Friday, March 8, 2013

A Movie about the Barbizon Hotel’s Glory Days

 Four years ago on A Rolling Crone, inspired by seeing “The Devil Wears Prada”, I wrote a post called “Those Fabulous Magazine Divas –A Memoir.”

It told tales of eccentric and glamorous magazine editors I’ve worked for, long before the days of Anna Wintour (the current Vogue Editor who was allegedly the template for Meryl Streep’s character in the film.)

In that post I wrote about my first taste of glossy fashion magazine work—when I came to New York as a Mademoiselle Guest Editor in 1961. I was one of 20 college girls who won the contest that year and were housed at the Barbizon Hotel at 63rd and Lexington for the month of June during their dizzy whirl of activities at Mlle. Magazine.

About six months later, in May of 2010, I again mentioned the Barbizon in a post called  “Bring Back the Mlle. Guest Editor Contest!”  in which I made the point that there are no opportunities today for young women with talent in writing or art to get a foot up the ladder of success-- only reality shows which encourage bad behavior and drama instead of actual talent.

Those reminiscences about the Barbizon brought me to the attention of Melodie Bryant, who is a New York-based documentary filmmaker with 20 years of experience in television and film, as well as a composer who has provided sound tracks for many top television shows.

Melodie interviewed me by phone about my stay at the Barbizon and then on camera when I was visiting New York last year.  During her research she has flown from coast to coast interviewing women of a “certain age” who remember the experiences that gave the Barbizon such a glamorous aura and mystique, especially during the forties, fifties and sixties.

 The Barbizon, beginning in1928 as a residence for single women, attracted the best and most beautiful girls from respectable families, young women who came to New York to conquer the city.  Parents insisted their darling daughters stay at the Barbizon, secure in the knowledge that their morals, dress, behavior and social life would be carefully monitored.  The rules were strict: no men were allowed above the first floor. (You can guess how well that worked.)

Former residents of the Barbizon, in addition to all the Mlle. guest editors and the students at Katie Gibbs secretarial school and the Eileen Ford Models, included Grace Kelly, Ali MacGraw, Joan Didion, Nancy Reagan, Joan Crawford,  Dorothy McGuire, Liza Minelli, Cybil Shepherd, Ann Beattie, Mona Simpson, Betsey Johnson and, famously, Sylvia Plath, who wrote The Bell Jar about her stint as a Guest Editor in 1953 during which she had a nervous breakdown, threw her fashionable new clothes off the roof of the “Amazon Hotel”, then went home to Connecticut and her first suicide attempt.  (What she published as fiction was completely faithful to her actual experiences at the Barbizon, as Melodie has found out by interviewing some of Plath’s Barbizon buddies.)

I can’t wait to see the finished documentary, because in talking to Melodie I’m getting hints of stories even stranger than Sylvia Plath’s—tales of men smuggled upstairs, rebellion against the strict parietal rules, even suicides leaping from the Art Deco roof terrace.

Now Melodie has prepared a trailer of her film, which she will post on sites like Kickstarter  to raise interest and funds for its completion and distribution.  I think it’s a good trailer, which effectively evokes the aura of the Barbizon in its glory days—even if it does include a clip from my interview which leaves me devoutly wishing I’d at least had my hair and makeup done first! 

Daughter Eleni wrote on Facebook: Watch my mama, Joan P. Gage, talk about the Barbizon hotel in it's early 60s heyday. Here's a companion drinking game: take a swig of sauvignon blanc every time she says "slacks"

Eleni (and everyone else who has seen the trailer and is under 70 years old) thinks both my Midwest accent and my use of the word “slacks” are side-splittingly funny.

Then last weekend I did a two-hour telephone interview with a young woman from California, the thirty-something author of well-reviewed novels, who is researching the Barbizon in its heyday as the background for her next book.

In 1981 the Barbizon began to allow men in as residents and in 2006 the building was converted into condominiums.  And in 2012 it was declared a New York landmark. Although its glory days are long past, I think the Barbizon is about to have another moment in the sun.

(For more information about the  upcoming documentary,  see

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