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Book Review: The Barbizon

It was the inspiration for The Griffith Hotel in the unfairly axed-too-soon Agent Carter, fictionalised as The Amazon in The Bell Jar not long after the novel’s author Sylvia Plath moved out, and is the focus of Paulina Bren’s new book. The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free is a fascinating account of the glamorous and not-so-glam social history of the female-only hotel, located at 140 East 63rd Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was the place newly liberated women stayed whether seeking refuge or providing them with a room of one’s own as they pursued careers in the arts.

Built in 1927, The Barbizon housed thousands of women until 1981 when the first man was checked in, and is credited with granting autonomy to many – including the likes of Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Edith Bouvier Beale (that’s Little Edie to you if you’ve seen Grey Gardens), Cloris Leachman, Joan Didion, Ali McGraw, Phylicia Rashad, and even ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown back in 1931. Its most famous resident was probably Plath who spent her tenure as one of the guest editors* of Mademoiselle magazine (also fictionalised as ‘Ladies Day’ in The Bell Jar). The publication was headed by the imposing Betsy Talbot Blackwell (BTB) who ruled with a fierce head beneath a pillbox hat and within a perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, granting opportunities for *The Millies each of whom were afforded a tiny boudoir bedecked in chintz and florals, all for a reduced rate per week. Also in residence were girls and women who attended the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School (they lived on the 16th and 17th floors) and those signed up with Ford or Powers Modelling Agencies. Like one big sorority.

Bren, over nine chapters, breathes life back into the lobby and corridors of the hotel which became a condominium in 2005 (Barbizon 63) and houses Ricky Gervais among others. Her vibrant and evocative prose really gives a sense of the period as these women found financial independence, a place in an ever-changing world or even a bar stool over at Malachy’s bar – which allowed them to drink and eat alone at the bar (unheard of at the time) without hassle from men. God bless Malachy McCourt. Themes touch on surviving Prohibition, the Depression, McCarthyism, and briefly on Civil Rights – Barbara Chase was the first Black woman/resident to intern for Mademoiselle in 1956. Most interestingly is how Bren addresses the loneliness, mental health issues, and suicide attempts (and successes) of some of the residents – through first-person accounts and independent research – which only serve to add poignancy and depth.

By the last chapter, this pain takes on a greater meaning. Once the hotel ceased to exist and work began creating the condos, several of the older women fought to keep their homes, citing their (ancient) leases which allowed them to remain living there amidst the gutting and renovations. Work continued and was completed on all floors except the one where these women resided, everything around them was updated but their doors, walls, rooms and d├ęcor were preserved like a time capsule. Although, sadly, there is nowhere near as much detail about these old broads who were determined to stay put.

The Barbizon is a compelling read, beautifully researched and highly recommended to anyone interested in the period or any of the individual women covered in the text. It’s a deeply resonant book which ends with pangs of bitter irony. Once a sanctuary promoted as selling freedom to women, the bricks and mortar ended up imprisoning a fair few. Or in the case of Sylvia Path, it gave a purpose – inspiration for her novel masterpiece – a place to belong for a time or place where the unravelling began before the world became too much.