Josephine Baker died 37 years ago today. In her honor, Caroline Tiger takes a visit to her French home. Originally published June 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.
Joséphine Baker is a gilded banana skirt and a feathery hairpiece, a spit curl and a sculpted brow – not the rumpled woman in a bathrobe, dark glasses, and shower cap in the photo in the kitchen at the Château des Milandes, the French estate the entertainer owned from 1947 to 1968. The photo shows a 62-year-old Baker slumped on the stone steps outside the kitchen, having just been evicted by the château’s new owner. Utopian visions mixed with poor financial management landed Le Baker, as the French knew her, in this predicament – by the 1950s she was deeply in debt, despite efforts of friends including Princess Grace of Monaco and Brigitte Bardot to bail her out.
Joséphine Baker after being evicted from her home
Touring the Château des Milandes in the Périgord region in Southwest France, now fully restored and dedicated to memorializing its most famous inhabitant, I was struck last summer by how much I didn’t know about Baker. Her rich life story unfolds along with the rooms. The French Resistance Room displays a life-sized wax figure of Joséphine in an army jacket and heavy black spectacles, receiving the French Legion of Honour medal for service to her adopted country during World War II. She didn’t own Les Milandes yet, but she rented it during the war, housing refugees in the attic and weapons in the cellar. She concealed a French spy in her musical troupe and sent sheet music to De Gaulle with secret messages scribbled in invisible ink. There’s also a photo in this room of Baker marching alongside Martin Luther King in Washington, D.C., in 1963.
A row of children’s beds is lined up in the Nursery Room – this is where Baker’s “Rainbow Tribe” slept. In 1954, long before Mia Farrow, Madonna, or Angelina Jolie thought of it, Baker adopted the first of 12 children, each from a different country, and raised each one to speak and to practice his or her native language and religion.
Joséphine Baker, famous Jazz singer and dancer arrived at Germany, Sep. 10, 1928 accompanied by her Secretary, her General Manager and the Manager for Germany. AP-picture shows Joséphine and her darling. (AP PHOTO)
Though this particular Joséphine is new to me, the current owner of Les Milandes, Angélique de Saint Exupery (a distant relation to the author), has known of her her whole life. Angélique, a statuesque 34-year-old, leads a group of us through the château and tells us that as a girl, she could see Les Milandes’ peaked roofs and turrets from her bedroom window. Her first visit to the château at age 8 was a true coup de coeur. The powder-blue and black Art Deco bathroom Joséphine Baker designed around her favorite perfume bottle, Lanvin’s Arpège, lit up Angélique’s little-girl world.
Though Baker died before Angélique was born, she remained a strong presence. “When you’re born in Périgord,” says Angélique, “you know everything about Joséphine, because she did so much for us. If there are tourists here today, it’s because of her.” Stories of how the entertainer adopted this area outside of Bordeaux, which is overflowing with foie gras and Armagnac and peppered with medieval bastides and 15th-century castles perched on either side of the Dordogne River, reinforced the love affair between Angélique, a daughter of Périgord, and the entertainer.
Like Angélique, Joséphine fell in love with Les Milandes immediately upon visiting the property in 1938. She and her fourth husband, bandleader Jo Bouillon, bought it in 1947. They added electricity and modern plumbing, then went broke trying to turn the estate into what Baker called her “World Village.” Because her childhood in early 1900s Missouri, with its poverty, abuse and racism, had limited what she could do and where she could go, her tourist destination would welcome people of all races and religions.
She began pouring money into a luxury hotel, restaurants, an amusement park, theaters, miniature golf, playgrounds, tennis courts, and a working farm. She opened the Village on her birthday, June 3, in 1949, and by the early 1950s, the complex employed 150. Unfortunately, says Angélique, many took advantage of Baker’s poor accounting skills by invoicing her for the same job repeatedly or by overcharging her. Baker booked concert tours when she ran out of money, but she never raised enough funds to break even.
Since receiving the château as a gift from her parents in 2001, Angélique has also dedicated herself to fulfilling a vision of Les Milandes: a museum that preserves the legacy of its former châtelaine. Angélique and her family have found and reassembled much of the original furniture and Baker memorabilia to present a comprehensive life story. Some pieces were bought at auction. Others, like the banana skirt, were donated. No one ever dismantled the decadent bathrooms. Though many have tried to sell Angélique what they claim to be “Joséphine’s furniture,” she has a good eye for fakes. She’s also restored the gardens, planting more than 4,000 box hedges since taking over the deed. (Joséphine employed five to 10 gardeners at any time.)
Chateau des Milandes (Flickr Creative Commons/LaurPhil)
“We used to end the tour here,” Angélique says in the kitchen, “but it was too sad.” She struggled with whether or not to display the bathrobe photo, but in the end decided it’s best not to smooth over the rough bits of a life story. The photo hangs a few feet from a giant hearth decorated with “teaching tiles” illustrated with different fruits and vegetables. Joséphine used them to teach her children vocabulary.
The kitchen is also where Joséphine barricaded herself in protest after the French government auctioned off the château and all its contents in 1968. The new owner, who’d bought the castle for one-tenth of its value, shut the door behind her for good when she stepped out to pick up some food. From 1969 until 1975, she and her kids lived in Monaco with assistance from Princess Grace. In 1975, Joséphine died from a cerebral hemorrhage in Paris while staging a comeback. She expired a few days after the sold-out opening of a retrospective revue. A photo in one of the rooms at Les Milandes shows fans crowding the streets of Paris for a glimpse of her funeral procession.
The finale of the museum is now the Dining Room, where a wax figure of a 32-year-old Joséphine in a bob and bone-colored evening gown presides over a dining table set with sumptuous red linens and service for 12. Joséphine loved to entertain, says Angélique, and often did so to the detriment of her bottom line. Every Christmas she invited more than 50 children from the area to enjoy the grand tree and treats. The luxury hotel that was meant to turn a profit was more often used as a guesthouse for friends.
This is how Angélique wants people to remember Joséphine, as a glamorous, generous, and idealistic woman who was in many ways ahead of her time. She mentions her favorite lyric of Joséphine’s, “Despite the cares and despite the woes, smile, always smile!” A framed wedding photo of a smiling Angélique and her husband adorn a grand piano in this room. They were married at the château – something else she has in common with Baker, who married Bouillon here on June 3, 1947. “We destroyed the parquet,” she recalls. “So much dancing!”
Our file picture shows famous american Jazz singer and dancer Joséphine Baker during a show-revue at Paris, Feb. 21, 1949. (AP PHOTO)
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