The Barbizon guest list reads as a who’s who of Hollywood and literary royalty. Grace Kelly, Joan Crawford, Tippi Hedren, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Jaclyn Smith and literary stars Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion were among the household names who arrived as young unknowns. So it’s surprising that we’ve heard so little about it. While New York’s rock’n’roll Chelsea hotel has been endlessly documented, the Barbizon’s story has never been told. But that is about to change with the publication of a fascinating new book, The Barbizon, The New York Hotel That Set Women Free, by award-winning historian Paulina Bren. And with any luck, we can anticipate a binge-worthy mini series. HBO has secured the TV rights in a six-figure deal, after a closely fought bidding war, with Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones on board to produce. (If the book is anything to go by we are in for a real treat. It has enough smouldering 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.
“It was exciting that there was this vessel through which I could tell multiple stories,” says Bren. “The idea that there was a place where remarkable – and also not so remarkable – women went to find a safe, respectable and glamorous roof over their heads was fascinating. I certainly feel a nostalgia for this kind of New York.”
It’s a story that might easily have been forgotten had it not been for Bren’s tenacity. “After my last book, which was about communism in Europe in the 1970s and 80s, I thought: ‘It will be fabulous, there will be all these readily available sources and they’ll be in English.’ I went to the New-York Historical Society archives where they have all these specific hotel folders, but when they handed me the one for the Barbizon, there was hardly anything in it. I hadn’t realised until then that quite a few people had already tried to write a history of the hotel, but they’d given up.”
Why had no one bothered to preserve it? “I can imagine it’s because this is a story about young women, who were not considered important.”
It was only when Bren discovered that American women’s monthly Mademoiselle had used the hotel as a residence for its young guest editors that she was finally able to start piecing together its colourful history. These former bright young college graduates, now in their 80s and 90s, yet still as sharp and funny as ever, began sharing their stories.
In the 1920s and 30s the Barbizon advertised its role in protecting young working women from predatory men, the “wolves of New York”, capitalising on the influx of women to Manhattan after the First World War, but after the Great Depression it offered a different kind of sanctuary. “Working women were considered deeply suspect for taking a job away from a ‘real breadwinner’,” explains Bren. “If you were walking around New York and you looked like you were going to work, it could be a pretty hostile environment.” Nevertheless, some persisted. The respectable Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School took over three floors of the hotel for its students, as it filled up with young women “determined to type their way out of small-town America”.
But it was the 1950s, the hotel’s “dollhouse” era, when hundreds of young, aspiring models and actresses found their way to the Barbizon, that Bren most enjoyed exploring. “It was an era when women were supposed to be so prim and proper, but there was a bubbling sexuality,” she says.
It was during this time that Grace Kelly stayed at the Barbizon, arriving in September 1947, while studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She was partial to frumpy tweeds and conservative cardigans during the day, but at night it was a different story. “Grace Kelly, forever identified with sweetness and chastity, was fond of dancing to Hawaiian music down the hallways of the Barbizon, and given to shocking her fellow residents by performing topless,” writes Bren. “Rumours of her sexual appetite and promiscuity abounded.”
Not surprisingly, “the dollhouse” was a place many men dreamed of. JD Salinger, the elusive author of The Catcher in the Rye, hung about the hotel’s coffee shop to pick up women, pretending to be a Canadian hockey player, while Mae Sibley, the hotel’s stern associate manager, who guarded the place like a fortress, became accustomed to men calling at reception and claiming they were doctors who’d been called to see one of the hotel guests. Many men who tried to make it upstairs to the out-of-bounds bedrooms came in posing as Upper East Side gynaecologists.
Sylvia Plath arrived at the Barbizon as one of the Mademoiselle guest editors in the summer of 1953. She was delighted by her “darlingest single”, with a “wall-to-wall rug, pale beige walls, dark green bedspread with rose-patterned ruffle, matching curtains, a desk, bureau, closet and white enamelled bowl growing like a convenient mushroom from the wall”, she wrote in a letter home. Plath was especially thrilled by the “radio in the wall, telephone by the bed – and the view!”
Ultimately New York did not deliver the fairytale she’d hoped for. Plath wrestled with the onerous double standards of the 1950s. “She was brimming with desire and a real sense of how unfair it all was that men could act on their lust, but she could not,” says Bren. Wretched from her workload at Mademoiselle and disappointed by the lack of eligible dates, Plath documented “the lost dream of New York” in her novel, The Bell Jar, which was published a decade later, just before she died in her final suicide attempt: “I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolleybus.”
On her last night at the Barbizon, Plath tossed the clothes she’d so carefully selected for her Mademoiselle internship off the hotel rooftop. “I think she was trying to discard her obsession with what she saw as superficial,” explains Bren. “But couldn’t help herself embracing fashion, appearance, social mores.”
Joan Didion checked into the Barbizon in June 1955, two years after Plath, with that year’s cohort of Mademoiselle guest editors, accompanied by her friend Peggy LaViolette (now Peggy Powell). “They gave us adjoining rooms that were terribly small. It was like a sorority house,” says Peggy, now 87. The single-sex aspect had reassured Peggy’s mother. But was the Barbizon really that strict? “Oh my goodness they did bed checks every night,” says Peggy.
The hotel’s lobby was the centre of the action, as diverting as any Broadway play, with a wraparound balcony on the mezzanine level “from which groups of young women peered down, keeping an eye out for their dates or, just as likely, everyone else’s,” writes Bren. “On a Saturday night the Barbizon’s lucky ones (the Graces, so to speak) rode the elevator down to the lobby in velvets and furs, where their nervous dates were waiting for them.”
Demand for the Barbizon’s tiny single rooms grew throughout the 1940s and 1950s. Eileen Ford, founder of Ford models, used the hotel as a boarding house for her new girls. Judy Garland insisted her daughter, Liza Minnelli, stay there and drove staff crazy by calling every three hours to check up on her Liza.
With its classy address on the Upper East Side, it went without saying that the hotel clients were middle-class and white. But in 1956 a talented dancer and artist, Barbara Chase, was the hotel’s first African American guest, another of Mademoiselle’s competition winners. “She says she felt welcomed,” says Bren. “Though no one mentioned the hotel swimming pool because it was segregated, and when southern clients came to visit the Mademoiselle offices, she had to hide away. She could not be seen by some, she understood that.”
In 1958, before finding fame as an actress, Ali MacGraw was also at the Barbizon. But even for the brightest and most ambitious a career was still a secondary ambition. “You could come to the Barbizon in the 1950s and you knew you would have a wonderful time, but also that that time was finite and marriage and children were your ultimate goal,” explains Bren, noting that during the 1950s, one in three women were married by 19. If you were beautiful or talented you could hang on a little longer, perhaps to your late 20s, but even that was risky.
“Eileen Ford would famously gather her models nearing their expiration date and arrange for meet-and-greets with wealthy Americans and titled European suitors,” says Bren. But not every Barbizon guest was so focused on marriage. “I wanted changes in the way women did things. I thought I should have it all and I did,” says Peggy, who went on to become the newspaper woman she’d dreamed of, her summer at the Barbizon proving to be an essential launch pad.
Ironically, it would be the onset of the 1960s women’s movement that spelled the death knell for the Barbizon, calling into question the need to sequester women away. The hotel soldiered on through the 60s, having won the right to remain single sex, but occupation rates plummeted. The bright young women of the 1970s, dreaming of Studio 54’s disco ecstasy, had no time for the Barbizon’s drab single rooms and curfews which, by now, seemed horribly dated. The closing bell for the Barbizon Hotel’s 54 years of single-sex living was set to ring on Valentine’s Day, 1981.
The hotel had served as a safe haven for young, ambitious women for decades, though not every Barbizon guest’s dreams came to fruition. “So many women passed through the doors of the Barbizon and became success stories, but there were also so many who were not, so there was that dark, sad side,” says Bren. “I was struck by the story of Gael Greene, who was there in 1955 with Joan Didion, and who went back in 1957 as an intrepid reporter for the New York Post to uncover the scandalous lives of the ‘Single, Sad Women’.”
To younger guests “the Women”, as the ageing residents who had stayed on for years came to be called, sitting in the lobby in their curlers and slippers, served as a cautionary tale, but Bren doesn’t see them as failures.
Throughout the hotel’s various renovations, first by a Dutch hotel brand, KLM Tulip, in 1984, and later by hotelier Ian Schrager, you could still find “the Women”, behind a secret door, in an enclave that remained untouched. Legally, they could not be moved. The hotel was remodelled once more, as upscale apartments, in 2007. The last remaining Barbizon Women were rehoused again, on their own floor, in what is now called Barbizon/63, where Ricky Gervais and Italian jeweller Nicola Bulgari own luxury condominiums. There are five of the Women left.
“It’s amazing that they rebuilt the hotel around them,” says Bren. “Now they live in very swish little apartments on the same rent as when they went in.”
For many of their contemporaries, the 1950s dream of a suburban marriage proved a poison chalice, with many turning to Valium to numb the boredom. Meanwhile, those “Sad Single Women” had gone on to snaffle perhaps the ultimate New York prize: a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment.
The Barbizon: The New York Hotel that Set Women Free by Paulina Bren is published by John Murray Press at £20 on 18 March. Buy it for £17.40 from guardianbookshop.com