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Safe Haven

Safe Haven

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A Wall Street Journal book reviewer, Heller McAlpin published a review of author Pauline  Bren’s book titled “The Barbizon” in the February 2021 Journal. McApin wrote: “Among the handful of iconic hotels closely entwined with New York’s cultural history, the Barbizon is perhaps less widely known than the Plaza, Algonquin or Waldorf Astoria. But as Paulina Bren’s beguiling new book makes clear, its place in the city’s storied past is no less deserving. The 27- story neo-Gothic Barbizon was built in 1927 on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street as an upscale, club-like residential hotel for ambitious young women who dared venture to New  York (City) on their own to pursue dreams.” The hotel was named after the 19th-century French art movement centered in the village of Barbizon, a haven for struggling artists. New York’s  Barbizon was conceived as “the rooming choice for the artistically inclined”. 

The Barbizon was advertised as a “safe haven in the big bad city”, according to McAlpin. There were opportunities for self improvement, art, music, afternoon teas, a library and a gymnasium with a swimming pool as well as an attached coffee shop and pharmacy. The most important difference from the other hotels was the Barbizon’s “no-men-above-the-ground-floor policy  (even the elevators were operated by women after sundown) which was particularly reassuring to worried parents around the country”. Its 720 private rooms were sparsely furnished and much less luxurious than today’s standard room, but each had its own radio. One of the earliest guests  was Margaret Tobin, famous survivor of the sinking of the ship Titanic, best known as the  unsinkable Molly Brown. 

The Barbizon’s history “glitters” with the names and stories of talented, beautiful young women” which included actresses Grace Kelly, Ali McGraw, Phylicia Rashad, Cloris Leachman, Elaine  Stritch and Nancy Davis (later Reagan) and writers. McAlpin noted that two institutions shaped the legacy of the Barbizon- the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School and the Mademoiselle magazine. The secretarial school housed students from 1930 to 1972 and the magazine begin in  1935. Mademoiselle’s founding editor, Betsy Talbot Blackwell, “the rare woman who had not  just a job but a career, BTB, as she signed herself, loved shoes, hats and the color pink.” BTB  started a “College Board” consisting of 850 women from colleges around the country. 

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One of the “more intriguing side stories concerns ‘the hotel’s long-haulers, dubbed ‘The  Women’. Thanks to New York’s protective rent-control laws, these survivors stayed on and grew old there, refusing to leave despite the advent of male guests in 1981 and the buildings eventual conversion to upscale condominiums in 2007”. The majority of the guests moved on more quickly, “often into marriage”. McAlpin noted: “Although many of these marriages turned out not to be the fairy-tale endings these women had hoped for, the story of the Barbizon is in many ways the story of the beginnings of the female professional class in New York City, especially in the arts and media. And in this captivating portrait, the hotel comes alive again as an enchanted  site of a by-gone era, ‘a place of glamour, desire, and young female ambition’.”

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