cover image The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free

The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free

Paulina Bren. Simon & Schuster, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-1-982123-89-5

Historian Bren (The Greengrocer and His TV) delivers an entertaining and enlightening account of New York’s Barbizon Hotel and the role it played in fostering women’s ambitions in 20th-century America. Bren presents the hotel’s clientele as risk takers who comforted their parents by moving into what was billed as New York’s “most exclusive hotel residence for young women.” Named for a 19th-century French art movement, the Barbizon opened in 1927 and remained in operation until its conversion into luxury condos in 2007. Mademoiselle magazine housed its guest editors there, Bren notes, and the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School rented two full floors for students and their housemother. Bren profiles noteworthy guests including Molly Brown, who survived the sinking of the Titanic, actors Tippi Hedren and Grace Kelly, singers Shirley Jones and Liza Minnelli (whose mom, Judy Garland, called nearly daily to check on her daughter), and writers Joan Didion and Jean Stafford. Sylvia Plath was one of many future authors and designers (Meg Wolitzer and Betsey Johnson among them) who stayed at the Barbizon after winning a spot in Mademoiselle’s guest editor program; in Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, the hotel was called the Amazon. Carefully researched yet breezily written, this appealing history gives the Barbizon its rightful turn in the spotlight. (Mar.)