May 16, 2021

The Barbizon

The Barbizon
Paulina Bren


(May 16, 2021)

In 1949 or 1950, my mother won the Mademoiselle Magazine Essay contest. With 14 other “guest editors” from colleges across the country, Patsy flew to New York (from Colorado College) to spend a month at the offices of Mademoiselle. All the guest editors stayed at the Barbizon Hotel For Women, 63rd and Lexington. A few years later, Sylvia Plath would be a guest editor, too: when she wrote about the experience, she called it the Amazon. A few years later, Ali McGraw was a guest editor, and made the cover.

This is an intriguing institutional biography, a study of a hotel and a magazine. The program was a clever idea: Mademoiselle could have its pick of promising young writers as interns and cheap models as well as — crucially — and annual focus group to keep the permanent staff in touch with their ideal readers. Mademoiselle was always led by women, and the program gave them a pipeline to some of the best.

Some other institutions intersect: the Katie Gibbs secretarial school rented several floors of the hotel for decades, the Powers Agency urged its models to stay there, and some of the young women who moved into the hotel in the 1930s as a way station to romance found that the world had other plans and would still be there, thanks to rent control and persistence, at the end of the century.

This is a good book. Occasionally, Bren’s word choices are imprecise. Occasionally, she repeats anecdotes. Bren is fascinated by Sylvia Plath, and I think her focus on Plath gets a bit out of hand: you've got lots of other fascinating women, some of whom stuck around long enough for interviews. (The girl who had the room next to Sylvia’s said that Plath had saved her life: now, if she killed herself, she’d always be the other girl from ’53 who committed suicide.) I’m not entirely sure that this wouldn't work better as fiction, and it might have worked better as a thesis book. But this is what we have, and it’s great to have it.