On one of my recent trips to Miami, FL to visit my family, I made sure to carve out time to head to my favorite independent bookstore, Books & Books. I went in knowing I would purchase In Five Years by Rebecca Serle, but made a few impulse purchases too.
One book that caught my eye was The Barbizon by Paulina Bren. The cover features an incredibly well dressed woman posing on the street in New York City, under the book's title in a curly, canary yellow font. I picked it up, read the description on the jacket, and immediately added it to my growing pile.
Bren, the author, is a professor at Vassar College and lives in New York. This non-fiction book chronicles the history of the Barbizon Hotel in Manhattan from the 1920s through present day. Each chapter focuses on individual guests or groups of women who called the Barbizon home over the past 100 years.
One of the very first residents was Molly Brown, a survivor of the Titanic. The hotel grew in popularity with the launch of the Katharine Gibbs secretarial school. Many women traveled to New York from all over the country to be trained in this program and the school recommended the Barbizon as their home base.
A few years later, Betsy Talbot Blackwell, the editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle would launch a guest editor program that would bring 20+ women to New York every summer to work at the magazine. This program became the largest feeder into the Barbizon and included legendary women like Grace Kelly, Sylvia Path, and Joan Didion.
In fact, Plath's The Bell Jar is based on her time living at the Barbizon. In the book, it's called the Amazon. She arrived in the summer of 1953 for the guest editor program, the summer before her senior year at Smith College in western Massachusetts.
Over the years, the Mademoiselle guest editor program would bring many more famous women through the doors of the Barbizon. Young ladies pursuing careers in the arts also called the hotel home, including Liza Minnelli, Phylicia Rashad, Candice Bergen, and Betsey Johnson.
While the hotel was for women only, Bren also dedicates space to the men who tried desperately to get in. For example, there was a coffees shop on the ground floor of the hotel and J.D. Salinger was known to hang out there, attempting to flirt with the women of the Barbizon.
By the 1980s, the hotel was struggling to survive. It had many long-term residents and newcomers were put off by those permanent fixtures in the lobby or wandering the halls. To try and broaden their audience, they decided to open their doors to men. In fact, they launched this new era for the hotel with a Valentine's Day giveaway for two.
By the early 2000s, it became clear the hotel couldn't survive in its current iteration. The building was sold and became luxury condominiums. In 2011, British actor Ricky Gervais bought two units!
The building still exists at the corner of 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Once you've read this book, I guarantee you'll want to go stand there and take it all in.
Reading this book was like getting a history of New York City through the eyes of women in their twenties. It comments on pop culture, the political climate, career paths, expectations of marriage and motherhood, and much more.
It's truly incredible to see the full list of all the remarkable women who lived in this one place. If you enjoy these kinds of historical accounts, particularly of life in New York, you'll find this book addicting.