Chelsea. Built in the 19th century as an experiment in socialism where the very poor would live alongside the very rich, the Chelsea flew its freak flag with a surreal and sometimes sinister swagger.
Quarreling black-magic priests fought spell-casting duels in the lobby. Poet Dylan Thomas drank himself to death there, and playwright Arthur Miller used to say the marijuana smoke in the elevator shaft was so thick you could get stoned just on the ride from the lobby to your room. Punk-rock muse Nancy Spungen was knifed to death in one room; Andy Warhol’s model Edie Sedgewick set another on fire while trying to put on false eyelashes by candlelight; poet-musician Leonard Cohen had sex with Janis Joplin in a third, then infamously wrote the brutal song Chelsea Hotel #2, about the experience after her death. ( I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best/I can’t keep track of each fallen robin ... .)
Biderman wasn’t necessarily directly involved in all those things — though Cohen was a pal and lived down the hall — but she wrote her own chapters of Chelsea history.
“A couple of times I was dosed with acid,” she recalls. “That was not a good thing. And bringing someone home to meet my mother, in a very formal way, we walked into the lobby and they were carting out someone who had been shot. But, really, it was fantastic. Artists, poets, musicians, they all came to the Chelsea.
“Every rock band in the world stayed there. My sister hung out all the time with Jefferson Airplane. My mother was very close to [rocker] Patti Smith and [photographer-provocateur] Robert Mapplethorpe, who lived there, and there’s stuff about us in Just Kids, Patti’s book about that time.”