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The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free


The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free

In the clamor of the Roaring Twenties, taking advantage of certain loopholes in the regulations for residential structures, the Barbizon Hotel was constructed and designated for women only. The notion was more protective than radical, aimed at young women seeking jobs, rather than professions, in New York City and beyond, and showing a strong preference --- through its arcane rating system --- for young, attractive ladies. Yet it would house many budding feminists who influenced later generations.

Noted historian and professor Paulina Bren has brought the Barbizon into focus, helping us to better understand the place itself and the people who managed it and lived within its walls, some for many years.

"THE BARBIZON should be required reading for thoughtful, free-thinking women of all ages."

The women who came to the Barbizon were of varied backgrounds. Some were guest editors for Mademoiselle magazine, lucky winners of the publication’s annual contest. Some would study at the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, or try out for modeling careers with the Ford Modeling Agency, both organizations housed within the facility. Or they might simply be women with a private mission in the city needing a safe, sheltering atmosphere. The Barbizon was specially designed to have the same functionalities as any similar facility for men: a gymnasium, on-site meals, lounges, a small theater and a library.

Women like Grace Kelly and Cybill Shepherd got their first taste of a career in the limelight, while Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath pursued the quieter challenge of writing. Plath is featured throughout this lively account, as she would later write in THE BELL JAR of a young woman’s ultimately frustrating sojourn at “The Amazon.” Quite significant, too, is Bren’s depiction of the first Black woman, chosen as a Mademoiselle guest editor, to inhabit the Barbizon in the mid-1950s. Barbara Chase, a Temple University student and an award-winning artist, took her achievement in stride.

Contrasting the social norms with the aspirations of the Barbizon’s residents, Bren shows that, from its inception in 1928 and for many years thereafter, women in general were expected to remain virgins and seek the right husband to give them happiness. Young women suddenly faced with the reality of those mores contrasted with their feelings and impulses could be dramatic, at times resulting in suicide within the Barbizon’s walls. In the 1950s, journalist Gael Greene was given the assignment to live among New York’s “lone women,” and her observations provided a unique perspective for readers.

That and many other gems have been gleaned by Bren in constructing this cultural memoir, centered on an unusually private shelter in a very public city. THE BARBIZON should be required reading for thoughtful, free-thinking women of all ages. 

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on March 12, 2021

The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free
by Paulina Bren

  • Publication Date: March 15, 2022
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1982123907
  • ISBN-13: 9781982123901