Monday, August 15, 2016

The (White) Gloves Are Off: Fiona Davis on "The Dollhouse"



DollNew York's Barbizon Hotel, once inhabited by "a virtual who's who of icons-in-the-making," provides the setting for Fiona Davis's dazzling debut, The Dollhouse. In it, a journalist gets wind of a sordid controversy involving her neighbor--an elderly resident who has lived at the Barbizon since its women-only heyday. Her subsequent investigation will upend both their lives...Here, Ms. Davis talks about how this hotel's storied history inspired her to write this novel. 

A couple of years ago, my real estate broker offered to show me an apartment at the Barbizon 63 Condo, on New York's Upper East Side. I've always loved getting a peek inside the city's historical buildings, and the Barbizon not only boasted a rich history, but its brick-and-sandstone exterior, topped with Moorish arches, is a beauty. I had to see it.

In 1927, when it was built as a women's hotel, the building consisted of 700 small rooms among 23 stories. But it wasn't the kind of hotel you find today, where you toss over a credit card and hope there aren't any bedbugs. At the Barbizon Hotel for Women, guests had to provide three character references and agree to conduct themselves in a ladylike manner. (Anyone caught sneaking a boy beyond the public areas was tossed out, although it was a risk many were willing to take).

Once accepted, guests usually made the Barbizon their home base for an extended period of time – rooms went for $6.75 a week in the mid-sixties – while they worked or studied in Manhattan. The list of celebrities who stayed there is long and varied: Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Joan Didion, Eudora Welty, Liza Minnelli, Elaine Stritch and, of course, Sylvia Plath, who wrote about her month at the Barbizon in The Bell Jar. The place was a virtual who's who of icons-in-the-making.

One reason for the Barbizon's popularity was its abundant amenities, including a solarium, squash courts, a library, recital rooms, a dining hall, and a swimming pool. As the pinnacle of service and safety, the hotel attracted corporate clients like The Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, which housed its students on two floors, as well as the Ford Modeling Agency. Aspiring actresses, journalists and editors filled the hallways, but every so often tragedy struck when a guest jumped to her death. The suicides were hushed up in the press, but the girls whispered about the ghosts that roamed the hallways.

The hotel became co-ed in 1981 and in 2005 converted into a condo, where today a penthouse with two terraces goes for over $17 million. During my tour of the Barbizon, I learned that ten or so guests from the time it was a women's hotel had been grandfathered in to rent-controlled apartments on the fourth floor. I couldn't help but wonder what they thought of the new sleek lobby and other renovations, not to mention how they'd seen the city change dramatically over the decades.

The seed of that question became the defining theme of my novel, The Dollhouse, which takes place at the Barbizon in 1952 and also 2016. As I researched the earlier era, I was struck by how much has changed, but also, how little. In the 1950s, for example, the newspapers were filled with horror at the growing heroin epidemic, the threat of the atom bomb and the rise of McCarthyism. Today we are worried about heroin abuse, nuclear weapons, and an unstable political scene. And yet through it all, the regal Barbizon building still stands tall above a city full of women trying to make their mark upon the world – even if they no longer have to wear white gloves while doing so.

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