‘The Barbizon,’ 700 Rooms of One’s Own

An early ad read, “New York’s Most Exclusive Hotel Residence for Young Women.”

“If you are seeking a career in New York, surround yourself with The Barbizon’s abundant incentives for success. Home of Literary, Drama and College Clubs. Music and Art Studios. Library, Recitals and Lectures daily. Swimming Pool, Squash Courts, Sun Deck, Gymnasium, and Terraces. 700 rooms, each with a radio.”

It gets to the point at last. “Tariff: From $2.50 per day — $12 per week.” And ends with the prestigious Upper East Side address: “The Barbizon, Lexington Ave, at 63rd ST, New York City.”

For six decades of young women from all over America, the Barbizon was the chance of a lifetime. They were ambitious, rebellious, or bored. They wanted to escape small towns, delay marriage and family, succeed in a man’s world or in the burgeoning careers for women: model, secretary, author, artist. For thousands of young women — from 1928 until the hotel went coed in 1981 and was eventually converted into luxury condominiums in 2007 — the Barbizon was synonymous with freedom.

For their mothers, it meant some measure of respectability and, more importantly, protection against the evils of the big, bad city. Men were allowed in the lobby, and only in the lobby.

Historian Paulina Bren’s new book The Barbizon, The Hotel That Set Women Free, traces the history of the storied residence from its jazz age, prohibition beginnings to its eventual demise and rebirth. Along the way, she analyzes New York’s social, political, and economic environment — from the roaring twenties and the “new woman,” through the Depression, McCarthyism, “the problem that has no name,” desegregation, women’s liberation, the city’s near bankruptcy of the 1970s, and the eventual influx of foreign millionaires whose real estate investments saved the Big Apple even as they destroyed its core. 

We also meet some of the Barbizon’s most famous residents — from the Titanic’s “unsinkable Molly Brown” to writers Joan Didion, Gael Greene, Ann Beattie, and Mona Simpson, to actresses Joan Crawford, Jaclyn Smith, Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, and Phylicia Rashad. For 42 years, several floors were reserved for “Katie Gibbs Girls,” white gloved, impeccably dressed, and unrelentingly chaperoned. For 35 years, more than a dozen rooms were used every June by Mademoiselle magazine’s collegiate “guest editors” or “GEs.” Countless “Powers Models” stayed there, and the Ford Modeling Agency was the brainchild of two residents who realized that they could make more money booking models than by modeling themselves. 

Bren’s informative but extremely entertaining book does more than drop names; her celebrity anecdotes are priceless. Grace Kelly was famous for dancing topless in the hallways (and notorious for sneaking men up to her room). Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli’s mother (yes, that would be Judy Garland) called the front desk at all hours to check on her daughters. Sylvia Plath, who would later fictionalize her month as a GE in The Bell Jar shortly before committing suicide, threw all her clothing off one of the roof decks.

Plath, about whom Bren devotes a long chapter, was in her third year at Smith when she received the coveted telegram invitation from Mademoiselle editor Betsy Talbot Blackwell (a colorful and recurring figure in the book). Plath had already won a number of prestigious literary awards and had some poems published. Although eager to succeed, she was ambivalent about her time at the Barbizon. Many of the women there — despite the unprecedented opportunities and freedoms their stay promised — were simply biding time. In The Bell Jar, she wrote, “So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in some private totalitarian state.”

The same year that Plath was included in the summer program, Mademoiselle, which prided itself on being “the first” whenever possible, published (against the will of its board) a story on Alfred Kinsey’s 1953 Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. This was of great interest to the magazine’s readers and to the Barbizon’s guests. The era was rife with double standards where sex was concerned and as many young women were active as not. Mademoiselle also booked the Barbizon’s first Black guest in 1956. Barbara Chase was one of that year’s GEs and later found success as a bestselling novelist. She didn’t speak out about experiencing any racism at the Barbizon, although at the magazine, she was often “whisked away” when a Southern advertiser visited, and no one ever told her the hotel had a pool. 

The Barbizon brings the hotel’s staff to life as well as its guests. Elizabeth Curtis, the Barbizon’s social director and vocational advisor, was quick to make the distinction between a modern working woman and a life of domesticity. She warned her charges, “Women who go to their offices thinking of the dinners they must get or the visiting relatives they must entertain to please mother are only about one half on the job.” 

Oscar Beck, the Barbizon’s jovial German doorman, looked out for his young wards, thwarting seduction attempts by lovesick young men, and bestowing each resident with a paternal pat on the cheek and mumbled compliments.

Most significantly, Mae Sibley, the Barbizon’s assistant manager and de facto house mother, was a formidable presence for many years, and one with whom each prospective guest had to pass muster before being allotted her single, spartan room (with radio). Strictly enforcing curfews and other rules, her all-encompassing power was legendary; when sharing tales of illicit behavior, it was common for one guest to tell another, “Mrs. Sibley would kill me if she knew, but …” A former hotel clerk remembered that Sibley’s, “first test of getting in, after she knows you can pay, seems to be how pretty you are.” She allegedly had a grading system: A, B, or C. The youth and beauty of the Barbizon’s residents were a marketing asset that Sibley seemed to understand keenly. “Later on,” that same clerk continued, “after the September school rush, she’s not so discriminating. And if a lady over 40 wants to come to the Barbizon, she’ll have a tough time unless she’s only staying a few days. The older ones and plain ones appear to be there on sufferance.” 

Oddly enough, one of the most fascinating groups described by Bren have been at the Barbizon “on sufferance” for many years after Sibley left. Due to New York rental laws, a group of elderly residents (a constant and judgmental presence in the hotel’s lobby and mezzanine) had to be accommodated (literally) when the hotel was renovated. “The Women,” as they were known, were given the option of exchanging their dormitory-style room for a studio or one-bedroom apartment when the building reopened as Barbizon/63 in 2007. An ever-decreasing number of them still haunt its luxurious and high-priced halls.

Bren is an award-winning historian and a professor at Vassar; her research for The Barbizon is meticulous, with 25 pages of sources and footnotes. Intriguing history becomes engaging literary art, however, as she weaves in the recollections of residents both famous and not. In fact, the stories of those who did eventually settle in suburbia are just as fascinating. Each could easily be its own episode of an original series on Netflix or Amazon, along the lines of Mad Men, Good Girls Revolt, or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I can imagine every season representing another decade of the Barbizon’s history.

My own history with the Barbizon isn’t terribly interesting, but it remains special to me. My father was an actor who supplemented his income by teaching swimming at the Barbizon’s all-women’s health club in the 1970s and 80s. There, he taught the likes of Madeline Kahn, Cybill Shepherd, and ballet dancer Gelsey Kirkland. As his daughter, I had free use of the 60-foot pool, the well-appointed gym, sauna, steam room, and fitness classes (not to mention some epic after hours parties). My senior year in high school, I took the Lexington Avenue bus each afternoon for a calisthenics class in what had once been the hotel’s library. Although its most glamorous days were fast coming to an end, I still remember the marble columns in the lobby and the hotel’s uniquely feminine mystique.

The health club is now a four-story Equinox with monthly membership rates close to the cost of a year’s stay back when the hotel advertised itself as “New York’s most exclusive residence for young women” in 1934. Then again, the apartments currently for sale there range from $3.5 to $5.5 million, despite their “low ceilings.”

It’s the nature of cities to evolve, and architecturally speaking, it’s nice that the Barbizon with its distinctive brickwork, arches, and turrets, still stands today. 

Even if its pricing is a little too rich for today’s aspiring “career girl.” 



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