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!!