Inside the Barbizon: ‘The hotel that set women free’

Author Paulina Bren reveals the history of single working women of a certain set, and what it meant to have the freedom to build their lives and tap their ambition in New York City, far from small-town restrictions and family expectations.
March 2, 2021, 5:00 AM UTC
“The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free” by Paulina Bren
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

The Barbizon Residential Hotel for Women was built in 1927 on 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue as part of a larger trend after World War I to create room—quite literally!—for the thousands of women pouring into New York to work in the dazzling new skyscrapers. They did not want to stay in uncomfortable boardinghouses. They wanted what men already had: exclusive “club residences,” residential hotels with weekly rates, daily maid service, and a dining room instead of the burden of a kitchen.

The Barbizon was originally designed for young women with artistic flair, and so it included not only the requisite restaurant, coffee shop, library, parlors, and workout rooms (because keeping fit was now all the rage in the age of the flapper), but also soundproofed music rooms, airy artist studios, and a performance venue replete with stage and organ. Yet the Barbizon, unlike so many other women’s hotels, managed to survive the Great Depression that came soon after by remarketing itself as the destination for any ambitious, out-of-town girl with a suitcase and a dream; Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Phylicia Rashad, Betsy Johnson, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, and Meg Wolitzer, among others, would all pass through the Barbizon’s doors. 

Perhaps most crucially, the Barbizon offered something that was central to men’s residential hotels: an atmosphere ripe for casual networking. In 1933, the Barbizon’s print advertisements got right to the point: “Success depends, to a large extent, on your physical comfort, recreations, and mental stimulation after business hours. Barbizon young women are alive…eager to achieve—because they associate with people active in business and professional life…artists…musicians…dramatists…writers…people capable of valuable and charming friendships. Be one of them!” Women were called on to come live and network at the Barbizon, and to extend that to the various touchstones and gathering places common to the hotel’s residents: the offices of Mademoiselle magazine, the brownstone of the Ford Modeling Agency, the typing classes at the Katharine Gibbs School, and the after-hours singles bar at Malachy’s. 

Men were not allowed beyond the hotel’s lobby, but in many ways this gave the women inside the salmon-bricked hotel with its Art Deco lines and neo-Gothic turrets that much more opportunity to find their way, to forge their careers, as they chatted about dates, hairpins, and jobs. Success by affiliation also worked its charm; everyone knew the hotel was packed full with aspiring actresses, models, singers, writers, and businesswomen. The Barbizon was a glamorous yet safe starting point, with a legacy of women’s success in a city that could often feel daunting, particularly for working women forging their way among men who were seldom excited to find them in their midst.

Yet the 1960s would be a turning point that suggested women’s success might also be the Barbizon’s ultimate downfall.

Below is an excerpt from my book The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free, available Mar. 2.

Author Paulina Bren
Adam Patane

Ironically, it would be the onset of the 1960s women’s movement that would sound the death knell for the Barbizon. The residential hotel built in the 1920s on the promise of women’s independence and the nurturing of their artistic talents and all-around ambition would become a casualty of that very same goal. The movement would call into question the need for sequestering women: What was the line between aiding women’s growth and independence in a no-man environment, protecting them in a man- free zone, and cloistering them from the world and its gendered realities?

Change was in the air. In September 1959, Mademoiselle contacted beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg at 170 East Second Street, in New York’s Alphabet City. As a “gesture at the beginning of a new decade,” the editors were reaching out to a number of “young creators” who over the past several years had “voiced significant protests against entrenched attitudes.” They wanted a piece from Ginsberg and others for the January 1960 issue. The result was “Seven Young Voices Speak Up to the Sixties,” and it began with an editorial note: “Whatever one may think of them, certainly if more voices like these speak up, lively and idiosyncratic, we may look forward to the decade with cheerful curiosity.” The January 1960 issue created tremendous buzz, with Joyce Johnson, girlfriend of Jack Kerouac, claiming that Mademoiselle had just given “several thousand young women between fourteen and twenty-five” a “map to a revolution.” The magazine was as forward-thinking as ever, anticipating change that was only just on the horizon.

The following month, in February, four African American college students famously sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter reserved for whites in Greensboro, N.C., and refused to leave. In November, a young John F. Kennedy was elected President, taking office in 1961 with a challenge to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you,” but “what you can do for your country.” Women flocked to the civil rights and anti-war movements, yet, more often than not, they found their job was to make coffee while men “made politics.” A women’s movement slowly began to percolate alongside those countless cups of coffee.

In 1961, the birth control pill was introduced. It would prove to be revolutionary for sexual relations and gender equality, but the effect was not immediate by any means. To get a prescription for the pill, you still had to be married, or pretend to be married. Judith Innes, Radcliffe College graduate and Barbizon resident, managed to get hold of the pill under false pretenses but that was hardly enough protection. The ideas by which Sylvia Plath and her cohorts’ sexual desires had been directed and controlled remained firmly in place: the assumption was that men were sexual and there- fore blameless. Blame, in all sorts of ways, lay with women. Men got excited, and either women had to put in their best effort to prevent that from happening or else, if they failed, take care of his “pain.” Stories of classmates and friends caught in a dark room alone with a man, who would push her down on a table, were commonplace. Tippi Hedren, the dazzling blond star of Hitchcock’s thriller The Birds, was discovered at age fourteen by Minnesota’s Donaldson’s department store. On her twentieth birthday, she flew out to New York, checked into the Barbizon, and signed with Eileen Ford. While peddling Sego, a diet drink, the one-hundred-pound Tippi was discovered by Hitchcock, who liked to bring in relative unknowns to play lead roles, in part because they were easier to prey upon. Tippi understood this unequivocally once the first live shoot was over and she looked at herself in the mirror: the ravens and magpies, ordered by Hitchcock for the film, had gouged her cheek, just missing her eye. But one didn’t even need to be a Hitchcock to have that kind of power over women.

The Barbizon, therefore, was still a safe place, and a necessary one, even as optically the world was starting to change. Joan Gage, a budding writer, arrived there in 1961 looking gray and emaciated; she had just about survived her college final exams with the help of cigarettes, coffee, Mars bars, and Dexedrine, the popular diet-pill that was in fact over-the-counter speed. But the toxins were worth it. She had made it to New York, and the city would prove to be transformative. Joan, who was from the Midwest, mistakenly drank the shrimp cocktail at La Fonda del Sol, but was also introduced to her first communist at the White Horse Tavern, Dylan Thomas’s favorite haunt, and even learned how to eat an artichoke. She liked to wear “slacks,” which was hardly an issue anymore for most young women, but the Barbizon fashion police at the front desk were having none of it, and when she tried to stride briskly across the lobby in them, from the elevator and out the front door, they ordered her right back before she could sully the hotel’s reputation.

The year 1962 saw the publication of the notorious Sex and the Single Girl, which, like the January 1960 Mademoiselle issue, was channeling the zeitgeist. Before ascending to editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, copywriter Helen Gurley Brown became famous for her outlandish self-help book, in which she called for a sexual revolution of sorts. She advised women to make the radical decision to marry much later in life (as she herself had). “I think marriage is insurance for the worst years of your life,” Brown wrote. “During your best years you don’t need a husband. You do need a man of course…but they are often cheaper emotionally and a lot more fun by the dozen.” Referencing the outcome of far too many women who had married in the 1950s, she added: “Isn’t it silly? A man can leave a woman at fifty (though it may cost him some dough) as surely as you can leave dishes in the sink.” The book, endorsed by the somewhat unlikely duo of Hollywood star Joan Crawford and burlesque entertainer Gypsy Lee Rose, changed the conversation or, certainly, forced one onto America—much like the 1953 Kinsey Report on female sexuality had done.

That said, Helen Gurley Brown was still seeped in the value system of the 1950s. A woman should do anything to look good, she berated: a high-protein diet, dress purchases over food purchases, nose jobs, wigs, artful makeup. Your surroundings too were an important extension of your image and not to be overlooked. An effective mantrap of a single gal’s apartment required a good TV for him (although not so big that it would take time away from you), a brandy snifter whimsically filled with cigarettes, sexy cushions, a well-stocked liquor cabinet. But it was also a tight ship: any liquor downed by your prince was to be replaced by him, and twenty restaurant dinners on him equaled one home-cooked meal from you. Within this morass of questionable advice, there was a message that young women at the Barbizon had long known: a single woman had to be able to provide for herself. Sexual freedom only came with economic freedom. The flappers knew that; the Gibbs girls knew that; the Powers models knew that.

What Helen Gurley Brown was advising—such as that a sleepover date might enjoy breakfast in bed the following morning, preferably a glass of half clam and half tomato juice with a wedge of lemon, an omelet surprise, toast, and coffee—was not exactly new. It just hadn’t been said so publicly for decades now. The novelist Mary McCarthy, writing in the 1930s, referenced the “perennial spinster” (“the single gal”—in Brown’s parlance) “whose bed the morning after a sexual adventure will always be made up…while coffee for two drips in the Silex and toast pops out of the electrical toaster.” Just as much of a throwback was Brown’s rediscovery of female ambition. Brown told her young readers to wear clean lingerie every day, to mix up various styles and periods of furniture for flare and sophistication, to stop “being a slug” and get out there. Joan Didion followed Brown on her Los Angeles book tour for an article in the Saturday Evening Post, where she pointed out that Brown’s battle cry was “old-fashioned ambition so increasingly uncommon that her young readers will recognize it only from early Joan Crawford movies.” In other words, the repression of female sexuality and ambition during the 1950s had been such that Helen Gurley Brown was being revolutionary by being retrograde.

In 1963, one year after Sex and the Single Girl hit the bookstores, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. While the two authors would disagree on what constituted women’s liberation, both understood that a woman without an independent life would suffer in a variety of ways. Betty Friedan wrote that women were being advised “how to catch a man and keep him,” while simultaneously taught “to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents.” Friedan was right. In one of Betsy Talbot Blackwell’s many marketing surveys, a student at Radcliffe in 1956 repeated the mantra she had fully absorbed: “Our dedication is to marriage and the family—the roots from which are nurtured stable individuals and a stable society.” This declaration by a young woman at one of the country’s most competitive universities was coming almost twenty years after Mademoiselle’s first Careers Issue in 1938, aimed at all the new women in the workforce. It was as if there had been a nationwide brainwashing that had lasted two decades plus.

While Helen Gurley Brown made a name for herself by advocating late marriage and fun sex, Friedan caused a stir by pointing out that the most pressing question women were now asking themselves was also the most censured: “Is this all?” It was the verbal articulation of the physical gesture that Janet Burroway had witnessed, and understood, in Plath’s London house just three years earlier, in 1960, when Sylvia had “shoved” their newborn at her husband, Ted Hughes. It was not a statement about motherhood; it was a statement about the raw deal, the dashed hopes, the quashed dreams.

For decades, the Barbizon had been the place to go if you were a woman like Sylvia and so many others asking yourself this very question: “Is this all?” By the mid-1960s, over 350,000 women had stayed at the Barbizon since the hotel had first opened its doors in 1928. More than 50% arrived because of word of mouth back home in small-town USA, while the rest were compelled by the hotel’s print advertisements that presented a world in which everyone was forever young and surrounded by friends in a city that could look terrifying from afar. Actress and Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith, then known as Ellen Smith, arrived at the Barbizon in 1966 from Texas to study at Ballet Arts in Studio 61 at Carnegie Hall. Like so many Barbizon residents, Jaclyn had worked on her parents for months before they let her go, making her promise she would never use the subway (she never did). Five years after Joan Gage had been turned back in her slacks, the Barbizon remained “very proper”—heels expected, slacks still forbidden. There were still the same tiny beds “like cribs,” the same flowered blue bedcovers and matching curtains. But Jaclyn was a small-town girl, like so many residents at the hotel, and she did not mind the old-fashioned ways that continued to be promoted as suitable for the hotel’s residents: as far as she was concerned, the Barbizon coffee shop was good and friends were plentiful. She spent time with the model Dayle Haddon and the dancer Margo Sappington. In the summer they would all go up to the rooftop to sunbathe. For Jaclyn, the hotel represented “a time of rules and anticipation,” which suited her just fine. But in the two years she spent there, the hotel and New York would also teach her an “emotional independence” that she would rely on for years to come; the ability to fend for herself, not only financially but emotionally. In many ways, it’s what Helen Gurley Brown and Betty Friedan were trying to teach to their millions of readers too.

From The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren. Copyright ©2021 by Paulina Bren. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.