The Barbizon; The Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

The Barbizon; The Hotel That Set Women Free by Paulina Bren; Simon & Schuster, 2021. 321 pages; $27.00 (hardcover); reading level: adult.

This book is equal parts fascinating and flawed. Bren tells the story of New York City’s Barbizon, a women-only hotel that opened in 1928 and didn’t admit its first male guest until 1981. There were other hotels for women in the city over those years, but the Barbizon offered culture and glamour along with a safe haven for single women seeking to widen their horizons, reimagine their futures, and escape from the cramped expectations of the cities and towns across the country from which they’d made their escape. The Barbizon provided short- and long-term housing for carefully vetted walk-in guests, for Mademoiselle Magazine’s college-aged guest editors, for elite students enrolled at the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, and for models employed by the Powers and Ford agencies among others. Bren’s story of the hotel itself quickly widens to include the story of Mademoiselle and its guest editors (Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion among them), the women’s rights movement, and the historical backdrop from the Roaring 20s through the Great Depression, World War II, and the “good” 1950s, a decade so fraught with contradictions that it spawned the feminist revolt of the 60s and 70s. If it sounds like a lot, it is. Instead of supporting the thesis proposed in the subtitle, material such as the extended coverage of Mademoiselle and its Guest Editors (Sylvia Plath in particular) diverts attention from the main point the author is attempting to drive home. Still, this book is worth the read. If her story of the hotel itself is thin, Bren does manage to chronicle the 40-year period that connects first- and second-wave feminism.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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