The Barbizon Hotel was located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan at 140 East 63 St. The 23 storey building, built in 1927, has a salmon pink brick exterior. With 700 rooms it was a safe haven for young women, many on their own for the first time in the big city. Each girl, often from small town USA, required three references before she was accepted as a resident. At one time Eileen Ford, of the Ford Modelling Agency, rented rooms for her models to keep them safe and out of trouble. There is a long list of celebrities who graced these halls…Lauren Bacall, Candice Bergen, Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, and Sylvia Plath…just to name a few. Today the hotel, renamed Barbizon 63, has been converted into condo residences, however, the fourth floor remains rent controlled for 14 women who have lived in the hotel for many years.
As always, my first stop when I arrive in La Jolla is to “Warwicks” bookstore to load up on books to read while I’m here. One of the books I recently purchased was, “The Dollhouse”, by Fiona Davis, her first novel. I loved it! It is written in the genre that I have been reading lately, historical fiction. The book parallels two time periods, 1952 and 2016, in New York in which the two main characters both live at The Barbizon Hotel (called The Dollhouse after the young and beautiful women who lived there). One woman came to New York in 1952 from a small town in Ohio to attend Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School. The other woman is a journalist from the present day who is writing a story about a tragic incident that happened in the hotel on Halloween night in 1952. Although the characters and events are fictional, the historical references of the hotel were researched to give the reader an accurate depiction of the way it was. Below are advertisements for the Barbizon Hotel and a menu from the hotel restaurant in 1950.
*The above excerpt from “The Dollhouse” (on page 196) really caught my attention. The first time I visited Manhattan was in the 1970’s. I was a young woman and so excited about going to New York City. We stayed at the Hotel St. Moritz across from Central Park. The room was small and stuffy, I’m sure in the “poor” wing where the rooms were anything but luxurious. In the late 1980s, Donald Trump bought the hotel with the intention of renovating (converting part into condos), however, he never did start the project. After changing hands again, the hotel eventually became the Ritz-Carlton Hotel reopening in 2002.
That same paragraph mentions the Cafe de la Paix restaurant (the city’s first sidewalk cafe) located in the St. Moritz. I don’t remember going there for dinner that first time I was in NY but the Cafe de la Paix in Paris, across the street from the Opera Garnier, is one of my favourite places to stop for lunch on my way to Galeries Lafayette. It’s always interesting to visualize yourself in a location mentioned in a book, remembering who you were and what you were doing at that time in your life…
Another article you may find noteworthy is in the March 2010 edition of Vanity Fair. Michael Callahan wrote an article titled “Sorority on E. 63rd” about the Barbizon Hotel as a lead up to a book he was promoting, “Searching for Grace Kelly”.
The following are some other books I’ve read, similar to “The Dollhouse” about historic addresses that become a leading character in the story. If these walls could talk… possibly these are the words they’d speak!!!
In “The Address” a young woman from London receives an unbelievable offer to manage a new apartment building, “The Dakota” in NYC. The book tells the story of Sara, from the 1880s and Bailey, 100 years later, a descendant of the architect of the building who values the history and integrity of the famous landmark.
The Dakota, built in 1884, was considered to be “remotely” located away from NY society. Up until then, the wealthy families had lived in mansions and this lifestyle was a new concept for the rich to consider… to live “together” in one building. Originally there were only 65 apartments, all custom built, to accommodate every whim of high society. Many famous people live or have lived in The Dakota, and tragically this is where John Lennon was shot and killed.
The Ritz Hotel in Paris is the main character in the book, “The Hotel on Place Vendome”, taking the reader from the time it opened in 1898 to the present day. The most interesting part of the book (for me) takes place during the occupation (and resistance) of Paris by the Germans during WWII. Hollywood could not have written a screenplay with a more colourful cast of characters. The self-exiled former King of England and his wife, Wallace Simpson, waited out the war at the Ritz, as well as other wealthy Americans and, of course, Coco Chanel. At the end of the war, Ernest Hemingway and Robert Capa, a war photographer, were in a race to see who would be the first to liberate the Ritz Hotel. Lee Miller, an American journalist, also makes an appearance at The Ritz but goes on to Italy to interview Canadian troops.
My dad was stationed in Italy during the war and I’ve often wondered how much of this history he was aware of. I would’ve loved to have given him this book to read and then had the opportunity to discuss at length with him about his memories…
The book, “The Paris Apartment”, is about an apartment in Paris that had been closed up for seventy years. Found inside the apartment, belonging to Marthe de Florian, (a woman with a colourful past) are a treasure trove of art, furniture, and other valuable objects. A portrait of her painted by Giovanni Boldini was also discovered in the apartment was eventually auctioned off for $2.5 million.
Her granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron inherited the apartment after Marthe’s death in 1939. As the Germans were about to march into Paris during WWII, Solange left Paris and lived in the south of France until her death–never to return to the apartment. It was her heirs who discovered the vacant apartment in 2010 completely untouched with all its treasures. All of the above is factual.
The fictional storyline follows a young woman who works for an auction house and she weaves a story of Marthe de Florian’s life as told through the valuables found in the abandoned apartment.
Reading these stories satisfies my alter ego… a woman who is an investigative reporter with a love of history!