Built in 1927 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, Manhattan's Barbizon Hotel was intended as a safe haven for the 'Modern Woman' seeking a career in the arts. Initially run like a strict college dormitory where staff kept a close eye on its female inhabitants—including luminaries like Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Grace Kelly and Liza Minelli—the hotel had a colorful history that, as this volume tracks, eventually changed with the times.
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.