Although there had been residential hotels for bachelors and families for decades (see The Thin Man movies), until the early twentieth century there were no residential hotels for women because there was no need for such a thing. American women stayed home.
But in 1903, recognizing a nascent feminist movement, the enormous Martha Washington Hotel for women opened in New York City. It occupied an entire block on Madison Avenue from Twenty-Ninth to Thirtieth and offered a wide variety of accommodations from single rooms to spacious (kitchen-less) apartments. There was a communal dining room, modern steam heat, reception rooms on each floor, and a rooftop promenade.
The end of WWI brought a proliferation of such hotels catering to, in the words of one developer, “female physicians, decorators, lecturers, politicians, writers, buyers, store executives.” (That these females would be white and privileged was unspoken but understood.)
The most famous women-only residential hotel in New York City was The Barbizon Hotel. If you were an eager young woman making your way in the Big City, the turreted, Gothic inspired Barbizon at 140 East Sixty-Third Street was the club house.
What distinguished the 700 room Barbizon, which opened in 1928, from similar hotels was the residents themselves. For decades The Barbizon housed the students from the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, models from the Ford Modeling Agency, and most notably the Mademoiselle magazine guest editors.
The Mademoiselle guest editor program (1939-1980) was an outgrowth of the Mademoiselle College Board, which was cooked up by legendary editor Betsy Talbot Blackwell to solicit trends and news from her readers (females between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five) as well as beef up advertising during the slow month of August. The responses from hundreds of college students from around the country guided editorial decisions and advertising for the August issue which was retooled as the College Issue or “the bible.” Now such insights can be accomplished with a click or two on social media, but in the 1930s this was revolutionary stuff.
Shortly after the launch of the College Board, the guest editor contest was born. To be considered for a guest editor internship, applicants submitted an essay, short story, or artwork to Mademoiselle. The twenty lucky winners were brought to New York for the month of June to shadow a senior editor at the magazine.
For decades, if you were a “smart young woman” with literary or artistic ambitions, to be a Mademoiselle guest editor was akin to winning the lotto. Writers Joan Didion, Diane Johnson, Gael Greene, and Meg Wolitzer were all “Millies”, as was the poet Sylvia Plath, whose lightly fictionized version of her experience, The Bell Jar, was published in 1963. Beginning in 1944, the Millies were housed at The Barbizon.
As the feminist movement gained strength in the 1970s, the Barbizon lost some of its luster. The departure of the Katharine Gibbs girls (200 rooms) in 1972 was the death knell. The building changed hands several times and was eventually converted to condominiums and renamed Barbizon/63.
But in its day, a room of one’s own at The Barbizon provided a launching pad for thousands of independent young women.
The Barbizon is a charming, thoughtful history of the hotel and its famous (and not so famous) residents.
What Other Reviewers Say
Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches: Salem 1692: “Before Sex and the Single Girl, before Sex and the City, there was the Barbizon. It was a romantic building with a romantic purpose: It fixed a woman up with her dreams. Paulina Bren has written a stylish, charming history of a unique institution, brimming with aspiration and idiosyncrasy, and one that allowed a woman to survive without either marrying someone or cooking him dinner-even when she was barred from so much as taking a seat at the bar.”
Who Wrote It
Paulina Bren is an award-winning historian and professor at Vassar College where she teaches international, gender, and media studies.