The High Price of Being a Barbizon Beauty

by SUSANNAH LONG · March 16, 2010

[Photo from Millie Mott's] And you thought your co-op board was tough. During its peak years in the 1920s through 1950s, the "women-only" Barbizon Hotel pulled out all the stops to keep its ladies pure enough to sacrifice to the Volcano Gods.-

Grace Kelly used to dance sinuously in the halls wearing nearly naked and smuggle in beaux, but the future princess was the exception to the rule. Vanity Fair recounts the rules by which the Barbizon insured its renters' reputations as coiffed, confident, clean-living dolls. Admission was based on references, looks, dress, and demeanor. Men could tresspass beyond the lobby rarely, and then only with supervision. Boarders' parents could receive reports from the Barbizon's eagle-eyed management or hire private chaperones. Poorly-behaved misses were scolded.


Apparently this kind of clinch wasn't unfamiliar to Grace during her Barbizon stay. . . [Photo from IMDB]

The Barbizon wasn't the city's oldest female-only hotel, but it was often thought of as the best. Barbizon girls had a reputation around town for being the creme de la creme - a reputation that the hotel management nudged along by releasing tidbits to the gossip and society columns. Some called the hotel "the greatest concentration of beauty east of Hollywood.” And, in fact, Vogue housed its models at the Barbizon during the midcentury, as did other agencies.  Among the other residents were writers, entertainers, and eccentrics . . .

Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Candice Bergen, Ali MacGraw, Cybill Shepard, and Liza Minelli. [Photos courtesy of IMDB]

Joan Didion, Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale [Photos courtesy of Life Photo Archive.]

Rita Hayworth also lived in the hotel, and posed for this pictorial of her half-assed athleticism in the Barbizon gym:

Many other future stars and luminaries stayed in the hotel. I think I speak for all of us when I say this could be the most wondrous teen drama ever. Teenage Sylvia Plath bitches about poetry and emotion. There are montages of young Grace Kelly to "Bad Reputation." A youthful J.D. Salinger tries to sneak up to a lady's room using the dumbwaiter. There's a climactic lady-brawl at a tea.

Not that the glamour extended inside the hotel: The 700 rooms were cramped and utilitarian, electrical appliances were off-limits, and all bathrooms were communal. The environment could be brutal on some recent arrivals to New York, who found themselves constrained and isolated. Writer Gael Greene ripped the hotel apart in the NY Post in 1957, and there were rumors of suicides and breakdowns.

The Barbizon at its height - no pun intended. JK, pun totally intended, because I'm clever. [Photo courtesy of National Park Service]

These days, the Barbizon is a luxury condominium building whose units sell for millions - except for eleven rent-controlled apartments reserved for 11 holdovers from the end of women's hotel era. even . At least we'll always have swanky vintage photos of the place in its prime.