Throughout the years, magazine advertisements for the Barbizon Hotel emphasized this point: “OH! It’s great to be in NEW YORK … especially when you live at the Barbizon for Women”. The tagline was always the same, assuring in its tenacity: New York’s Most Exclusive Hotel Residence for Young Women. But magazine pieces also warned of the wolves, those men who roamed New York’s streets on the lookout for pretty, naive, young things, and the Barbizon promised both protection and sanctuary. Yet that wasn’t the only reason America’s young women wanted to stay there. Everyone knew the hotel was packed full with aspiring actresses, models, singers, artists, and writers, and some had already gone from aspiring to famous. Rita Hayworth had even posed for Life magazine in the hotel’s gymnasium, beside the pool, looking both sexy and impertinent.
But first, this new arrival had to get past Mrs. Mae Sibley, the assistant manager and front-desk hawk, who would look her over and ask for references. In addition to having to be presentable(preferably attractive), and with references attesting to her good and moral character, Mrs. Sibley would quietly mark a potential resident as an A, B, or C. A’s were under the age of 28, B’s were between 28 and 38, and C’s, well, they were over the hill. More often than not, the girl from out of town with a Sunday school hat and a nervous smile was an A. But this first hurdle was the easy one.
Once Mrs. Sibley had approved of her, and handed her a key, a room number, and a list of the do’s and don’ts, she would take the elevator up to the floor with her room, her new home, where no men were allowed, ever, and contemplate what to do next. The room was a step up for some and a step down for others. But for all the young women at the Barbizon, the narrow bed, dresser, armchair, floor lamp, and small desk, all crammed into a tiny room with a floral bedspread and matching curtains, represented some sort of liberation. At least at the beginning.
The Barbizon was New York’s most famous women’s hotel, constructed in 1927 and eventually converted into multimillion-dollar condominiums in 2007. The story of the hotel is at once a history of the singular women who passed through its doors, a history of Manhattan through the 20th century, and a forgotten story of women’s ambition. The hotel was built in the Roaring Twenties for the flocks of women suddenly coming to 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 “club residences”, residential hotels with weekly rates, daily maid service, and a dining room instead of the burden of a kitchen.
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