Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Do That Anymore: Live at Women’s Hotels

Even Don Draper couldn’t get upstairs at The Barbizon.

Did you know that back in the day, some nice young ladies from good families wanted to come to New York City to work or try to be actresses or models but their parents were afraid for their virtue and their safety? Enter women only residential hotels like the famous Barbizon Hotel for Women.

The Barbizon was built in 1927 at 63rd and Lexington. Right away it became extremely popular for young women trying to make it in the big city. Over the years it housed such luminaries as: Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Candace Bergen, Ali MacGraw, Cybill Shepard, Rita Hayworth, Liza Minelli, Sylvia Plath (who wrote about the thinly veiled fictional “Amazon Hotel” in The Bell Jar), Lauren Bacall, Betsey Johnson, and “Little Edie” Beale. Part of the appeal was that so many famous women had lived there. It was so popular that in it’s heyday, only about half of all applicants would actually be accepted.

The application process was actually very rigorous, as they only really wanted “nice” girls from “good” families.  You had to submit three letters of recommendation and would be assessed on your looks, dress, and demeanor (meaning did you look nice and have good manners).

Once you were in, you basically got a bright pink nun’s cell. Room were about 9 x 12 feet and outfitted with a single bed, an armless chair, a clothes rack, and a small desk. A very few rooms had a private bath, but most had to share a communal bath down the hall. However, all residents had access to the indoor pool, gymnasium, library, music studio, kitchen, dining room, squash and badminton courts, sundeck, and coffee shop. There was also complimentary afternoon tea every evening (a must for girls on tight budgets!). All this for $12 a week in 1947 and $28 a week in 1963 ($124 and $210 in today’s dollars, respectively). However, there were a lot of rules of conduct that you had to follow:

    • There was a dress code (I haven’t seen this specified anywhere, but one resident referred to always wearing heels and hose)
    • No men above the first floor
    • Parents could be called if you weren’t behaving
    • Parents could also require that their daughters sign in and out in the lobby
    • Liquor was forbidden
    • No electical appliances in bedrooms
    • No cooking in the bedrooms
    • There was no curfew, but the Gibbs Secretarial School did have one for their students who lived at the Barbizon

Presumably there were also a lot of etiquette rules to follow. I would assume that instead of phones in the rooms there were banks of phone booths somewhere, in which case residents wouldn’t want to hog the phone when others needed to use it. The same type of etiquette would go as in any communal living space- being quiet late at night, being quick in the shared showers, and keeping common areas clean. Interestingly, though the Barbizon was most famous for it’s younger residents, there were plenty of older women as well. These ladies were looked down upon by the young girls who felt that still being at the Barbizon after age 25 was a failure. But the older ladies had their own code of etiquette, chatting in their doorways instead of in their rooms and letting long term tenants do their own, eccentric thing. One older lady, in the 1960s, had been living at the Barbizon since the 1930s and was known to play the shared piano every afternoon.

Eventually, the 1960s came to an end and women no longer felt the need to live in such stuffy and cloistered housing. They were more likely to get apartments with roommates, and places like the Barbizon began to fade. In the 1980s, it was converted to a coed hotel, and then was changed and sold a few times, until it’s current iteration as the Barbizon 63, just a normal hotel (although, at least as of 2010, there were still 11 “Barbizon girls” living in the hotel under rent control laws!)

However, a handful of these types of women’s residences still exist such as The Webster Apartments, The Sacred Heart Residence, and the Jeanne D’Arc Residence. For about $1200 a month you get a small room and a variety of amenities (including, at The Webster, breakfast and dinner!). These residences are located in very desirable areas like Midtown and Chelsea, so their prices are actually pretty reasonable. They are usually not for profit organizations that exist to provide semi-temporary housing to students, interns, and women beginning their careers. It’s actually a pretty nice idea when you are just arriving in NYC and don’t really know about the real estate market and how to find a good deal (and you don’t have to commit to furniture and you can leave anytime!). Fortunately for modern women, these residences no longer have the very strict rules that you found at the Barbizon (except for the no men- that’s still very key to their mission statements).

Tell me, do you think you would have liked to live at the Barbizon? Like me, are you sad that you didn’t know that these women’s residences existed when you first moved to the Big City (and these were not just a NYC phenomenon, my mom lived in a similar arrangement in San Francisco in the late 1960s)? Did your mom/aunt/grandma live at the Barbizon and tell you lots of good stories? Let me know in the comments!!

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Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Beauty Mark Etiquette

Une Dame à sa Toilette by François Boucher shows a lady applying mouches

Moles are a really common human skin condition and people have found them attractive in certain configurations for centuries. Sometimes they have also attached meaning to certain placements of moles. Drawing them in has even been fashionable at times- Marilyn Monroe’s famous spot started a trend for them in the 1950s. But 18th century French aristocrats took it a step farther and glued fake spots on, in all kinds of Lucky Charms shapes, and assigned meanings to their placements.

In France, these spots were called Mouches or little flies (pretty obvious why!) and were made out of black silk, velvet, taffeta etc. They came in all kinds of shapes like circles, crescent moons, stars, and hearts (even quite elaborate shapes like horse-drawn carriages would sometimes appear!) and would be glued onto the face and décolletage (that’s the cleavagy region of the chest). In addition to their secret meanings, these little spots were also quite handy for covering up small pox scars! They would also draw attention to a certain particularly attractive feature of the face. The dark color in contrast to the skin also made the skin look paler, very much the in thing at the time. Men and women both wore them and could wear any from one to ten at a time!

Of course, all good fads need some material goods to go with them. So the French created fancy little “patch boxes” to keep their little face  stickers in. Made with tons of gold and jewels and miniature paintings, natch.

Some possible meanings for the placement of the spots:

Middle of forehead: dignified or imposing or grandeur

Corner of eye or eyelid: passionate

Middle of cheek: gallant

Cheekbone: risque

Heart-shaped (left cheek): engaged

Heart-shaped (right cheek): married

Between mouth and chin: silent

Corner of the eye: passion

On lower lip or on chin: discreet

Beside the mouth: likes to kiss

On nose: saucy or sassy

Near lip: flirtatious or seductive or even able to kill

On neck: generous

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Morganatic Marriages

So technically, some people still might have morganatic marriages but most of us don’t.

A morganatic marriage is basically a marriage between a man (usually) of higher rank who marries a woman of lower rank and does not pass any of his titles and privileges to his wife and any resulting children. The purpose being, to allow marriage for love when it otherwise wouldn’t be allowed while still preventing undesirable children from joining lines of succession.

Morganatic marriages were most popular in Germanic countries and Russia. Ghengis Khan also practiced polyamoric morgantic marriage, where only the children from his official wife were allowed to inherit while the children from his morganatic wives were not, though they were still legitimate. Morganatic marriage was never really practiced in the UK because there was no prohibition against marrying commoners in the first place. Edward VIII proposed a morganatic marriage with Wallis Simpson so as to marry her and remain king, however parliament did not approve and we all know how that ended.

Famous Morganatic Marriages:

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Though she was an aristocrat, Sophie was not a member of a ruling royal family, she was not eligible as a royal wife. They ended up having 3 children and were assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that kicked off World War I.

Victor Emmanuelle II of Italy and his wife (and former favorite mistress) Rosa. The first king of united Italy had a proper royal marriage to Adelaide of Austria which gave him 8 children. After she died, he married his favorite mistress in a morganatic marriage.

Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma. After the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, his wife Marie Louise married morganatically TWICE, first to Count Adam Albert von Neipperg and then to Charles René de Bombelles (her chamberlain!)

Airport and Airplane Etiquette

It’s almost the end of summer and you’ve probably taken all of your airplane trips already, so let’s see what you’ve been doing wrong this whole time! Just remember, that flying can suck but it sucks even more if everyone is acting like a big, whiny baby. At the airport:

  • At the check-in counter, remain friendly and calm.
  • New baggage fees are INCREDIBLY sucky, but a fact of life now (except for JetBlue and Southwest! Love JetBlue and Southwest and give them all your dollars) so make sure you are aware in advance of what they are and weigh your suitcases so you aren’t arguing with the person at the counter as the line grows behind you.
  • Yes the TSA is security theater and kind of ridiculous, but we all know the rules by now. Be ready to take off your shoes and pull out your baggie of liquids so you don’t hold up the line.
  • Don’t crowd around the gate. Wait for your boarding group to be called so that people don’t have to push through the big crowd. Don’t try to board when it’s not your turn! Major props to airlines who turn people back when their group hasn’t been called.
  • Don’t try to be all sneaky with your carry on baggage. Trying to get a too big bag in the overhead bin is not going to work and it just holds things up for everyone else. The rules exist for a reason and carry on space (see baggage fees above) is more crowded than ever.
  • Store your carry on in the bin above your seat, NOT at the front of the plane.

In Flight:

  • Don’t bring your very stinky food on the plane. Try for cold, dry snacks as much as possible. But make sure you do bring snacks! Don’t want to get hangry or have to pay the extreme prices for food on-board.
  • Apparently some people like to talk to strangers on planes. This is puzzling to me, but if you do, judge whether your seatmate is actually interested in chatting or is desperately looking around trying to think of a way to get you to stop.
  • Stay in your space bubble, don’t let your knees or elbows protrude into your neighbors space bubble.
  • The middle seat gets both armrests, if they want them. Sometimes, though, you have to assert your right to them, find advice here.
  • The whole row must make space when one of the interior seats needs to get up to use the restroom with a minimum of acting annoyed and put out. If you know you need to get up frequently, do your best to sit in the aisle rather than a window (though I know you sometimes don’t have much choice!)
  • Interior seat sitters should be mindful of good and bad times to get up. It’s much more of a hassle if everyone has their trays down with food on them.
  • Reclining seats is the biggest debate in flying etiquette. Some say that if they can recline, they should be able to recline with abandon, and some say you should never ever recline. I am in the reclining camp, but I think that if someone is reclining right into your kneecaps, you are free to speak up and the person in front of you should modify their recline. Success with this may vary, however. For heaven’s sake, please don’t kick the seat in front of you!
  • Seats should be upright during meals (if you should be so lucky…)
  • Don’t get belligerently drunk
  • Don’t harass the flight attendants (or call them stewardesses)
  • Sometimes someone might ask you to switch seats with them so they can sit with a child or something similar. You are free to say yes or no as you please. (If you are asking to switch seats, always make it so that you are taking the worse seat ie give someone your window seat for their middle seat.)
  • Flying with small kids sounds like a nightmare, but as long as you are actively trying to keep the occupied and quiet, people should give you a break. It’s the parents who zone out with a movie while their child is screeching who are very unmannerly.
  • Debark the plane in an orderly manner and don’t push your way into the aisle when no one is even moving yet.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have Ladies Menus (Except That Time I Did)

A few years ago, my now-husband and I were on vacation in Greece, and, as we try to do whenever we go somewhere new, used one night to dine at a really good, fancy restaurant. We had been staying with a friend’s family the rest of that week so we hadn’t been spending much money, and decided to really splurge and go to a Michelin-starred joint on the outskirts of Athens. It was a beautiful place, with a semi-enclosed courtyard and a CHEESE CART (note: write about the etiquette of cheese carts), and we immediately felt very high-class upon entering. We were led to our table, where someone pulled out my chair for me and placed my napkin in my lap, and we were handed menus. Curiously, I noticed my menu did not have prices listed. “Hey, do you have prices? Is this just how they do things?” I asked my date. Turns out, he did have the prices. Welcome to the concept of the Ladies Menu.

The Ladies Menu, one without prices, stems from the idea that someone being treated to dinner should not know what their host is paying for them. You wouldn’t tell guests at a house party how much you paid for all the ingredients in that cake you made, right? Of course not, because they’re your guests and you don’t want to make them uncomfortable about having a lot of money (or a little) being spent on them. Unfortunately, the idea was also that OBVIOUSLY the man would be treating a woman on a date (and obviously a man and a woman out together was a date, and obviously two men or two women would never date, etc.).

The concept works with limited success. Women were often taught to predict which dishes would be mid-range options, to avoid upsetting their dates by ordering too richly. Also, occasionally the “host” would forbid the guest from ordering certain things that were too expensive, defeating the point. And nowadays, given that most restaurants post at least sample menus online, can’t you just figure out the average prices beforehand? Or am I the only one that will spend all afternoon before a dinner trying to figure out what I want to eat?

Complications also arise when a man and a woman want to dine in any way besides the man treating. Tracy MacLeod writes:

…I recall the irritation of a friend of mine, a high-powered BBC current affairs presenter, whose attempt to treat her husband to a special birthday dinner at La Tante Claire was foiled at every turn. Even though she’d made the booking, the staff treated her as the little lady guest. She got the menu with no prices. He got the wine to taste. She requested the bill. He was given it to pay. As they were leaving, the manager asked if she’d enjoyed her meal. It was lovely, she said, but as she was paying for her husband, it would have been nice if they’d treated her as the host. The manager’s face broke into an incredulous smile, and he turned to my friend’s husband. “Lucky fella!” he breathed.

This isn’t the only way restaurants differentiate between men and women, though it’s certainly the most obvious. The New York Times says, “At most upscale restaurants…software lets servers note both the position at a table to which a dish is going and whether the diner is female, so the food’s couriers can plot to present dishes in a gender-conscious sequence,” whatever that is. And MacLeod continues, “it rankles when front of house staff refuse to accept a woman as the main point of contact in a mixed group. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve ordered wine which has then been brought to a male companion to taste. Same with the bill. And quite regularly, waiters have assumed, if I’m dining with a man, that the fish must be for me, and the steak and ale pudding for him.”

Restaurants giving priceless menus to ladies is dying out, though some restaurateurs do note the need for priceless menus. For instance, if one person is hosting a group at a restaurant, they may not want their guests to see the prices, and that is totally legitimate! But let’s be thankful that most women get to know what they’re paying for their own dinner.