The Barbizon, стр. 1

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For Zoltán and Zsofi

I

NTRODUCTION

The glamorous movie star Rita Hayworth pretending to be petered out from a day of practicing for her role as a model in the 1943 movie CoverGirl. Here she is posing for Life magazine in the Barbizon’s gymnasium with real working models.

Who was the woman who stayed at NewYork’s famous Barbizon Hotel? She could be from anywhere—just as likelyfrom small-town America as from across the George Washington Bridge—but moreoften than not she arrived in a yellow Checker cab because she didn’t yet knowhow to use the New York subway. She had the address on a piece ofpaper in her hand, and she carefully read it aloud to the taxi driver: “TheBarbizon Hotel, 140 East Sixty-Third Street.” But in all likelihood the taxidriver knew where she was going even before she spoke. Perhaps he noticed how shetimidly waved down his cab, or how she tightly held on to the handle of her brownsuitcase, or how she wore her best clothes, this out-of-town girl newly arrived inManhattan.

The piece of paper was most probably crumpled by now, or certainlyworse for wear, having traveled with her by train, by bus, or even by plane if shewas lucky or well-off, or if, like Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion, she was a Mademoiselle magazine contest winner. The rush of excitement when thisyoung woman walked through the front doors of the Barbizon would be impossible toreplicate later in life because of what it meant in that moment: she had made herescape from her hometown and all the expectations (or none) that came with it. Shehad left that all behind, resolutely, often after months of pleading, saving,scrimping, plotting. She was here now, in New York, ready to remake herself, tostart an entirely new life. She had taken her fate into her own hands.

Throughout the years, magazine advertisements for the Barbizon Hotelexclaimed: “OH! It’s great to be in NEW YORK… especially when youlive at the Barbizon for Women.” The tagline was always the same, reassuringin its tenacity: New York’s Most Exclusive Hotel Residence for Young Women. But magazine pieces also warned of the wolves, those men who roamedNew York’s streets on the lookout for pretty, naive young things, and theBarbizon promised both protection and sanctuary. Yet that wasn’t the onlyreason America’s young women wanted to stay there. Everyone knew the hotel waspacked full with aspiring actresses, models, singers, artists, and writers, and somehad already gone from aspiring to famous. When Rita Hayworth posed for Lifemagazine in the hotel’s gymnasium, looking both sexy and impertinent, she wassignaling these possibilities.

But first, this new arrival had to get past Mrs. MaeSibley, the assistant manager and front-desk hawk, who would look her over and askfor references. She had to be presentable (preferably attractive) and with lettersattesting to her good and moral character. Mrs. Sibley would quietly mark her as anA, B, or C. A’s were under the age of twenty-eight, B’s were betweentwenty-eight and thirty-eight, and C’s, well, they were over the hill. Moreoften than not, the girl from out of town with a Sunday school hat and a nervoussmile was an A. This initial hurdle was the easy one, however. Once Mrs. Sibley hadapproved of her, and handed her a key, a room number, and a list of the do’sand don’ts, the new Barbizon resident would take the elevator up to the floorwith her room, her new home, where no men were allowed, ever, and contemplate whatto do next. The room was a step up for some and a step down for others. But for allthe young women at the Barbizon, the narrow bed, dresser, armchair, floor lamp, andsmall desk in a tiny room with a floral bedspread and matching curtains, representedsome sort of liberation. At least at the beginning.

The Barbizon tells the story of New York’s most famouswomen’s hotel from its construction in 1927 to its eventual conversion intomultimillion-dollar condominiums in 2007. It is at once a history of the singularwomen who passed through its doors, a history of Manhattan through the twentiethcentury, and a forgotten story of women’s ambition. The hotel was built in theRoaring Twenties for the flocks of women suddenly coming to New York to work in thedazzling new skyscrapers. They did not want to stay in uncomfortable boardinghouses; they wanted what men already had—exclusive “clubresidences,” residential hotels with weekly rates, daily maid service, and adining room instead of the burden of a kitchen.

Other women’s hotels sprang up in the 1920stoo, but it was the Barbizon that grabbed hold of America’s imagination. Itwould outlast most of the others, in part because it was associated with youngwomen, and later, in the 1950s, with beautiful, desirable young women. The hotel wasstrictly women only, with men allowed no farther than the lobby, on weekend nightscalled “Lovers’ Lane,” as couples hovered in the shadows,embracing behind the foliage of strategically placed potted plants. The reclusivewriter J. D. Salinger, while no wolf, hung around the Barbizon coffee shop andpretended to be a Canadian hockey player. Other men became unusually tired andneeded to rest up at the very moment when they crossed Lexington Avenue atSixty-Third Street, and the Barbizon lobby seemed a perfect place for respite.Malachy McCourt, brother of the author of Angela’s Ashes, as well as ahandful of other men claimed to have made it up the stairs to the carefully policedbedroom floors; while others tried and failed, dressing up as plumbers and on-callgynecologists, much to the