By 1920, the theatre district had moved uptown to Herald Square, except for a few bawdy houses and burlesque palaces that remained on 23rd Street, and the neighborhood was getting a bit rundown. The Chelsea Hotel, however, was still at or near its peak, the stained glass windows and plate glass mirrors remaining intact, the ornate woodwork not yet obscured by the thick layers of paint that would one day cover it.
Nadia lived in the Chelsea with her well-to-do parents in a large suite of rooms. That’s where she was born, in 1896, where she grew up, spoiled like a princess, where the artistic spirit of the Chelsea grew within her, and where, enlivened by that spirit, she was inspired to learn to paint: delicate work in the Japanese style on sheets of silk cut from bolts her father, a successful silk merchant, sometimes brought home from the warehouse.
And the theatre district, in full bloom while Nadia was a child, was where she met her handsome husband, a playwright and song writer who sold his songs on the old Tin Pan Alley on 27th Street. They struggled for awhile on their own, moving from rooming house to rooming house, but her husband was an alcoholic and, though he managed to avoid serving in the war, could rarely find work. And Nadia’s paintings failed to sell. By the late teens they had two children, and soon no way to feed or cloth or even shelter them.
Her father made Nadia a deal. She and her family could move back into the Chelsea Hotel—there was an extra room for them—in exchange for housework. It was a great deal for everyone except Nadia, but her husband convinced her to accept. Soon she was single-handedly cleaning the large suite, cooking three meals a day for the extended family, and washing out by hand her incontinent and demanding mother’s underwear. All the while her husband sank further into drink, and was soon unable to bring in even the paltry few dollars he previously was able to earn through his songwriting.
Nadia believed that her father, wealthy as he was, could have helped out with the money, but he was a tightwad, and what’s more, he wanted to teach her a lesson. The old man had warned her about marrying that good-for-nothing dandy, and now, like a stern prophet of the Old Testament, he declared from his moral mountaintop that she must reap what she had sewn. Already stretched near to the breaking point, Nadia was forced to take in piece work to made ends meet.
Amazingly, with the brats squalling in the background, the incontinent mother calling for fresh underwear, and the weak-willed husband calling for more drink, Nadia still managed to snatch a few minutes here and there for her intricate art. Unfortunately, far from consoling her, this only served to reinforce her feelings of bitterness and disillusionment, as she found that her hands lacked the power to translate her ideas onto the canvas. Looking at the offending appendages, she saw that the house work had coarsened and calloused her palms, knotted and gnarled her knuckles, aging and discoloring her skin before its time. Flexing her hands, the joints felt tight, stiff, the result of the exacting needlework she so loathed, and Nadia came to believe that she was developing early arthritis. “I’m working my fingers to the bone!” she cried out in anguish.
That was to become her constant refrain. The early twenties are the time of life when mental illness typically first manifests, and at one point Nadia had to be hospitalized for two weeks at a rest facility on Long Island for a nervous disorder akin to hysteria. (No one could see anything wrong with her hands.) But she was much too valuable to the household to be allowed any further leisure, nor was her father willing to part with any more money to pay “those quarks” their “extortionate” fees, and soon Nadia was back at work, and almost immediately her problems returned.
Finally, late one night, the children asleep in their beds, her husband passed out dead drunk on the floor, Nadia was able to tear herself away from the washtub of soiled undergarments long enough to put the finishing touches on what was to be her masterpiece, a scene of cranes cavorting in the Bethesda Fountain. With intense concentration she willed her ravaged hand to put the final subtle stroke to the ambitious silken creation. Stepping back, she surveyed her work critically.
It was crap! Enraged, she seized a huge pair of industrial shears that she used to cut the silk and slashed her painting to shreds. And then, very deliberately, she wedged the sheers into the corner, placed her right wrist between the blades, and fell upon the handles with all her weight, severing her delicate hand.
She hadn’t counted on the pain: searing, unbearable. Howling in agony, and knowing her time was about up anyway, Nadia rushed to the window, threw open the French doors, and flung herself over the balcony, plunging the five floors to her death.
Since that fateful night, Nadia returns to the Chelsea on moonless nights, hovering outside people’s balconies, waving her bloody stump, barred by some infernal power of cosmic retribution from ever again re-entering the hotel. So if you ever see a ghostly shape flit by your window at night, it’s hair and gown billowing though the air, you’ll know it’s Nadia, come to reclaim her hand. -- Ed Hamilton (photo: bluehour)
[Editor’s Note: The names and details have been changed to protect the ectoplasmic. Thanks to Sherrill Tippins for pointing us toward the March 6, 1922 New York Times article that inspired this story: there really was a woman who chopped off her hand and jumped out the window at the Chelsea, and if that won’t make you leave a ghost behind, I don’t know what will.]