Sure, living in the Barbizon Hotel in 1964—the way Don Draper's sometime love interest Bethany Van Nuys does in “Mad Men”—was glamorous. Residing at the Barbizon meant that you were not only beautiful, but that you were expected to hit it big—or at least rub elbows with famous and soon-to-be famous New Yorkers.
Cloris Leachman, Ali McGraw, Grace Kelly, and Cybil Shepherd are among the famous ladies who, at one point, lived in the Barbizon Hotel on East 63rd St. and Lexington Avenue. But living at the Barbizon was not only chic—it was affordable. If you could deal with curfews, shared bathrooms, and a rather tiny room, rent at could be as little as $250 per month. This included three meals a day, security, a cleaning service, and a shot at real success, if not full-fledged stardom.
The Barbizon’s Appeal Was Financial
In 1960, the average family in New York City was spending $313 per month on food and housing, according to census data. That data encompassed all five boroughs, so certainly rent in the tony neighborhood of Midtown East was on the higher end of that average.
Rent at the Barbizon was considered a steal for many of the girls who weren’t making enough to pay for a real apartment on their secretarial salaries. Not to mention that $250/month was a small price to pay for the promise that Barbizon girls were far more likely than the average typist to find real financial success. Securing a room at the Barbizon also meant that a girl has housing upon arriving to New York—meaning she could immediately start looking for a job instead of hunting for an apartment and suitable roommates.
Romance Was A Factor As Well
Besides the prestige the Barbizon Hotel offered (women had to apply more than a year in advance, offer up to three character references, and be attractive and well mannered) there were a number of reasons eager young ladies chose to live in the glitzy residence during the “Mad Men” era. Famed author and restaurant critic Gael Greene, who lived at the Barbizon Hotel herself, wrote that the girls living there were “seeking something indefinable—something to do, a rent-paying job, romance, the alchemy that will transform an ordinary girl into an extraordinary woman.”
The atmosphere was also captured in Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar.” The fictional “Amazon” was the setting for the novel, which she wrote while living at the Barbizon Hotel and before committing suicide.
It Was A Safe Haven In An Unsafe City
But for most parents sending their small-town daughters to New York City at age 19 or 20, concerns for safety far outweighed hopes of fame. As they still do today, young women moving to New York were coming from all over the country with dreams of being an actress, dancer, model, writer, or artist. These jobs were not usually lucrative, even to men, so women who were making a pittance had few options for safe and secure housing. And security at the Barbizon was not taken lightly. Girls had to sign in and out when they left the building, men were strictly forbidden from going any further than the lobby, and a “300 pound security guard named Oscar” was a familiar face in the hotel’s front desk.
Eventually, the Barbizon Hotel was sold, and became, among other things, an Equinox gym and The Melrose Hotel, which closed in 2005. The building is now a luxury condominium building, re-named The Barbizon63, with sky-high rent. A few women from the original Barbizon still live there, however, having been “grandfathered in” by New York City rent laws.
The Barbizon Is Gone, But Its Successors Live On
But those aren’t the only Manhattan ladies who are still living in a women’s housing circa 2010. In fact, some of these buildings still exist—though these days it’s less of a bargain. A single room apartment at The Markle, on W. 13thSt., runs $1,385 per month. The Brandon Residence, located on West 85th Street, offers rooms for $1,023 to $1,218 per month. And The Webster, on West 34th St., which was nearly as well known as the Barbizon Hotel, charges $265.00 per week for a room, which includes maid service and two meals per day.
Although some may find the idea of what is essentially a female-only residence hall suffocating or antiquated, these modern-day counterparts have the same appeal as the Barbizon: safe, convenient, and… well, not so cheap.
Don and Bethany: TV.com
The Barbizon: The Bowery Boys