For a small-town American girl during the 40s and 50s, there was no address more glamorous than New York’s ‘women only’ Barbizon Hotel. Described as a ‘charm school dormitory,’ it gave sanctuary to a conga line of not-yet-famous femmes: Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Tippi Hedren, Gene Tierney, Candice Bergen, Sylvia Plath, Ali McGraw, Joan Didion, Betsey Johnson, Edith Bouvier Beale, Nancy Reagan, Phylicia Rashad and Liza Minelli.
It’s where boyfriends wore out the sidewalk on East 63rd Street while waiting for their dates to click-clack through the lobby as an evening at The Stork Club beckoned. It’s where Vogue super-model Dolores Hawkins had a 1957 Thunderbird delivered to the front door. And where the elusive writer, J.D. Salinger waited in the downstairs coffee shop – hoping he might ensnare one of many show ponies from Eileen Ford’s modelling agency that lived upstairs.
The hotel offered a short window of opportunity for the career driven women in post-war America. It’s name was a talisman for success.
Paulina Bren’s fascinating new book, tells the story of the ladies who stayed there: from ‘the Carolyn’s from Steubenville, Ohio‘ to the socialites, debutantes and undiscovered Grace Kellys.
Some would go on to fame and fortune, but most would crawl back home to the life expected: marriage, home, children – leaving the ‘Barb’ a cherished memory.
Completed in 1927, the 23-story Barbizon Hotel was designed to attract the single and stylish Jazz Age women that suddenly poured into New York City to chase their dreams of finding stardom, independence and a rich husband. The modestly sized rooms came pre-furnished with a small sink basin
Throughout the 40s and 50s the Barbizon’s exclusive reputation soared as a playgirl mecca for aspiring actresses, models, singers, artists, and writers. It housed a conga line of not-yet-famous femmes: Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Tippi Hedren, Gene Tierney, Candice Bergen, Sylvia Plath, Ali McGraw, Joan Didion, Betsey Johnson, Edith Bouvier Beale, Nancy Reagan, and Phylicia Rashad
Grace Kelly moved into the Barbizon in 1947 while she was enrolled in acting school. She liked to entertain her gal pals by performing topless Hawaiian dances down the hallways and broke the rules by having romantic liaisons with suitors in the dark corners of the hotel lounge
The Barbizon wasn’t the first residential hotel built strictly for women, but it was the most glamourous.
Its predecessors were The Allerton Hotel and The Martha Washington. The latter opened in 1903 and became well known as refuge for solo female travelers and women suffragettes. (It was later notable in the 1960s when actress Veronica Lake was discovered divorced, destitute and working there as a bartender). There was also The Trowmart Inn and The Parkside Evangeline, but none of these residences had the same cultural cache as The Barbizon at 140 East 63rd Street.
Jutting 23-stories into the Manhattan sky, developers completed construction of the imposing salmon-colored brick Gothic building in 1927. The 720-modestly sized rooms came with outsize amenities like a swimming pool, gymnasium, rooftop gardens, music rooms, lecture rooms, a dining room, library and daily maid service.
They hoped to attract the single and stylish Jazz Age women that suddenly poured into New York City to chase their dreams of finding stardom, independence and a rich husband.
Paulina Bren’s new book recounts the history of the Barbizon Hotel – New York City’s most glamourous ‘women-only’ residence that earned a reputation as an elite ‘dollhouse’ for its elegant clientele comprised of models, actresses and debutantes
The sprawling lobby was decorated with large potted plants, sumptuous Oriental rugs, rich furnishings and warm antique lanterns. Free afternoon tea was served daily which came in handy for the girls who didn’t come from money.
A sweeping staircase led to a second floor mezzanine from which girls leaned over to eyeball their prospective dates below. Upon her arrival in 1953, 21-year-old Sylvia Plath described the pastel green atrium with ‘light café-au-lait woodwork’ as ‘exquisite.’
From her room in the northwest turret, the 63-year-old ‘Unsinkable Molly Brown’ (famous for surviving the Titanic in 1912) wrote to a friend in 1931 to detail her humble abode: a twin bed with a floral bedspread that matched the curtains, a small desk, a chest of drawers, a floor lamp and a pint-size armchair. ‘There is even a radio in every room!’ she said. Despite their diminutive size, Paulina Bren said, the Barbizon rooms ‘represented some sort of liberation’ for the generations of women to come.
But that’s not to say there weren’t strict rules.
Part finishing school, part dormitory – rules were enforced under the watchful eye of the hotel’s assistant manager, Mae Sibley. As the de-facto den-mother, she made it her mission to fulfil the Barbizon’s promise to all nervous parents back home: that they could rest assured their girls would be kept safe and celibate amidst a city built for sin.
Sibley ran a tight ship. Liquor was strictly prohibited in the rooms and late nights were discouraged. Parents could require their daughters to sign in and out at the front desk. Girls who came in late or, in the words of one staff matron, ‘in bad shape’ were spoken to. Perish the thought that anyone hinted at possible impropriety!
Some guests were even assigned chaperones. Judy Garland drove the staff crazy by calling every three hours to check up on her daughter, Liza Minnelli. If she wasn’t in her room, they were ordered to find her.
No men were allowed above the lobby floor without strict supervision, but that’s not to say they didn’t try. Countless young suitors attempted disguising themselves as doctors, fathers, priests. While others tried their luck by cramming themselves in dumbwaiters. Mrs. Sibley called it ‘the oldest gag in the Barbizon.’
Even male elevator operators were switched out for female ones at sundown.
For admission, Mrs. Sibley required that all prospective tenants provide three references that attested to her good moral character. She graded women on their family, looks, dress and demeanor and quietly rated the quality of each applicant as an A, B, or C. ‘A’s were under the age of twenty-eight. B’s were between twenty-eight and thirty-eight, and C’s, well, they were over the hill,’ wrote Bren.
Detractors accused Sibley of commodifying Barbizon residents, ‘knowing full well that their attractiveness added to the notoriety of the hotel.’
Judy Garland insisted her daughter, Liza Minnelli, stay at the Barbizon and drove the staff crazy by calling every three hours to check up on her, and if she wasn’t in her room, they were ordered to go find her
The eccentric debutante Little Edie Beale, a cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy- Onassis, lived at the Barbizon between 1947 to 1952, while she tried to break into show business. She would longingly reminisce of her time spent at the hotel in the infamous documentary ‘Grey Gardens’
Time Magazine once reported that the building harbored ‘the greatest concentration of beauty east of Hollywood’ and that it was ‘one of the few places in Gomorrah-on-the-Hudson where a girl could take her virtue to bed and rest assured it would still be there next morning’
But under her direction, the hotel’s exclusivity and reputation for housing glamor-girls soared throughout the 40s and 50s. Upscale allure became its stock-in-trade as the Barbizon became a mainstay of society pages and fashion magazines.
Time Magazine once reported that the building harbored ‘the greatest concentration of beauty east of Hollywood’ and that it was ‘one of the few places in Gomorrah-on-the-Hudson where a girl could take her virtue to bed and rest assured it would still be there next morning.’
Glossy brochures fed into the fantasy of an elite dollhouse for ‘ambitious and discriminating young women’ who could swan their way to success, just as Grace Kelly had. The former resident – turned movie star- turned Princess of Monaco became the unofficial poster-girl for the hotel.
Grace Kelly arrived at the Barbizon in September 1947 as an ingénue-hopeful attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Taking residence in the all-girls hotel was the one condition her domineering father made when he begrudgingly allowed her to enroll in acting school.
That same year, the eccentric debutante Little Edie Beale (a cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy- Onassis) moved into the Barbizon and stayed until 1952 while she tried to break into show business. She would later longingly reminisce of her time spent at the sorority in the infamous documentary Grey Gardens and claimed that she was on the brink of stardom when her mother, Big Edie Beale summoned her back to their derelict mansion in Southampton.
Grace Kelly’s beguiling sense of humor was notorious at the Barbizon. She had a penchant for mischief and liked to entertain her gal pals by performing topless Hawaiian dances down the hallway.
‘Rumors of her sexual appetite and promiscuity abounded,’ said Bren. She broke the rules by having romantic liaisons with suitors in the dark corners of the hotel lounge. ‘It all left her floor mates agog, envious – and admiring,’ wrote Vanity Fair.
Carolyn Scott, a dead-ringer for Audrey Hepburn was Grace’s best friend at the Barb. The two girls lived next door to each other on the 9th floor and while both bonded over shared ambition; their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different.
Grace hailed from an affluent Philadelphia family who paid for her rent in full. Carolyn was a beauty queen from Stuebenville, Ohio who used the $500 cash prize from a local contest to buy a one-way train ticket to Penn Station. Her story mimics the arc of so many others who showed up on the Barbizon doorstep, hoping their assets could lead to secretarial positions, modelling gigs, or acting jobs.
One week after moving to New York City, Carolyn was scouted at the automat diner by a photographer who invited her to meet the prominent modelling agent, Harry Conover. She landed her first gig in a two-page spread for Junior Bazaar which led in quick succession to appearances in McCalls, Seventeen, Mademoiselle and Glamour.
Eventually, Carolyn became one of first recruits to join the upstart Ford Modelling Agency when Eileen Ford’s office was just a ramshackle third floor apartment, sandwiched between a funeral parlor and a cigar shop on Second Avenue.
Grace wasn’t interested in fashion. But beyond her thick horn-rimmed glasses and frumpy tweed suits, Carolyn saw potential in her and suggested she meet with Eileen Ford for modeling jobs- it didn’t end well. In what Ford eventually admitted was the biggest mistake of her career, she rejected the undiscovered movie star for ‘having too much meat on the bones.’
Grace took her high cheekbones to the Powers Agency, who hired her on the spot for commercial work. And she got the last laugh five years later she made her Hollywood debut in the 1952 Oscar winning film, High Noon.
Grace Kelly might have been the public face of the Barbizon, but it was the ‘Carolyns’ hailing from places like Sacramento, Phoenix, St. Louis and Kansas City that were its lifeblood. ‘Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, local beauty contests were tickets out of small-town America,’ said Paulina Bren.
They came from all across the country to pursue the same path. There was Lorraine Davies, the Tangerine Queen from Florida. Cloris Leachman, the Miss America contestant from Chicago, who won an Oscar 25-years later for her part in The Last Picture Show.
There was 18-year-old Cybill Shepherd from Memphis, another model-cum- actress who won a national competition in 1968 – and The Partridge Family star, Shirley Jones, who spent a year as Miss Pittsburgh before she moved into the Barbizon to chase her dreams on Broadway.
The former resident – turned movie star- turned Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly became the unofficial poster-girl for the hotel. Advertisements in the back of fashion magazines fed into the fantasy of an elite dollhouse for ‘ambitious and discriminating young women’ who could swan their way to success – but the reality was that many women would crawl back home to the life expected: marriage, home, children
Sylvia Plath was a junior in college when she spent a summer at the Barbizon while working as a summer ‘guest-editor ‘for Mademoiselle in 1953. The magazine invited 20 winners from their prestigious summer internship contest to shadow editors at their elegant Madison Avenue offices for the month of June. Her celebrated novel, The Bell Jar is based on her experiences as a ‘Millie’ at the legendary hotel and documents her descent into madness
Joan Didion was a college student at Berkeley when she launched her writing career as a guest-editor at Mademoiselle in 1955. She spent one blissful summer as a resident of the Barbizon and recalls how naïve she was back then, ‘Was anyone ever so young?’ she says in Goodbye To All That. The ladies worked by day and attended sophisticated cocktail parties, fancy dinners and ravishing galas almost every night. Betsey Johnson, Ali MacGraw, Meg Wolitzer, and Gael Greene were also graduates of the internship
Models from Eileen Ford’s agency were responsible for giving the Barbizon’s glitzy allure. 18-year-old Cybill Shepherd from Memphis was model-turned-actress who landed at the hotel in 1968. She told Vanity Fair: ‘I remember sitting up in my little pink room – my room was Pepto-Bismol pink – and looking down Lexington and having a little blue notebook to write in, and feeling like I had never been so lonely in my life’
Naïve but hopeful, these freshly scrubbed, all-American beauties were in high demand in the post-war years, selling everything from ‘sables to society or groceries to the great American housewife,’ said John Robert Powers, 웹소설 공모전 founder of the world’s first modelling agency.
Though nothing did more to forge the Barbizon’s glitzy reputation than the Ford superstars like Jean Patchett, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Gloria Barnes, Janet Wagner, Lily Carlson, and Dolores Hawkins. Future First Lady Nancy Reagan also joined the ranks.
Eileen Ford paid out of pocket to stash her coterie of professional beauties in the genteel fortress. It was a respectable place that kept them out of the gossip columns. ‘Where else could you put girls who were only girls?’ she told Vanity Fair. ‘It was safe, it was a good location, and they couldn’t get out.’
There were other perks that came with being signed to Ford’s agency too. The legendary Stork Club, invited Eileen to bring her young show ponies to eat and drink for free as long as they hobnobbed with their rich and famous clientele who were always looking to enjoy the company of a pretty face or two, or three, said Bren.
Instead of a bill at the end of every meal, the waiter presented the girls with a small gift of perfume, or lipstick with a small note: ‘Compliments of the house.’
For the small town girls who couldn’t sing, act, dance or model – they typed their way into Manhattan’s skyscrapers as secretaries by way of the iconic Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School – where students learned speed typing, business administration and shorthand.
The school was founded by Katharine Gibbs in 1909 after she was left penniless and widowed with two sons and an unmarried sister to care for. She mined the Social Register and marketed the program to ‘WASPish upper classes’ and their not-yet-married daughters graduating from Ivy League colleges. For them it was half finishing school and half party school, a gap year they could enjoy before they were expected to get married and start families.
Its most famous graduate was Frances Fonda, (future mother of Jane and Peter Fonda), who was determined to ‘become the fastest typist and best secretary anyone could hire.’ She dreamed of working on Wall Street where she planned on marrying a millionaire. And she succeeded in doing exactly that twice, before committing suicide in 1950.
Gibbs also housed her young kitten-heeled protégées in the Barbizon. She created a dormitory across three floors with its own set of draconian rules that were enforced by house mothers.
There was a firm curfew with an early lights-out time. Gibbs girls maintained a strict dress code that included white gloves, heels and stockings, or they would incur fines. Sweaters were prohibited because they said it highlighted their curves. Hats had to be worn at all times, even in the subways. The goal was to feel and look as turned out and polished as a white kid glove.
‘As restrictive as this seemed to some, it was a liberation for others; a chance for her charges to create new lives for themselves, to forge independent livelihoods despite the odds,’ wrote Bren.
Grace Kelly (center) poses next to her date, the dress-designing socialite, Oleg Cassini and her best friend from the Barbizon, Carolyn Scott. Though Grace Kelly was the de-facto poster-girl for the Barbizon, it was small-town American girls like Carolyn that were its lifeblood. The two became fast friends as neighbors on the 9th floor. Later, Carolyn served as one of Grace’s bridesmaids in her 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco. Later, Carolyn Scott, succumbed to mental illness and lived out the rest of her years in a homeless shelter
Businesses on the ground floor of the Barbizon provided ‘everything a certain class of woman might need.’ They included a hairdresser, dry cleaner, pharmacy, hosiery and millinery shop, as well as a Doubleday bookstore and coffee shop where the elusive writer J.D. Salinger used to hang out, hoping he might catch a date
All prospective tenants would be vetted by the hotel’s assistant manager, Mae Sibley. All applicants were required to provide three references that attested to her good moral character, while Sibley graded women on their family, looks, dress and demeanor. She rated the quality of each applicant as an A, B, or C
The loggia on the 18th floor featured gardens with expansive views of Manhattan. The Barbizon was replete with amenities like a swimming pool, gymnasium, music rooms, lecture rooms, a dining room, library and daily maid service. A social director arranged weekly events from organ recitals to poetry readings. There were nightly bridge and backgammon tournaments in the lounges where the girls played Glenn Miller records and were allowed to entertain gentlemen guests under strict supervision until 10pm
The small-town girl with big city dreams was perhaps no more at play than in Mademoiselle magazine’s prestigious ‘guest editor’ program. 20 winners of the summer internship contest were invited to live at the Barbizon while they worked under editors at the fashion bible’s glitzy offices for the month of June.
The interns were called ‘Millies’ – at night they would indulge in sophisticated cocktail parties, fancy dinners and ravishing galas. Some of these guest editors included Betsey Johnson, Ali MacGraw, Meg Wolitzer, Gael Greene, Joan Didion, and most famously, Sylvia Plath.
Mademoiselle described itself as the ‘quality magazine for smart young women’, but it was much more than that. They had developed a reputation for publishing the work of significant literary figures including Albert Camus, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Dylan Thomas.
Sylvia Plath was a junior at Smith College in Massachusetts and already well on her way to becoming a writer with a drawer full of accolades. She had recently won Mademoiselle’s $500 College Fiction Prize and also sold three poems to Harper’s Magazine for $100.
‘The summer of 1953 held the promise of a fairy tale,’ wrote Bren. She arrived in New York City with a suitcase full of dresses and brimmed with anticipation over the opportunity ‘to try ‘jobs on like dresses and decide which fits best.’
On the morning of her first day at Mademoiselle, Sylvia walked the eight blocks to the offices at 575 Madison Avenue. Tinged only slightly by competition, she was still delighted to meet the other guest editors – four of whom she said were so beautiful they could have been models in Paris – but less than thrilled when she was assigned to be the guest managing editor.
Like every other girl at the Barbizon, Sylvia spent the next month cultivating a veneer of sophistication.
She would go to Balanchine ballets, fashion shows, the Stork Club and Yankees games. She met important contacts and dealt with a steady stream of manuscripts from famous writers such as Rumer Godden, Elizabeth Bowen, Noel Coward. She stalked Dylan Thomas and got drunk with friends in her bedroom. She went on dates in the Village, flirted with famous playwrights and bought black patent leather shoes from Bloomingdales.
But increasingly Sylvia became disillusioned by her time in New York City which she described as a deadly mix of ‘pain, parties, work.’
In a letter to her brother, she wrote that, over the course of a few weeks, she had witnessed the world split open before her eyes and ‘spilt out its guts like a cracked watermelon’.
By the end of June, Sylvia had descended into utter madness. Her time as a Millie living at the Barbizon was immortalized, ten years later, in the publication of her single and celebrated novel, The Bell Jar.
She would disguise the Barbizon as the ‘Amazon’ and herself as Esther Greenwood. On her last night, Esther famously tosses her clothes off the Amazon’s rooftop onto Lexington Avenue, which echoed Sylvia’s actions in real life. Leaving her with nothing to wear but a borrowed robe to go home in.
Sylvia wasn’t the only Barbizonette who felt isolated. ‘I remember sitting up in my little pink room – my room was Pepto-Bismol pink – and looking down Lexington and having a little blue notebook to write in, and feeling like I had never been so lonely in my life,’ said Cybill Shepherd to Vanity Fair. ‘And wondering how I would ever make it in this vast city just stockpiled with brilliant people.’
Joan Didion joined Mademoiselle’s guest-editor class of 1955, alongside the future- acerbic restaurant critic Gael Green.
Joan was a 20-year-old Berkeley student who took her first plane ride to New York City for the internship. She caught a cold on the way and landed at the Barbizon with a nasty fever. By then, the tower had updated their rooms with personal air conditioning units which were permanently set to a freezing temperatures. Shy, inexperienced and instantly overwhelmed by the city; she was too nervous to call the front desk to ask for someone to come turn off the air-conditioner because she didn’t know how much to tip whoever who came to help.
‘Was anyone ever so young?’ she wrote later. ‘I am here to tell you that someone was.’
Joan’s first plane ride was to New York City for the internship. She was delighted that her closest friend from college, Peggy LaViolette, was also invited by Mademoiselle. Both California natives were eager to expand their horizon, because as Peggy said: their social circle was limited to WASPs and girls ‘dressed in cashmere sweaters, and skirts, and saddle Oxfords, with shiny hair.’
Photo opportunities, lunches, and parties were all manner of course for Mademoiselle interns. Peggy remembers attending one at makeup mogul, Helena Rubinstein’s posh Midtown apartment where master paintings hid behind heavy velvet drapes.
Meanwhile, her fellow Millie, Janet Wagner scanned the room of Picasso and Chagall paintings and wondered ‘how it was possible to amass the worst paintings by the best painters and then cram them all into one room.’
The (opera) gloves came off in 1957 when Gael Greene, a former Barbizon girl published a withering series of articles for the New York Post that exposed the flip side of the fantasy: that for every Grace Kelly, there were hundreds of girls who did not succeed.
For every girl dressed up for a date in velvets and furs, there was another left behind ‘wearing a flannel nightgown and a face smeared with cold cream, waiting for Milton Berle to come on,’ wrote Vanity Fair.
She called them the ‘Lone Women’ and her assignment was to watch and catalogue the symbols of sadness: ‘A frozen smile of hopeful expectancy. / The foamy daiquiri glass on a tray outside her door. / An old biddy who scolds her for giggling during TV hours. / Cookies and banal conversation with her afternoon tea. / The glass of the phone booth as she presses her tear-streaked face against its soothing coolness. / A phone that does not ring.’
Some even died of hopelessness. Paulina Bren said one resident who arrived in the 30s estimated there had been over 55 suicides over the years; many of which were kept quiet from the press by Mae Sibley.
‘It was always Sundays because Saturday was date night, and then came disappointment,’ wrote Bren.
The halcyon days of the Barbizon were all but over by the 1970s. As New York City collapsed on the brink of bankruptcy, 노벨피아 so too did the hotel. Crime rates shot through the roof and even the fortress which long- prided themselves on protecting its residents was not immune.
In 1975, one of the hotel’s oldest residents, Ruth Harding, 79, was found strangled to death in her eleventh floor room. The crime remains unsolved to this day.
The hotel went co-ed in 1981 and was converted to luxury condos in 2007.
The Barbizon traded on an idea to take these young diamonds in the rough and send them out into the world as cultured pearls. It didn’t always work out that way. But even for the ones who ended up packing their bags for home, there would always be that Cinderella season at he Barbizon.