2. Assistant Manager Mrs. Mae Sibley Graded the Women Who Stayed There

1961 Advertisement, Courtesy of Paulina Bren

It’s not for nothing that the Barbizon earned the nickname “The Dollhouse.” In addition to attracting the “artistically inclined,” the Barbizon also had a reputation of housing women with a certain look. The residents of the Barbizon were overwhelmingly white, from middle and upper-class families, and it helped if they were good-looking (just think of the hotel’s most famous resident, Grace Kelly). Every woman who stepped into the Barbizon hoping to blaze a path for herself in New York City had to make it past the first obstacle at the front desk. It was there that Mrs. Mae Sibley, “assistant manager and front-desk hawk” as Bren describes her, judged each woman who entered by giving her a once over and reading her reference letters.

If the letters and the girl’s appearance were deemed acceptable, she was granted entry to the hallowed halls of the Barbizon. Not all girls passed Mrs. Sibley’s test with flying colors though. Sibley had a grading system which Bren breaks down in the book as follows: “A’s were under the age of 28, B’s were between twenty-eight and thirty-eight, and C’s, well, they were over the hill.” Once admitted to the Barbizon, residents had to adhere to strict standards, to uphold the hotel’s reputation. In The Barbizon, Bren recalls an incident in 1961 when budding writer Joan Gage tried to leave the hotel in slacks. The staff made her go back up to her room and change. Even in the midst of financial hardships and low vacancy rates of the 1970s, the hotel still turned away guests who did not have the appropriate letters of recommendation.