Novelist reimagines life in famed N.Y. women's hotel

'The Dollhouse' author speaks at East Meadow Public Library


When New York City-based author Fiona Davis visited a renovated condominium in the famed Barbizon 63 building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 2005 during an apartment search, she uncovered a history not explored since Sylvia Plath did so in her 1963 semi-autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar,” which details the life of a young woman who lives at the Barbizon in the 1950s while interning for “Mademoiselle” magazine. 

“I learned that the renovated building was once the Barbizon Hotel for Women,” Davis told a group of 72 readers at the East Meadow Public Library on July 18. “Absolutely no men were allowed at the hotel. Women were taught how to be the perfect wives. Women were not allowed to wear pants until the ’60s. The hotel intrigued me.”

The library’s annual Adult Summer Reading Club, which kicked off on June 2, hosted Davis for a discussion of her debut book, “The Dollhouse.” The book details the lives of two women: one who lived in the hotel in the ’50s and the other, a journalist, seeking to uncover a shocking secret of the hotel’s glitzy past. Although the book is fictional, Davis told the group that her own “obsession” with the women-only hotel sparked the novel.

“I’m a journalist myself,” the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism alumna said. When she learned that 14 longtime residents had been “grandfathered” into the building after it was turned into condominiums in 2005, she longed to speak with those women, most of whom settled on the fourth floor. “I wanted to learn about the hotel’s progression through a resident’s eyes,” she said. “I left polite notes on the residents’ door pleading for an interview. But they were not interested."

Davis continued researching the history of the Barbizon, which housed single working women from across the nation since 1927. Aspiring writers, secretaries, models and editors lived side-by-side, following their dreams and tasting independence in the luxurious, yet strict hotel. 

“What really intrigued me was the mixed messages,” said Davis. “A string of suicides swept through the hotel during the ’50s because these women felt pressured of the strict rules, which often caused them to feel lonely or depressed.”

In “The Dollhouse,” Davis explored a death, inspired by real-life suicide accounts she read online and in archived newspapers. At the library, she said she immersed herself in her research. She followed the women’s lifestyles as closely as possible: she took bebop jazz classes, read etiquette books and visited hot spots around New York City once frequented by Barbizon residents.

“This book really grabbed my attention from the first chapter,” Lillianne Sabia, a longtime Adult Summer Reading Club member, said. “I think the author was incredibly engaging. This is exactly what this reading club is all about.”

Sabia, who frequents the East Meadow library instead of her local Levittown library, said the reader services team “always puts together a really great list that allows us readers to learn about different things.”

“It’s always a gain for our library to attract folks from our community,” Marcia Blackman, head of reader servies, said. “It’s especially rewarding to see faces from neighboring communities. Tonight went beautifully, thanks to our readers and our guest author.”

Blackman said the all-female reading group will meet for the last time on Aug. 15 but until then, they will continue to tackle literature that fits this year’s “Build a Better World” theme.

“I wanted to explore a novel that showed femininity throughout the decades while set in a building that was meaningful to so many women,” Davis told the crowd. “The women in the book are strong and independent and feminists, and that is completely ok.”