The first-ever history of the legendary Barbizon Hotel, told through the generations of women who passed through its halls
by Paulina Bren
Simon & Schuster, Fall 2020
Built in 1927, the Barbizon Hotel in New York was first intended as a home for the Modern Woman seeking a career in the arts, capitalizing on the post WWI influx of women flowing into Manhattan looking for jobs. With its grand lobby, swimming pool, sterling press (The New York Times commented on its “highly feminine boudoirs” and built-in radio in each room), and Bloomingdales down the street, the hotel offered a safe, glamorous place for parents to send daughters itching to pursue their dreams. Over the years, its 688 tiny pink rooms housed Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly (notorious for sneaking in men), Joan Didion, Candice Bergen, Ali McGraw, Cybil Shepherd, Elaine Stritch, Liza Minnelli, Eudora Welty, Phylicia Rashad, Ann Beattie, and Mona Simpson, among many others. Sylvia Plath fictionalized her time at The Barbizon in The Bell Jar, and Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, as did the Ford Modeling Agency its young models. For decades it remained under the watchful guard of Oscar the doorman, a fixture of the hotel. The residency cultivated a sense of propriety and prestige, but not all the Barbizon Girls, as they came to be known, soared off into the sunset. In the 80s the hotel began to allow men, and in the early 21st century it was converted into luxury condos. But the building can’t fully shake its past. On the top floor still live “The Women,” a handful of residents who refuse to give up their pink rooms, their dreams now far behind them. THE BARBIZON is a colorful and stylish portrait of these lives, forming a history of the hotel and of women’s emancipation from the Jazz Age to the present. Through the Barbizon Girls, we are reminded that while the fight for equality continues today, tenacity and incremental change has transformational impact.
Paulina Bren received her PhD in Modern European history from New York University. Her first book, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring (Cornell UP, 2010), won the Council for European Studies 2012 Book Prize, the Austrian Studies Association 2012 Book Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2011 Vucinich Book Award. Her second book, co-edited with Mary Neuburger, was a collection of essays entitled Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe (Oxford UP, 2012). Bren has been the recipient of many grants and fellowships, including from the National Endowment for Humanities, the National Council of East European and Eurasian Research, the Social Science Research Council, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Fulbright-Hays.