The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free (Paperback)
A “captivating portrait” (The Wall Street Journal), both “poignant and intriguing” (The New Republic): from award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the remarkable history of New York’s most famous residential hotel and the women who stayed there, including Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Joan Didion.
Welcome to New York’s legendary hotel for women, the Barbizon.
Liberated after WWI from home and hearth, women flocked to New York City during the Roaring Twenties. But even as women’s residential hotels became the fashion, the Barbizon stood out; it was designed for young women with artistic aspirations, and included soaring art studios and soundproofed practice rooms. More importantly still, with no men allowed beyond the lobby, the Barbizon signaled respectability, a place where a young woman of a certain class could feel at home.
But as the stock market crashed and the Great Depression set in, the clientele changed, though women’s ambitions did not; the Barbizon Hotel became the go-to destination for any young American woman with a dream to be something more. While Sylvia Plath most famously fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, the Barbizon was also where Titanic survivor Molly Brown sang her last aria; where Grace Kelly danced topless in the hallways; where Joan Didion got her first taste of Manhattan; and where both Ali MacGraw and Jaclyn Smith found their calling as actresses. Students of the prestigious Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School had three floors to themselves, Eileen Ford used the hotel as a guest house for her youngest models, and Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, including a young designer named Betsey Johnson.
The first ever history of this extraordinary hotel, and of the women who arrived in New York City alone from “elsewhere” with a suitcase and a dream, The Barbizon offers readers a multilayered history of New York City in the 20th century, and of the generations of American women torn between their desire for independence and their looming social expiration date. By providing women a room of their own, the Barbizon was the hotel that set them free.
About the Author
Paulina Bren is an award-winning historian and a professor at Vassar College, where she teaches international, gender, and media studies. She received a BA from Wesleyan University, an MA in international studies from the University of Washington, and a PhD in history from New York University. She lives in New York with her husband and daughter.
"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."
— The New Yorker
"A captivating 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 draws on an impressive amount of archival research, and pays tender attention to each of the women she profiles."
— The New York Times Book Review
"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...In this captivating portrait, the hotel comes alive again as an enchanted site of a bygone era."
— The Wall Street Journal
"Fascinating...If you love the glimpses of the long-ago New York City of Midge Maisel and Peggy "Mad Men" Olson, you will want to read this true tale of a bygone New York City."
— Marie Claire
“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 Washington Post
"The first history of the hotel and the ambitious women who stayed there...poignant and intriguing."
— The New Republic
"While Bren’s book is packed with juicy midcentury gossip, it’s also full of lesser-known characters who light up the pages...It all serves as a potent reminder of how important a little space can be in the quest for freedom."
“With enough smoldering glamour to make Mad Men look dreary…Bren’s captivating book tells the story of this women’s residential hotel, from its construction in 1927 on Manhattan’s 140 East 63rd Street, to its eventual conversion into multimillion-dollar condominiums in 2007. But it is also a brilliant many-layered social history of women’s ambition and a rapidly changing New York throughout the 20th century.”
— The Guardian
"Bren elegantly weaves interviews with former residents and archival research with context on the social and political conditions that limited midcentury women."
"So you say that you love to read biographies. Generals, actors, scientists, politicians, add this to your list. The Barbizon is a biography of a hotel. And yet, a building is nothing but materials, so author Paulina Bren weaves concrete and glass with confidence and glitz, and Carols and Gaels. She opens her tale in a just-right manner, with money and a deliciously outrageous woman, proceeding then through decades of American fads and ideals, stretching from Dust Bowl to disco….Irresistibly readable.”
— Yankton Daily Press
"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."
— BOOKLIST (Starred)
"[An] insightful, well-written account...[Bren] details the lives of some of the Barbizon’s most well-known residents, including Molly Brown, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Joan Didion, and provides historical context about midcentury single women, careers, and sex...A must read for anyone interested in the history of 20th-century women’s lives, fashion, publishing, and New York."
— LIBRARY JOURNAL (Starred)
"A rare glimpse behind the doors of New York’s famous women-only residential hotel...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...Elegant prose brings a rich cultural history alive."
"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."
— PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
"A fascinating look at a piece of forgotten female history."
— Sunday Times (UK)
"A treat, elegantly spinning a forgotten story of female liberation, ambition and self-invention."
— The Guardian
"Illuminating . . . this vivid, well-researched account is testament to its vibrant history and the women who made it such a powerhouse."
— Daily Express
"Captivating...a brilliant many-layered social history of women's ambition and a rapidly changing New York."
— The Observer
"Before Sex and the Single Girl, before “Sex and the City,” there was the Barbizon. It was a romantic building with a romantic purpose: It fixed a woman up with her dreams. Paulina Bren has written a stylish, charming history of a unique institution, brimming with aspiration and idiosyncrasy, and one that allowed a woman to survive without either marrying someone or cooking him dinner – even when she was barred from so much as taking a seat at the bar."
— STACY SCHIFF, author of The Witches and Pulitzer Prize Winner
"Bren catches the breathless tone of the times and of these women, who would succeed, flame out into indifferent, ordinary lives, or – as a chosen few, such as Grace Kelly, did – reach greatness....A stunning and surprisingly affecting piece of history."
— All About Romance
"Residents of the Barbizon Hotel were once described as 'young women alone.' Thanks to Paulina Bren, they are alone no longer. The Barbizon is a fascinating social history of a forgotten place and time and an intimate portrait of women, trying to find their way in a pre-feminist world. I'll never look at a hotel and think the same way again."
— KEITH O'BRIEN, New York Times bestselling author of Fly Girls
"This is the history I’ve been wanting to read all my life. I just didn’t know where to look. How delightful to find it in the legacy of this magical hotel, captured in brilliant detail by the masterful Paulina Bren. Even if you can’t move into the Barbizon, reading this book will make you feel like you’ve lived there for years. You’ll never want to move out."
— MEGHAN DAUM, author of The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars
"From famous models to Joan Didion, from hopeful stenographers to Sylvia Plath. The Barbizon housed women who eagerly sought independence, adventure, and careers in New York City. Besides the story of the famous women-only hotel, The Barbizon chronicles key aspects of American women's history in the first half of the twentieth century. A compelling read!"
— LYNN DUMENIL, author The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I