Book Review: The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: March 2nd, 2021
Pages: 336, hardcover
Source: NetGalley

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.


Liberated from home and hearth by World War I, politically enfranchised and ready to work, women arrived to take their place in the dazzling new skyscrapers of Manhattan. But they did not want to stay in uncomfortable boarding houses. They wanted what men already had—exclusive residential hotels with daily maid service, cultural programs, workout rooms, and private dining.

Built in 1927 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon Hotel was intended as a safe haven for the “Modern Woman” seeking a career in the arts. It became the place to stay for any ambitious young woman hoping for fame and fortune. Sylvia Plath fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, and, over the years, its almost 700 tiny rooms with matching floral curtains and bedspreads housed Titanic survivor Molly Brown; actresses Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Jaclyn Smith, Phylicia Rashad, and Cybill Shepherd; writers Joan Didion, Diane Johnson, Gael Greene, and Meg Wolitzer; and many more. Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, as did Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School its students and the Ford Modeling Agency its young models. Before the hotel’s residents were household names, they were young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase and a dream.

Not everyone who passed through the Barbizon’s doors was destined for success—for some it was a story of dashed hopes—but until 1981, when men were finally let in, the Barbizon offered its residents a room of their own and a life without family obligations or expectations. It gave women a chance to remake themselves however they pleased; it was the hotel that set them free. No place had existed like it before or has since.

Beautifully written and impeccably researched, The Barbizon weaves together a tale that has, until now, never been told. It is both a vivid portrait of the lives of these young women who came to New York looking for something more, and an epic history of women’s ambition. 

Paulina Bren states in her introduction to The Barbizon – The Hotel That Set Women Free that there wasn’t a lot of source material about the hotel. About twenty percent of the book is acknowledgements and references, but it’s true, very little is about the hotel itself.

The book is focused more on the women who lived at the Barbizon over the decades, and how society and culture changed both the women and the hotel. The book covers from the late 20’s to the 80’s, and features residents such as Grace Kelly, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath. There’s a LOT of Sylvia in the book, possibly because there was more source material on her than many of the others.

Bren also talks in-depth about the relationship between the Barbizon and businesses, such as Mademoiselle magazine, the Katharine Gibbs College, both of which gave women jobs and opportunities they hadn’t had before, just as the Barbizon gave them a safe, but less-restrictive environment in which to live.

There’s a lot of material, and most of it was interesting, but there’s a fair amount of jumping around, and different decades are sometimes referenced in the same chapter without a clear indicator of what is happening when. I would still recommend this to anyone interested in women’s history and women in the workforce in the 20th Century.

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