A Reflection, Appreciation, and Book Review: The Women of The Barbizon Hotel

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of an understanding of women. And that goes for a married man as well, be he possessed of big bucks or living paycheck-to-paycheck.

There’s just no understanding of women, if you’re a male of the species.  There’s the truth that should be universally acknowledged.

But we should never stop trying, guys.

So today, in recognition of the recent International Women’s Day, I commend to you The Barbizon: The Hotel that Set Women Free, a new book by historian Paulina Bren of Vassar College.  Reading it may not give you great insight into what makes women tick, and all that that implies. But you can’t help coming away with a heightened understanding of the societal hurdles faced — and the methods and stratagems for advancement employed — by ambitious, venturesome ladies of the decades from the Roaring Twenties through the “Me Decade” of the Seventies. 

The Barbizon, a residential hotel on New York’s Upper East Side, catered to middle- and upper-class women. You needed letters of recommendation to get in. That pleased the well-to-do parents no end, because their daughters were going to be living among “the right kind of girls.” Pleasing to the nervous parents also was the knowledge that no men were ever allowed above the first floor.

The rooms were small and somewhat Spartan. But the ladies had everything they needed otherwise – pool, gym, library, soundproof rehearsal rooms for singing and music practice, lecture halls, free afternoon tea, a garden on the roof – and first-floor businesses with all the products and services necessary for life in the big city.

They also had a nice, Juliet-style balcony that overlooked the first floor and gave them a vantage point to size up the gentlemen who eagerly awaited them in the lobby. I can actually relate to that. My very first date in college was with a lovely girl from Emmanuel. I went to her dorm and gave the receptionist my name and hers. Over the loudspeaker came the announcement, “Dorothea So-and-so, you have a visitor in the lobby.”

At least half a dozen other girls came cruising down from upstairs for a quick inspection before retreating and, presumably, reporting back. Then she made her appearance. Whether or not I rated highly with that appraisal squad I’ll never know. But on this occasion, there was little chance that she was going to stand me up, because I had tickets to a Simon and Garfunkel concert at BC.  Of course I kidded myself into thinking that it was I who interested her, not Paul and Art. I suspect that many of the guys who laid out big bucks to impress a Barbizon girl with a night on the town had a similar experience.

The Barbizon lobby – no men allowed above that first floor.

The author estimates that 350,000 women lived at the Barbizon, from its opening in 1927 through the mid-1960s. Most of them were girls from small-town America; they got their training and their jobs, they found their husbands, and they made it out into picket-fence suburbia. We don’t know the names of that majority, but we do know the names of many others who made it big in their respective fields.

I’ll list a few of those stars, but not before telling you what I liked most about the book: its delving into the cultural and business history of the era.

If you appreciated Mad Men for its portrayals of life in the 1960s and its take on the people and practices of the advertising business, then you’ll appreciate The Barbizon for similar reasons.  It gives close-up views of the emerging fields of popular publishing; modeling; advertising; and the secretarial profession; they’re all excellent bits of history of the nexus of business and culture. 

There’s also some interesting stuff about life during Prohibition and its speakeasies; of the emergence of McCarthyism; about the sometimes glacial pace of women’s progress in the working world; and of the Kinsey Report, the coming of the pill, and women’s sexual emancipation – they’re all worth the price of the book.  For instance, I had never known that, by 1932, 26 states had laws against married women holding a job. Single working women had to disclose their impending marital status, lest they take a job away from a “real” breadwinner.

Speaking of jobs, in the 19th century, almost all secretaries were male. Women finally cracked their way in, though, and during the Depression, the already-flourishing Katharine Gibbs secretarial school was harder to get into than one of the Seven Sisters colleges. A Katie Gibbs girl, with her white gloves and her rigorous training in typing, stenography, business, poise, voice, and manners, was still eminently employable when jobs everywhere else had disappeared.

Gibbs girls also got exposure to art history, banking management, finance, income management, and English literature.  It was undoubtedly a better preparation for the real world than four years in some ivory tower.

Two floors of the Barbizon were the Gibbs girls’ dormitory; and many Seven Sisters graduates ended up enrolling there. They needed work too, and typing was often all that was available. That steady income stream from the Gibbs School helped keep the Barbizon afloat during those lean years.

If a girl couldn’t type, she could still make it in New York if she looked good. And the Barbizon was home to many such women who found work as models. Early on, most of them worked for John Robert Powers, founder of the Powers Agency. He was a sales/marketing whiz who knew intuitively the allure of “The Powers Girl.” If she looked the part, she could sell anything.

The biggest source of income for the Powers agency was the mail-order catalog business. Powers recruited women from alI over the country to pose for his pictures. He urged them to stay at the Barbizon. It might have been slightly more expensive than other accommodations, but it was safe and prestigious. The Powers girl had “the typical Midwestern look: tall, blond, and curvy…they were typically give foot nine inches and a voluptuous 34-24-34; long-stemmed American beauties.”

It wasn’t an easy life, and it didn’t pay especially well. The ladies had to be on call just about all the time; they had to do their own hair and makeup. You could always tell a Powers model by the black hatbox she carried. It contained all her makeup, combs, brushes, hair pins, extra socks and underwear, and a contraption called “binoculars” that gave her bust a perky boost if the situation demanded it.

One Powers girl named Celeste Gheen made $25 a week in her first year; of that $11 went to her room at the Barbizon. She went home to Cleveland, but Powers knew she was exceptional and begged her to return. She was indeed perfect for the job: 5 feet, 8 ½ inches; 34-24-35; and 115 pounds. She eventually became, as a New Yorker article notes, “the face – or the limbs, or the lips – of five cigarette brands, Spam, Texaco, Oldsmobile, Log Cabin Syrup, Schaefer beer, Bayer Aspirin, Bon Ami cleanser, Beautyrest mattresses, and Hellman’s mayonnaise.”

Celeste was one of the most successful of the Powers girls. Later came Eileen Ford and the Ford agency. Ford changed the business model of modeling. She worked for the girls, got them better pay, and had them paid faster than Powers and some of his imitators. 

As for the publishing business, the book tells the story of editor-in-chief Betsy Talbot Blackwell and her ingenious management of Mademoiselle magazine. She took it over in 1937 and soon came up with two smashing ideas to revive the magazine for its publisher, Street and Smith. One was the “College Board,” a veritable army of young women in schools around the country. They all “covered” their school and supplied Blackwell with unmatched market research on trends and on the desires of their peers. Blackwell used that intelligence to turn the month of August, usually a dead zone in the magazine business, into a Mademoiselle marketing and advertising bonanza for the coming school year.

The next brilliant stroke was Mademoiselle’s Guest Editor Program. Every June, 20 of the most talented college-age female writers and editors came to New York to work at Mademoiselle. They all stayed at the Barbizon. The program launched many a career in literature and publishing, including those of Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Ann Beattie, Gael Greene, Diane Johnson, Mona Simpson, Meg Wolitzer, Janet Burroway, Lynn Sherr, Nanette Emery, and Elizabeth Moulton.

Those attractive young guest editors did a lot of client-schmoozing and socializing on the magazine’s dime. It came with the territory. But they also got to meet some of the up-and-coming writers of the literary world, who were recruited by Blackwell and published for cheap, starter’s rates. They included Truman Capote, James Purdy, Flannery O’Connor,and Edward Albee.

The book devotes an entire chapter to both Didion and Plath, which is understandable, given their reputations as writers. Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, is a fictionalized account of her time at The Barbizon. Plath ended her life by suicide. When she succeeded, it wasn’t her first attempt.  A sad part of the Barbizon’s history is that Plath was not the only resident to take her own life. There were other suicides of women who couldn’t handle the pressure of chasing success in New York. There was also at least one murder on the premises.

Sylvia Plath, on her first day as a Mademoiselle guest editor.

Okay, so how about some of those other big names? It’s going to sound as if reading this book is like flipping through a People magazine, looking at the pictures, and searching for the gossipy and titillating tidbits. I assure you, it’s not that way at all. But you do deserve a few little morsels of gossip.

There’s Grace Kelly. Her father, John B. Kelly, was a multimillionaire and a three-time Olympic Gold Medal winner in the sport of rowing.  As the book points out, Grace was “the poster girl for that decade’s perfect woman….forever identified with sweetness and chastity, [yet she was] fond of dancing to Hawaiian music down the hallways of the Barbizon, and given to shocking her fellow residents by performing topless. Rumors of her sexual appetite and promiscuousness abounded.” Alfred Hitchcock, who cast her in Rear Window, called her a “snow-covered volcano.”

Kelly had poor eyesight and wore horn-rimmed glasses. When she took them off in the movies, she “exuded a sensuous dreaminess that was in fact plain old myopia,” according to author Bren. But you have to give Grace a world of credit for hard work. Told by her acting teachers that her voice was too high-pitched and nasal, she bought a recorder and talked into it every night until she was able to correct her tone and sound almost British.

The ultimate goal of many a Barbizon resident was to bag a husband. Grace hit a jackpot there, moving out of the Barbizon to Hollywood and eventually to the royal palace of Monaco. Her life ended tragically in 1982 when her car pitched over a cliff.

Grace Kelly

Then there were the guys who patrolled the streets near the Barbizon and hung out in the lobby, trolling for dates. Most of them struck out. But author J.D. Salinger was one who didn’t. He frequented the first-floor coffee shop and convinced at least a few of the girls that he was the goalie for the Montreal Canadiens.

Another was Noel Parmentel, a writer who befriended Joan Didion and helped her publish her first novel. She brought him to a party one night so he could meet with some “new faces” – Barbizon girls, primarily. There were fifteen people in the room when they arrived. Parmentel had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men. He, like Salinger, had found a way to penetrate Fortress Barbizon.

All right, you’ve waited long enough. Who were some of the other famous alumnae of The Barbizon? Here we go, in no particular order, and I’m sure I’ve overlooked some: Liza Minnelli, Cybill Shepherd, Betty Buckley, Ali MacGraw, Shirley Jones, Lorna Luft, Peggy Noonan, Cloris Leachman, Phylicia Rashad, Rita Hayworth, Tippi Hedren, and Phyllis Kirk. There was also Edie Bouvier, who was a cousin of Jackie Kennedy, and the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, a survivor of The Titanic.

Some of those luminaries are mentioned only in passing. Of others, we learn a bit more.  Ellen Smith, who later became the Jaclyn Smith of “Charlie’s Angels” fame, arrived in New York from Texas in 1966 to study ballet arts. Ellen’s parents were reluctant to let her come, and they made her promise never to use the subway. In her two years at the Barbizon, she never did.

Ellen/Jaclyn may be somewhat typical of the women of Barbizon. Few made it as big as she did, but many of them must have had a similar experience of life. She was a small-town girl who saw life go whizzing by in the fast lane but who took it slowly until she was ready. As the book points out, the Barbizon “represented ‘a time of rules and anticipation’ which suited her just fine…the hotel and New York would also teach her an ‘emotional independence’ that she would rely on for years to come; the ability to fend for herself, not only financially but emotionally.”

The Barbizon and hotels like it grew less relevant and less desirable as women advanced in the business world and elsewhere. The hotel admitted men beginning in 1981. It went through a series of owners and is now a home for luxury condominiums.  Incredibly, five or six elderly women still live there, protected from eviction and paying their original room rates, thanks to New York’s rent-control laws and to effective legal representation.

So what to make of it all? I must say that the stories of the women of Barbizon are inspiring. Oh yes, they had their fun times and their share of screw-ups and failures. But what impressed me the most was their sheer courage. They came from their sleepy little towns and took on life in the fastest, roughest, and most ruthless city imaginable. They were strivers and doers. 

And do I understand women any better, having read this delightful book? No. The truth universally acknowledged at the beginning holds firm for me.

But do I love, admire, and appreciate women even more? You bet I do.

And with that I wish you, albeit belatedly, a Happy International Women’s Day.

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3 Responses to “A Reflection, Appreciation, and Book Review: The Women of The Barbizon Hotel”

  1. Patrick Daly Says:

    Another trip down memory lane, NYC style. For anyone who grew up in or around the world’s greatest city, the history of the Barbizon was part of the lore of Gotham. Well done. I loved the comparison to Mad Men. For a social history of NYC, watching Mad Men and reading about the Barbizon will get you to first base with a little fun along the way.

  2. Discover and Explore Says:

    Sensational writing that captured an era! Thank you for sharing 👍👍👍

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