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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review: The Barbizon

The Barbizon
Author: Paulina Bren

Publisher: 3rd March 2021 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 290 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: nonfiction, history, feminism, New York, biography

My Rating: 4 crowns


From award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the first history of New York’s most famous residential hotel—The Barbizon—and the remarkable women who lived there.

The Barbizon tells the story of New York’s most glamorous women-only hotel, and the women—both famous and ordinary—who passed through its doors. World War I had liberated women from home and hearth, setting them on the path to political enfranchisement and gainful employment. Arriving in New York to work in the dazzling new skyscrapers, they did not want to stay in uncomfortable boarding houses; they wanted what men already had—exclusive residential hotels that catered to their needs, with daily maid service, cultural programs, workout rooms, and private dining.

The Barbizon would become the most famous residential hotel of them all, welcoming everyone from aspiring actresses, dancers, and fashion models to seamstresses, secretaries, and nurses. The Barbizon’s residents read like a who’s who: Titanic survivor Molly Brown; actresses Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedron, Liza Minelli, Ali McGraw, Jaclyn Smith, and Phylicia Rashad; writers Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion, Diane Johnson, Gael Greene, and Meg Wolitzer; and so many more. But before they were household names, they were among the young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase, and hope.

Beautifully written and impeccably researched, The Barbizon weaves together a tale that has, until now, never been told. It is an epic story of women’s ambition in the 20th century. The Barbizon Hotel offered its residents a room of their own and air to breathe, unfettered from family obligations and expectations. It gave women a chance to remake themselves however they pleased. No place had existed like it before, or has since.

My Thoughts

‘The Barbizon tells the story of New York’s most famous women’s hotel from its construction in 1927 to its eventual conversion into multimillion-dollar condominiums in 2007. It is at once a history of the singular women who passed through its doors, a history of Manhattan through the twentieth century, and a forgotten story of women’s ambition.’

The appeal of this book for anyone interested in women's history is strong - and it delivers. With the freedom women gained through WWI and then the strong movement of the 1920s, many flocked to NYC to follow their dreams - but where could they safely stay? The Barbizon Hotel was built to fill this void and over its many years, housed quite the array of in/famous women. The author does a wonderful job in researching to highlight not only the history of this legendary hotel but also important milestones that occurred in women’s history. 

‘Women did not come to the Barbizon to network, but that’s what they did anyway. They helped each other find work, they talked over problems with one another, they applauded each other’s successes and gave solace to those with disappointment and heartbreak. They felt empowered just by being at the Barbizon.’

This was, for the most part, a fascinating read into women’s history - the birth of a ‘women only’ hotel at a time when they needed support to try and reach their dreams outside of the expected marriage only life. This book truly captures the double standards for men and women and how society treated them and the expectations attached to being a woman during this period.

‘Every time a woman walked down the street dressed for work ... she was a reminder of “compromised manhood.” By 1932, twenty-six states had made it illegal for married women to hold a job, and in the states where it was not mandatory to quit work upon marriage, it was still mandatory to disclose one’s impending married status because it was considered outrageous for a woman to be taking a job away from a “real” breadwinner. The Barbizon provided shelter from such denouncements. It was not just a residential hotel anymore; it was a safe harbor.’

Chapters were sequenced chronologically and also highlighted both the monetary/society status and colour issue - you were nearly always white and rich.  Highlights were also brought to famous women who stayed such as  Joan Didion, Grace Kelly and Sylvia Plath. Such an interesting look at society and culture of the 20th century, as well as the dynamic changes for women over this period. 

‘The Barbizon dollhouse might well have been full of young, beguiling beauties, but there was much more behind their attractive facades. Even if many of these young women would indeed end up as wives and mothers back in the towns from which they had come, their goals while in New York were ... ambitious.’

The author went to great efforts through the use of interviews, letters, and books to bring to light the lifestyle of these young women - from their frustrations to achievements, from their success stories to their failures.  This book could have been boring but was deftly turned into a fascinating portrayal of the now famous building and the women who stayed there. The Barbizon provided  women with the independence they desired, a place where they could hope to discover their true selves away from societal demands. 

‘ ... a place where women went to reimagine themselves: and in the twentieth century, that was not about to go out of style.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.


Mystica said...

Sounds like a very interesting story. The setting and the time is also intriguing.

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