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The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free

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A “captivating portrait” (The Wall Street Journal), both “poignant and intriguing” (The New Republic): from award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the remarkable history of New York’s most famous residential hotel and the women who stayed there, including Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Joan Didion. Welcome to New York’s legendary hotel for women, the Barbizon. Liberated af A “captivating portrait” (The Wall Street Journal), both “poignant and intriguing” (The New Republic): from award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the remarkable history of New York’s most famous residential hotel and the women who stayed there, including Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Joan Didion. Welcome to New York’s legendary hotel for women, the Barbizon. Liberated after WWI from home and hearth, women flocked to New York City during the Roaring Twenties. But even as women’s residential hotels became the fashion, the Barbizon stood out; it was designed for young women with artistic aspirations, and included soaring art studios and soundproofed practice rooms. More importantly still, with no men allowed beyond the lobby, the Barbizon signaled respectability, a place where a young woman of a certain class could feel at home. But as the stock market crashed and the Great Depression set in, the clientele changed, though women’s ambitions did not; the Barbizon Hotel became the go-to destination for any young American woman with a dream to be something more. While Sylvia Plath most famously fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, the Barbizon was also where Titanic survivor Molly Brown sang her last aria; where Grace Kelly danced topless in the hallways; where Joan Didion got her first taste of Manhattan; and where both Ali MacGraw and Jaclyn Smith found their calling as actresses. Students of the prestigious Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School had three floors to themselves, Eileen Ford used the hotel as a guest house for her youngest models, and Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, including a young designer named Betsey Johnson. The first ever history of this extraordinary hotel, and of the women who arrived in New York City alone from “elsewhere” with a suitcase and a dream, The Barbizon offers readers a multilayered history of New York City in the 20th century, and of the generations of American women torn between their desire for independence and their looming social expiration date. By providing women a room of their own, the Barbizon was the hotel that set them free.


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A “captivating portrait” (The Wall Street Journal), both “poignant and intriguing” (The New Republic): from award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the remarkable history of New York’s most famous residential hotel and the women who stayed there, including Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Joan Didion. Welcome to New York’s legendary hotel for women, the Barbizon. Liberated af A “captivating portrait” (The Wall Street Journal), both “poignant and intriguing” (The New Republic): from award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the remarkable history of New York’s most famous residential hotel and the women who stayed there, including Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, and Joan Didion. Welcome to New York’s legendary hotel for women, the Barbizon. Liberated after WWI from home and hearth, women flocked to New York City during the Roaring Twenties. But even as women’s residential hotels became the fashion, the Barbizon stood out; it was designed for young women with artistic aspirations, and included soaring art studios and soundproofed practice rooms. More importantly still, with no men allowed beyond the lobby, the Barbizon signaled respectability, a place where a young woman of a certain class could feel at home. But as the stock market crashed and the Great Depression set in, the clientele changed, though women’s ambitions did not; the Barbizon Hotel became the go-to destination for any young American woman with a dream to be something more. While Sylvia Plath most famously fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, the Barbizon was also where Titanic survivor Molly Brown sang her last aria; where Grace Kelly danced topless in the hallways; where Joan Didion got her first taste of Manhattan; and where both Ali MacGraw and Jaclyn Smith found their calling as actresses. Students of the prestigious Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School had three floors to themselves, Eileen Ford used the hotel as a guest house for her youngest models, and Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, including a young designer named Betsey Johnson. The first ever history of this extraordinary hotel, and of the women who arrived in New York City alone from “elsewhere” with a suitcase and a dream, The Barbizon offers readers a multilayered history of New York City in the 20th century, and of the generations of American women torn between their desire for independence and their looming social expiration date. By providing women a room of their own, the Barbizon was the hotel that set them free.

30 review for The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free

  1. 5 out of 5

    Violeta

    Given that life as we know it these days doesn’t give back much by way of stimuli, I find myself increasingly drawn to reads that transport me into the particulars of life in years past. In this context this well-researched and aptly narrated account of New York’s most famous women-only residential hotel did the job perfectly. And, mean as it may sound, offered a small consolation in thinking that even during an immobilizing pandemic our lives as the female of the species offer more diversity an Given that life as we know it these days doesn’t give back much by way of stimuli, I find myself increasingly drawn to reads that transport me into the particulars of life in years past. In this context this well-researched and aptly narrated account of New York’s most famous women-only residential hotel did the job perfectly. And, mean as it may sound, offered a small consolation in thinking that even during an immobilizing pandemic our lives as the female of the species offer more diversity and choices than most women living in the first half of the 20th century would have dared dream of. To say that The Barbizon set women free is a tad exaggerated, I think. But it’s an indisputable fact that from 1927, when it first opened its doors, to 1981, when it began admitting male guests, the hotel provided a sanctuary to the middle to upper-class women who could afford its rates and were willing to participate in its sorority-house atmosphere. The advantages outweighed the downsides of its rigid rules of comportment that, ironically, acted as home-away-from-home in being a guardian angel of its guests’ morality. But: at a time when a woman’s coming to the Big City and making a decent living on her own was not as simple as it sounds nowadays, anything that would facilitate the move was welcome. This book, without being hardcore feminist, recounts the many hurdles along this journey, the many preconceived ideas and ways women had to struggle against in order to gain that necessary space in which a person can move and breathe freely. Insofar as The Barbizon provided that in its tiny, yet private rooms, it made a definitive contribution to women’s liberation. It was a place that enabled them to re-imagine themselves and act accordingly. Some of them realized their goals, many didn’t and went back to wherever they came from with only a brief taste of what an independent life could have been like. But they all made the effort, they had the guts to make the move and that’s a feat in itself regardless of the outcome. The author does a nice job in describing female ingenuity in finding ways to survive and thrive in a society where men called all the shots. Large parts are dedicated to describing Mademoiselle magazine’s https://timeline.com/mademoiselle-sma... annual guest-editor contests, the winners of which were lodged in The Barbizon for their one-month dream stay in the city. Among the young and aspiring college-educated women were future writers such as Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Gael Greene and Meg Wolitzer. In fact, Plath fictionalized the experience in her one and only novel The Bell Jar, where The Barbizon features as The Amazon. I enjoyed these descriptions although at times they were unnecessarily elaborate. But then, I love vintage magazines such as Mademoiselle for exactly this kind of sociological details (and the ads :-) If by any chance you share this love for the ways of the past you’ll be thrilled with the reconstruction, otherwise it might get tiring. All in all, an entertaining and informative read/listen that had me thinking time and again of the slogan in the Virginia Slims cigarette ads, back when cigarettes could still proudly advertise: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby Oh yeah, we sure have!!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    This was the last book unfinished in March and it was the perfect one in which to end Women's history month. So much history inside all seen through the eyes of the Barbizon. So many women stayed, passed through its doors. Hearts and dreams of becoming more than just a housewife mother. After WWII, women had more opportunity and they came to this safe haven from all over the country. The Gibbs secretary school opened in the Barbizon, Ford models provided a different opportunity and Madamoiselle This was the last book unfinished in March and it was the perfect one in which to end Women's history month. So much history inside all seen through the eyes of the Barbizon. So many women stayed, passed through its doors. Hearts and dreams of becoming more than just a housewife mother. After WWII, women had more opportunity and they came to this safe haven from all over the country. The Gibbs secretary school opened in the Barbizon, Ford models provided a different opportunity and Madamoiselle housed their girls here for their intern program. So many notables passed through these doors. Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, Ali McGraw, Grace Kelly, so many, taking advantage of the changing times. We meet ordinary girls from various places, all with one thing in common. Finding a little something for themselves. Living a New York life before settling down. Some found it, some didn't. The wider history of women is not ignored. Expectations of the wider world and the changing face of society's view of the role women could play is also included. Such a interesting book, so well done.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Marialyce (absltmom, yaya)

    What a wonderfully researched and informative book! I enjoyed reading about the Barbizon and the people who stayed there. A a former New Yorker, this building truly became a landmark in the women's march to freeing themselves and being able to join the workforce. It became what women wanted, a place to live, where they were treated well and received services that men had formerly only received, a residential hotel. Through its doors passed the famous, names such as Sylvia Plath, Rita Hayworth, Gr What a wonderfully researched and informative book! I enjoyed reading about the Barbizon and the people who stayed there. A a former New Yorker, this building truly became a landmark in the women's march to freeing themselves and being able to join the workforce. It became what women wanted, a place to live, where they were treated well and received services that men had formerly only received, a residential hotel. Through its doors passed the famous, names such as Sylvia Plath, Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly to name a few. It afforded women that independence they were so looking for, a place where they could discover their true selves away from the prying eyes and constraints of family. Such a well done interesting book which I definitely recommend most highly! Thank you for an advanced copy of this story Edelweiss! This book is due to be published on March 2, 2021.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Julie Ehlers

    The rules were clear, and the expectations sky-high: Women should be virgins, but not prudes. Women should go to college, pursue a certain type of career, and then give it up to get married. And above all, living with these contradictions should not make them confused, angry, or worse, depressed. They should not take a bottle of pills and try to forget. When I woke up on New Year's Day 2021, checked my email, and learned I had won an ARC of The Barbizon in a Goodreads giveaway, I literally clappe The rules were clear, and the expectations sky-high: Women should be virgins, but not prudes. Women should go to college, pursue a certain type of career, and then give it up to get married. And above all, living with these contradictions should not make them confused, angry, or worse, depressed. They should not take a bottle of pills and try to forget. When I woke up on New Year's Day 2021, checked my email, and learned I had won an ARC of The Barbizon in a Goodreads giveaway, I literally clapped my hands with glee. For years I'd been fascinated by Mademoiselle magazine's college guest editor program, which had welcomed such soon-to-be-luminaries as Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion and put them all up at the Barbizon for the summer. I figured any history of the hotel would also be a history of the Mademoiselle program, and I was right. Built in 1927, the Barbizon was a single-room-occupancy long-term hotel for women, abundant with amenities and restricting men to the lobby. Many women who came to New York City to make their fortunes found it a comforting nest from which to launch their lives. Any history of the Barbizon, then, is a history of single women and, more significantly, a history of working women. The book takes us from the relatively progressive flapper era through the Great Depression, when many states made it illegal for married women to work, and on to the war era when women filled positions men vacated for the battlefield. This, of course, was followed by the 1950s, when women were encouraged to find their fulfillment solely as mothers and wives, eventually inspiring a book (The Feminine Mystique) about how well that worked out. Through it all, the Barbizon was there, housing models, actresses, and secretaries: the Katharine Gibbs secretarial school reserved several floors for its students, and Bren recounts the history of the school and the women who enrolled there. She then moves on to the Mademoiselle program, which understandably takes up a large portion of the book. If you're a fan of Sylvia Plath or Joan Didion, these sections may well be catnip for you, as they were for me. There's something fascinating about very young writers at the very start of their careers, and Bren did an impressive amount of research, hunting down their fellow guest editors and providing lots of firsthand perspectives. Plath in particular casts a very long shadow, and the portrait of her here is more rounded, in fewer pages, than the one in Pain, Parties, Work, which covers the same time period. As Bren herself acknowledges, the Barbizon housed a certain type of woman: reasonably well-off, and almost always white. There are so many stories that can be told about women and work in twentieth-century America, and The Barbizon is only one of them. Still, it's a first: as Bren relates, other writers have attempted to write histories of the Barbizon and given up in frustration. Bren herself nearly gave up, but persevered, pulling and prying material from many different sources. The end result is meant for a general audience; if you're expecting deep historical analysis, you may be disappointed. But I wasn't. The Barbizon is right in my wheelhouse, and I found it illuminating and hard to put down. It's 5 stars from me.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jenna (still emerging from hiatus but still reading…!)

    This was a little more bleak than I would have thought - which makes full sense given that it’s women’s history! - but I still don’t think I’d second the “stylish and charming” endorsement given by Stacy Schiff on the cover: that makes the book seem much lighter or more uplifting than it is. The Barbizon sort of comes off here not at all as a place that “set women free,” but rather as an only slightly less-shitty (and extreeeeemely limited by privilege: thinness/beauty, social class, geography, This was a little more bleak than I would have thought - which makes full sense given that it’s women’s history! - but I still don’t think I’d second the “stylish and charming” endorsement given by Stacy Schiff on the cover: that makes the book seem much lighter or more uplifting than it is. The Barbizon sort of comes off here not at all as a place that “set women free,” but rather as an only slightly less-shitty (and extreeeeemely limited by privilege: thinness/beauty, social class, geography, race/ethnicity) option for minimal empowerment - only for women who made the cut - in a time of very limited options. While there is some effort to cover what diversity and like, intra-systemic subversion may have been present at the hotel, there was honestly soooo much uncritical and even praise-filled emphasis on the subjects’ general conformity to expectations (as opposed to those who may have been able to exploit any opportunities for subversion or even interrogation) and just excessive talk of how very beautiful all the women were, and how so many of them became models to support themselves while there, even if they initially came there for writing or other purposes, that it kind of began to feel like I was reading about social media influencers and mean girls of the time. Which, as especially was evident in the parts about the Mademoiselle magazine Guest Editorship program in which artists like Sylvia Plath participated, I suppose was accurate! The book sort of frames this whole depressing scenario as kind of the thing that sent Sylvia over the edge, and I don’t know enough about her life yet to assess if that’s a reasonable conjecture, but I will say that I also felt kind of depressed and hopeless while reading it, and that I am now especially eager to read my copies of the new 1150-page/45 audiobook hour, national award-winning Plath biography to find out! My reading of this book may have suffered from just having read Julia Cooke’s Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age History of the Women of Pan-Am, which in my opinion somehow better presented how women in similarly oppressed and circumscribed positions still managed to creatively subvert power structures - and embrace an early version of Shine Theory, supporting rather than competing with one another - in meaningful ways. Cooke’s book also pays far more critical and research attention to privilege, including issues related to beauty/weight and to the role of and impacts on BIPOC and AAPI women. As other reviewers have observed - the book felt somewhat divided in what it proposes to accomplish. **At its core is a dissertation about the talented, pretty and thin, privileged white women of Mademoiselle and modeling who were able to most benefit from the resource or outlet the hotel was able to provide them.** I would have preferred more focus on the “other” women who resided at the hotel as opposed to the lucky luminaries, I guess. (There is a little bit of this sprinkled throughout.) In general, a solid and worthy read, but just left me a little underwhelmed and down - while the authors had different (albeit equally rich and kind of analogous) material and eras to work with, I far preferred Cooke’s approach as something that felt to me a bit more subversive and empowering.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mai

    Print giveaway from Goodreads I didn't even know what The Barbizon was until I requested this book. Then again, my parents don't really fit the WASP mold. This was a great historical look into women paving a way for themselves in the early to mid 1900s. I would like to point out that these women fit into a smaller subset of privileged white women. It's curious how we have let go of the boardinghouses of old. I would totally rent a kitchenless room and have all my meals prepared for me. That sounds Print giveaway from Goodreads I didn't even know what The Barbizon was until I requested this book. Then again, my parents don't really fit the WASP mold. This was a great historical look into women paving a way for themselves in the early to mid 1900s. I would like to point out that these women fit into a smaller subset of privileged white women. It's curious how we have let go of the boardinghouses of old. I would totally rent a kitchenless room and have all my meals prepared for me. That sounds like the dream. The most famous residents of this hotel must be Sylvia Plath and Princess Grace of Monaco. 1950s morality aside, it is interesting to the freedoms given and taken back to women over the years. We're allowed to work. We're not allowed to work. The birth control pill is invented. Only married women can purchase it. Do not get me started on the outlawing of legal abortion.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    This is a well researched history of The Barbizon, a women only residential hotel, in New York. The hotel was built in 1927 to cater for (mainly younger) women who came to work, and live independently, in New York and to replace the outdated boardinghouses that most lived in previously. Of course, many still did. Although this is subtitled, "The New York Hotel that set women free," it catered mainly for a certain class of girls. The book starts with New York in the Jazz Age, full of speakeasies a This is a well researched history of The Barbizon, a women only residential hotel, in New York. The hotel was built in 1927 to cater for (mainly younger) women who came to work, and live independently, in New York and to replace the outdated boardinghouses that most lived in previously. Of course, many still did. Although this is subtitled, "The New York Hotel that set women free," it catered mainly for a certain class of girls. The book starts with New York in the Jazz Age, full of speakeasies and glamour, although one of the first residents - the 'unsinkable' Molly Brown (from Titanic) was not a fan of the flappers. We then go through the Great Depression and women seen to be taking paid employment from men, which meant that the Barbizon helped literally protect women from ill feeling as they looked for careers. Weaved into this story are those companies who used the Barbizon, such as the Katharine Gibbs secretarial school. Secretarial work was seen as essentially female, so less of a threat, but many of those who took the first step on the corporate ladder taking shorthand, would end up with careers, rather than jobs. There was also the Powers modelling agency and Mademoiselle magazine, with the 'Millie's,' guest editors - something Sylvia Plath fictionalised in, 'The Bell Jar." This is a fascinating portrait of a glamorous residential hotel, which offered many women an opportunity to find a career and independence in a safe and secure environment. There were lectures, talks and tea and it opened its doors to many women who later gained success or fame - from Sylvia Plath to Joan Didion, Grace Kelly and many, many more who simply savoured possibly the first personal and economic independence of their lives.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Dianne

    The first half of this book really kicked butt! It was everything I expected it to be. I learned about the reasoning behind the Barbizon, I learned some good gossipy facts about some of the women staying there, learned about the society of the time period, got an understanding of what companies had their 'girls' stay there -think Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School and different modeling agencies and I just had fun with this book. Suddenly, this book turned from a fun read into a mishmash - Mademo The first half of this book really kicked butt! It was everything I expected it to be. I learned about the reasoning behind the Barbizon, I learned some good gossipy facts about some of the women staying there, learned about the society of the time period, got an understanding of what companies had their 'girls' stay there -think Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School and different modeling agencies and I just had fun with this book. Suddenly, this book turned from a fun read into a mishmash - Mademoiselle (magazine) introduced itself and its affiliation with the Barbizon. Learning about that was interesting; however, when the magazine introduced its Guest Editor editions, the second half of this book just dealt with that. Well, the Guest Editors and Sylvia Plath, and the editor Betsy Blackwell (1937–1971). Had I wanted to learn about Sylvia Plath, I would have gotten a book expressly written about her. Yes, I grasp that the book "The Bell Jar" was written about her experience at the Barbizon, but I still didn't expect this sort of 'hero worship' from this author. Nearly the entire second half of this book became the most tedious read except for the part when the hotel kept going through different hands and remodeling up until it eventually became condos. *ARC supplied by the publisher and author.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    2.5 stars rounded up — maybe. Let's see if it stays. "But before they were household names, they were among the young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase, reference letters, and hope." The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free loses itself and feels like more of a mishmash of The Changing Times for White Middle-Class Creative Women Who Briefly Visit Manhattan as Guest Editors for Mademoiselle Magazine (1930ish-1970ish). I feel vaguely disappointed but still enjoyed parts of this hodge 2.5 stars rounded up — maybe. Let's see if it stays. "But before they were household names, they were among the young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase, reference letters, and hope." The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free loses itself and feels like more of a mishmash of The Changing Times for White Middle-Class Creative Women Who Briefly Visit Manhattan as Guest Editors for Mademoiselle Magazine (1930ish-1970ish). I feel vaguely disappointed but still enjoyed parts of this hodgepodge. Built at the end of the 1920's, exclusively for women, the Barbizon hotel seems to be intrinsically linked with Mademoiselle magazine and Gibbs College. But the focus in this book is definitely on the former. There are times when reading The Barbizon that I forgot that it wasn't really The Mademoiselle instead. Many of the famous residents at the Barbizon were there for the quick summer guest editor program sponsored by the magazine. People like Sylvia Plath. While Bren does mention and pay nice tributes to other women, she spends an inordinate amount of time on Plath and the summer she was there — especially considering Plath lays this summer out to bare in The Bell Jar, which Bren also mentions often. I get the fascination. I do. But I wanted less of a character study on these women we already know so much about and I wanted to know more about the hotel itself. I wanted to feel as if the hotel was a character within these pages — and I just don't think Bren quite got there. Also, there's a whole swarm of women, who come to be known as "The Women," who never leave and, because of the tenant laws are never forced out by rent increases. A small group continues and protests through various renovations — around whom they design and redesign a whole floor on which to contain these elderly ladies. Please, more of these ladies. And large photographs. And even some more of the dirty laundry (pardon any pun); some digging into these murders and attacks and suicides that took place there — who were these women? "In 1975, seventy-nine-year old Ruth Harding, a lonely resident who liked to hang out in the lobby and talk to anyone willing to listen, was strangled to death in her eleventh floor room. Her murder went unsolved." Perhaps it would've been better served as a larger format, coffee table book — I certainly would've loved more focus on the actual hotel Barbizon and the ways in which it changed over the years and the women — famous or not — who passed through its doors. I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This affected neither my opinion of the book, nor the content of my review.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Darla

    The Barbizon, through much of the twentieth century, had been a place where women felt safe, where they had a room of their own to plot and plan the rest of their lives. The hotel set them free. It freed up their ambition, tapping into their desires deemed off limits elsewhere, but imaginable, realizable, doable, in the City of Dreams. New York City is brimming over with history and the story of the Barbizon intrigued me. The first few chapters were a fascinating view of its beginnings. The histo The Barbizon, through much of the twentieth century, had been a place where women felt safe, where they had a room of their own to plot and plan the rest of their lives. The hotel set them free. It freed up their ambition, tapping into their desires deemed off limits elsewhere, but imaginable, realizable, doable, in the City of Dreams. New York City is brimming over with history and the story of the Barbizon intrigued me. The first few chapters were a fascinating view of its beginnings. The historical context was well articulated and I was engaged. When the Mademoiselle magazine GE program became the focus, I started skimming. There were so many names and so many details that really had nothing to do with the Barbizon itself. The magazine was using the hotel as a dormitory, but other entities were doing the same and did not get the same intensive focus. For me it was a bit off balance and I would have loved to see more photos like the one of Rita Hayworth at the beginning of Chapter One. Well researched, but could use some additional editing in my opinion. Thank you to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for a DRC in exchange for an honest review.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    This is such a rich topic with such opportunity for sweeping stories, however I don’t think a single editor ever saw the book. Chapters, explanations, and superlatives are highly repetitive. It’s like talking to someone with short-term memory loss. I wish this were better — it certainly could be.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jeanette (Ms. Feisty)

    3.5 stars This can feel a bit dry and slow moving at times, but it does pick up quite a bit and becomes progressively more interesting as the author brings all the threads together. A large portion of the book is given over to Mademoiselle magazine and its guest editor program. That's because the magazine required all participants in the program to stay at the Barbizon during the forty years that the program existed. While the Barbizon with its strict rules did protect the girls and women who liv 3.5 stars This can feel a bit dry and slow moving at times, but it does pick up quite a bit and becomes progressively more interesting as the author brings all the threads together. A large portion of the book is given over to Mademoiselle magazine and its guest editor program. That's because the magazine required all participants in the program to stay at the Barbizon during the forty years that the program existed. While the Barbizon with its strict rules did protect the girls and women who lived there, it also shackled them to the societal restrictions and expectations that prevented them from achieving their potential. It's sweet, delicious justice that the two women who were treated as "less than" by Mademoiselle ended up being the most successful and well known. Gael Greene and Barbara Chase were kept hidden, not allowed to participate in the fashion show. Gael because they thought she was too zaftig, and Barbara because she was black and they thought their Southern buyers and advertisers would be upset. Gael became a famous restaurant critic, and Barbara became a very successful artist, sculptor, and poet.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Toria (some what in hiatus)

    I was instantly intrigued by this book and decided to start reading it straight away. The Barbizon hotel was for women and women only. Started in the roaring twenties and closed down in the 80's, this hotel hosted a long row of famous women but also lesser known. Here they could be them self,away from society's standards for women and engage in their hopes and dreams with other women who wanted to engage in a life of writing, acting or just away from men of their time. The writing was very engag I was instantly intrigued by this book and decided to start reading it straight away. The Barbizon hotel was for women and women only. Started in the roaring twenties and closed down in the 80's, this hotel hosted a long row of famous women but also lesser known. Here they could be them self,away from society's standards for women and engage in their hopes and dreams with other women who wanted to engage in a life of writing, acting or just away from men of their time. The writing was very engaging and entertaining, not a dull moment and was the most exciting nonfiction writing I've read in a long time. One of My absolute favorite non fiction of all time that's for sure

  14. 5 out of 5

    Britta Böhler

    It's probably a bit high rating-wise but I loved the idea of both, the hotel and the book, too much to give it less than 4*. It's probably a bit high rating-wise but I loved the idea of both, the hotel and the book, too much to give it less than 4*.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kasa Cotugno

    This is really more of a snapshot of women in Manhattan as experienced by those making the transition of coming of age in an era of accelerated change. The Barbizon, built in the late 1920's, initially represented a vision of female independence as the constraints of Victorianism gave way to more mobility and self reliance. But there had to be an intermediate step for women leaving the protection of home for the first time, and the Barbizon with its combination of hotel amenities and housemother This is really more of a snapshot of women in Manhattan as experienced by those making the transition of coming of age in an era of accelerated change. The Barbizon, built in the late 1920's, initially represented a vision of female independence as the constraints of Victorianism gave way to more mobility and self reliance. But there had to be an intermediate step for women leaving the protection of home for the first time, and the Barbizon with its combination of hotel amenities and housemother type managing style gave both parents and young women a sense of security. Paulina Bren did her research, spooling out her history with personal stories of many of the more famous residents, each of which personalized an era. Much is here about Sylvia Plath who embodied the transitional 1950's, forever memorializing the hotel calling it the Amazon in her account of the month she spent there as one of the guest editors, or GEs, of Mademoiselle Magazine, which is covered extensively. Also covered is the connection to Katharine Gibbs school and the part it played in the hotel's past. While it was interesting to read of Gael Greene, Ali McGraw, Grace Kelly and others, there was a fair amount of repetition which became tedious after a while. The purpose of the hotel has shifted with the times and fortunes of New York, its current status as a location for very high priced real estate and multimillion dollar co-ops. Not a perfect read, but fun for those who love reading about the popular history of New York in unique ways.

  16. 5 out of 5

    The Library Lady

    This is basically a pedestrian history of white, middle/upper class young women who passed through the Barbizon Hotel in NYC in the 20th century. There is a great deal about the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school and even more about the Guest Editors program at Mademoiselle, both of which housed young women at the Barbizon. There's a lot of focus on Grace Kelly and Sylvia Plath, and a bit about Barbara Chase (later Barbara Chase-Riboud), who broke the color barrier, and a few other more typical This is basically a pedestrian history of white, middle/upper class young women who passed through the Barbizon Hotel in NYC in the 20th century. There is a great deal about the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school and even more about the Guest Editors program at Mademoiselle, both of which housed young women at the Barbizon. There's a lot of focus on Grace Kelly and Sylvia Plath, and a bit about Barbara Chase (later Barbara Chase-Riboud), who broke the color barrier, and a few other more typical women, but this mostly just rushes on and on, naming names and making comments on society in general. The hotel offered safe, downright cloistered, housing for women. But how did it "set them free"?

  17. 5 out of 5

    Vonda

    A stunning history of American women seen through the scrim of The Barbizon in NYC. The residential hotel housed single women only, propelled to pursue their career dreams via post-WWI freedoms and the right to vote. The residents are enthralling ... from actresses Grace Kelly to Ali McGraw, writers Sylvia Plath to Joan Didion, along with fashion models and secretaries all clambering for success in the big city. A 20th Century historical gem!

  18. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Mahon

    As a native New Yorker who was obsessed with Sylvia Plath as a teenager, I was eager to read the new biography of the Barbizon Hotel. I walk past the former hotel whenever I'm in Midtown East to see my doctor. If you have read Michael Callahan's book Searching for Grace Kelly or Fiona Davis's The Dollhouse, or even Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (where the hotel was immortalized as The Amazon) then you will want to read Paulina Bren's book The Barbizon. It's not a perfect book by any means, I found As a native New Yorker who was obsessed with Sylvia Plath as a teenager, I was eager to read the new biography of the Barbizon Hotel. I walk past the former hotel whenever I'm in Midtown East to see my doctor. If you have read Michael Callahan's book Searching for Grace Kelly or Fiona Davis's The Dollhouse, or even Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (where the hotel was immortalized as The Amazon) then you will want to read Paulina Bren's book The Barbizon. It's not a perfect book by any means, I found a few inaccuracies. For example, it was the Daily News, not the Daily Mail that had the infamous headline "New York, Drop Dead." There are a few others like that (books like this really need to be proofread better by both the copy editor and the author). The book is not just a biography of probably the most famous women's only hotel in New York but also of Mademoiselle Magazine and Katherine Gibbs. Only Katherine Gibbs survives unfortunately. I was an avid reader of Mademoiselle and I will be forever sad that I was born too late to participate in the Guest Editor program. It's too bad that nothing like that exists anymore or that there is no magazine that speaks for young college or twenty something women. Yes, I know there are online forums but there is something about a print magazine. Anyone interested in not only the history of New York but about women's history, particularly the 1940's and 1950's, should pick up this book. It's not just the story of women like Sylvia Plath, Bren also includes Barbara Chase-Riboud's story, not only the 1st African-American guest editor at Mademoiselle but also the first to stay at the Barbizon Hotel, Ali McGraw, Betsey Johnson, Phylicia Rashad, Jacklyn Smith and Meg Wolitzer also get a mention. I would have liked to have known more about the hotel during the 1960's for example, but I can't really quibble. The fact that this book exists is fantastic.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jean

    I was excited to find a book about the Barbizon Hotel. I remember my mother talking about taking the train from Cincinnati to NYC to shop, attend the theater and visit museums and stay at the Barbizon Hotel. I always held a somewhat mystique for me. It would have been in the 1950's that my mother and her friend would stay there. It was interesting to learn the history of how a woman's only hotel came about and learn a bit about the residents. They tended to be those of the upper class. The progres I was excited to find a book about the Barbizon Hotel. I remember my mother talking about taking the train from Cincinnati to NYC to shop, attend the theater and visit museums and stay at the Barbizon Hotel. I always held a somewhat mystique for me. It would have been in the 1950's that my mother and her friend would stay there. It was interesting to learn the history of how a woman's only hotel came about and learn a bit about the residents. They tended to be those of the upper class. The progression of the book was interesting for me. The first third or so held my interest as it talked about the women looking for work, such as models. As it progressed, it felt as though the book was more about Mademoiselle magazine whose guest college editors stayed at the Barbizon. The last third was very easy for me to put down as it became very repetitious. The editors need to tighten up the book. I am giving the book 3 stars though it is really 2.5. What could have been a great read was just a book about those who "have" and not as well written as it could have been. Thank you Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for an advanced copy in exchange for an honest feedback.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Camryn

    I found this really interesting, but also really frustrating at the end. So I read the author's piece in the New Yorker about this hotel and I really wanted to read this book, but I also knew that Barbara Chase, a Black artist, had stayed here and was one of the first Black women to do so. I wasn't like actively seeking out her story specifically, if that makes sense? I knew this would be a story about the hotel. And it was very rich and well told. But it really rubbed me the wrong way that we spe I found this really interesting, but also really frustrating at the end. So I read the author's piece in the New Yorker about this hotel and I really wanted to read this book, but I also knew that Barbara Chase, a Black artist, had stayed here and was one of the first Black women to do so. I wasn't like actively seeking out her story specifically, if that makes sense? I knew this would be a story about the hotel. And it was very rich and well told. But it really rubbed me the wrong way that we spent so much time on the white residents and we get half of a chapter for Barbara Chase, a paragraph for a Black woman who comes after her named Willette Murphy, and like two lines for Phylicia Rashad. The author gives entire chapters to Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion, arguably the two most famous women to say during the hotel's time operating, and I didn't expect that the Black women would get these chapters because... they're not as famous. But the author did take time to profile and follow other white women and revisits them. Like I guess because they were the same women who attended when Sylvia Plath was also there and they came back for an anniversary? I don't know if she just got more interview time with them, but we hear about where several women came from in depth, their plane rides to get to the hotel, their first impressions, several pages about their summers as editorial guests at Mademoiselle Magazine, about their clothes and their hair and their jobs and their lives after... I wanted to hear about the Black women in the same way. Did they not want to talk to the author? Did she not have enough time? I don't know. Barbara Chase basically brushes off a lot of the racism, saying that she knew what to expect and everyone treated her with respect, but she wasn't allowed to walk in the annual fashion show and had to hide backstage... because she was Black. Did Willette have the same issues? What about Phylicia? I don't know, it feels like I waited until the end to get mention that this world was very white, which I could already tell, and if she wasn't going to mention in in a substantial way, maybe she should've just had a paragraph at the end. But I also can't tell if it's my fault for expecting Black women to be addressed substantially in a book about a hotel that was primarily for white women. I don't know, but I'm frustrated!

  21. 5 out of 5

    DeB

    Author Paulina Bren wrote in her introduction that there is actually little history of the hotel, and this novel actually is a compilation of the experiences of the business which were housed in the building. The Barbizon was intimately connected to Mademoiselle Magazine, the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School and John Powers Modeling. Overall, the novel is quite fascinating, describing the effect of this hotel where young women flocked to from all over the country, their parents comfortable wit Author Paulina Bren wrote in her introduction that there is actually little history of the hotel, and this novel actually is a compilation of the experiences of the business which were housed in the building. The Barbizon was intimately connected to Mademoiselle Magazine, the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School and John Powers Modeling. Overall, the novel is quite fascinating, describing the effect of this hotel where young women flocked to from all over the country, their parents comfortable with their safety while their daughters learned skills and looked for husbands. The shift in the perception of “freedom” is ascribed to the women who experienced time at the Barbizon, leading to the Women’s Movement. Many famous residents stayed at the Barbizon over the years, and author Bren writes comprehensively especially about Sylvia Plath, whose book, The Bell Jar was based on her month there while a guest editor for Mademoiselle Magazine. Joan Didion, Meg Wolitzer also came as editors- though their skills weren’t necessarily well matched at the magazine. Actresses Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Jaclyn Smith and others enjoyed the reasonable rent and services of the Barbizon. The first half of the book vibrated with life - 1927’s opening and through the 1960’s- but the hotel itself became an anachronism, a women’s only residence, and eventually was turned into condos. Bren looked into the lives of the less famous to some degree, which I found very interesting. I’ll admit that my interest in reading The Barbizon was piqued by the novel The Dollhouse, by Fiona Davis. They are definitely complimentary to one another.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Cindy Burnett

    After World War I, women flocked to New York City to follow their dreams and sought safe, female-only places to live. While residential hotels for men existed, no such thing was available for women at the time. The Barbizon Hotel for Women was built to fill this void, housing such well-knowns as Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali McGraw, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Phylicia Rashad and many more, and was so successful that it remains the most famous of the women-only residences erected in the first h After World War I, women flocked to New York City to follow their dreams and sought safe, female-only places to live. While residential hotels for men existed, no such thing was available for women at the time. The Barbizon Hotel for Women was built to fill this void, housing such well-knowns as Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali McGraw, Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Phylicia Rashad and many more, and was so successful that it remains the most famous of the women-only residences erected in the first half of the 20th century. In The Barbizon, Paulina Bren captures not only the history of the legendary hotel but also important moments in women’s history from that time period. Want to hear more about some great new reads? Listen to my podcast here: https://www.thoughtsfromapage.com. For more book reviews and book conversation, check out my Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/thoughtsfro....

  23. 5 out of 5

    ♥ Sandi ❣

    3 stars There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed- then there were parts that I was not so fond of. I think this book gave a lot of information about the early days - meaning the 1920's through the 1950's - of both the woman's hotel and of New York City. And some information about the later days, as in the 1980's up to current, of both the hotel itself and of "The Women" who still inhabited it. However I did not find this book as enjoyable when it rattled off into the realm of the life 3 stars There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed- then there were parts that I was not so fond of. I think this book gave a lot of information about the early days - meaning the 1920's through the 1950's - of both the woman's hotel and of New York City. And some information about the later days, as in the 1980's up to current, of both the hotel itself and of "The Women" who still inhabited it. However I did not find this book as enjoyable when it rattled off into the realm of the life of the magazine Mademoiselle or to the length it took it's chapters on Sylvia Plath or Joan Didion. I felt that these sections were very distracting. I am happy I read the book. The Barbizon, in all it's many lives, was the legendary hotel for women. It was safe, it was affordable and it housed the many dreams of thousands of young women. There, to this day, has never been another hotel quite like the Barbizon - and sadly probably never will be.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Emmkay

    Framed around New York’s famous Barbizon hotel for women, which opened in 1927 and provided accommodation for generations of women - mostly white and middle or upper class - alone in the city. The famous Katie Gibbs secretarial school had rooms for their students there, as did Mademoiselle magazine for the college students who won coveted spots in their summer guest editor program. Sylvia Plath and Grace Kelly were both young residents for a time. I wondered if the author intended all the way al Framed around New York’s famous Barbizon hotel for women, which opened in 1927 and provided accommodation for generations of women - mostly white and middle or upper class - alone in the city. The famous Katie Gibbs secretarial school had rooms for their students there, as did Mademoiselle magazine for the college students who won coveted spots in their summer guest editor program. Sylvia Plath and Grace Kelly were both young residents for a time. I wondered if the author intended all the way along to focus on the Barbizon, as it seemed she might have waffled about whether that or Mademoiselle would be her subject. I had no idea about the fascinating history of Mademoiselle, which was just another fashion magazine when I was young, but which had once upon a time published cutting edge fiction and pioneered seeking the voices and views of real life young women. Overall, not entirely focused and heavy on the anecdotes, but interesting enough.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jarrett Neal

    A spry mix of feminism and social history, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free takes readers on a tour through the famed New York hotel, chronicling women's shifting roles and the many challenges they faced from the 1930s through the hotel's decline and eventual renovation from stylish women-only hotel to luxury condominiums. Paulina Bren's book reads as both a tract of women's history and a who's who of the many famous women who spent time in the hotel, among them Ali McGraw, Cybil Shep A spry mix of feminism and social history, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free takes readers on a tour through the famed New York hotel, chronicling women's shifting roles and the many challenges they faced from the 1930s through the hotel's decline and eventual renovation from stylish women-only hotel to luxury condominiums. Paulina Bren's book reads as both a tract of women's history and a who's who of the many famous women who spent time in the hotel, among them Ali McGraw, Cybil Shephard, Joan Didion, Jaclyn Smith, and Phylicia Rashad. But she reserves the biggest spotlight for two of its most famous residents, Grace Kelly and Sylvia Plath, who would each go on to attain iconic cultural and artistic status yet come to tragic ends. Bren's writing is clean and strong. She obviously did a great deal of careful research. She has the unique ability to make readers feel a bit of nostalgia for this by-gone era while never losing sight of the circumscribed reality in which these women, and by extension all women of the mid-twentieth century, lived. With marriage being crammed down these women's throats every waking minute, everything from the food they ate to the clothes they wore (Barbizon residents were restricted from entering or exiting the hotel in slacks) was curated for them. No men were allowed beyond a certain point. Rigid hierarchies were set for them. Anyone familiar with TV shows like Mad Men or the career gal novels of Suzanne Rindell and others will relate. The hotel served as a launching pad for ambitious women who wanted more than to be a wife and mother. While some went on to become models, actresses, and writers, others used their time at the Barbizon to live out their bachelorette years before eventually settling down for marriage and the quiet suburban life the culture constantly told them they should aspire to. The fates of the Barbizon and its residents shifted along with the culture. With the rise of women's rights, Civil Rights, and the wide socioeconomic chasm in New York City, the hotel lost its glamour and allure by the mid-seventies. In our current era of enraged cancel culture witch hunts, polarization, and defiant self-expression, some readers may look upon the Barbizon and its mission with eye-rolling derision. Yet we cannot dismiss the Barbizon's role in helping women launch their careers, find themselves, and make their own choices, even if those choices had sad and injurious consequences. I'm pleased that Bren did not shy away from the hotel's tacit exclusion of women of color and that she balanced her depiction of the hotel as a place where women found both solidarity and rivalry, emancipation and confinement. We will never see its like again but for what is was worth the Barbizon meant a lot.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Bronwyn

    Man, I wanted to like this more than I did. Three stars maybe isn’t fair, but four stars would be too much. And I liked it quite a bit in places. There are a lot of good anecdotes told and interesting people featured. But. I don’t understand what this book was trying to do. The first few and last chapters are about The Barbizon, which is what the book is supposed to be about. But the whole middle of the book is really about Mademoiselle magazine. And that was super interesting! But it didn’t rea Man, I wanted to like this more than I did. Three stars maybe isn’t fair, but four stars would be too much. And I liked it quite a bit in places. There are a lot of good anecdotes told and interesting people featured. But. I don’t understand what this book was trying to do. The first few and last chapters are about The Barbizon, which is what the book is supposed to be about. But the whole middle of the book is really about Mademoiselle magazine. And that was super interesting! But it didn’t really fit the book as presented, even though Mademoiselle was closely linked with the hotel for much of its existence. If the title/subtitle had just been changed to The Barbizon and Mademoiselle, I wouldn’t have such issues and would rate this higher. (Maybe that’s bad of me since it was still an interesting book. I don’t know.) I wanted to like this more than I did, despite all the interesting information. I just didn’t understand what the point of the book was. It’s like Bren found all these interesting stories that vaguely connected to the same place and decided to make a book out of it. I’m still glad I read it, but it wasn’t what I wanted. (Though now I do want to read more about Sylvia Plath, so sort of good job, book.) (Also, I don’t know who edited/proofread this, because they didn’t get Gypsy Rose Lee’s name right.)

  27. 5 out of 5

    OutlawPoet

    The Glam! The Barbizon, by Paulina Bren, is a very accessible book that lets the reader into a very glamorous world! Oh, I would have loved living there! But the author is very frank in her history and in the early days of The Barbizon’s glory, it was exclusively white – with no place for me lol. The author does tell us a little bit about the very first African American woman who was allowed to stay there – and what a strange experience it must have been for her! The book focuses more on some of t The Glam! The Barbizon, by Paulina Bren, is a very accessible book that lets the reader into a very glamorous world! Oh, I would have loved living there! But the author is very frank in her history and in the early days of The Barbizon’s glory, it was exclusively white – with no place for me lol. The author does tell us a little bit about the very first African American woman who was allowed to stay there – and what a strange experience it must have been for her! The book focuses more on some of the most famous (and iconic) residents, all while giving us a glimpse into the history and culture of America and how The Barbizon played a role. It’s definitely a story of glamour, but it’s also a story of feminism and independence and of a place that gave women a footing to fight for what they wanted. I also loved the photos interspersed in the book, though I’d love to have seen even more! This was a wonderful escape of a read – a bit of time travel into days gone by. *ARC Provided via Net Galley

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cait

    This wasn't quite what I expected, in terms of structure, but Bren explains that a bit at the start - there's just not a lot of extant archive material about the Barbizon - it's a place that primarily lives in the culture and memory of women, which has of course not routinely been something seen as worth documenting. But a great read, and I think for those familiar with New York, or interested in the history of 20th century New York there would be an extra level of interest. This wasn't quite what I expected, in terms of structure, but Bren explains that a bit at the start - there's just not a lot of extant archive material about the Barbizon - it's a place that primarily lives in the culture and memory of women, which has of course not routinely been something seen as worth documenting. But a great read, and I think for those familiar with New York, or interested in the history of 20th century New York there would be an extra level of interest.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth A.G.

    Paulina Bren's book The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free is not only a history of the famed New York City hotel and the women who lived there, but is also a history of the attitudes toward a woman's place in society over the decades of the twentieth century. Seeking independence, adventure, and a new life, career-minded women from all parts of the country arrived at the newly opened (1928) Barbizon Hotel for Women which was a safe haven from which to seek their dreams and then return to t Paulina Bren's book The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free is not only a history of the famed New York City hotel and the women who lived there, but is also a history of the attitudes toward a woman's place in society over the decades of the twentieth century. Seeking independence, adventure, and a new life, career-minded women from all parts of the country arrived at the newly opened (1928) Barbizon Hotel for Women which was a safe haven from which to seek their dreams and then return to the camaraderie of like-minded women in a safe environment to the relief of concerned parents who feared for the safety of their daughters in the city. The hotel offered "opportunities for improvement" - art and music studios, library, afternoon teas, lecture rooms, a roof garden, swimming pool and gym - and the clientele included aspiring writers, actresses and models. The hotel housed women attending the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school, the Ford modelling company, and "Mademoiselle" magazine's summer internship winners consisting of women from elite women's colleges. Author Bren explores the changes in social attitudes toward the working woman who stayed at the hotel - ranging from the roaring 20's "New Woman" after WWI and the women's vote, to the Depression years of the 30's when the working women were more objected to as taking jobs from men; and to ideas that a woman should seek a husband and family rather than career conflicted with their dreams of independence. Bren stresses that for most of the women the goal they truly sought was marriage and in that light the Barbizon was not really "the hotel that set the women free." The book includes the stories of both the not so famous and the famous who resided at the Barbizon - Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly and others. The building itself as a landmark in its time - numerous owners, renovations, the admission of men - is an interesting history in itself. A bit repetitive and slow reading at times and perhaps too much emphasis on Sylvia Plath, at least for me; and Bren tends to surmise about some events without proof or documentation referring to the "probability" of an event or person. Overall, well written and interesting.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lindsey

    At the beginning of the book the author Paulina Bren says that many had tried to write about The Barbizon before but gave up due to lack of sources. Perhaps Bren should have shifted her focus as well, as this book is only tangentially about the famous hotel. Mostly it’s a history of women in New York in the mid 20th Century which still mostly held my interest, and occasionally Bren remembers to mention The Barbizon. But too much of the book becomes an uninteresting history of Mademoiselle magazi At the beginning of the book the author Paulina Bren says that many had tried to write about The Barbizon before but gave up due to lack of sources. Perhaps Bren should have shifted her focus as well, as this book is only tangentially about the famous hotel. Mostly it’s a history of women in New York in the mid 20th Century which still mostly held my interest, and occasionally Bren remembers to mention The Barbizon. But too much of the book becomes an uninteresting history of Mademoiselle magazine, a biography of Sylvia Plath that is all over the place, and a history of the Ford Modeling Agency (actually was one of the better parts). A lot of redundancy here as well. I listened to the audio book, I might have abandoned if I was reading.

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