The Hotel That Set Women Free
By Paulina Bren
Grace Kelly lived there before she was famous, and at least evvel, she danced topless through the halls. A young Sylvia Plath lived there too, and in her semi-autobiographical novel, “The Bell Jar,” she fictionalized it as “The Amazon,” the hotel where her protagonist, Esther Greenwood, stays during a summer magazine internship. Joan Didion stayed there as a 20-year-old on a break from college at Berkeley, beginning her writing career and her time in New York. In her essay “Goodbye to All That,” Didion describes arriving in the city and finding her hotel room freezing cold: Young, naïve and already overwhelmed by New York, she was too afraid to call the front desk to ask for someone to come turn off the air-conditioner. “Was anyone ever so young?” she wrote later. “I am here to tell you that someone was.” Calling her boyfriend back home in California, she told him that she could see the Brooklyn Bridge from her hotel room window. In fact, the bridge was the Queensboro. The hotel was the Barbizon.
The Barbizon Hotel for women — the subject of Paulina Bren’s captivating history, “The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free” — first opened its doors on East 63rd Street in 1928. Prohibition was in full force, and the all-female residents who lived on the hotel’s 23 floors and in its 720 rooms had held the right to vote for less than a decade. A strictly single-sex establishment, the Barbizon forbade men to go beyond the lobby, and this was part of the hotel’s appeal. The women who stayed there — some for only a few days, others for months or years — chose the Barbizon precisely because men were not permitted. The hotel offered exclusivity and an appearance of chaste propriety in an era when the city more broadly, and women’s independence in it in particular, were regarded with suspicion, as full of dangers. By the time the hotel went coed in 1981 (it was converted into condos in 2007), the city had transformed — and with it the strictures of American womanhood that its guests navigated ever so precariously.
During its 53 years as a women’s hotel, the Barbizon hosted generations of mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly very young women. They came to New York as aspiring writers, artists and actresses, often fresh from graduation at a Seven Sisters college or from winning a local beauty pageant, lured by the stardom that beckoned in the big city. With music and dance practice rooms, regular lectures and an oak-paneled library, the Barbizon aimed to be the place where these young women not just hung their hats, but also cultivated their minds. It proved a launching pad for some of the 20th century’s most impressive careers.
Nominally an account of the hotel’s history, Bren’s book is really about the changing cultural perceptions of women’s ambition throughout the last century, set against the backdrop of that most famous theater of aspiration, New York City. Bren, a historian at Vassar, details how the residential hotel model, common at the time of the Barbizon’s inception, provided for maid service and food on site, provisions that allowed the women to focus on their professions without the burden of housework. The careers that began at the Barbizon are the focus of the book, with Bren dwelling on the hotel’s famous denizens, who included writers like Gael Greene, Ann Beattie and Mona Simpson as well as actresses like Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen and Phylicia Rashad. Bren also traces the symbiosis between the hotel and several influential cultural institutions, from the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, which rented floors at the Barbizon for its dormitories, to Mademoiselle magazine, which housed its young guest editors there, to the Ford Modeling Agency, which was dreamed up by two modeling industry veterans in one of the Barbizon’s cozy bedrooms.
The hotel full of ambitious young women — at a time when women’s ambition was met with even more anxiety and contradiction than it is today — was bound to be a site of controversy and disappointment. Bren traces the historical pattern of women’s advancement followed by sexist backlash. The independent flappers of the 1920s were succeeded by misogynist hostility during the Great Depression, when working women were seen as taking men’s jobs. The female independence of the World War II era, exemplified by Rosie the Riveter, was followed by a mandated return to domesticity in the 1950s. But the Barbizon’s residents navigated the perils of every era with persistence and grit.
“The Barbizon” is touching in its loyalty to these women, the ones who arrived with suitcases and dreams in the Barbizon’s grand lobby. Bren draws on an impressive amount of archival research, and pays tender attention to each of the women she profiles. But in the rush to do justice to every story, she can hew a bit too closely to her subjects’ point of view, watching them negotiate the constraints of their day without pausing to consider what those restrictions really meant. The Barbizon was a contradiction: a hotel placed in the heart of New York and its possibilities but filled with staff who could function as chaperones, enforcing dress codes and shooing away men. Was the Barbizon’s single-sex rule a liberating protection, or a confining trap? Bren sees the hotel only as what it was for its residents: the best option available to them at the time.