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

As I continue my quest to read something from each of the Dewey decimal system classes, this non-fiction book is from the 300 series referring to the social sciences.  I’d picked it up at a bookstore years ago and never read it, but when I read The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis, I thought reading it now might make for an interesting comparison.

This residential hotel for women was built during the roaring 1920s, when women, intent on being more than just daughter, wife or mother, began to stretch their wings towards independence. They poured into New York City and other cities, and a certain class of women, especially white, college graduates, needed a respectable place to stay. Residential hotels were already a thing in the cities, for men, and even for families, so the Barbizon Hotel was built.

Over the years, the hotel has hosted many notable, and many unknown women with ambitions. It provided a safe space for each of them, a room of their own to plot and plan the rest of their lives. Some of those residents included models from the new modeling agencies, including Powers or Ford. The number of these beautiful women living there gave the hotel its nickname, “the dollhouse,” and men loitered nearby hoping to meet the beautiful girl of their dreams. Secretarial students from the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school took up a block of rooms in the hotel for many years. And even the guest editors, also known as summer interns, for Mademoiselle magazine stayed at the hotel during their time in New York.

The list of notables who stayed at the hotel includes women like Grace, Kelly, and the unsinkable Molly Brown, Ali McGraw, Phylicia Rashad, and Liza Minnelli, whose mother, Judy Garland, apparently called the hotel at all hours of the day and night for staff to check on her daughter. Author Sylvia Plath whose semi-autobiographical account of her own life, The Bell Jar, was a thinly disguised account of her time as Madmoiselle Guest Editor and residency at the hotel, and the conflict she felt between her ambition and societal pressure to accept life as wife and mother.

The book is a fascinating history not just of a New York City landmark and the famous people who have passed through its doors, but it’s a compelling story of women, women’s ambition and how women cope with societal pressures. I could probably write a lot more about this book, but it’s an easy to read, non-fiction account of a building, a city, and women’s ambition beyond traditional societal roles.