Valentine’s Day at the Barbizon

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Co-authored with Caroline Field Levander

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, anxious lovers are busy planning that special night for their significant others, and hotels are, once again, trotting out a range of romantic options. If you are looking for an amorous backdrop for a long weekend, you can choose from a dizzying array of Valentine Day package deals that include a cornucopia of “unforgettable” events, like a private fireworks display or a twenty-minute helicopter ride across London.

But before you pull out your credit card to reserve the Library Hotel’s Erotica Package featuring a Kama Sutra Romance Kit or one of any number of other hotel romance deals, it’s worth thinking about why we believe in the hotel—why our purchase of a room includes the promise that a random, rented space, occupied by thousands of others beforehand, will heighten our sense of romance, love, and amorous renewal. Why, to put it bluntly, we believe that a hotel room is better than a bedroom.

Because it wasn’t always so.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, hoteliers and innkeepers were engaged in a constant struggle to control and purify the experience of an overnight stay—to keep illicit love and amorous adventure curbside and safely beyond the hotel’s front doors. Once upstanding patrons entered the hotel, they were reminded of the importance of upholding the highest standards of sexual purity by reformers, who placed bibles in hotel rooms, in the hopes that the mere presence of the good book might inspire ‘proper’ behavior. Legal statutes made it nearly impossible – or at least difficult, without steely subterfuge – to register at the front desk without pretending to be married.  Every single, unattached guest was a worry. And “morally upright” women rarely, if ever, travelled alone.

Hoteliers understandably wanted to differentiate their businesses from houses of ill repute—to distinguish their bedrooms for rent from those offered by the local brothel. But these hotels, commonly called ‘palaces of the public’ throughout the 19thc, were not so easily policed. The institution’s historic role as a gathering place for a diverse public made it the natural test bed for social boundary pushing and sexual revolution.

In fact, the sexual revolution of the 1970s combined with the democratization of travel to make the late twentieth-century hotel the preferred laboratory for sexual adventure. One writer observed with chagrin that women were travelling on passports with their maiden names, sojourning for pleasure and without a chaperone, and staying in hotel rooms alone. “Now,” journalist Richard Joseph concluded, “they can shack up untrammeled in just about any inn, hotel, auberge, or pension from Land’s End to Ljubljana.”

By the 1980s, the last great iconic single-sex hotels like the Barbizon Hotel for Women were going co-ed in an effort to cater to a wider clientele.  An east side fixture since 1927, the Barbizon had been a low-cost single room occupancy hotel, filled with long-term and short-term female guests. Susan Jaffe, writing in The Boston Globe, described it as “one of the few sanctuaries for women” in the city, “the choice residence of debutantes and young career women.” Grace Kelly, Farrah Fawcett, Candice Bergen, and many others took shelter there, walled off in what The Los Angeles Times dubbed “the world’s most exclusive dormitory.” The Barbizon was “legendary,” the Times reminisced, for “guarding its residents from men, whether a woman liked it or not,” and for allowing no man “past the second floor,” where the bedroom suites began. Until 1966, the hotel required three separate character references (including one from a “New York notable”) before a young woman might be granted entrance.

But with an occupancy rate dipping below 40 percent, the Barbizon decided that, it needed to modernize its business model, or, as columnist Sheila Daniel put it,  “have a sex change.” And so, on Valentine’s Day of 1981, the hotel opened its lobby door to its first male patron, Dr. David Cleveland of Cambridge, MA.  Cleveland’s much-publicized arrival was presented as a Valentine’s courtship in the press, The Globe, for example, featuring a picture of the arriving Cleveland, standing outside of the Barbizon, with a much younger woman – a resident of the hotel – giving him a kiss on the cheek.  Within the week, teased by the romantic promise of Valentine’s Day, seventy men had made reservations.

The Valentine’s Day package that the Barbizon offered its first male guests was a reboot of its business model AND an early model for how hotels play Cupid for their guests during the season of love.

Now, of course, things are different.

On Valentine’s Day, we can temporarily trade in the messy bedrooms where we lay our exhausted heads every night after long days of work and after getting the kids to bed. We can get away from the sheets we need to clean and the hallways we need to vacuum and the litany of repairs and clean-ups that accumulate in the home. We can meet a lover, once more, without subterfuge. And we can temporarily trade up for a luxurious suite, pristine and built to anticipate our every pleasure. We can do all of this brazenly, without any disguise or subterfuge, without any moral outrage.

These imaginative returns and leaps of faith are the stuff out of which love and lifetimes together are made. But, as anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows, these hotel episodes are delicious flashes in the pan of great love affairs. They can punctuate the deep pleasure of love, but in and of themselves they don’t create love—they don’t convince someone, on the fence and iffy, to “Be Mine.”  In fact, they can have a significant chance of misfiring—of feeling artificial, creating awkwardness and a sense of perfunctory, forced fun. It’s not sexy to appear to be trying too hard. A lover who delivers canned events aimed to please runs the real risk of his or her lover’s rejection.

Our purchase of this room enlists the hotel as an agent on our behalf, and charges the staff and the structure with the responsibility of making a getaway weekend sexy, especially when we feel anxious about our ability to deliver true love unassisted. In all of this, the hotel works hard to manufacture sexiness and to present it to us as an object, as a thing to own – if only for a night.  That is what we buy when we pull out the credit card.  Manufactured sexiness and the promise of human bonding more intense than normal.  Not the room, the rented space, heavily trafficked by legions of others.

Certainly, too, hotels are still dangerous places, in need of careful policing. Even if the social forces that brought an end to the Barbizon’s fortress-like protection of women now reign triumphant, these are still stages upon which highly publicized, at times notorious dramas of sexual adventure, violence, and drug-fueled shenanigans unfold, and we need think only of Charlie Sheen’s adventures at the Plaza or DSK’s sexual assault at the Sofitel to be reminded that the hotel – in the abstract – can be a place of release, license, and at times danger.

And that, in the end, is why, even now, long after the walls of gender-segregated “fortresses” have crumbled, one can open up the nightstand drawer in most hotels – even those with sexy holiday packages, and vibrating beds, and massage tables and hot tubs – and find a bible.