Saturday, February 27, 2021

How the Barbizon Hotel Defined Women’s Ambition

How the Barbizon Hotel Defined Women’s Ambition

Bren dwells on Mademoiselle, particularly its mid-century years, in part because this was when the hotel hosted some of its most famous guests, all associated with the guest editor program: Plath, Didion, Janet Burroway, and Diane Johnson, to name a few. (Mademoiselle also introduced racial diversity into what is otherwise a very white story: In 1956, the magazine selected a Black dancer and visual artist named Barbara Chase, a student at Temple University, as one of the summer’s guest editors. Chase was very likely the first Black resident of the Barbizon.) The gig was an exciting opportunity for the aspiring writer or journalist, but it could also prove confusing: Guest editors were usually given menial tasks, often in the fashion and advertising departments, rather than the intellectual and literary work they had anticipated. They were photographed frequently and were supposed to model for the annual College Issue. As Bren writes, guest editors “would ask themselves: Was their real job to pose for photographers and detail their tastes and desires to a bevy of merchandisers and advertisers keen to know what America’s college girls wanted?”

The lobby of the Barbizon in 1977; by that time, the idea of a hotel for women was losing its appeal, and occupancy rates were dropping.


The most poignant and intriguing parts of Bren’s book are the stories of women who made it to the Barbizon but failed to “make it” on mid-century America’s terms. The writer Gael Greene, a former guest editor, called them the “Lone Women” in a piece she reported for the New York Post in 1957. Arriving at the Barbizon with big dreams, these women failed to find the right job or the right guy. They were lonely, homesick, and occasionally desperate. Greene reported rumors of a woman breaking down in her room and smashing objects against the wall; other women came to gawk, but not to help. Some of Bren’s interviewees commented on the contradictions of the era, on the secret lives that swirled beneath the culture’s homogeneous surface. There were rumors of abortions, illegal in the 1950s and 1960s, as was contraception for single women in New York until 1965. During this same time, at least three women took their own lives at the Barbizon; the hotel did its best to cover up the suicides, so as not to deter future guests.

Despite her book’s title, Bren acknowledges that the single woman’s hotel room represented “some sort of liberation,” rather than liberation tout court. Young women might work, dine out, and date, but this was all seen as “an acceptable form of training for married life.” The Barbizon brought curious young women into the very center of American cultural production—they were walking distance from Broadway and Madison Avenue—but it didn’t do much to change that culture. The Barbizon offered women independence, and it surveilled them; it liberated them, and it protected them; it brought them together, and it pitted them against one another.

The women’s liberation movement was the beginning of the end for the Barbizon. In 1963, the year Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, The Saturday Evening Post reported that the hotel’s clientele was changing. No longer all young dolls, guests included a “band of aristocratic 70 year olds and one aged 80; a Playboy bunny; a perennial candidate for New York State office; a stunt girl … and one fashionable merchandising student who shall be memorable for her name alone—Lady Greenslit.” As the world began to open up for women, some wondered whether women’s hotels were still necessary. By 1970, the year that women struck for equality across the country, the Barbizon looked outmoded and unappealing. In the words of one former guest, “I don’t know why girls interested in meeting men and having a life of their own would ever choose to live in a place like that.”

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