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The Barbizon

The Hotel That Set Women Free

From award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the first history of New York’s most famous residential hotel—The Barbizon—and the remarkable women who lived there.

WELCOME TO NEW YORK’S LEGENDARY HOTEL FOR WOMEN

Liberated from home and hearth by World War I, politically enfranchised and ready to work, women arrived to take their place in the dazzling new skyscrapers of Manhattan. But they did not want to stay in uncomfortable boarding houses. They wanted what men already had—exclusive residential hotels with daily maid service, cultural programs, workout rooms, and private dining.

Built in 1927 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon Hotel 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. Sylvia Plath fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, and, over the years, its almost 700 tiny rooms with matching floral curtains and bedspreads housed Titanic survivor Molly Brown; actresses Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Jaclyn Smith, Phylicia Rashad, and Cybill Shepherd; writers Joan Didion, Diane Johnson, Gael Greene, and Meg Wolitzer; and many more. 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.

Not everyone who passed through the Barbizon’s doors was 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.

Beautifully written and impeccably researched, The Barbizon weaves together a tale that has, until now, never been told. It is both a vivid portrait of the lives of these young women who came to New York looking for something more, and an epic history of women’s ambition.

Adam Patane

Paulina Bren is an award-winning historian and a professor at Vassar College, where she teaches international, gender, and media studies. She received a BA from Wesleyan University, an MA in international studies from the University of Washington, and a PhD in history from New York University. She currently lives in the Bronx with her husband and daughter.

“This book tells the story of the women, both famous and ordinary, who stayed at the Barbizon. It’s about what it meant for them to finally have a room of their own, and how that changed their lives in ways big and small. As the chapters build, Barbizon become a surprising, and very moving, history of women’s ambition. (It’s also a love letter to New York, under 300 pages, AND has a scene where Grace Kelly dances down the hallway, topless.)” —Emily G., Editor, on The Barbizon

"Varying delectably in cadence, from high-heel tapping and typewriter clacking to sinuous and reflective passages analyzing the complex forms of adversity Barbizon women faced over the decades, Bren’s engrossing and illuminating inquiry portrays the original Barbizon as a vital microcosm of the long quest for women's equality."

– BOOKLIST (Starred)

"[An] insightful, well-written account...[Bren] details the lives of some of the Barbizon’s most well-known residents, including Molly Brown, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Joan Didion, and provides historical context about midcentury single women, careers, and sex...A must read for anyone interested in the history of 20th-century women’s lives, fashion, publishing, and New York."

– LIBRARY JOURNAL (Starred)

"A rare glimpse behind the doors of New York’s famous women-only residential hotel...Drawing on extensive research, extant letters, and numerous interviews, Bren beautifully weaves together the political climate of the times and the illuminating personal stories of the Barbizon residents...Elegant prose brings a rich cultural history alive."

– KIRKUS

"An entertaining and enlightening account of New York’s Barbizon Hotel and the role it played in fostering women’s ambitions in 20th-century America...Carefully researched yet breezily written, this appealing history gives the Barbizon its rightful turn in the spotlight."

– PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

"Before Sex and the Single Girl, before “Sex and the City,” there was the Barbizon.  It was a romantic building with a romantic purpose:  It fixed a woman up with her dreams. Paulina Bren has written a stylish, charming history of a unique institution, brimming with aspiration and idiosyncrasy, and one that allowed a woman to survive without either marrying someone or cooking him dinner – even when she was barred from so much as taking a seat at the bar."

– STACY SCHIFF, author of The Witches and Pulitzer Prize Winner

"Residents of the Barbizon Hotel were once described as 'young women alone.' Thanks to Paulina Bren, they are alone no longer. The Barbizon is a fascinating social history of a forgotten place and time and an intimate portrait of women, trying to find their way in a pre-feminist world. I'll never look at a hotel and think the same way again."  

– KEITH O'BRIEN, New York Times bestselling author of Fly Girls

"This is the history I’ve been wanting to read all my life. I just didn’t know where to look. How delightful to find it in the legacy of this magical hotel, captured in brilliant detail by the masterful Paulina Bren. Even if you can’t move into the Barbizon, reading this book will make you feel like you’ve lived there for years. You’ll never want to move out."

– MEGHAN DAUM, author of The Problem With Everything: My Journey Through The New Culture Wars

"From famous models to Joan Didion, from hopeful stenographers to Sylvia Plath. The Barbizon housed women who eagerly sought independence, adventure, and careers in New York City.  Besides the story of the famous women-only hotel, The Barbizon chronicles key aspects of American women's history in the first half of the twentieth century. A compelling read!"

– LYNN DUMENIL, author The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I