The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free – by Paulina Bren – independent book review – Non-Fiction (United States)

Having happily finished this book, I now sit thinking “What in the world is this book about?”

Yes, parts of it are about the famed Barbizon Hotel (aka Barbizon 63), exclusively for women, in New York City (corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street) and its history from completion in 1928 until its conversion to luxury condos in 1981. For decades, the Barbizon provided budding actresses, husband-hunting secretaries, and desperate-to-escape farm girls affordable dormitory style living in mid-Manhatten.

But the book is also a deep dive into now-defunct Mademoiselle magazine (1935-2001), its powerful editor Betsy Talbot Blackwell (1905-85), and the role the publication played in setting standards for young women in the 1950s and 1960s. Along with the famous names associated with the magazine’s guest editor (GEs) contest – with winners like poet-author Sylvia Plath (1932-63) and author Joan Didion (1934-2021) and actress Ali McGraw. (If you’re confused, the connection is that all the guest editors were housed at the Barbizon for their month-long guest editorship.)

The book is also about shifting societal expectations for women. From the 1950s, when even those with brains and expensive educations (like the Mademoiselle GEs) were supposed to prioritize marriage and children over any professional goals. To the 1970s, after the publication of Plath’s THE BELL JAR and Betty Friedan‘s THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE, when a fully fledged feminist movement was remaking the role of women in the workplace.

Then there are also random anecdotes about other Barbizon tenants. Like Grace Kelly, Liza Minelli, and Philicia Rashad. Oh, and Molly Brown, famous Titanic survivor. Or the small group of older women who refused to leave the hotel, using the city’s rent-control laws to insure they continued to live in the Barbizon at affordable rates, despite its multiple transformations.

In short, the book is all over the place, loosely, and I mean VERY loosely, tied together by the Barbizon itself. I found some parts, especially about the building’s history and social expectations for women, quite interesting. Other parts downright dull.

Overall, despite its rambling, I found the book an interesting slice of American life/history. And suggest it would probably appeal most to anyone interested in learning more about just how limited (personally, professionally, financially, socially, and sexually) ambitious women were in mid 20th century America.

The Barbizon Hotel
Photo from Wikipedia

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