Why all women wanted to stay at the Barbizon Hotel

Grace Kelly, Joan Didion and Candice Bergen have all taken up residence. Sylvia Plath threw her clothes off the roof on the last day of her magazine internship. The Barbizon wasn’t New York’s first female-only residential hotel, but it was certainly the most famous, home to many mid-20th-century actors, models, and writers in the years before they took off.

Opened in Manhattan in 1927, the 23-story Barbizon Hotel for Women was located at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street, a majestic structure built in Romanesque, Gothic and Moorish styles. Its 700 rooms were tiny – think college dorms – with shared bathrooms and kitchens. But the hotel offered a host of fancy extras, such as a swimming pool, library, solarium, amphitheatres, squash and badminton courts, socials and free afternoon tea. The Barbizon’s aim was to attract ambitious women from the middle and upper classes, preferably those with an interest in the arts and fame. The glamorous hotel has become so acclaimed that it has even been featured in movies and novels.

Interestingly, many residents of the luxury hotel were of modest means and hailed from small towns in the Midwest. “Small town dwellers often got there by winning a beauty or talent contest, which gave them a small sum of money with which they could pay for a few months in the hotel,” says Paulina Bren, author of the book.The Barbizon: the hotel that liberates womenand Assistant Professor of International Studies at Vassar College.

But landing a room at that coveted address wasn’t just a matter of spending enough money. Women had to present three references, dress well and behave well. It also helped a lot if they were young and pretty. In fact, one of the longtime assistant managers, who also handled reception, created a rating system which gave preference to younger women in deciding whom to admit. Because of these standards, the hotel was soon nicknamed “the doll’s house”.

Inside the dollhouse

While many ambitious young women aspired to live in a hotel, this came with many restrictions. Men were not allowed in women’s rooms, for example, and residents were reprimanded if they came home late or intoxicated. In 1961, writer Joan Gage was not allowed out of the building in her pants. These rules were in place because the elite hotel wanted to maintain a good reputation, as well as assure the women’s parents that their daughters would be safe here.

Despite these rules, life was not always stable inside the dollhouse. The men were constantly trying to sneak in the women’s rooms, for one thing, sneaking into dumbwaiters or pretending to be doctors, plumbers, priests or fathers – whatever was permitted upstairs. Most didn’t succeed, but some did. And Grace Kelly, considered by many to be the best personification of hotel residents, outraged some of the other guests by dancing topless in the hallways.

The golden age of the hotel came in the 1940s to 1960s. It was the days of Bergen, Kelly, Plath, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Cybill Shepherd, Phylicia Rashad and many more. Some of these women were part of the Eileen Ford modeling agency, which rented rooms for its models, in part to try to avoid them. The Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School also paid to house its clients here, while the women’s magazine Mademoiselle rented rooms to accommodate the students it hired as guest editors each summer. These editors-in-training were known as Millies, short for Mademoiselle “Miss”. Plath and Didion were both part of this guest editor program.

The Barbizon did not admit a black woman until 1956, when it accepted Barbara Chase-Riboud, a Millie and an accomplished artist, with works on display at the Museum of Modern Art. Always, Chase-Riboud has been discriminated against both at the magazine and inside the hotel, where she was barred from using the pool.

During the hotel’s prime, living there even after you “did it” was not uncommon. “A model created business cards to show she was staying there,” Bren explains. “It was a mark of glamor and respectability.”

But not necessarily for all residents. Some never made it and became known as among the “women”, older residents who chose to stay at the hotel, despite their lack of success. The label was as feared as being called a bachelor. One of those singles was Molly Brown, famous for surviving the Titaniclast fateful journey. Brown ran out of money when her estranged wealthy husband died without a will, bringing her to the hotel, where she lived until she died in 1932.

The end of an era

The Barbizon began to lose its luster in the early 1970s, when the women’s liberation movement and housing trends caused women to eschew stuffy rules and small rooms with shared bathrooms in favor of apartments and of condos to do everything. In order to stay relevant, men were allowed to rent from 1981, and the building underwent numerous renovations. At one point, management attempted to get rid of the more than 100 women still at the hotel, whose monthly rent could not be increased due to the city’s rent stabilization laws. But the women were allowed to stay.

Today, the Barbizon — which was designated New York landmark in 2012 — was redesigned in Barbizon 63, a luxury condo building. Apartments have high-end amenities (think Bolivian rosewood floors and French casement windows) and sell for millions. Four of the women from the old hotel still reside there, and they deserve props for it.

“The Barbizon was a place that catered to fiercely ambitious women at a time when there were few outlets for them to be ambitious,” Bren says. “And so even though the young women of the Barbizon never made it, they were heroes for trying.”

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