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

The Blurb On The Back:

Welcome to The Barbizon.  New York’s premier women-only hotel. 

Built in 1927, New York’s Barbizon Hotel was first intended as a home for the ‘Modern Women’ seeking a career in the arts.  Over the years its 688 tiny pink ‘highly feminine boudoirs’ housed Sylvia Plath, who fictionalised her time there in The Bell Jar, Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly (notorious for sneaking in men), Joan Didion, Candice Bergen, Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith, Cybil Shepherd, Elaine Stritch, Liza Minnelli, Mona Simpson and a whole host of other writers and actors on the cusp of their careers.  Mademoiselle boarded its summer interns there – perfectly turned out young women, who would never be spotted hatless – as did Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School its students – in their white-gloves and kitten heels – and the Ford Modelling Agency its young models.

Not everyone who passed through the Barbizon’s doors was destined for greatness – for some it was a story of dashed hopes and expectations – but from the Jazz Age New Women of the 1920s, to the Liberated Women of the 1960s, until 1981 when the first men checked in, The Barbizon was a place where women could stand up and be counted. 

You can buy THE BARBIZON: THE NEW YORK HOTEL THAT SET WOMEN FREE by Paulina Bren from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Paulina Bren is professor of international studies, gender and media at Vassar College who uses The Barbizon (a women-only hotel which opened in 1927 and only welcomed men in 1981) as the background to this gadfly look at the social changes that women went through during this period.  However, it’s very white middle class and bounces around between women while ultimately only telling me things I already knew about the hypocrisies of the period.

I picked this book up because I am into social history and feminism and this book promises both and, to be fair, it does deliver on that to a degree.  The Barbizon is essentially a McGuffin, used as the backdrop to take a look at the changes that women experienced from the 1920s through to the 1980s and I say “McGuffin” because you don’t learn a huge amount about the hotel here.  

While there is information on how the hotel was financed and established in the 1920s, there are no interviews with the staff who ran it (and precious little beyond the names and functions of 3 people, about whom we learn nothing re their background) and no details of how it was run until we get to the 1970s when Bren explains how the drop in occupancy rates and dated decor led to physical changes to the hotel to change and update the offering (including opening up to male guests).  It’s not clear whether Bren didn’t look into this because she wasn’t interested in it (which is a perfectly fair albeit disappointing decision) or because there are just not enough records to find people who can talk about it authoritatively but I would have liked some kind of nod to it because this book is very much about young, white, predominantly middle class women.  It would have been interesting to get a perspective on how they lived their lives from the people who had to clean up after them, stop their boyfriends from trying to get into their rooms and put them into and out of taxis.  It’s particularly frustrating because Otto the doorman is someone who comes up a number of times in the books but there’s no information on his background or what he was like as a person or what he really thought of the young women he flattered and purported to protect.

The book’s primary focus is on some of the more famous people who stayed at the hotel, including Molly Brown, Joan Didion, Grace Kelly and Sylvia Plath.  Bren clearly got a lot of information from Mademoiselle magazine because the vast majority of people covered in the book were on its prestigious guest editor programme (who were all put up at The Barbizon), which means they were all college educated (even if some never graduated), and most of them are white and from better off family.  There are exceptions to this – Barbara Chase-Riboud is featured as the first African-American to make the guest editor programme and Phylicia Rashad is also featured later but they are very much the exception even though I found their sections interesting (notably how Mademoiselle’s desire to be first and reflect a liberal editorial team runs up against the concerns of the advertising and business team who are concerned about what Chase-Riboud’s presence could do to Southern sellers and readers). 

Bren is particularly interested in Sylvia Plath and her experiences at Mademoiselle.  If you’re a Plath fan then I think you get more from this than I did.  There is a lot of detail here taken from her letters to her mother and the thoughts from the other editors who stayed with her but while it was interesting to learn of her struggles to deal with the pressures of being the guest managing editor and how her actual experiences compared with what she wrote about in The Bell Jar there’s nothing there on how the editorial team at the magazine viewed her performance.  Bren is keen to draw a parallel between Plath’s struggles of wanting to be a writer with the societal expectations of her being a mother and wife and how her suicide and The Bell Jar drew a shadow over the other women but it didn’t really come together for me as an idea, partly because there just isn’t enough of that wider information from her cohorts to bring it to life.  Joan Didion also gets name checked a number of times in the book but while, like Plath, there is a chapter that’s essentially dedicated to her, I can’t say that she actually makes much of an appearance in it.

I did enjoy the information that Bren provides about the workings of Mademoiselle magazine, the experiences of the guest editors and the broad adventures they have.  I also enjoyed the information that we get on the birth of the modelling agencies in New York, including the Powers and Ford agencies – although again, I would have liked more detail here beyond what we get.  And this is all goes to my general issue with the book, it is very broad and it flits from topic to topic without ever really going into depth on those subjects or adding more than broad brushstrokes of colour so that by the time I finished it, I didn’t feel that I’d really learned much more about the plight of women and their moves towards freedom than what I already knew.  This isn’t helped by the fact that Bren sometimes bounces between years within chapters and puts in a lot of names so that at times I was a little lost as to what had previously happened to those people in order to pick up on where they were now.  Similarly, given all the women who feature I would have liked a proper wrap up of what had happened to them all beyond the handful Bren gives us.

Ultimately, I can’t say that I disliked this book.  Bren writes in a fluid manner, she’s clearly done a lot of research on The Barbizon and Mademoiselle and has been hampered by a lack of records on the former.  However there are so many people in this book, such a lack of focus and ultimately, a sense of not really discovering much that’s new, I can’t say that it fully worked for me, although I would check out Bren’s other work.

THE BARBIZON:  THE NEW YORK HOTEL THAT SET WOMEN FREE was released in the United Kingdom on 18th March 2021.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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