For more than half a century, single young women across the country shared 20-year-old Plath’s “woosh.” New York had exerted its timeless pull on them; it was there that they could trade hometown destinies for big-city dreams, the preordained for the possible.
But they needed a place to stay. For tens of thousands of them — mostly White and middle or upper class — that was a residence hotel reserved for their own sex, a place that would shelter them, protect them from male predation, and nurture their bodies and minds and careers. “The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free,” as the title of Paulina Bren’s lively history puts it, fit the bill. Bren notes that while the Barbizon was not the first of the women’s hotels to spring up in the early 1900s, it “would come to embody an entirely different persona from the others as a place of glamour, desire, and young female ambition.”
The roster of residents bears out her thesis. The woman who checked into the Barbizon, as Bren describes her, “was the debutante who couldn’t tell her parents she wanted to paint; she was the shopgirl from Oklahoma who dreamed of the Broadway stage; she was the eighteen-year-old who told her fiancé she would be right back, but first there was a typing course she needed to take.” They had names like Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Joan Didion, Ali MacGraw, Phylicia Rashad, Diane Johnson, Barbara Chase, Meg Wolitzer, Betsey Johnson, Cloris Leachman and Nancy Davis, the future first lady.
The hotel — 23 stories of stepped red brick in a Gothic Revival style — opened in 1928 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street. It had 720 cramped rooms, but the shared spaces were luxe and plentiful and included a roof garden, solarium, library, gymnasium, swimming pool, music and art studios, TV room, dining room and coffee shop. The two-story lobby had a mezzanine perfect for date-spotting; men were forbidden beyond it. There were no kitchens in the rooms, and maid service was provided, so the “temptation” to keep house was absent. “For all the young women at the Barbizon,” Bren writes, “the narrow bed, dresser, armchair, floor lamp, and small desk, all crammed into a tiny room with a floral bedspread and matching curtains, represented some sort of liberation. At least at the beginning.”
“The Barbizon” is a story as much about 20th-century women seizing agency, in fits and starts, as it is about a hotel, and Bren tells it skillfully. She pays particular attention to three Barbizon staples. There were the “Gibbs girls,” the typists in training at the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, which leased two floors of the hotel to house its students. Gibbs began as “part finishing school and part party school,” where girls “could escape for a year between college and getting married and let their hair down.” It evolved into a necessity during the Depression. Women could support themselves with office jobs in the skyscrapers that had gone up all over the city.
Then there were the local beauty queens recruited by John Powers, who’d opened his pioneering modeling agency in 1923. Another constant hotel presence, the Powers models cemented its reputation for glamour, drawing young men like J.D. Salinger and Malachy McCourt to the lobby to cast their lures. Grace Kelly, who was studying acting, was briefly a Powers model after Eileen Ford, Powers’s rival, “rejected her for the extra meat on her bones.” Bren describes Kelly as “frumpy” in her horn-rimmed glasses and tweed skirts — the proper look for an upper-class Philadelphia girl — but Kelly showed an uninhibited side to her hotel mates, “dancing to Hawaiian music down the hallways of the Barbizon, and given to shocking her fellow residents by performing topless.”
No women get more notice from Bren than the fiercely competitive college girls invited to be guest editors each June at Mademoiselle — and none so much as Plath. A fellow Barbizon-dwelling guest editor in 1953 noted that “we were the first generation after the war and the last generation before the Pill.” Plath “keenly felt the contradictions of the 1950s,” Bren writes. “She was neither able to comply with the demands made on women nor bravely shirk them.” In her unbridled enthusiasm over the prospect of her New York month, she’d bought new clothes. On her last night at the Barbizon, she later wrote, she went up to the roof terrace, and “piece by piece I fed my wardrobe to the night wind.” At some point she must have realized the inevitability of female disappointment. “The rules were clear, and the expectations sky-high,” Bren writes. “Women should be virgins, but not prudes; women should go to college, pursue a certain kind 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.” Shortly after she returned to Wellesley, Plath did just that; it was her first suicide attempt.
Plath wrote of her experience in “The Bell Jar,” her only novel. The Barbizon becomes the fictional Amazon hotel, and Plath is Esther Greenwood, the narrator. Esther’s mother had told her that if she learned shorthand, “she would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.” This frustrated Esther — and Sylvia, who had another idea: “I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters.” And yet despite her education, her gifts, her ambition, Plath saw what was ahead. For most women then, even and perhaps especially at the Barbizon, it was still a man, marriage, children, the suburbs. Barbizon alum Gael Greene would write that the two greatest discoveries of the 20th century were “the Cuisinart and the clitoris,” but those were still a way off. As Esther put it, what a man “secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard’s kitchen mat.” The future must have crystallized for Plath that summer at the Barbizon, as she wrote in “The Bell Jar”: “I felt like a racehorse in a world without racetracks.”
She wasn’t the only one. The Barbizon could boast of numerous success stories among the women who lived there. But it was also a place where ambition met reality, and Bren, a Vassar historian, ably documents that sad fact. One resident guessed that 55 women who lived at the hotel during her years there had committed suicide. Women threw themselves from the roof, shot themselves in the head, filled themselves with sedatives and hanged themselves from the curtain rods. Ten years after her stay at the Barbizon and weeks after she published “The Bell Jar” in 1963, Plath stuck her head in the oven. The Barbizon had no kitchens. Real life did.
In his classic essay “Here Is New York,” E.B. White wrote that the city was the place for “a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart.” But sometimes it was the girl who had the manuscript and the pain, piled on top of the indignity. That was true of more than one woosh-filled woman who made her home at the Barbizon.
That Set Women Free
By Paulina Bren
Simon & Schuster.
321 pp. $27