We visited Chateau Les Milandes, the home of Joséphine Baker for many years, and loved the place for many reasons. But I don’t know how to talk about Joséphine Baker, because she seems to be largely unknown in the country of her birth, the United States. Here are a couple pictures of her from the mid-1920s in Paris.
Here’s a few things about her:
- She was born in St. Louis, in 1906. To escape a childhood of grinding poverty, she started to dance in places around St. Louis, and in about 1923 went to New York to join the show “Shuffle Along.” She was hired as a costume handler, but soon was asked to join the chorus line and was an immediate hit.
- In 1925 she went to Paris to join a show called the “Revué Negré.” She took Paris by storm, and was soon the headliner in the show with her dancing.
- Over the next two decades she was the highest-paid performer in Europe. She was married several times, gaining French citizenship through one of the marriages.
- She was a constant battler against racism and prejudice. In 1935, at the height of her fame in Europe, she returned to do a show in New York and was shocked at her treatment: though she had a room at a top New York hotel, she was told to use the servants’ entrance, was refused service at the Stork Club, and had people spit on her.
- She bought a chateau – Les Milandes – in the Dordogne and with her husband Jo Bouillion adopted 12 children of mixed racial backgrounds and raised them there.
- During World War II she was a member of the French Resistance and given the Croix de Guerre by Charles de Gaulle for her efforts. Many Allied airmen were hidden in Les Milandes on their way to the border and freedom.
- After the war she “re-invented” herself as a singer. Though not equipped with a great voice, her style and charisma made her a hit with many songs.
- In 1969 she was broke (she may have been a great performer, but she was a terrible business person) and was evicted from Les Milandes. Her long-time friend Grace Kelly (then Princess Grace of Monaco) helped her find a place to live in Monaco. She returned to the stage as a singer and became popular all over again.
- Her battle for civil rights and against racism brought her back to the United States several times. In 1963 she gave the speech just before Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in the March on Washington
Josephine Baker seems largely unknown in the United States, though her memory is still revered here in France. In 2001 a wealthy family bought her chateau at Les Milandes and has restored it as a memorial to her. The chateau and its gardens are beautiful, but Josephine is the star: the rooms of the chateau display memorabilia of her, including many of the dresses in which she performed – including the famous “Banana Dress.”
We came here because I’d heard about Les Milandes years ago – before it was bought and restored to her memory – and having read about her, decided I wanted to see her home for so many years. It was totally enjoyable. Unfortunately, there was a sign forbidding picture-taking inside the chateau; fortunately the sign was in French and I couldn’t understand it.
Josephine Baker fascinates us, and this visit to her home brought her to life for us. We urge you to read a bit about her, to learn about her courageous and often difficult life. She died in 1975 at the age of 69, the day after opening a new show in New York and receiving rave reviews from the hard-to-please New York critics. She is buried in Monaco.