NonFiction Book Club

The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free


Paulina Bren

FROM THE BOOK JACKET: 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 maid service, workout rooms, and private dining.

Built in 1927, at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon Hotel was designed as a luxurious safe haven for the "Modern Woman" hoping for a career in the arts. Over time, 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, it's almost 700 tiny rooms with matching floral curtains and bedspreads housed, among many others, Titanic survivor Molly Brown; actresses Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Jaclyn Smith; and writers Joan Didion, Gael Greene, Diane Johnson, Meg Wolitzer. 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. 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.

Paulina BrenABOUT THE AUTHOR: 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.


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