Why Every Woman Wanted to Stay at the Barbizon Hotel

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

Sylvia Plath, Barbizon Hotel
Poet Sylvia Plath was just one of the many famous women that stayed at the Barbizon in their early years. Bettmann/MCNY/Gottscho-Schleisner/Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

Grace Kelly, Joan Didion and Candice Bergen all called it home. Sylvia Plath threw her clothes off its roof on the last day of her magazine internship. The Barbizon was not the first women-only residential hotel in New York, but it was certainly the most famous, housing many actors, models and writers of the mid-20th century in the years before they made it big.

Opened in Manhattan in 1927, the 23-story Barbizon Hotel for Women sat on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street, a stately structure built in the Romanesque, Gothic and Moorish styles. Its 700 rooms were tiny — think college dorms — with shared bathrooms and kitchens. But the hotel featured a wealth of fancy extras, such as a swimming pool, library, solarium, lecture halls, squash and badminton courts, social activities and free afternoon tea. The Barbizon's aim was to attract ambitious middle- and upper-class women, preferably those interested in the arts and stardom. The glamorous hotel became so acclaimed, it was even featured in films and novels.

Interestingly, many of the luxe hotel's residents were of modest means and hailed from small Midwestern towns. "Small-town residents often got there by winning a beauty or talent contest, which would give them a small amount of money with which they could pay for a couple of months at the hotel," says Paulina Bren, author of the book "The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free" and an adjunct professor of international studies at Vassar College.

But snagging a room at this coveted address wasn't merely a matter of plunking down enough money. The women had to present three references, dress well and have a good demeanor. It also helped greatly if they were young and pretty. In fact, one of the longtime assistant managers, who also manned the front desk, created a grading system that gave preference to younger women when deciding who to admit. Due to these standards, the hotel was soon nicknamed "the Dollhouse."

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Inside the Dollhouse

While many young, ambitious women longed to live at the hotel, it came with many restrictions. Men weren't allowed in women's rooms, for example, and the residents were chastised if they came home late or inebriated. In 1961, writer Joan Gage wasn't permitted to step outside the building wearing slacks. These rules were in place because the elite hotel wanted to maintain a good reputation, as well as assure the women's parents that their daughters would be safe here.

Despite these rules, life was not always staid inside the Dollhouse. Men constantly tried to sneak up to the women's rooms, for one thing, squeezing into dumbwaiters or pretending to be doctors, plumbers, priests or fathers — anything to be allowed upstairs. Most were not successful, but some made it through. And Grace Kelly, whom many consider to best personify the hotel's residents, scandalized some of the other guests by dancing topless in the hallways.

Grace Kelly
Actress Grace Kelly from her early days as a model. Here she is demonstrating a Remington typewriter
Bettmann/Getty Images

The hotel's heyday came in the 1940s through the 1960s. This was the era of Bergen, Kelly, Plath, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Cybill Shepherd, Phylicia Rashad and more. Some of these women were part of the Eileen Ford modeling agency, which rented rooms for its models — partly to try and keep them out of trouble. The Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School also paid to lodge its clients here, while the women's magazine Mademoiselle rented rooms to house the college students it hired every summer as guest editors. These editors-in-training were known as the Millies, from the Mademoiselle abbreviation "Mlle." Plath and Didion were both part of this guest editor program.

The Barbizon did not admit a Black woman until 1956, when it accepted Barbara Chase-Riboud, a Millie and an accomplished artist, with work displayed in the Museum of Modern Art. Still, Chase-Riboud faced discrimination both at the magazine and inside the hotel, where she was excluded from using the pool.

Barbara Chase-Riboud
Artist and author Barbara Chase-Riboud, circa 1981.
Louis MONIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

During the hotel's prime, living there even after you "made it" was not uncommon. "One model made up business cards to show she was staying there," says Bren. "It was a mark of glamor and respectability."

But not necessarily for every resident. Some never hit it big and became known as part of "the Women," older residents who elected to stay at the hotel, despite their lack of success. The label was as feared as being called a spinster. One such single was Molly Brown, famous for surviving the Titanic's final, fateful journey. Brown found herself short on cash when her wealthy and estranged husband died sans will, landing her at the hotel, where she lived until her death in 1932.

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The End of an Era

The Barbizon began to lose its luster by the start of the '70s, when the women's liberation movement and real estate trends made women eschew stifling rules and tiny rooms with communal bathrooms in favor of anything-goes apartments and condos. In a bid to stay relevant, men were allowed to rent starting in 1981, and the building underwent numerous renovations. At one point, management tried to get rid of the 100-plus Women still at the hotel, whose monthly rent couldn't be jacked up due to the city's rent stabilization laws. But the Women were allowed to remain.

Today, the Barbizon — which was designated a New York City landmark in 2012 — has been reimagined into Barbizon 63, a luxury condo building. The apartments feature top-shelf amenities (think Bolivian rosewood floors and French casement windows) and sell for millions. Four of the former hotel's Women still reside there, and they deserve props for that.

"The Barbizon was a place that catered to fiercely ambitious women at a time when there were few outlets for them to be ambitious," Bren says. "And so even if the young women of the Barbizon never made it, they were heroines for having tried."

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