I wrote this article for The Wall Street Journal, where it was printed on July 13, 1973.
Women Have Changed, But Women’s Hotels Remain Quite Proper
By Karen Sullivan
This hotel—the Amazon—was for women only, and they were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents who wanted to be sure their daughters would be living where men couldn’t get at them and deceive them…
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
The “Amazon” is Sylvia Plath’s fictional tag for New York’s Barbizon Hotel for Women. Twenty years ago, when the poetess spent a month at the Barbizon, budding models and actresses filled the hotel’s 686 tiny, pink-and-green rooms. The hotel had a reputation for strict propriety (permitting no men past the lobby), and for past residents who’d made it big like Grace Kelly and Joan Crawford.
The Barbizon’s house rules haven’t changed since then, and neither has the room décor (a ballerina print hangs above each bed). But today, most young women aren’t in the market for such demure monasticism. As a result, the Barbizon and other women’s hotels are in deep trouble, casualties of a changing life style. The young career women who once flocked to them have detoured instead to the freedom of their own apartments.
There are a half-dozen women’s hotels in New York, and two or three scattered in other American cities. According to one New York accounting firm that keeps track of residence hotel occupancy rates, a typical women’s hotel is only 40% to 50% filled—a decline of 6% since just last year. “The trend seems to be accelerating,” says Robert Leone, a partner in Laventhol, Krekstein, Horwath & Horwath. “Some years ago, these places were operating at close to 100%.”
“Lavender and Old Lace”
“The right kind of girl still stays here,” insists prim Mrs. Mae Sibley, who has manned the Barbizon’s desk for 37 years. Occupancy is less than 50% because young women “haven’t any morals anymore,” she says with a sniff.
But morality—or the lack of it—has nothing to do with the hotels’ dwindling popularity, say the young women in question. Cathie Calvert, a reporter for Mademoiselle magazine, spent some time at one women’s hotel before she moved with relief into an apartment. “It was more like doing time,” she says with a shudder. “Very lavender and old lace, and terrifically depressing. You’re in a cubicle covered with 1943 cabbage roses. Get into the elevator and you see all these women who came to New York in 1903 to be executive secretaries and never left.”
And for Robin Krasny, a 22-year-old college graduate who recently did a stint at a women’s hotel, the experience was one she vows never to repeat. She carried her bags to her room the first day and was greeted by a woman who emerged from the room next door with a piece of needlework in her hand. The woman asked how long she would stay; Miss Krasny said a month. Replied the other darkly, “That’s what I said when I came here,” and vanished back into her room.
The hotels, understandably, are loath to admit the diminishing appeal of their musty ambience. Yet they can’t deny that the queue of fledgling executive secretaries lining up for lodging gets shorter every year. The Barbizon used to reserve three floors as the official residence for secretarial students from the Katharine Gibbs School. But “more and more girls didn’t want to live under the supervision of a girls’ dormitory,” says a Katharine Gibbs spokesman. “They wanted more freedom to come and go.” So three years ago, Katy Gibbs scrapped the dorm plan, and, admits Mrs. Sibley, “that hurt.”
In order to stay in business, some women’s hotels are banking heavily on their appeal to parents. “Many fathers and mothers bring their daughters here,” says Mrs. Fern West, manager of the forthrightly named Women’s Hotel in San Francisco. She presents herself as “a housemother in a sorority,” assuring worried parents that if a daughter’s purse is snatched, she’ll be at the hotel door to pay the cab.
Other hotels notice they’re attracting a higher proportion of aged widows than before. (Besides security, an important selling point is price. A furnished room in New York with some meals can be had for as little as $49 a week.)
Of course, some young women still come to the hotels of their own accord and like them well enough to stay. Kathleen Nayer, weary of life in Roanoke, Va., moved into the Barbizon seven weeks ago at the advice of a book telling single girls how to survive in the big city. Curled up with a Gothic novel in the lounge one Friday night, the plump, 27-year-old secretary explains that if you haven’t got roommates or furniture, you can’t beat a women’s hotel. “It’s cheaper than an apartment, and you have the security,” she says. “If a man doesn’t give the exact name and room number of the girl he wants to speak to, the operator won’t even ring the room.”
A quota of hopeful models and actresses is still visible, as well. (“You can spot them a mile off,” says one resident.) A slim blonde in blue jeans and eye shadow drifts among the potted palms in the lobby and into the dining room. She orders cantaloupe and black coffee for dinner and heads for the barbells and thigh-pulleys in the health club downstairs, perhaps fortified by the knowledge that Liza Minelli lived here too when she was struggling for acting jobs.
Mrs. Sibley, from her post at the Barbizon’s desk, tries hard to defend such youthful residents from “undesirable” males. “If a man comes into the lobby and sits down without telephoning upstairs, we can tell he’s looking for a pickup,” she explains. “We ask him to leave.” Viewers of “Midnight Cowboy” will recall Jon Voight’s lack of success in such a venture, filmed in front of the Barbizon’s main entrance.
For a while last year, though, it looked as if New York women’s hotels would be forced to admit men legitimately—as paying guests. The New York City Commission on Human Rights ruled that single-sex hotels constituted an unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex, and gave them a year to mend their ways.
The women’s hotels cringed at the ruling, calculating the sums it would cost to remodel facilities and replace their frilly, dainty furnishings. Finally, the city council saved them by exempting single-sex residences from the Human Rights Commission’s ruling.
But at least one hotel thought it discerned the makings of a trend. Last February the former East End Hotel for Women decided to try housing men on the top two of its seven floors. Competing hotels predicted the experiment would flop. Manager Alice Herrlin recalls that another women’s hotel asked her to send its way all the women who bailed out of the East End once the men arrived.
During the first week of the new policy, however, not one woman resident checked out, Mrs. Herrlin says. Eight men moved in—along with 52 new women guests. “My girls have really perked up,” she says happily. “I think the day of the all-women’s hotel is passé.” The hotel’s occupancy has jumped more than 10%, and Mrs. Herrlin now is considering opening a third floor to men.
Other women’s hotel managers seem unmoved by the East End’s apparent success. Helen Rowen of the Longacre House in New York thinks admitting men “would cause an awful lot of headaches,” and another manager privately claims “no real man” would want to stay in what was once an all-women’s hotel. Mrs. West says she has enough problems with female impersonators trying to check into the Women’s Hotel in San Francisco that she isn’t about to worsen matters by opening the doors to men.
After this article was written, the Barbizon Hotel for Women struggled to stay solvent and finally began to admit men as guests in 1981. It changed hands several times as a hotel, and then in 2005 was gutted and transformed into condominiums under the name “Barbizon 63”, a nod to its prime location at 63rd St. and Lexington Ave. The East End Hotel for Women, originally opened in 1912 as a working women’s residence by the Junior League of New York, remained open until 1979 when it was rebuilt into apartments. Hotels for women still exist in a number of foreign cities including London, Berlin, and Zurich. Recently, a number of U.S. hotels have successfully instituted separate floors exclusively for women guests, providing extra amenities and security.
My name is Eric Seifert. Im a filmmaker up in Berkeley, CA.
I appreciated your article about the Baribizon. Im working on a film about the Barbizon and its “women only” policy.
Ive been speaking with young women to get their impressions on the need, relevance, etc., of an all-womens hotel. Im also juxtaposing this history with some young women who are DJ’s in the electronic music world. So, after reading your article,
I would appreciate if you might be able to direct me to Mae Sibley, the woman who ran the desk at the Barbizon. I tried to find her on-line but no luck. Is there anyone else who either stayed at the Barbizon back in the day or can speak to the hotel’s energy, ambiance, etc. Thanks for writing your piece and assisting me in any way. Thanks
Dear Mr. Seifert,
Thank you so much for writing. Perhaps you did not notice that this article was originally published in July, 1973, when I was still a college student doing a summer internship with the Wall Street Journal. At that time, Mrs. Sibley had been at the front desk of the Barbizon for 37 years.
You might want to touch base with Mademoiselle magazine, since their summer interns were housed at the Barbizon for many years. Personally speaking, to me the hotel seemed faded and on the way out during my brief stay there that summer–Miss Haversham comes to mind. However, there are hotels in London, Zurich, and other cities which cater to an all-female clientele. They might be worth checking out.
Best of luck! I look forward to seeing your film.
Hi my name is Nicole Vento. I’m a freshman at NYU and I’m writing a piece on the Barbizon Hotel. I was wondering if you had been able to get in touch with anybody who could give a firsthand account of the atmosphere of the hotel? If so I would love a reply back, as I am very excited to write this piece.
My firsthand account of the atmosphere is in this piece. It was so long ago! I doubt I would have anything else to add, but would be very interested to read your piece.
[…] Invisible podcast), even boarding at an old-fashioned women’s hotels, such as New York’s famed Barbizon, meant to keep single young women safe, have provided cheap, entry-level housing the new arrivals […]