|The Barbizon Hotel for Women in 1927 -- photo Library of Congress|
But there were dangers in the big city as well--dangers called “wolves;” the smooth-talking decadent men who searched out naïve young girls.
Girls needed protection and they found it at the Barbizon Hotel for Women. It was a sanctuary where stringent codes of conduct and dress were enforced. Girls applying for residence were required to submit three letters of reference. There were no men allowed above the lobby level and chaperones were available at parents’ requests.
|Multicolored, intricate brickwork patterned the ground floor -- photo by Alice Lum|
In 1926, as the hotel rose, The Chicago Tribune said “The building is especially designed for business and professional women with such unique features as gymnasium, swimming pool, studios and other conveniences usually found only in men’s clubs.” Indeed, the owners, United Club Residences Corp. under the presidency of William H. Silk, referred to it as a “club residence for professional women.”
|The lobby as shown in an early brochure -- http://sylviaplathinfo.blogspot.com/2011_01_01_archive.html|
|photo by Alice Lum|
“It has been said that in their clubs women have more liberty than men,” said article. “They really do, in this respect at least—that they are permitted to invite members of the opposite sex to many of their social affairs and to pay calls in the public rooms set aside for the purpose. For a woman’s club is here home, while a man’s club is more or less his refuge.”
|The New York skyline from the Barbizon in 1932 -- photo Library of Congress|
The newspaper commented with a hint of humor on the restrictions on the girls. “it is not an uncommon sight to see a mother with her young daughter barely out of her teens at the desk asking for accommodations. ‘She is going to be here for the Winter,’ says the parent, making more of an effort at boldness than her child. ‘Yes, she is taking her first job. Will she be well chaperoned?’ While it is asked a bit anxiously, the youngster looks bored and silently expresses an aversion to the idea that she needs chaperonage.”
|photo by Alice Lum|
The Barbizon became the most exclusive and glamorous address in New York for young women. Most of the 700 rooms were dorm-sized quarters intended for girls on a budget. But the tenant list would include an array of soon-to-become-famous names; among them budding actresses Cloris Leachman, Joan Crawford, Candice Bergan, Ali McGraw, and Grace Kelly.
Writer Sylvia Plath lived here, later setting part of The Bell Jar at a residence hotel based on the Barbizon. Liza Minelli, Cybill Shepherd, Candice Bergen, Dorothy McGuire, Peggy Cass and Barbara Bel Geddes called the Barbizon home, along with a seemingly endless list of others.
|Sylvia Plath's room above, like the others, was small but tastefully decorated and furnished -- http://sylviaplathinfo.blogspot.com/2011_01_01_archive.html|
On October 26, 1932 the 65-year old Molly Brown died in her room at the Barbizon of a brain tumor.
|Brick tracery, romantic arcades, balconies and soaring Gothic windows create a fantastic melding of styles -- photo by Alice Lum|
Among the glamorous models who “couldn’t get out” were Delores Hawkins, Gloria Barnes and Jean Patchett.
Following suit, the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School used the Barbizon for the safe-keeping of its Gal Fridays-to-be.
The Barbizon Hotel for Women was not all about young actresses who became movie stars and professional girls who met and married millionaires. There was tragedy at the Barbizon for those girls who did not quite succeed.
Judith Ann Palmer was brought to the hotel by her wealthy mother, Mrs. Philip O. Palmer of Chicago on January 22, 1939. On July 8 the 22-year old placed $30 in a dresser drawer and wrote a note saying the money should cover her funeral expenses. She then wrote and note to her mother; then, dressed in her negligee, she shot a bullet into her right temple.
In 1957 Gael Greene, writer for the New York Post, wrote a series of articles exposing the heart-breaking existence of the girls whose lives fell short of glamor and instead were filled with loneliness and fear.
By the 1960s the reason for the existence of the Barbizon Hotel for Women was essentially gone. After several owners, it became the Melrose Hotel in 2002 following a $40 million renovation. The 700 small rooms were no more, now about half that many.
|photo by Alice Lum|
While little of the original interiors are left, the exterior of the Barbizon is essentially intact--a wonderful example of 1920s eclectic architecture and a most interesting page of women’s social history.