Desert Isle Keeper
The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free
Paulina Bren focuses in on life at New York’s Barbizon Hotel in The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free, a handsome, fascinatingly-written volume about life in the women-only hotel.
An outpost for middle class, mainly white, women in New York high society, The Barbizon was considered a safe and respectable place for young ladies to stay. Models, dancers, secretaries, writers, actors – they all visited, lived at, or stayed at the Barbizon, their dates and boyfriends forced to wait for them in the lobby. This book deconstructs the thoughts and feelings of some of the hotel’s most famous denizens in a well-told and streamlined fashion.
The Barbizon gained its fame when Molly Brown stayed there and began spreading word of it. Soon the place became well-known as a haven for young women who were making something fresh of their lives – as chorus girls or typists with their eyes on Broadway. Bren catches the breathless tone of the times and of these women, who would succeed, flame out into indifferent, ordinary lives, or – as a chosen few, such as Grace Kelly, did – reach greatness.
Much of the book focuses in on the 1940s and 50s, when Mademoiselle editor-in-chief Betsy Talbot Blackwell infamously made the hotel a place for her all-female staff, and her guest editors – fresh faced kids entering college, like Joan Didion or Sylvia Plath – stayed through the duration of their positions. Plath used her somewhat disastrous stay there while she lived as a guest-editor for Mademoiselle as the basis for The Bell Jar – when she triumphantly returned after surviving a suicide attempt as a bright-eyed college student with her eyes on a Fulbright scholarship, whispers and jealousy trailed her. Interviewing some of Plath and Didon’s contemporaries, Bren manages to pull up fresh insights about both women, especially Plath’s long-trammeled biographical life.
Mademoiselle and the Barbizon would age together, and when Meg Wolitzer – part of the final group of Mademoiselle guest editors in 1979 – stayed there, there was a lack of reverence for the crumbling old hotel. From giving young women in the ‘10s and ‘20s enough room to breathe and accomplish away-from-home-careers to helping young college women find the men of their dreams, the Barbizon stood tall, shielding them from the outside world as they hid their own secret peccadilloes.
The modern world eventually came to slay the Barbizon. The women’s movement, the skyrocketing crime rates and plummeting occupancy levels of New York in the 1970s would go on to have a detrimental effect on the Barbizon, until it went coed in the 1980s and was transformed into condominiums. Ricky Gervais maintains a home there, according to Bren.
The Barbizon is a tribute to the Rita Hayworth (who famously posed for a pin-up beside the hotel’s pool) and to the hundreds of ordinary women who lived among them. Bren focuses in on a bunch of local and notable characters living there – the group of eight elderly women who have been living there for decades, called The Women, who have no communal history other than their living location. The overall effect is a stunning and surprisingly affecting piece of history. Bren has done her due diligence, and the story of the Barbizon springs to glorious life under her capable hands. I give it my highest recommendation.