The Glamour and The Despair, The Barbizon Hotel
How do images from popular culture imbue legacy onto a structure? If a building is landmarked, does that mean its story will continue being told? How do we use grand narratives to remain comfortable and avoid looking into the hidden histories of people and places?
The Barbizon Hotel operated from 1927-1981 as a women-only residence. The Late Gothic Revival-style building at 140 East 63rd Street stands at 23 stories tall, and for decades its 700 tiny dormitory rooms were home to young, hopeful, single women with modest means and huge dreams.
Through pop culture, the Hotel has become somewhat iconic. Variations of the Barbizon are shown in Mad Men, The Bell Jar, Agent Carter, and more. Today, the landmarked building–a unique pink-toned brick exterior with Italian Renaissance characteristics–is now full of luxury condominiums with an Equinox gym downstairs. In the 1960s, a room would be $6 to rent. Today, a one-bedroom in the Barbizon is $15 million.
There are still 11 women who, due to rent-control, still reside in the building after 40 or 50 years, some paying $113 a month. In the Barbizon’s decades as a “Club and Residence for Professional Women,” as the hotel billed itself, it was famous for its glamorous sorority-like occupancy.
Women often moved to the Barbizon with great ambition and minimal money, ready to take a chance for their dreams in New York City. The Barbizon’s residents were pursuing work as secretaries, models, editors, and actresses in a time when women were expected to marry and start families right away, already breaking a social mold and taking a risk. The Barbizon was a place where independent women could be safe, looked after, and part of a community. It was promised to turn girls into women, putting forth an image of an indefinable, but abundant, happy, glitzy life that could only be attained through life at the Hotel. A room at the Barbizon was one of the most exclusive things a young woman in New York could have to herself.
Men were not permitted past the floor unless they were signed at the front desk and under strict supervision. There was a strict dress code, a curfew, no food upstairs, no electricity or appliances allowed in the rooms, and a specific expectation that the residents would be “moral” and respectful. To be considered for residence, applicants had to provide three letters of reference and prove, through their dress and demeanor, that they were right for the elite, exclusive Barbizon experience.
And concerned parents were confident in the Barbizon to keep their young daughters safe in New York City. Time called the hotel “one of the few places…where a girl could take her virtue to bed and rest assured it would still be there in the morning.” Famous residents included Grace Kelly, Joan Didion, Lauren Bacall, Liza Minelli, Sylvia Plath, Joan Crawford, Candice Bergen, Elaine Stritch, and Cybill Shepherd–all before they were famous, of course. Eileen Ford, a major modeling agency, rented blocks of rooms for young models when they came to New York. She wanted to keep them safe, away from the tabloids, and in a place where she could keep track of them. Famous models lived there and inevitably brought attention to the place; supermodel Dolores Hawkins once had a 1957 Ford Thunderbird delivered to her at the Barbizon’s front door. The “Barbizon Girl” became a social image that women across the country aspired to, as images of models and actors in fancy cars with famous men were splashed across tabloids and movie screens.
New York City’s most famous “female bachelors” lived at The Barbizon Hotel in a cultural oasis complete with a pool, a sundeck, badminton courts, daily tea-time, and weekly outings and activities. Men were always trying to sneak into the Barbizon, fooling the security guards to grant them access to residents. Some men would pose as fathers, priests, doctors, or specifically John MacGuigan, the renowned upper east side gynecologist, in order to get access to the women’s rooms. A-list men and celebrities would send car services to pick up groups of women for events and parties, or hang out in the coffee shop downstairs hoping to catch the attention of an aspiring young entertainer.
So, lots of stories are told about the Barbizon. But the little-known darker side provides a more complete picture of the residents’ experience at this place. For every Barbizon resident who achieved massive fame and fortune, there were dozens who remained lonely, poor, and on the outskirts in their tiny, anonymous rooms, in nightgowns and cold cream, waiting for their big break.
The overarching fear for the Barbizon’s residents was becoming branded a Spinster. One writer says, “if you were living there when you over 25, it was over.” Seldom is there mention of women who, throughout the hotel’s history, committed suicide by throwing themselves off the hotel’s roof. Women on any given night were crying in the phone booths, waiting for letters and phone messages and guests that never arrived, and sitting alone at a table in the lounge or in the television room. Women feared the city’s chronic violence, the increasing sense of failure with every day that went by, and the possibility of ending up poor and alone after taking a major risk to chase their dreams. They’d watch their fellow residents go off with fancy people on dates to clubs and shows and events and they’d stay back at the Barbizon, hoping tomorrow might be different.
So, the Barbizon’s history is full of both glamour and despair. The glamour story is more comfortable and easier to amplify. It’s an iteration of New York that we’ve seen in movies and can put famous faces to famous names in order to imagine. The years of sadness and emptiness–and the stories of hundreds of women who felt it–are lost in the shadows of the ones who “made it.” Cybill Shepherd wrote of the Barbizon: “I remember sitting up in my little pink room–my room was Pepto-Bismol pink–looking down Lexington…feeling like I had never been so lonely in my life.”