Day 6

New York's female-only hotel, the Barbizon, gave women freedom to dream — and work

The Barbizon Hotel for women opened in New York in 1928 and was the launching point for countless young women seeking careers in the big city. Paulina Bren shares stories from her new book, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free.

'The Barbizon was this wonderful launching pad,' says author Paulina Bren

A woman walks through the lobby of the Barbizon Hotel for Women at 140 East 63rd Street in New York, Oct. 15, 1981. (Dave Pickoff/The Associated Press)

Originally published March 26, 2021.

As a young woman, before she was an Academy Award-winner or Mrs. Partridge from television's The Partridge Family, Shirley Jones arrived in New York City. She dreamed of a career on the stage and arrived to audition for Broadway musicals. 

Her parents dropped her off at the Barbizon Hotel, a women's-only hotel on the city's Upper East Side. It was considered safe, respectable, and glamorous. And it was once the destination for career-minded women in the city.

Similar stories can be told for countless young women – Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli and women from small towns across the United States.

"The Barbizon Hotel is, I think, [the] 20th century's most important and glamorous all-women's hotel, which tells us so much about the history of women's ambition and also about New York as it progressed through the 20th century to the present," said Paulina Bren.

Bren is a historian and the author of the new book, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free. 

Two young women check in with the concierge at the Barbizon Hotel for Women at 140 East 63rd Street in New York, Oct. 15, 1981. (Dave Pickoff/The Associated Press)

Following the end of the First World War and end of the Spanish flu, more women needed and wanted to work outside the home. 

"In the 1920s, thousands of women were coming to New York to take work in the new skyscrapers," explained Bren. "And so throughout the 1920s, you see many women's-only residential hotels coming up, being built in New York." 

And while the Barbizon wasn't the first hotel for women, it was considered the most prestigious.

The women of the Barbizon

The Barbizon was intentionally designed to be a residence for women with artistic aspirations. 

"So there were artist's studios with lots of light streaming in. There were music studios that were soundproofed. There was a performance area, a stage," said Bren.

But aside from attracting young artists and performers, the hotel was also home for the students of the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, a prestigious institution that churned out well-rounded, well-mannered and well-dressed secretaries known as Gibbs girls.

The cover of Paulina Bren's book, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free, which looks at the history of the iconic women's hotel in New York City. (Simon & Schuster)

"Their classes included classes on art, on art history, on first aid, on hygiene, on all sorts," Bren told Day 6. "And so it was a very elite force of young women who became Katharine Gibbs secretaries, and for them, it meant that they could get not only a great job, but in many cases this became the first rung of a ladder that they climbed in corporate America."

The Barbizon was also the home of women working with the John Powers modelling agency, and of guest editors interning at Mademoiselle magazine. The interns were college students and over the years they included Joan Didion, Ali MacGraw and Sylvia Plath. 

"For Sylvia Plath, the stay at the Barbizon was a real reckoning," explained Bren. "While she was hungry for writing material that would take her out of her milieu of just being at Smith College, surrounded by 18 to 22 year olds, she somehow then found it to be daunting."

"So certainly her cohorts who were there with her in 1953 talk about how they often found her crying. They were trying to help her. Finally they gave up. She was clearly having a very serious breakdown during that month and she felt overwhelmed," Bren said.

The Barbizon today

In the end, the Barbizon Hotel became a victim of its own successes.

Women had stayed there and found a safe space to launch their careers and become more independent, but with that independence came a desire for more freedom.

Paulina Bren is the author of The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free. (Adam Patane)

"And so it was actually the women's movement and women having attained that level of rights and independence," said Bren.

"They no longer wanted to stay in a hotel where they couldn't invite men up to their rooms, where they had a sort of restricted social milieu. And so that's sort of the irony."

The Barbizon was converted into luxury condominiums in the mid-2000s and is now known as the Barbizon 63. 

And today, thanks to New York's rent control laws and a lot of determination, five women who were residents of the original Barbizon still live in the building.

They have maid service, access to an outside terrace and a rich history of stories to share without having to pay luxury prices for rent.

Written and produced by Laurie Allan.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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