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The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free

by Paulina Bren

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Fascinating history of the Barbizon Hotel, or 'Club Residence for Professional Women', in New York - and other associated topics, including Mademoiselle magazine - which opened in 1928 and weathered nearly 80 years of famous residents, changing trends and declining fortune before being turned into designer condominiums in 2005.

Not the first but one of the most famous female-only residences, the Barbizon was the home of writers including Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion, winners of the Mademoiselle 'guest editor' contest, actresses Grace Kelly and Ally McGraw, but also many determined but unknown young women claiming independence from men and marriage in the 1920s and 1930s, including Gibbs Girls and Powers models. Sadly, this pioneering spirit later turned into the 'marriage market' of the 1950s: Yet all the women at the Barbizon, from the debutantes to the Carolyns, shared the same goal: marriage. As bold as one might be, however big one might dream, as a young woman you knew that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was marriage. Had to be marriage. Even if a part of you longed to be an actress, a writer, a model, an artist.

Paulina Bren admits that there are few surviving archives for the Barbizon - I would have loved to see more photos of the original interiors! - but she has certainly done her research and exhausted all available sources, including interviewing a wide selection of past residents. The memory of Sylvia Plath features prominently, combining the symbiotic relationship of the Mademoiselle's guest editors and the safe retreat of the Barbizon - The Bell Jar is a fictionalised account of her stay at the hotel, which she renamed the Amazon (and which I now want to read!)

I would normally be sad to read about the decline of such a memorable establishment in all its Art Deco glory but honestly, after pages of men-mad women, suicides and ageing hangers-on (a small group of original residents clung onto their rooms through numerous renovations and rebuildings, even after men were admitted in the 1980s), I was kind of glad when money moved in and independence moved out. The 1950s were definitely the most depressing era, however!

An entertaining and accessible history of an iconic building, which I sadly hadn't heard of before reading this! ( )
  AdonisGuilfoyle | Nov 14, 2021 |
In the early 1980’s I stayed at The Barbizon when I was in New York City on business. By that time, it was in its last gasp as a going concern, and was a regular hotel, not a residential one. I remember how small and cramped the rooms were and wondered how anyone could have lived there for more than a few days. But lived there, people did – lots of them. The Barbizon was arguably the most famous of the several women’s residential hotels in New York.

Beginning in the 1920’s it offered a safe, respectable place to live for hundreds of young women who were coming to the city to pursue a career, be it in business acting or modeling. As the years went on, businesses reserved space for “their girls” in the hotel, most notably The Powers and Ford modeling agencies, Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School, And Mademoiselle Magazine for its College Guest Editors Based on these corporate endorsements as well as by word of mouth from the hotel’s “alumna,” The Barbizon became the place where parents felt their daughters would be safe while making their way in the big, bad city.

Of course, like so many things, all of this changed in the late 1960’s through the 1970’s. The hotel lost its éclat and started to be considered dowdy and out of date. It went through several iterations as a hotel, before being converted to luxury condominiums in the 1980’s.

This book provides an interesting look into a New York and a society that is gone forever. ( )
  etxgardener | Aug 15, 2021 |
Read sample. Did not spark a lot of interest in reading more ( )
  cjordan916 | Aug 11, 2021 |
NOT VERY GOOD. not interesting to me.
  evatkaplan | Aug 9, 2021 |
The Barbizon Residential Hotel for Women opened in midtown Manhattan in 1928 and immediately marketed itself as a safe space for the New Woman looking to explore New York City. Over the decades the hotel, with its weekly rents and women-only rules became a space where big names but also many working women landed as they explored their options in the city. Bren's history explores both the history of the building but also focuses on some of its notable residents, including Grace Kelly, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath (who fictionalized her experiences at the Barbizon and her guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine in The Bell Jar). As the hotel's success was intertwined with that of Mademoiselle magazine and also the Gibbs secretarial school (and to a lesser extent the Powers modeling agency), Bren also provides insights into these organizations and the women who worked there and stayed at the Barbizon. Bren is cognizant of the Barbizon as largely the refuge of white, upper-middle class women but does include a section on Barbara Chase, the first Black guest editor at Mademoiselle and likely the first Black woman to stay at the Barbizon. Well written for a general audience, this is a great read for those interested in women's history particularly of the 1920s-1960s. ( )
  MickyFine | Jul 27, 2021 |
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Who was the woman who stayed at New York's famous Barbizon Hotel? - Introduction
The New Woman arrived in the closing decade of the nineteenth century. -Chapter One
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The rush of excitement when this young woman walked through the front doors of the Barbizon would be impossible to replicate later in life because of what it meant in that moment: she had made her escape from her hometown and all the expectations (or none) that came with it. She had left that all behind, resolutely, often after months of pleading, saving, scrimping, plotting. She was here now, in New York, ready to remake herself, to start an entirely new life. She had taken her fate into her own hands.
Opening in 1903, the Martha Washington was a squat twelve stories that stretched one city block along Madison Avenue from Twenty-Ninth to Thirtieth Street. Far ahead of its time, it addressed a need for accommodations for self-supporting white-collar women when New York hotel rules stipulated that no single female traveler could be offered a room after 6:00 p.m. unless she was hauling a heavy travel trunk to prove she was no prostitute.
By 1934, there would be seventy-five thousand homeless single women in New York. Just as men had apples to sell, they also had flophouses to go to, dormitory beds for twenty-five cents or less, while the women had nothing. Instead, they rode the subways and sat in train stations, the invisible victims of the Great Depression. With nothing to peddle, many were reduced to selling their own bodies, taking on sex work to balance the scale between life and death. Black women looking for domestic work gathered on street corners, waiting for employers to drive by and make an offer; the women called it their new “slave markets.” In the 1920s, some young black women had participated in flapper culture just like their white counterparts; that march forward stopped short. Now both white and black women were expected to hand over to men whatever jobs and self-respect might be left for the taking. More than 80 percent of Americans believed that a woman’s proper place was again in the home.
By 1932, twenty-six states had made it illegal for married women to hold a job, and in the states where it was not mandatory to quit work upon marriage, it was still mandatory to disclose one’s impending married status because it was considered outrageous for a woman to be taking a job away from a “real” breadwinner.
George Davis’s swift slide into McCarthyism, even as he swore he was against the Red-baiting, clearly conflated communism with a distaste for ambitious women. In this, George, albeit a bohemian, a homosexual, and a New Yorker, was not so very different from many other Americans.
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