Josephine Baker was a legend in her own time. While she was an accomplished vaudeville dancer and singer, film star, civil rights activist, and spy, she relished her most important role as mother of 12 adopted children from around the world. Their home was Chateau des Milandes, in the Dordogne area of France.
Today the chateau is open to the public, and filled with Josephine Baker memorabilia. It’s well worth a visit. When I arrived, I knew only that Josephine was a dancer back in the 1930s, and I was much more interested in the castle. By the time I left, I had a whole new respect for this extraordinary woman and wanted to learn more about her.
Chateau des Milandes was built in 1489 by Count François de Caumont. It’s said that his wife requested it because she didn’t like the austere atmosphere of their home, Castelnaud. Chateau des Milandes fell into ruin during the French revolution but was restored in 1870 by a wealthy industrialist. It’s in a lovely setting, surrounded by spacious grounds and a rose garden, with a number of large, caged birds on the property. The buzzards, hawks and owls are kept for falconry demonstrations because falconry was a significant sport in the 15th century.
Inside the chateau, light streams through mullioned windows in rooms with paintings and sculptures and belongings that show the story of Josephine Baker. She was born in 1906 in the slums of St. Louis, part African-American, part Native American. She, like the other poverty-stricken kids, often slept in the streets and went hungry; a tough life. She left home at the age of 13 to work as a waitress, found work in a dance troupe, and by the time she turned 18 she was performing on stage in New York.
Then Josephine got her big opportunity; in 1925 she went to France as part of a dance group. With her exotic dancing in a banana skirt, she was a hit in Paris. She toured Europe and came back to Paris, sometimes performing with a leopard on stage by her side. The French adored her, and she returned the adoration. Racism was not the issue it was in the U.S., and so she stayed, eventually becoming a French citizen. She rented Chateau des Milandes in the 1930s and bought it in 1947.
But there is much more to Josephine’s story than singing and dancing. She starred in two films–Zouzou and Princess Tamtam–and posed as a model for artists, including Pablo Picasso. Because she felt strongly that segregation was wrong, she returned to the States as an advocate of civil rights. In France, during World War II, she worked undercover for the Resistance. She hid refugees and enemies of the Nazis in her chateau, was a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxiliary of the French Air Force, and once carried military reports, written in invisible ink on sheet music, from France to Portugal. After the war she was awarded medals and honors by the French government for her sometimes dangerous work.
Then came the “world village.” In the 1950s, Josephine and her fourth husband, orchestra leader Jo Bouillon, adopted 12 orphans of different races. She called them her rainbow tribe, a family living in Chateau des Milandes. Evidence of this rich, diverse life is on display throughout the chateau. There are nude photographs from early in her career, a collection of her elaborate costumes and dresses, art deco bathrooms, an elegant dining room, her 4-poster bed, and a room devoted to her Resistance work, complete with uniform and medals.
Sadly, Josephine had poor health and financial problems in her later years and was evicted from the chateau when it was sold to pay her debts. Her good friend Princes Grace gave her an apartment in Monaco. In 1975, she appeared onstage in Paris in a show that received rave reviews. Less than a week later, she died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
She was mourned in France and is still remembered as more than a celebrity; she was a world citizen who lived her values.
Chateau des Milandes is open from April to October. Entrance fees are: Adults 18 and over, 8.50 euros; children 5 to 17, 5.50 euros.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com