Ambitious young women of the 20th-century flocked to the intersection of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street, to The Barbizon Hotel, where they could live out the ultimate New York City dream of reinvention. At the Barbizon, New York’s most iconic women-only hotel, fresh-faced girls from across the country transformed themselves into working women and honed their skills as artists in the big city. Immortalized as The Amazon in Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, the Barbizon left an indelible mark on the women who stayed there and the history of New York City.
The rooms of the Barbizon were famously filled with students from the Katherine Gibbs secretarial school, collegiate guest editors from Mademoiselle magazine like Joan Didion, models from the Powers agency, and actresses like Grace Kelly and Liza Minelli, but there were other residents whose stories may be less glamorous, but no less worthy of telling. In her new book, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free, which has garnered rave reviews from New York Times, Washington Post, and The New Yorker, author, and historian Paulina Bren explores both the well-known and overlooked stories of the Barbizon, connecting the personal experiences of its residents to the larger cultural movements that have occurred over the past century.
1. It’s Named After a French Art Movement
When William H. Silk opened The Barbizon Club-Residence for Women in 1928, he had a clear vision of the type of woman he wanted the establishment to appeal to. Silk wanted to attract the “artistically inclined,” as Bren writes in The Barbizon. Part of Silk’s plan to appeal to this demographic was to give the hotel an artsy name.
Barbizon is a small village near the Fontainebleau forest in France. The village offered affordable lodging to artists who came to capture the beauty of the bucolic setting. Soon, a new art movement emerged. The Barbizon School was exemplified by famous painters such as Théodore Rousseau, Jean-Baptiste Corot, and Jean-François Millet. Just as the small village in France offered a haven for these 19th-century artists, the Barbizon hotel would welcome burgeoning artists of the 20th-century. Inside the hotel, residents could practice their crafts in the Four Arts Wing, where there were sun-soaked painting studios and soundproofed rooms for musicians.