Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Sylvia Plath, Ali McGraw, Joan Didion, Meg Wolitzer . . . New York’s most famous residential hotel—The Barbizon—lured the rich, the drunk, the suicidal. From Paulina Bren comes the first history of and the remarkable women who lived there. Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, as did Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School its students and the Ford Modeling Agency its young models. Before the hotel’s residents were household names, they were young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase and a dream.
Built in 1927 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon was intended as a safe haven for the “Modern Woman” seeking a career in the arts. It became the place to stay for any ambitious young woman hoping for fame and fortune. Plath fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, and, over the years, its almost 700 tiny rooms with matching floral curtains and bedspreads even housed Titanic survivor Molly Brown.
Not everyone who passed through the Barbizon’s doors were unsinkable and destined for success—for some it was a story of dashed hopes—but until 1981, when men were finally let in, the Barbizon offered its residents a room of their own and a life without family obligations or expectations. It gave women a chance to remake themselves however they pleased; it was the hotel that set them free. No place had existed like it before or has since.
Taking readers from when the Barbizon was built on New York City’s Upper East Side to 2007 when it was converted into luxury condominiums, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free (Simon & Schuster, $27), is at once a star-studded romp through New York City over the decades, and a sharp social history of women’s ambition in the 20th century.
Until now, no book has chronicled its secrets and there are very few resources or records from the Barbizon. Bren is an expert researcher and gifted storyteller who has pieced together this hidden chapter in American history using never previously referenced archival material and new interviews she conducted with the Barbizon’s former residents. She brings a forgotten period in New York City and a rich cultural history of the young working woman to life.