The Barbizon by Paulina Bren

What do Rita Hayworth, Molly Brown, Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Jaclyn Smith, Phylicia Rashad, and a slew of writers like Sylvia Plath and Meg Wolitzer have in common? The Barbizon Hotel.

The Barbizon opened in 1928 just when the roaring twenties peaked. It was a hotel for ‘only women’, and during its long history, the beauty of its clientele attracted the attention of many famous men. Who would hang out to get a glimpse of New York’s latest arrivals. Men were never allowed beyond the mezzanine lobby but the hotel on Sixty-Third Street only drew the most prolific crowd.

If a young woman made her way past the interview with the front-desk assistant manager, she was placed into an A, B, or C category depending on her age. Also required were letters of reference regarding moral character, not to mention looks and background. If she passed these tests, she would be escorted to a tiny room consisting of matching bedspread, curtain, and wallpaper with a single bed, dresser, armchair, floor lamp, a small desk, and a wall radio. This was often more than the average small-town girl had at home where she might share space with a sibling. Rates were $10-$22 a week. The Barbizon was luxury and for its residents, it could be home for weeks, months, or even years.

This is where young women were sent to stay in New York because it was known to be a ‘safe’ place, where the elevator operators changed in the evenings to all-female to ensure no men were allowed on the upper floors. There was a front door bouncer to watch out for the female residents, and he took his job seriously. Women who aspired to ‘be somebody’ felt free to study, dance, act, sing, write, or take flight because their haven was the Barbizon.

Mademoiselle magazine used the Barbizon for the winners of their guest editor program and this book highlights many of these young women and their stories. While most only spent one week to a month at the Barbizon, the experience would change their lives as they pranced around to parties and fancy outings supported by the magazine. Most of these women were college students and would return to their homes with even grander dreams than one could imagine after the Mademoiselle experience. 

The author paints a Barbizon tapestry highlighting the enormous number of features the establishment offered to the needs of its residents.  There was never a need to leave the full-service Barbizon. It had a dry cleaner, hairdresser, swimming pool, fashion designs, library, soundproof rooms for musicians and roof gardens.

Of course, each decade required changes to accommodate the latest trends and social requirements. Through the great depression, a world war, and into the fifties the hotel was home to young women artists, writers, and more.

This is an epic tale, and while I’m a chronological thinker, revisiting previous decades and repeating information was a bit of a struggle. But the book is fun and informative and even a bit glamorous. Enjoy.

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