How the Barbizon Gave Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion Freedom and Creative Autonomy – By Paulina Bren


The Barbizon Hotel in 1980. It offered exclusivity and an appearance of chaste propriety in an era when the city more broadly, and women’s independence in it in particular, were regarded as suspicious and full of dangers.

“Joan Didion, who would become known as one of the finest writers and chroniclers of America’s political and cultural shifts, checked in to the Barbizon in 1955. She arrived, just like Sylvia Plath had, with a drawer full of prizes and awards and a reputation that suggested great things were to come her way. She had received the enviable telegram from Betsy Talbot Blackwell, but so too had Peggy LaViolette, one of her closest friends at the University of California, Berkeley. It was unusual for the magazine to choose two students from the same university, but Joan and Peggy were delighted to have each other along for the ride. As sophisticated as they felt, they were both California natives after all, and in Peggy’s words, their circle was limited to WASPs, girls dressed in ‘cashmere sweaters, and skirts, and saddle Oxfords, with shiny hair.’ They knew little of the larger world. Flying to New York, it was Joan Didion’s first time on an airplane. It was 1955, late May, and air travel was a pleasure and not yet an ordeal. Flights had names as if to suggest they were the start of a journey. Their American Airlines flight was called the Golden Gate, and it was taking them from San Francisco to New York. Didion was only 20 years old, very small and fine-boned, with dimples and light brown hair cut to just above her shoulders. It was much the same hairstyle Sylvia Plath had worn two years earlier when she traveled to New York as a guest editor. As for Peggy LaViolette, this was not her first trip in an airplane (she had flown the summer before to Mexico City), and she became the unofficial expert as Joan gripped the seat. The stewardesses, as they were called then, served the passengers Beltsville roast turkey with dressing and giblet sauce. Apparently it wasn’t only flights that had names back then; turkeys did too. The Beltsville was an invention of the 1930s—a turkey that was finally small enough to fit an apartment-size oven. As Joan and Peggy leaned over their roast turkey, they made sure not to spill. Both had dressed up for the plane ride, as was expected of any airline passenger in those days. Peggy’s mother had insisted that she go to San Francisco’s best store, I. Magnin, for her travel suit. … She was going to New York, she explained, for the month of June, staying at the Barbizon and working in the Mademoiselle magazine offices on Madison Avenue. She would need to appear sophisticated while she mingled with editors, advertisers, and the New York literati. …”
LitHub (Audiobook: Chapter – 6)
Vanity Fair: Sorority on E. 63rd St.
NY Times: Some of America’s Most Ambitious Women Slept Here
New Republic: How the Barbizon Hotel Defined Women’s Ambition
W – Barbizon 63

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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