By Leslie Lindsay
A stunningly lush debut from journalist Fiona Davis, THE DOLLHOUSE (Dutton/Penguin Random House, August 23 2016) is at once a foray into the glamorous and upstanding sorority* of young women far away from home living in NYC for the first time, often alone and in school. But it’s also a mystery of what really happened to one of the [fictional] characters. For me, THE DOLLHOUSE was the perfect blend of historical fiction, society and class, and mystery.
“The Barbizon…filled to the rafters with pretty little dolls, just like you.”
Long before Barbizon 63 was a sleek condo building, it was the famed Barbizon Hotel for Women,* an exclusive residence for New York City’s young, single women. From 1927 to 1981, the buildings 23 stories and 700 rooms were a lush beehive swarming with thousands of aspiring models, actresses, secretaries, editors, writers—among them Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford, Liza Minelli, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath, Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen, and Betsey Johnson—who lived side-by-side and adhered to strict rules while attempting to claw their way to fairy-tale success in New York City.
THE DOLLHOUSE is a story of jazz clubs, heroin rings, and women finding their place in a society in which they were groomed for traditional careers.
Davis does a fabulous job blending two time periods (1952 and 2016) as well as two distinct characters, Darby McLaughlin (1952, and enrolled in The Katie Gibbs Secretarial School) and Rose Lewin (2016, network journalist) in this well-researched and imaginative narrative arc. I absolutely adored the historical details of fashion, social mores, right down to the mosaics plastered to the stairwell, to the narrow single bed pushed up against the wall; it truly was Davis’s use of detail that brought the story to life.
So lace up your girdle, and grab your Nestea instant coffee, and join me as I chat with Fiona Davis.
Leslie Lindsay: Fiona, thank you so very much for taking the time to chat with us about your debut, THE DOLLHOUSE. I understand the seed for this story was planted when you were apartment-hunting in NYC. You were shown into Barbizon 63 at the bustling corner of Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street. But it did not become your home, but the home where your imagination dwelled. Can you talk about your inspiration for THE DOLLHOUSE?
Fiona Davis: I love the way you phrased that! When I went to see an apartment in what used to be the Barbizon Hotel for Women, my broker told me that a dozen or so older residents were still living there when the building went condo in 2005, and were moved into rent-controlled apartments on the same floor. It got me thinking: what kinds of dramatic changes had those women seen, in the building and in the city? For example, in 1966 you could stay at the Barbizon Hotel for $6.75 a week; today, there’s a penthouse apartment for sale for $17 million! I started to wonder what it was like when the old and new tenants bumped into each other in the elevator, and the idea took off from there.
L.L.: I understand the Barbizon Hotel for Women was home to many women who left a mark on the social landscape of America—Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Sylvia Plath (if only for a month), among others. Which of these famous woman do you most identify? Did any of them become inspiration for either of your characters—Rose the journalist in 2016, or Darby the secretary in 1952? Or are they purely fictional?
Fiona Davis: The number of famous ex-guests is really off the charts. I would have loved to have lived there and met Grace Kelly, chatted about books with Eudora Welty and hit the town with Elaine Stritch. But both Rose and Darby are fictional characters. I wanted to avoid including famous people in THE DOLLHOUSE, as that would’ve sent the story shooting off in a completely different direction, and perhaps steal the spotlight from my own cast of characters.
L.L.: I’m so curious about your research. As a journalist yourself, I know this is an area you must excel. So many of the details were pulsing with vibrancy in the book, and that’s not always an easy feat, especially when you didn’t live it yourself. Can you share a glimpse into your research?
Fiona Davis: Thank you so much. I love the research stage and would have happily stayed in it forever. Because I live in New York, I took advantage of everything the city has to offer, including going through back issues of women’s magazines from the 1950s at Barnard College library to get a sense of the era, and signing up for a twelve-hour class in bebop jazz at Jazz at Lincoln Center. I also interviewed women who’d stayed at the Barbizon in the 50s and 60s and got lots of color and detail from them.
L.L.: Many of the women in the Barbizon Hotel for Women are pursing very traditional careers—models, actresses, secretaries, editors and writers (it was NYC, after all), but when one thinks of ‘traditional’ and ‘women’ in terms of career, nurse and teacher also come to mind, as do mother and wife. Yet, I don’t think any of the women in the Barbizon were studying to become nurses or teachers. Can you speak to that, please?
Fiona Davis: It’s all about location. Back in the 50s (and this is still true today), it would have been fairly easy enough to go to nursing school or get an education degree close to your home town. But careers like editing and modeling had to happen where books and magazines were being written and published. Or, say you wanted to be an actress, the Broadway stage would be the big draw. So I think that’s why the Barbizon attracted women pursuing those particular careers. At the same time, being single girl in New York City was considered pretty radical, which is why safe havens like the Barbizon sprung up.
L.L.: Aside from college sororities, do places like the Barbizon Hotel for Women still exist today?
Fiona Davis: There’s something like ten women’s hotels left, including the Webster Apartments on West 34th Street, which was built back in 1923, and the Brandon Residence on the Upper West Side. According to a recent article in New York Magazine, they serve around 1,000 women, which is pretty amazing.
L.L.: THE DOLLHOUSE sort of straddles genres: upmarket women’s fiction meets mystery, meets historical fiction. Would you agree with that assessment, and was that your intention all along, or did it develop organically?
Fiona Davis: I would totally agree with you – THE DOLLHOUSE crosses a number of genres. Growing up I’d always been a big fan of mysteries, and I still adore books that reveal a secret at the end, with lots of juicy plot twists along the way. I also enjoy the way historical fiction transports the reader back in time. For pleasure reading, I gravitate to a mix of mystery, women fiction and historical fiction, so I guess it was inevitable that THE DOLLHOUSE would end up being a mash-up of all three.
L.L.: Do you have any particular writing rituals or routines? Do you outline?
Fiona Davis: I do outline, very carefully, as I know eventually I’ll have to weave two story lines together and ensure that the clues and red herrings show up in the right place. As for routines, I prefer to write new scenes in the morning. After lunch, my energy sags and it’s a whole lot harder to hit a daily word count. Editing and revising I can do any time, as I find that the most fun, like figuring out a puzzle made of words.
L.L.: What keeps you up at night? What’s ‘speaking’ to you these days? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Fiona Davis: I’m loving the new episodes of Black Mirror on Netflix, which is about technology and its effect on society. Each episode its own world, like Twilight Zone, so you can watch them in any order, and they’re all pretty mind blowing.
L.L.: What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Fiona Davis:What are you working on these days? I’m editing my next book, which takes place at another iconic New York City building the year it was built as well as 100 years later. Can’t wait to get it out into the world! Stay tuned…
L.L.: Fiona, it’s been such a pleasure. Thank you and best wishes on this, and future books.
Fiona Davis: Thank you!
For more information, or to purchase THE DOLLHOUSE, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Fiona Davis was born in Canada and raised in New Jersey, Utah, and Texas. She began her career in New York City as an actress, where she worked on Broadway, off-Broadway and in regional theater. After 10 years, she changed careers, working as an editor and writer and specializing in health, fitness, nutrition, dance and theater.
She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is based in in New York City. She loves nothing better than hitting farmer’s markets on weekends in search of the perfect tomato, and traveling to foreign cities steeped in history, like London and Cartagena. The Dollhouse is her first novel.
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[Special thanks to R. Odell at Dutton. Cover and author image courtesy of publicist. Interior views of Barbizon Hotel from , image of Webster Apartments from Pinterest, Edith Stritch image retrieved from Wikipedia, all retrieved on 11.12.16]