BookBrowse Reviews The Barbizon by Paulina Bren

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The Barbizon

The Hotel That Set Women Free

by Paulina Bren

The Barbizon by Paulina Bren X
The Barbizon by Paulina Bren
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2021, 336 pages

    Paperback:
    Mar 2022, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Oberdorfer
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The story of the historic Barbizon Hotel for women, which hosted such figures as Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Grace Kelly and the "unsinkable" Molly Brown.

Esteemed historian and Vassar professor Paulina Bren brings the legendary Barbizon Hotel to life on the pages of her delightful new book. The hotel that "set women free" was built in 1927 on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street in New York City. The 1920s, according to Bren, was "the decade of women's residential hotels." These establishments had popped up everywhere, and while the Barbizon was not the first, it was certainly the most glamorous.

William H. Silk, who had already designed another hotel for women, the Allerton, developed the Barbizon. While he wanted the exterior to be masculine in a gothic style, he made certain that the interior had a feminine quality, opting for delicate colors and French-style furnishings. The Barbizon residents were also intended to be unlike many of the guests at similar hotels. While the Allerton welcomed female physicians, lecturers and politicians, Silk wanted the Barbizon to attract a new type: the young woman chasing her dreams to and in New York City.

The bulk of the book defines this Barbizon woman against the backdrop of America spanning from the stock market crash of 1929 through the Depression, the McCarthy era and the civil rights movement. The hotel began admitting men as guests in 1981. It was later converted into apartments and renamed Barbizon 63. Bren covers famous women on the hotel's illustrious guest list — including Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Grace Kelly and the Titanic's "unsinkable" Molly Brown — as her main and weighty subjects, but she also gives shape to lesser-known and equally important Barbizon residents such as Barbara Chase, Mademoiselle magazine's first African American guest editor, and Betsy Talbot Blackwell, who revolutionized the magazine industry during her time as editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle from 1937 to 1971.

The Barbizon and Mademoiselle (see Beyond the Book) are so closely linked that the magazine is a major part of Bren's story. When Blackwell took over as editor of Mademoiselle in 1937, she transformed it by establishing it as a publication that blended fashion and fiction, a combination unheard of at the time. Blackwell implemented the magazine's "makeover," a regular feature that re-styled women's hair and clothes; and published figures such as Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor and Dylan Thomas. She also founded an elite and prestigious guest editor program for college women, through which Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion got their starts as writers.

Plath, who based her novel The Bell Jar off of her time at the Barbizon, forms another significant part of the book. Bren extracts lines from Plath's letters to her mother and friends. This use of the writer's poetic voice adds another layer to the Barbizon narrative and allows her to appear as a three-dimensional individual. Bren's coverage of Plath's suicide is all the more tragic because the reader has developed a connection to her through her voice.

The book shows that although part of the hotel's allure was that it was a place of independence and opportunity, some of its women still found themselves dealing with issues such as sexual harassment or unwanted pregnancy, which was made more difficult by the fact that abortions were very dangerous and illegal for much of the Barbizon's existence as a space for women.

The societal expectations that sit heavy on a woman's shoulders is one of the most striking themes of The Barbizon. Although Bren offers no direct solution to this problem, the voices and choices of the women whose lives she describes point us in a hopeful direction. These legendary women, full of purpose and passion, remind us never to let go of our dreams, to chase them deep into the depths of the busiest city and not to leave until we've gotten what we want.

Reviewed by Kate Oberdorfer

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2021, and has been updated for the March 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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