Bookworm: Drama, period gossip highlights Barbizon tales

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free”

  • By Paulina Bren
  • c. 2021, Simon & Schuster
  • $27, $36 Canada; 336 pages

Did you just fall into the lap of luxury? It might've seemed so. The bed was much nicer than yours, with a comforter like cotton candy. The carpet was sink-to-your-ankles thick. The bathroom, wow, and the view outside the window almost made you speechless. A room like that can make a vacation better. In “The Barbizon” by Paulina Bren, it could make a career.

“The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free” author Paulina Bren.

When construction began on Manhattan's Barbizon Hotel for Women in 1927, America was flush with possibility. World War I was over, prosperity was attainable, and the Nineteenth Amendment had recently been ratified, which had “poked holes in earlier arguments for why” young, single women would eschew careers. And so, the Barbizon was built specifically as a residential hotel for proper young (white) ladies to live while they spread their wings. No men allowed, basic rooms were $12 per week, maid service and amenities included.

Being affiliated with the Barbizon from its beginning, the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School housed its students at the hotel but once the Depression ended, the hotel's average boarder had changed. “Katie Gibbs” students still lived in the Barbizon – with a housemother and a strict curfew – but other mid-to-late-1930s guests were just as likely to be models for a growing ad industry. Some ten years later, advertising, clothing, beauty, Mademoiselle magazine, and the Barbizon all became linked through an annual Guest Editor contest, which brought fourteen (later, twenty) of the country's most intelligent young women to New York each summer, and housed them in the iconic hotel. This, and the introductions to influential artists, writers, editors, and actors opened eyes and changed lives until the program ended in 1979.

“The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free” by Paulina Bren.

Despite the glamour that had lived at the Barbizon, though, not everything glittered. Black women weren't allowed at the hotel until 1956. Quietly, the Barbizon was the site of several suicides. A growing Women's Movement began to make the hotel seem outdated. And yet, when the building was sold, and sold again, some of its longest residents refused to leave...

So, you say that you love to read biographies. Generals, actors, scientists, politicians, add this to your list. “The Barbizon” is a biography of a hotel.

And yet, a building is nothing but materials, so author Paulina Bren weaves concrete and glass with confidence and glitz, and Carols and Gaels. She opens her tale in a just-right manner, with money and a deliciously outrageous woman, proceeding then through decades of American fads and ideals, stretching from Dust Bowl to disco.

Admittedly, that pop-culture is fun, but the women who lived at the Barbizon and their tales are the raison d'etres here and so, with a dash of drama and a bit of period gossip, Bren shows readers the world through the tender eyes of 30 years' worth of 20-somethings. For anyone who recalls life at that age, such recollections are sweetly nostalgic, made better by frustrating, funny, heartbreaking updates that truly set this book apart.

They make it irresistibly readable, too. They'll make you want to lap “The Barbizon” up.

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Take a wider trip to The Big Apple by reading “New York, New York, New York: Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation” by Thomas Dyja.

It's a look at New York City after the 1970s – the clean-up, the politics, the terrorist attack, the city's renaissance, and the look of the city you love.

“Gory Details: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science”

  • By Erika Engelhaupt
  • c. 2021, National Geographic
  • $26, $35 Canada; 336 pages

You didn't think your hands could move that fast. But no, they whipped back past your ears and away from whatever it was that made your eyes water, your nose wrinkle, and that just-sucked-a-lemon look come over your face. Now that look – it's universal, says science writer Erika Engelhaupt, and in her new book “Gory Details,” you'll see why we gag at grossness and run from the repulsive.

“Gory Details: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science” by Erika Engelhaupt.

So, you had a magnificent recoil moment when you saw that disgusting, smelly, nasty thing, ugh. There's no shame in it, says Engelhaupt; evolution has given humans a normal revulsion for any substance or creature we should handle cautiously or avoid. Curiosity about it, though... that's perfectly normal, even psychologically sound.

Take, for instance, the facts surrounding what happens when you die. To let all thoughts rest in peace, Engelhaupt enrolled in a mini-crime-scene class for real-life detectives, attended an autopsy, looked into disarticulated feet, investigated unique things about DNA and human blood spatters, and she put a few myths six feet under. She also ate bugs, but drew the line at black fly larvae (though she says, eating it “makes a lot of sense ... ”)

Maggots, she claims, become less icky the more you look at them.

So why look at them, then? Or smell putrid smells on purpose, or sneak peeks at things that make you wince? Psychologists call it “benign masochism,” Engelhaupt says, and we do so for the same reasons we watch horror movies or jump in roller coasters or eat super-hot foods: they are “'safe' threats.”

Even so, pay attention if someone says you smell different. Remember that your DNA can be left on every random thing you touch. Don't agree to go on a “fatberg” expedition, don't think that humans are the most murderous species alive, never leave a rat trap unattended, keep statistics in perspective, don't swallow pool water, and don't be so squeamish.

Learn about the world, says Engelhaupt, and “it's almost always less intimidating.”

Whether we admit it or not, we all have our nose-wrinklers, those things that make you gag, rear back, hold your breath, and thank your strong stomach. You make that face just thinking of them, but don't recoil yet. Remember this first: “Gory Details” matter.

Just by looking at its cover, you can pretty much determine that there's some urpyness inside this book but there's much less of it than you think there'll be. Nope, author Erika Engelhaupt doesn't set out to make your stomach roil or your skin crawl; this book isn't that. Instead, she deftly diverts you, separating the interesting from the Ick Factor, like letting you get accustomed to an empty vial before it's filled with ooze. That gives readers the space they need to become infected by a contagious sense of amazed wonder long before the wincing commences.

Add in a deliciously dark sense of humor, respectful awe, and you've got a great science-based read for ages 16-to-adult. If you enjoy the unique, look for “Gory Details” and move on it fast.

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If you just can't get enough of fun facts, go find “Stuff You Should Know” by Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant with Nils Parker. It's a lively, funny conversation (in book form) about random things, this and that, with plenty of oh-by-the-ways. It's like overhearing a conversation between two guys at a pub; no surprise that this entertaining book is based on a podcast of the same name.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.