After his career as a couturier fizzled, Charles James resided in the Chelsea Hotel—where a young Lisa Jane Persky worked as his assistant.
In 1969, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe moved into the Chelsea Hotel after escaping a dangerous Lower East Side loft building and a stint in a fleabag hotel. In this shabby artist-friendly residential hotel, Smith cultivated social connections that led her to become a performer—first on Off-Off-Broadway, then as a poet, and finally as a musician. Stanley Bard, co-owner and manager of the Chelsea, filled the lobby with art created by those who couldn’t pay for their rooms. (Bard not only accepted artwork in lieu of rent money, he also charged artists lower rent than other professionals.) Smith offered Bard the couple’s portfolios as collateral, which secured them Room 1017 for fifty-five dollars a week. “Stanley was real schizophrenic,” Warhol superstar Viva recalled. “He could be extremely generous and then he could be really mean.” Lisa Jane Persky saw both sides of Bard when she worked as an assistant for another Chelsea resident, fashion designer Charles James. “Even though Stanley was a real bastard,” she said, “he did care about the talents of people” (perhaps because he hoped to sell their work). When Persky met “America’s first couturier,” as James was known in his prime, he had been on the downslide for years; James’s friend Harry Koutoukas helped secure her a job as his assistant, which entailed a variety of tasks. “Charles would send me downstairs because I was cute and young, and I would say, ‘Please don’t lean on him right now—he’s not well.’ So Stanley would give him a little more time, and it was always like that for a lot of people in that hotel.”
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore