Malkin Lecture: The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free

Built in 1927, at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon Hotel was designed as a luxurious safe haven for the “modern woman” hoping for a career in the arts. Over time, it became the place to stay for any ambitious young woman seeking fame and fortune. Sylvia Plath fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, and, over the years, its almost 700 tiny rooms with matching floral curtains and bedspreads housed, among many others, Titanic survivor Molly Brown; actresses Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, and Jaclyn Smith; and writers Joan Didion, Gael Greene, Diane Johnson, and Meg Wolitzer. Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, as did Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School its students, and the Ford Modeling Agency its young models. Before the hotel’s residents were household names, they were young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase and a dream. An Armory neighborhood landmark, the Barbizon offered its residents a room of their own and a life without family obligations. It gave women a chance to remake themselves however they pleased; it was the hotel that set them free. No place had existed like it before or has since.

Paulina Bren is an award-winning writer and historian who teaches at Vassar College. She attended Wesleyan University as an undergraduate, later receiving a MA in international studies from the University of Washington, and a PhD in history from New York University. Her most recent book, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free (Simon & Schuster, 2021), is a New York Times Editor’s Choice and has received international press coverage, with reviews in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Guardian’s Sunday Observer, and The London Times, among others. In addition, Bren is a well-known scholar of everyday life and communism behind the Iron Curtain, starting with her groundbreaking book, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring (Cornell UP, 2010), which cast the first line in what is now a new field of study.

For more information about Paulina Bren’s book, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free, visit

The Barbizon Hotel, New York. Photo: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo.


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November 16, 2021

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