From the '20s through the '70s, the famous and fabulous N.Y.C. Barbizon Hotel for Women was the address for single gals who wanted to make a name for themselves in the big, bad city.
It’s 8 a.m., sometime during the late 1920s, and the Barbizon Hotel looks like any of the hundreds of hotels in New York City. With its imposing Gothic facade, this skyscraper doesn’t make a huge impression. But when the clock strikes 8:30, the lobby comes alive. Hundreds of girls pour out of the elevators headed to the Katharine Gibbs School, a premier secretarial program, while pale models glide down the stairs holding shiny black portfolios. Students from the Tobé Coburn School for Fashion head out the front doors wearing the latest outfits, alongside aspiring actresses headed to auditions. Whether from the Midwest or California, college graduates or newly divorced, these women had come to the city for a fresh start. And the best place to achieve that was at the storied Barbizon Hotel for Women, on Lexington Ave and 63rd St.
For single girls from “good families” living in New York City at the time, there was no address more glamorous or more coveted than the Barbizon. From its opening in 1928, it served as a charm school, social club, and home sweet home to ladies who’d go on to make waves in Hollywood and the literary world, like Lauren Bacall, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, and Liza Minnelli. The long-stay hotel maintained its mystique with strict dress codes and conduct rules, which gave it a reputation as an elite pseudo-sorority on the Upper East Side. The Barbizon also provided a place for women moving to the big city who hoped to earn jobs and embark on their careers; it was a launching pad for ladies with big dreams, and it changed the lives of hundreds of its residents. “The Barbizon enabled me to move to New York alone,” says Judy Goldman, a resident back in 1965 (at the age of 23). “I’d lived in the South all my life, and I needed to grow up. The Barbizon eased me into an independent, career-girl life; it was the bridge between the world I’d always known and an intoxicating adventure.”
In the 1920s, single girls were flocking to the Big Apple in unprecedented numbers. For the first time, women were graduating college at almost the same rate as men, many aspiring toward careers outside the socially acceptable vocations of teaching or nursing. They had just won the right to vote, and marrying and settling down to daily housework routines would also not satisfy these educated women. It was a time of change and possibility, and no place embodied this spirit more than New York City. But finding a place to live wasn’t easy for these new career women. While hundreds of apartment buildings were opening up, they would only lease to male tenants because women (especially single women) were seen as liabilities. They might be “husband hunters” who’d break their leases as soon as they got married, or they wouldn’t be reliable enough to bring in steady paychecks and pay their rent.
After World War I, N.Y.C. suffered a severe housing shortage, and while boarding houses were common at the turn of the century, they were intended more for immigrant or working-class women, and had long waiting lists. That’s when William H. Silk from Allerton House Company, an urban housing pioneer, came into the picture; he suggested the idea of a hotel aimed specifically at career-minded women. But it wouldn’t be like the other women-only hotels in the city: Silk tailored the hotel specifically to women pursuing careers in the arts, so he named the building Barbizon, after the 19th-century French art movement. He imagined the Barbizon as a hybrid of an apartment and hotel; it’d offer more privacy than rooming houses, and the amenities of a hotel, including dining and cleaning services. For $11 a week (about $148 in today’s dollars), a young girl could live in the lap of luxury (albeit in a very tiny room) for around the same price as a regular apartment—which might’ve cost $15 a week—in a less-desirable neighborhood.
The Barbizon wasn’t the first all-female hotel in New York City, but it was the place for families to send their daughters to thrive, and stay safe, in the big city. “My mother’s friends persuaded her that I would be protected from ‘the most vile, violent, lawless, cruel, heartless, filthy, perverse place on Earth’ if I were ensconced in the stern, no-nonsense bosom of the Barbizon,” says Sylvia Kronstadt, who lived at the Barbizon in the summer of 1968 (when she was 18 years old), during an internship with a major advertising agency. The hotel’s creators also capitalized on the burgeoning obsession with Hollywood by promising residents the lifestyle of a silver-screen starlet. They advertised its prime loca.ion near Radio City, Carnegie Hall, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Residents could also stay in for their entertainment—the hotel’s first-floor lounge had a stage, a pipe organ, and seating capacity of 300 for concerts and dramatic performances. The upper floors contained artists’ studios and sound.proofed music rooms. They also offered a gym, swimming pool, Turkish baths, a coffee shop, a library, lecture rooms, a solarium, and a large roof garden. From the top-floor terrace, you could see the Ritz tower, and the Empire State and Chrysler buildings.
Ads ran in major newspapers describing the Barbizon as the place for “smart, beautiful, successful women.” And where the ads didn’t reach, word of mouth did. That’s how Sandra Hart heard about the Barbizon Hotel back in 1959, while she was attending college in Ohio. “My cousin lived there,” says Hart, “and she met Grace Kelly on her very first day.” The promise of chance encounters like these catapulted the Barbizon Hotel into a pop-culture phenomenon. Because of its fame, gaining admittance to the Barbizon was tough; each girl needed three letters of reference and went through an intense screening process. A former front-desk employee told the Saturday Evening Post in 1963, “The first test of getting in, after [they] know you can pay, seems to be how pretty you are.” The staff graded applicants: women under 28 years old got an “A,” 28 to 38 got a “B,” and “C” was awarded to anyone above 38. When a spot opened up, waitlisted “A”s got first priority, naturally.
The Barbizon maintained its pristine image with strict conduct rules. Parents could require their daughters to sign in and out every time they passed the front desk, to keep tabs on any late-night rendezvous—some even hired full-time private chaperones. But even lower-income families could rest easy knowing their daughters would be kept safe and, most importantly, chaste; the Barbizon was staffed with “housemothers” who monitored and enforced rules against any “immoral behavior.” The most infamous rule was the one restricting men from going past the hotel lobby. The only males exempt were doctors, plumbers, electricians, and dates who’d been invited to an event in the lounge. The exclusivity made the women behind the Barbizon’s walls the most lusted-after forbidden fruit in the Big Apple. Staffers were trained to spot bachelors lounging around the lobby who might be trying to hook up with the famed “Barbizon girls”; J.D. Salinger was reportedly kicked out more than once for loitering a bit too long. Rumors spread of boyfriends and lovers pretending to be doctors, and grown men crammed into dumbwaiters who’d walk out the front door the next morning with the ultimate bragging rights of having trespassed into “no man’s land.”
There were also exacting dress codes, as former resident Joan Gage describes in the documentary 50 Years of Broad Ambition: Ladies of the Barbizon. “The Barbizon had a number of people who, sort of like guards, checked on your morals and behavior, and among these were the elevator operators,” she says. “I came down on the elevator once, and they stopped me because I was wearing slacks and I wasn’t allowed in the lobby. I could not walk 10 feet across the lobby and out the door wearing slacks.” Residents were expected to dress fashionably and conservatively: hosiery, knee-length skirts, and heels were a must. If you wanted to live like a starlet, you were expected to dress and act like one, too.
The Barbizon’s rep was enhanced in the ’40s and ’50s when Eileen and Jerry Ford, who launched the famous Eileen Ford Modeling Agency, started to rent rooms to cover girls, in hopes of keeping them away from scandal. “It was safe,” said Eileen Ford, “it was a good location, and they couldn’t get out.” Models like Carmen Dell’Orefice and Vogue staple Jean Patchett resided at the Barbizon, as did Grace Kelly, who stayed there from 1947 to 1949 while she modeled part-time and studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. While she was later celebrated as the epitome of understated elegance, she was known by her dorm mates to perform exotic dances in the hallways while barely dressed. The hotel also housed a veritable roll call of silver-screen icons—Gene Tierney, Joan Crawford, Ali McGraw, Cybill Shepherd, Phylicia Rashad, and Candice Bergen all stayed there, as did a young Edith Bouvier Beale, who was a resident while she pursued a career as a model and cabaret performer, prior to moving to Grey Gardens to care for her mother.
The Barbizon housed some major female talents, so it’s no surprise that it was also name-dropped in some of the 20th century’s greatest literary works. Sylvia Plath immortalized the hotel in The Bell Jar, and recounted her experiences living there while working as an editorial intern for Mademoiselle magazine. She derisively described the hotel’s residents as “secretaries to executives…simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other. These girls looked awfully bored to me. I saw them on the sunroof, yawning and painting their nails and trying to keep up their Bermuda tans.”
But for all the talk and ads about liv.ing “the gracious life,” the 700 rooms populating most of the hotel’s 23 floors were far from glamorous. “My room was like a small closet,” says Hart. “I was shocked. I thought I’d get claustrophobia in there.” The standard singles were about 6 by 12 feet, and those who could afford it had private bathrooms, while others shared communal bathrooms at the end of the hall. “My room was so tiny, I could lie in bed and open my door at the same time,” says Goldman. But for most of the girls, the cramped room was a small price to pay for freedom their mothers’ generation couldn’t have fathomed. In 1959, Susan Kohner wrote in Modern Screen, “Since I was determined to live on my own money, it meant a great deal to me.…My room was about as big as a mailbox, and I shared a bathroom with another girl, but I felt wonderful because I was pay.ing my own way. I was on my own.”
But not every girl who came to the Barbizon went on to a thriving career, and the pressure of being alone in a big city proved too much to bear for some of its residents. In 1939, 22-year-old Chicagoan Judith Ann Palmer was six months into her stay at the Barbizon when she wrote a suicide note, left $30 in a dresser drawer, and shot herself in the head. She was worried she’d lose her job as a performer at the World’s Fair. In 1934, Edith La Tour checked into the hotel and committed suicide the same night, by jumping from her 12th floor room. (It’s rumored there were several more suicides at the Barbizon that were covered up by management.) Much less dramatically, many women came to the hotel to find their piece of N.Y.C. fame and fortune, but stayed much longer than they’d planned. These never-married “spinsters” had moved in during their 20s and hadn’t left, decades later; the residents called them “The Women” and strenuously avoided them, as if failure was contagious.
As the decades progressed, the Barbizon’s bright star of possibility and glamour started to dim. By the ’70s, the hotel felt more like a prim relic than the modern mecca it had been 40 years earlier. The hotel’s rules of conduct and dress were outdated, and women craved the independence of having their own apartments. What was once a bustling spot with an almost 100 percent occupancy rate turned into a vacant ghost town with less than half the rooms filled. Katharine Gibbs ended its dorm plan in 1970, and its spokesman later told The Wall Street Journal, “More and more girls didn’t want to live under the supervision of a girls’ dormitory. They wanted more freedom to come and go.” Many other companies, like Ford Models and Mademoiselle, soon ended their programs as well. “The Barbizon’s rapidly shriveling grandeur was sad in a way,” says former resident Kronstadt, “but also funny, because it signaled to me that the conventional ways of viewing young women, and their autonomy and courage, were eroding.”
The Barbizon finally did the unthinkable: in 1981, it began admitting males. The hotel then went through several reincarnations under different names, and was declared an official N.Y.C. landmark in 2012. The hotel’s still standing, but now as Barbizon 63, a luxury condominium building. While the structure of the Barbizon has changed, there’s still something magical about its lore, especially considering how many women who walked its halls went on to stellar careers. The hotel acted like a cocoon—turning countless nervous young girls into game-changing, history-making trailblazers. It was a place between college and the “real world” that allowed women to work at finding their identities, and helped normalize the idea of ladies living on their own. “I think most of us can look back at that time and feel like it was a place where we felt safe and happy,” says Hart. “It was the beginning of us all spreading our wings and leaving home, and developing our own stories.”
By Nina K. Guzman
Photos courtesy of The Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, Diksha Sharma, Peter K. Steinberg