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tv   Paulina Bren The Barbizon - The Hotel that Set Women Free  CSPAN  October 11, 2021 12:10pm-1:01pm EDT

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>> follow us on social media at c-span history for more this date in history posts. >> download c-span's new mobile app and stay up-to-date with a live video coverage of today's biggest political events from live stream of the house and senate floor and key congressional hearings. white house events in supreme court oral arguments even our live interactive morning program "washington journal" where we hear your voices every day. c-span now has you covered. download the app for free today. >> paulina bren is an award-winning writer and a story teaches at vassar college. she attended western university as an undergraduate later receiving an ma in international studies from university of washington and a phd in history from new york university. she holds grants and fellowships including budapest and atlanta. her most recent book, "the
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barbizon: the hotel that set women free" is a nuke times editors of choice and it has received international press coverage withss reviews in the w yorker, the "new york times," the "wall street journal," the "washington post," the guardian sunday observer and london times among many others. in addition pauline is a well-known scholar of every life behind the iron curtain starting with a groundbreaking book -- the culture communism after the 1968 prague spring which rated a new field off study. welcome paulina. >> thank you. i'm delighted to be here. >> delighted to have you and your book the hotel that sat women free is so many things. this is the story of a place and also wonderful narrative that interweaves the history of the 20th century with a nuanced history of women and
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professions. >> it's a scholar and historian myself that i'm curious about your own scholarly process. >> i usually begin with dread and i say that half jokingly. i realize i'm interested in topics that haven't been written about before so there's not that much to read in order to get started and that's very daunting. also i'm always more interested in a collective experience about a time and a place so again i don't follow an individual biography so it's an opportunity to go into the archives and follow one person story so lots of panic and dread and this is the case with "the barbizon" when i started. i thought well this is great at famous hotel and there are going
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to be many forces and not at all. it turned out people try to write the book before they stopped her very good reason. it's interesting we are at the new york historical society. the new york historical society where you have a wonderful archive of new hotels but the reason i can only speculate about its illustrated on the general landscape available of "the barbizon" so this is really about finding different avenues to get the story of the barbizon and building it back brick by brick. >> the lack of sources gave you a multi-dimensional pursuit of that type of story and that's a narrative of vitality as well.
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>> i think you are absolutely right and when i look back on the academic books i've written about and women in everyday life "the barbizon" brought me to my next book it really is, this is what interests me how you can put together multifaceted stories and multifaceted stories in a clear way of thinking about it. >> absolutely. so the barbizon hotel was not just a place where women lived but also a nexus for various institutions and providing women with more career life choices than ever before. you focus also on these training grounds for mademoiselle magazine and a modeling agency.
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talk less about them. how did they provide security for women and how did it change into the late 70s and early 80s? >> absolutely. i hadn't thought of that at -- of it as a training ground that you are right. it's a place where women find independence and as you said the barbizon is a place of respectability and they talk about that dark but accessibility is what would give you independence. it was also place of whiteness which we can also discuss but it was a place of respectability and that's that freedom and independence for women and as you said there would be these other sort of pockets through which the women who arrived at
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the barbizon could seek different ways of envisioning their lives. one of the women was katie gibson back in the 1980s i remember the early scenes of an outdated idea the idea that you train women a secretary so it was a fascinating to discover the search history of catherine gibbs which was really a phenomenon in the 20th century and became particularly important after the crash in 1929 and the great depression. there were other secretarial schools that women were attending but catherine gibbs she became a widow in the early 1900s and had to find aay make a living for her kids and her sister and she opened the school. when the great depression hit in
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the stock market fell these women, these elite women from elite colleges with degrees in english literature had to find a way to make a living in catherine gibbs was awake to do it so that was important in another important way to the avenue was with the great depression women were taking jobs away from men so logically they would take on women's work if they wanted to work outside of the home so now we have residence at the barbizon that were catherine gibbs secretarial students. the paris modeling agency the first modeling agency he brings
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in women, young women from largely the midwest and the barbizon is a new york hotel but it's a very american story because the women who stay there or not new yorkers. they become new yorkers to some extent but they are small towners in the agency takes this this -- these are the models and the looks that they are going for and they always stayed at the the barbizon. the segue of the 40s and 50's it became a female rent agency and she sent the models over there and an interesting connection for me was in a real entry point for me as a scholar and an entry point for the
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barbizon for women was mademoiselle magazine which again in the 80s i remember mademoiselle magazine as a not very good fashion magazine but it has this remarkable history. it started in the mid-1930s and was run by women. it was known as the bible for every college girl because you learned not only what to wear and what to talk about what to read in the early 1940s mademoiselle magazine started a program and it was the way it basically to bring in the crème de la crème of young women across america, bring them in and have them stay at the barbizon. there were these training
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grounds of different organizational, that in many ways was doing what the barbizon was also trying to do and also sort of the complexity of being very feminized places with feminized reputations and so forth so it was complex and a fascinating story to find all of these entry points. >> the women were testing out professional identities which were brand-new in many ways and the barbizon was that nexus. but we call these women the new women and they involve -- it evolves throughout the decade in your story. tell us how that happened in the 20s. >> certainly. this is really fascinating to me because by looking at the hotel
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and looking at new york in the 20th century we sort of get a different sense of this new woman of the modern era. so in the 1920s when the barbizon was built -- it opened its doors in 1928 and the thing is that it was not the only women's hotel being built at this time. there was a pandemic in the 1920s, the spanish flu and they were coming to new york to now tryout these new lives and they didn't want to stay in boarding houses. they were considered old-fashioned and musty and also they were often connected to religious organizations and these were modern women who
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wanted to live modern lives. these hotels were residential hotels which were all about the opulent experience in terms of common rooms but with four actual bedrooms so these were seen in the decade from men and women wanted them to. in fact these hotels were booked solid before they were built. that was how huge the demand was for them and one of the key things was that they had no kitchens. they didn't have kitchens because it made it easier to build these places but the notion of not having a kitchen was fundamental to its identity for women who are coming which worry if you did not have to cook meaning he also did not have to take care of the
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household, then you could live the life that you want to live. at the same time when it opened its doors in 1928 it had a modern twist but it has this veneer of being a really elite place. what happened because the crash happened a year after it opened its doors the barbizon continued to advertise itself as a place that was a safe haven for the lead respectable young women on the go society women. it continues that way. it pivoted and that was also interesting. looking at the women who stayed there the socioeconomic
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diversity and that didn't happen until the 1950s i discovered that the economic diversity happened very quickly. and that's one of the fascinating things to me how the women ranged from debutante to women who have run away from home and rural ohio and they were living next door to each other now and that in itself is very interesting. and then in the 1940s in terms of this new woman and as i say it certainly also impacted the intellectual cachet in new york and the new york intellectual society and in the early 50's this new woman was perfectly fascinated because this was the
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decade when the barbizon was nicknamed the dollhouse because of all these models. this is when grace kelly is there and many actresses in the 1940s and early 1950s are at this the barbizon. and yes it's a dollhouse. it's famous because these beautiful young women that men hang around at the coffee shops trying to pick up women pretending he's the canadian hockey player. so interesting when you dig into the young wives of these famous women way they are sexuality plays into it. the woman has many stages throughout hotel history. >> particularly when one
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considers in new york city in the 19th century is compelling for women because they could be out and about by themselves and a precursor to a new woman was a woman who could go out without a chaperone. so was just groundbreaking. >> absolutely. >> you're right to point that out. plus in her letters home while she's at the barbizon in june of 1953 she lamented quite a bit about how she hadn't found a boyfriend. another part was that and even if things had progressed you as a young woman you were privy if you had a date next to you.
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you could go to places that you couldn't go to by yourself or with your girlfriends. it was also really grounded in experience of facts. >> indeed and that leads to my next question. there are a few types we've seen your book from a homegrown beauty queen, the ambitious girl seeking independence in the city but i'm fascinated by the highly educated women. times changed drastically from the "roaring 20's" to the 60s but why was it that most of these women consistently chose the mindnumbing housewife job. the dollhouse was an interlude in a young woman's journey.
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why go to college? >> yes absolutely. and this was the dollhouse era. i think basically societal and social pressure. and it continues to more directly affect women and we can talk about the toxicity of masculinity and it's all true that women encounter often lead to a lack of access. the social pressures to be a woman at a certain time does so
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i think that plays a big part of it. and it's interesting because in fact because of this housewife thumb their reign supreme in the 1950s there was a whole series of women who had to make speeches trying to explain and justify why women even needed to have an education if they weren't going to use it. it actually became sort of a national crisis of why are we sending these women to college so the convoluted argument became well, because an uneducated woman can educate her on children. so that's the usage. >> that's like motherhood from 18th century. not too much progress.
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>> exactly were shocking and also of course and it's not only the consumer prosperity of the post-war era which of course allows pager or cold structures to say you don't have to work so there is that also the cold war. we should not underestimate that women who are single, who are working during the cold war were seen as suspicious and that was a threat to perdue was interesting to read the phenomenon of the red scare and how for example mademoiselle magazine which was a hotbed of liberal women.
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the editor-in-chief was it can conservative republican but women were working among other women solve these women were particularly targeted and women were seen as vulnerable to the propaganda of the cold war. i will again return to the question of and sexuality. where in terms of the pressure, it was all about her sexual desire in her anger over not being allowed to express it and that men could do whatever they wanted to. they did not have to reign in their desires and what was really interesting to me in doing research i found in 1953 when sylvia plath was that this the barbizon that was the same
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month of the can see report on sexuality came out and sylvia plath and her cohort which included the novelist diane johnson who wrote another wonderful novel. they were republishing a reported that the can see report. you have to write what you think about it and some of the women said it's all about the in yet no one explained it and they were being quite specific and sylvia plath who was talking about it in her diary had the most expressionless response to the can see report and i really think it's symbolic of the
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1950s because she hated the fact that she was giving in to social pressure and she couldn't help herself. >> there's a definite disconnect between women's sexual desires and society beyond that. how did these inconsistencies torture the dolls of the dollhouse? >> i talk about sylvia plath but i also have a chapter on the women who came to the barbizon and the barbizon was a launching pad. you went there because it was a place that you were going to beat come what you dreamt of. there were so many women who
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came and it wasn't what they hoped. for various reasons and i have a whole chapter about them. what i found interesting in this whole question about sexuality and the way was her preston weaponized is how much it a part of their lives these women who were quite ordinary women but for example i interviewed models at "the barbizon" who said they are fed women coming to see if they could get a double date. it wasn't just about going on a date. it was a lot of these women didn't have that much money for a nice dinner other than saltines out-of-the-box and it they meant food. and a date also meant a more
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exciting meal, yes. it often meant having a nice dinner, a whole meal. so you had to bargain yourself for that. and the sell by date was again even for the women who went there to make something of themselves and did they understood that even so marriage had to be the endpoint. >> and just an economic contrast almost. >> exactly in for a lot of these small-town women and the debutantes were always looking to meet the right kind of man but for these young women from ohio who would be models for just a few years in new york this was their window. they were not going to meet
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anyone at the nonexistent country club in ohio. >> i love reading about sylvia plath grace kelly liza minelli and on and on and these nonfamous people who were at the barbizon. why did they choose to remain in new york over returning home where they had security. it's a dangerous world out there in nerc city at the time. for anybody who hasn't read the book the barbizon no members were allowed beyond the lobby and there were many men who claimed that they had made it up to the stairs in the bedroom area and wonderful wild tales of that. it's hard to say who actually
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managed but certainly the front desk. there were men who came in just as professionals. they came in suits and she would send them away. it was very good but why did they stay? is hard to say. it's an individual case-by-case basis but i would say the meaning of success in many ways getting oneself to new york and getting a room of one's own in new york is success and so hats off to them and of course the hotel then started on its reincarnation in the 1980s and
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1981 out of economic necessity it had opened its doors to men and their work two decades of the barbizon trying to re-envision itself as a hotel spectacularly and yet failing late every single time. these women who started, 156 of them, these women got themselves a really good tenant lawyer and the lawyer in shourd that their rooms were considered rent control rooms and rent control rents. so as the hotel and it's fascinating but as it was refurbished behind a hidden wall on each floor the original rooms of the the barbizon of the
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original women remain for decades and when it was turned into a luxury condo building in the early 2000, 2005 the hotel was completely redecorated inside and had no resemblance to what it looked like. but there was a floor built a studio one-bedroom plush, plush apartment and the remaining five women live their so how can we judge success? in terms of the new york story it is about real estate in so many ways. in my book they were deemed a success. >> only new york city though, right? >> and they get daily maid service because that was in the original contract with the
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barbizon. >> that does segue into her first question and it's a simple one where exactly was the barbizon located? >> absolutely. the barbizon was and still is on lexington avenue. >> beautifully centrally located. >> it's interesting it was centrally located but certainly, it was, whatever warring desolate irish neighborhood and what really changed things up was the brother of the famous
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frank mccourt of angela's ashes who himself is a wonderful writer and he's remarkable and he opened a bar called maliki's two blocks away from the barbizon and it was the first singles bar in new york and it was obviously a magnet for all the women staying at the barbizon. that really changed the social landscape of the upper east side for these women. >> one of our viewers is wondering was that popular culture at the time or later in the movie or stories or novels or whatever? >> the bell jar and it is literally about her experience
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at the barbizon 1953. that cancels out saying that everybody knows it's biographical but i would say to an extreme extent it's biographical having spoken to a lot of the women that were there with her and really what she recounts, she becomes asked her her -- esper but everything that happened there really did happen including her famously during her wardrobe off the roof of the hotel the last night that she was there and then going home and having her first suicide attempt and in many ways it was
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triggered by her time at the barbizon and mademoiselle. in the 1930s there were few movies based on the women's hotel to experience the barbizon and to write about it and i mentioned it in the book the sitcom in the 80s or the 90s called bosom buddies with tom hanks that was based around this idea of the few remaining women's hotels at that time and of course it was a cheap way to live so they dress up as women to live in this hotel. i should say there's one remaining one called webster which was built in the 1930s form plays at macy's by one of the founders of macy's and you can still get a room there.
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it's still relatively affordable >> you alluded to this woman and i'm curious about locating your sources and speaking with them. what was that experience like? >> it was actually wonderful experience once i located them. meeting women in their 80s and 90s who incredibly funny with some remarkable memories, better than i've ever had and also storytellers. when they were at the barbizon were there was this short little window a real independent and excitement and singled them and so they recorded very very well.
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i have to say that was my greatest delight. in terms of the locating of sources really the connection between mademoiselle and the barbizon was incredibly helpful. i hate discovered the editor-in-chief and i could write a whole book about her. she's a remarkable person. her office files are archived in laramie wyoming and that was very helpful. it was disorganized and there were thousands and thousands of memos. into paying -- key things that i found because of that there were really important to me, one was the writing about the can see
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report but the other thing more important to me was how this whole question of how to write about a hotel there are no guest registries and it was a floor plan that somebody gave them but note guest registry no introduction. none of the things you'd expect in no employee records, nothing like that and it's really important when you are writing history about the 20th century were the hotel was built in the 1920s obviously for white women but when does the first black woman to stay there and -- even want to stay there? i was so happy going through these memos i found this really
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animated back-and-forth conversation through members and mademoiselle about the women that they wanted to pick for the guest program that summer. she was by far an amazing student. she was attractive and she was lax. the business side of mademoiselle was furious and they were saying why you are his have to do something as a first. you need to be first at everything. we don't need this. we will lose customers and we will lose everything. actually the very conservative said no, that pitch is coming. the barbizon letter and i spoke with her. she became a famous artist and
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writer barbara chase bedwell. it doesn't mean that there was diversity at the barbizon in 1956 but that allowed me to tell the full story. that was a godsend that i found that particular conversation. >> yes absolutely and in an unexpected place as well. set the process of discovery so exciting. tell us more about how you mentioned the whiteness and that dynamic at the barbizon and how this that open up the floodgates and how did it start shifting from a racial perspective? >> i think i should say with the great depression at the start of
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the book i talk about the flappers the unsinkable mollie brown and the titanic is the first famous resident that the very beginning and she dies at the barbizon and she's surrounded by people that she hates. black women were flattered as well in the 1920s but in the same way that all these ambitious women took a nosedive for the great depression and even more so in the case of black women i talk about that in the book. so that takes place and the entry of arbor chase. she is led in and it's personality but she was absolutely fine when she was there in one of the delights is writing this book is the fan
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mail and e-mails that i have received and an interesting one and when i was writing this i knew was going to happen and a woman wrote to his is friends with barbara chase and she lives in a hotel from 1970 to 1972 and she said that what i write about in the book in terms of how barbara chase fits in a vanessa society and she has a particular attitude and her friend also a black woman said this is absolutely true. yes you had -- but she felt comfortable at the barbizon
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because she had a particular point of view about herself as a woman and that she said made her fit in and made her feel comfortable at the barbizon. obviously these questions are complex and my chapter there were white women who felt incredibly and comfortable they are. so it's hard to say but the barbizon was a white institution and being set up as one built in the 1920s and was in new york which itself is changing so the question is, and i think there's an added complexity and who was in and who was out at the barbizon beyond socioeconomics. >> that segues into this trick
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question. can you describe the culture of the hotel? >> they are many levels of that culture in the coffee shop was a place to see that culture take place and there's an element of the high school cafeteria as i like to think of it, where there were young beautiful women running in their heels and they were off to their rehearsal's other broadway shows and photo shoots and life was just wonderful. then there are the word to women who were on the outskirts of the coffee shop off by themselves reading sort of wondering what they were going to do. in that sense it was a social
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culture but i say in terms of culture is a culture of female ambition and this is the thing that's been interesting to me. i say this book is a history of female ambition and what i love is that it does not run on the same parallel tracks with a history of women's lives. women were and always will be ambitious regardless of their access and their right to be so. so there are ways of trying to circumvent that. doesn't mean you are going to succeed. it's a history of women trying to combat the restrictions that allow them to build on their ambition. and that cuts across all sorts of, as i say, other lines of
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experience that really the ambition is central to the type of women who come to new york to this place and i have to say i've been asked do you wish a place like this existed and i think it's difficult to imagine a place like this existing for a variety of reasons which i could go into but i want but i think it's a tremendous loss that there is no place that somebody who is not from new york and who doesn't know a soul especially for a woman who is vulnerable in the city that there was a place that was affordable, where they could get a room and that i think is important. that is something i think can only add to the logic culture of the city. >> it's really the crux of the
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book and your argument but beyond all the wonderful research and stories is some wonderful writing and i was wondering if you'd be so kind as to read is the passage. >> i have the book, right behind me. absolutely. i would just read the introduction. who are the women who stayed at new york's famous the barbizon hotel but she could be from anywhere. this could be a smalltime american to the george washington bridge but out of a yellow checkered cat she didn't know yet how to use the new york subway. she had it on a piece of paper in her hand the barbizon 140 east 63rd street but in all
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likelihood the taxi driver knew where she was going even before she spoke. perhaps how she'd tightly held on to the hand of her suitcase or wore her clothing. the piece of paper was probably crumpled by now. having trouble biplane by bus if as in joan didion she was a mademoiselle contest winner. when this woman walked through the front door of the barbizon it would be impossible to replicate because of what it meant in that moment reach it in native mistake in her hometown and all the expectations that came with it. she had left all that behind resolutely often after this gripping and saving and she was here in new york ready to remake herself in a new light. she had taken her fate into her own hands.
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>> beautiful writing and a beautiful >> beautiful writing, beautiful narrative. >> thank you. >> wonderful conversation but, unfortunately, we have run out of time. i would like to thank paulina bren for being with us today, and i want to thank you in the audience for also being with us today. >> at the age of 82 wally funk when into space for the first time with amazon founder jeff bezos. she is the oldest person to ever travel into space. she was originally part of the mercury 13 lady astronauts from the early 1960s a group who underwent rigorous training but were never selected to go into space. on american history evs oral history series wally funk recall the earliest days of the space program. here's a portion of that interview. >> what were some of the other and you came down for the first phase of testing, what were some
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of those tests? did you stop and think what am i doing? anything along those lines? >> to answer your last question first, no, i had not a shadow of a doubt. i was their subject. they could do anything with me they wanted to do and i didn't know that you could get x rate from head to toe and would take a whole day. they wanted perfect specimens at that time. let's go back to the men, the mercury. there were 159 men selected from the armed services to go through these tests at loveless here, and he were selected? 25 women were selected. and how many past? 13. so do we have a little bit of information here on how well do women do things? how well did they come across on
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the mayflower? how well did they go across the prairies and settled the west in their covered wagons? great. it families, didn't think anything about it. why can't we fly and go into space? for the men today who think that we can't as women do things, sorry, folks, we can do it. a woman and i'm sure eileen has tried extra hard to do her best, because nobody wants to fail, but -- and failure is not a part of my makeup. i do the best i can do and i kick as many doors in as a possibly can to matter where i go. >> you can watch the rest of this program and our entire library of oral histories online at our website >> is c-span's
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