A room of one’s own

Words Karla Evans

The Barbizon is the most famous hotel you’ve probably never heard of. Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Veronica Lake, Candice Bergen, Nancy Reagan and Sylvia Plath. These are just some of the extraordinary women who spent a night, or ninety, at this iconic Upper East Side residence and helped crystallise its place in New York history. Part hotel, part member’s club, the women only establishment was born in the glittering Jazz Age as a safe and glamorous haven for aspiring women poised to make their mark in the new era of women at work.

Built in 1926 as a ‘Club Residence for Professional Women’, the Barbizon prided itself on its lavish interiors and amenities that went far beyond home comforts. A dramatic marble-floored lobby greeted guests on arrival, opening up to a sweeping staircase and mezzanine lounge where the in-house social hostess would arrange genteel gatherings such as afternoon tea and Shakespeare readings. This was old-school opulence at its finest and every innocent whim could be satisfied within the Barbizon’s four walls. There was a café, solarium, gymnasium, swimming pool, library and, the pinnacle of New York real estate, an outdoor terrace. Even the architecture exuded glamour with a mix of Gothic Revival, Renaissance and romantic styling that saw dramatic sandstone towers shooting up to the twenty-third floor. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and made a New York City Landmark in 2012.

The early twentieth century saw the dawning of the modern woman. Women could vote, attend college and had a social freedom their mothers’ generation could only have dreamed of, and New York City was at the centre of it all. As a career-minded woman there was no finer address to call your own than the Barbizon Hotel. ‘Even in 1959 it was known as the most desirable of all women’s residences,’ says Alice Delman who has lived in the building, now known as Barbizon 63, since the late 1950s, ‘and that’s in large part because it was so famous. It was of a very high status and there was something about the ambience of the place.’

The Barbizon was more than just a hotel; it was a social club and a refuge from the relentless pace and male-dominated milieu of New York City. There were strict dress codes – no slacks worn after noon and no bathing suits in the foyer – and guardians would pace the halls to catch gentleman callers, who were strictly barred beyond the lobby. The individual rooms were much more modest – 8.5 feet by 16 feet in size with just a simple bed, desk, armchair and closet – and devoid of any kitchen equipment. (There was strictly no cooking in the rooms). The rules and regulations only made the hotel more desirable for anxious parents sending their innocent and often naive daughters off to the big bad city. Reassuring to both parents and daughters was that not anyone could secure themselves a room. The admission process was fiercely competitive with each eager applicant requiring three references – mayors and teachers were always well received – in addition to a face-toface interview to ensure their physical appearance, which was graded from A to D, was also up to the residence’s standards. Exclusivity and respectability became buzzwords for the Barbizon and its reputation brought plenty of business for the hotel from the forties new wave of female-focussed industry. The newly launched Ford modelling agency housed its new faces at the hotel, filling its corridors with limby teenagers spotted at shopping malls across America. Many of whom, such as Jean Patchett and Dolores Hawkins, graced the covers of Vogue shortly after their arrival. The famous Katharine Gibbs College followed suit taking up two floors for their whitegloved students to reside in while plugging away at typewriters in nearby classrooms. The now redundant Mademoiselle magazine also reserved rooms for their summer interns, who included would-be literary greats Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion. The former’s stifling and frankly depressing time at the Barbizon would inspire her best-known novel, The Bell Jar. The hotel soon became known not just as a beacon for the finer things in New York but for creativity and female ambition.

As the years rolled on, many of the residents found themselves more at home in the hallowed walls than in their hometowns and made themselves long-term residents, renewing their stays week after week.

The presence of film, music and literary icons in New York – before, during and after their fifteen minutes of fame – has become part of the city’s appeal, and nowhere is that better encapsulated than at the Barbizon. Grace Kelly is said to have entertained roommates with exotic dancing in the halls before making her silver screen debut in Rear Window; Ava Gardner was just another ‘Barbizon Girl’ in the months leading up to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?; and Edith Bouvier Beale called the hotel home before moving away to care for her mother, now made famous in the documentary Grey Gardens. It was a place where icons were born. Even in the thirties such a juicy idea would be hard for writers and TV executives to ignore. It was rumoured to be the inspiration for the 1937 film Stage Door starring Katharine Hepburn and was central to Mary McCarthy’s cult 1963 novel, The Group, which intertwines the lives of eight friends after graduating from college in the

“Finding an envelope in the mailbox was always a very happy moment. We have kept those letters until today.”

early thirties. The concept is still compelling today and more recently has been used as the fictional home of one of Don Draper’s love interests in the 1960s-set TV show Mad Men and as the setting for Fiona Davis’s 2016 novel, The Dollhouse. Each reference of the Barbizon is heavy on the glamour but also dips into the sometimes-lonely lives of these single women far from home in an era of dramatic change.

The Barbizon’s charm couldn’t last and even its association with Ford Models and fashion magazines couldn’t save it from the sixties sexual revolution and women’s liberation movement. The hotel’s restrictive codes of conduct soon seemed archaic and the mere notion of a femaleonly residence soon became laughable. Dress requirements became old fashioned, the bar on gentleman callers provoked eye rolls, and curfews seemed juvenile. Soon enough, most of the guests began to leave or change. ‘We noticed that they had relaxed the application process,’ Ms Delman says, referring to the new wave of women who no longer required references on entry. ‘We immediately knew it was easier to get in.’ The occupancy rate soon fell along with its status in society, but a handful of women from its golden era stayed.

Through the 1970s and into the late nineties, between economic booms and busts, the Barbizon changed hands numerous times as the formula for real-estate success changed with it. In 1981 most of the long-term tenants accepted buyouts from the new owners after it reinvented itself as a more traditional hotel and started admitting men. In 1988, just fourteen women between the ages of fifty and ninety remained, grandfathered in under New York’s rent control laws, and according to the New York Times paying just $113 to $424 a month.

“It was the means for many young, ambitious women to start out on their own and create their own independent careers.”

Modern-day luxury came to the Barbizon in 2006 in epic proportions when the hotel was completely gutted and rebuilt into sixty-nine luxury condominium apartments selling for up to $17 million each. The grand marble lobby was replaced with a sleek, but rather soulless, one-story foyer; the gymnasium and pool were bought by the trendy exercise chain Equinox; and high-tech surveillance cameras took the place of the night managers who once trawled the floors for men trying their luck. If the old walls of the guest rooms could talk they are long gone now, having been replaced with marble fitted alongside expensive rosewood floors. The surroundings have changed but the old guard of elderly rent-controlled residents remain. Now just nine, they’ve finally been given a kitchenette and permission to cook in their apartments, but their one-time decadent communal areas have been replaced with one snug living room equipped with a television, sofa and a coffee machine. ‘This is my home,’ says Ms Delman, when asked why she decided not to take a buy-out. ‘It’s a nice comfortable place to live with excellent services.’ One thing is clear, don’t mistake the Barbizon’s legacy as simply an impressive building with some would-be famous residents. It’s bigger than that. Rather, it was the means for many young, ambitious women to start out on their own and create their own independent careers unlike any generation before them. It was here they began and ended their days, where they could meet and converse and slowly evolve into the women they were to become. The Barbizon women should be remembered as trailblazers and pioneers who lit the path for generations to follow.

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