Among the handful of iconic hotels closely entwined with New York’s cultural history, the Barbizon is perhaps less widely known than the Plaza, Algonquin or Waldorf Astoria. But as Paulina Bren’s beguiling new book makes clear, its place in the city’s storied past is no less deserving ... Ms. Bren’s juicy sociocultural history glitters with the names and stories of talented, beautiful young women who passed through the Barbizon’s Italianate atrium lobby on their way to literary and cinematic stardom ... Two institutions helped shape the Barbizon’s legacy: the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School...and Mademoiselle magazine ... Ms. Bren convincingly argues that the histories of both shed light on the history of women in 20th-century America ... In considering the repercussions of Prohibition, the Depression and McCarthyism on American women, Ms. Bren occasionally wanders too far into tangential material. But one of the book’s more intriguing side stories concerns the hotel’s long-haulers, dubbed 'The Women' ... And in this captivating portrait, the hotel comes alive again as an enchanted site of a bygone era, 'a place of glamour, desire, and young female ambition.'
The historian Paulina Bren, in her new book, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free (Simon & Schuster), chronicles the experiences of these women, and of some of the hundreds of thousands of others like them, who stayed in the hotel. More than a biography of a building, the book is an absorbing history of labor and women’s rights in one of the country’s largest cities, and also of the places that those women left behind to chase their dreams. In Bren’s telling, some of the same forces that brought them to Manhattan led to the end of the Barbizon as they knew it—and to the New York City that we know today ... Bren argues that what first attracted women to the hotel is what ultimately shut it down: freedom ... The Barbizon is full of fantastic detail, from Grace Kelly scandalizing other guests by dancing topless in the hallway to the litany of men who claimed to have sneaked past the front desk. But, apart from one stray remark, Bren ignores whatever countercultural narratives might have been recovered from the shadows and silences of the hotel’s institutional history.
...captivating ... 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 traces the historical pattern of women’s advancement followed by sexist backlash ... 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.
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 .. 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.
... [a] lively history ... The Barbizon is a story as much about 20th-century women seizing agency, in fits and starts, as it is about a hotel, and Bren tells it skillfully ... The Barbizon could boast of numerous success stories among the women who lived there. But it was also a place where ambition met reality, and Bren, a Vassar historian, ably documents that sad fact.
... [an[ entertaining history ... Bren’s book is a fascinating look at a piece of hidden female history. The fortunes of the hotel are entwined with the changing role of women in the 20th century. It’s timely too: 100 years after it was built, in the wake of #MeToo and the death of Sarah Everard, the idea of a women-only hotel feels not anachronistic but liberating.
... a deeply researched history, leavened with gossip ... History is more compelling when it’s viewed through a particular community or institution, and by using the Barbizon as a window, Bren offers a full sweep of the changing status of American women in the twentieth century ... The author strains not to let Plath run away with the book, but she does not succeed.
Bren elegantly weaves interviews with former residents and archival research with context on the social and political conditions that limited midcentury women. She devotes attention both to those glamorous residents who made it big, including Joan Crawford and Grace Kelly, and those who tried and failed to live autonomously.
Bren brings impressive academic credentials to her history of the Barbizon. Unfortunately, her book’s subject, at least in her telling, does not live up to its billing as 'the hotel that set women free.'
Paulina Bren takes readers deep into the world of New York’s most famous women-only residential hotel ... The Barbizon really comes alive in its depictions of what happened to residents outside the hotel, from Mademoiselle magazine’s guest editor program (which hosted Didion and Plath) to Eileen Ford’s trailblazing modeling agency to the Depression-era secretarial schools that offered single women ways to make their own incomes. It all serves as a potent reminder of how important a little space can be in the quest for freedom.
[A] handsome, fascinatingly-written volume about life in the women-only hotel ... This book deconstructs the thoughts and feelings of some of the hotel’s most famous denizens in a well-told and streamlined fashion ... 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.
Bren...excels with this insightful, well-written account ... Because of the difficulties of finding specific material about the hotel itself, the book often veers into a history of the magazine Mademoiselle and several modeling agencies, where many residents worked. However, these anecdotes provide additional context into the lives of the women who inhabited the hotel and their lasting influence ... A must read for anyone interested in the history of 20th-century women's lives, fashion, publishing, and New York.
... [a] scintillating, many-faceted history ... Varying delectably in cadence, from high-heel tapping and typewriter clacking to sinuous and reflective passages analyzing the complex forms of adversity Barbizon women faced over the decades, Bren’s engrossing and illuminating inquiry portrays the original Barbizon as a vital microcosm of the long quest for women’s equality.
Historian Bren...delivers an entertaining and enlightening account of New York’s Barbizon Hotel and the role it played in fostering women’s ambitions in 20th-century America ... Carefully researched yet breezily written, this appealing history gives the Barbizon its rightful turn in the spotlight.
Drawing on extensive research, extant letters, and numerous interviews, Bren beautifully weaves together the political climate of the times and the illuminating personal stories of the Barbizon residents. Although some parts of the narrative are repetitive, particularly regarding Plath and Kelly, the book remains captivating ... Elegant prose brings a rich cultural history alive.