The Château des Milandes is a breathtaking castle where Josephine Baker lived during the second half of her life.
When I left for a writer’s retreat in the Périgord region of France, I wasn’t thinking about Josephine Baker.
This is an area comparatively light on American tourists. It’s not that it’s lacking in visual splendor — the Dordogne River, Marqueyssac gardens, the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda and Castelnaud Valley, fittingly named considering its collection of castles perched on cliffs — but no beaches were stormed, no patron saints burned, no water lilies painted. The region’s primary claim to fame is the prehistoric caves of Font de Gaume, Grotte de Rouffignac and Lascaux (Lascaux 4, the latest reproduction of the original, opens in December).
The area’s other extremely popular attraction is the Château des Milandes, a breathtaking Renaissance castle overlooking the Dordogne. This, it turns out, is where Josephine Baker, who was born in St. Louis in 1906, lived during the second half of her life. She married and raised her children here. “I have two loves,” sang the queen of the Jazz Age in “J’ai Deux Amours,” her most enduring tune, “my country and Paris.”
If she had recorded a late-in-life remake, she might have added a third love to the list: Milandes. And seeing as how I was staying a mere 15 minutes away, in the one-roundabout town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, I decided to pay it a visit. I thought perhaps I could learn more about Baker’s passionate relationship with France — and its mutual fascination with her.
The chateau is up a twisting, idyllic road bordered by ivy-covered trees and stone walls. When you walk in the front door, you are greeted by the sound of radio interviews with Baker and an exhibition of her stage costumes. There are more than a dozen gowns, bustiers and jumpsuits, most involving crystals, all in size remove-a-rib. I was not prepared for such a display.
Because most French chateaus are privately owned (including this one, currently inhabited by Sarlat native Angélique de Saint-Exupéry, whose husband is a relative of “The Little Prince” author), most are limited in access. But here visitors may wander through a labyrinth of children’s bedrooms furnished with gramophones and trunks, art deco bathrooms, a huge kitchen and a vaulted gun room (not the official name of the room, but there’s a rifle on a tripod pointed at your head as you enter). There are also cases of military medals and a commendation letter from Charles de Gaulle for Baker’s efforts during World War II.
Baker was a spy for her adopted country. She hid weapons for the French Resistance and smuggled documents across the border, tucking them beneath gowns like the ones on the first floor.
The crown jewel of the tour is Baker’s famous banana belt, which she wore — along with nothing else — in the Danse Sauvage at the Folies-Bergère in 1926. Baker did more for the sexualization of bananas than the collective sex-ed class demonstrations of the last century. The bananas are gold, not yellow — something impossible to tell in the black and white footage. As I admired the belt, a British tourist next to me turned to her husband and said: “She wasn’t actually naked all that much, it’s just what everybody chooses to remember.”
“Everybody” included me. But on the 110th anniversary of her birth, it’s worth noting that there is so much more to Baker — and to Baker’s France — than meets the eye. In addition to being a performer and a spy, she was the last speaker before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 march on Washington.
Slightly less celebrated is the fact that, in her 40s, she began adopting children from different counties. There were 12 in all, and they would come to be known as the Rainbow Tribe. Then, after World War II, Baker firmly settled at Milandes. She employed half the town. Her brother married the postwoman. Unlike her hectic nights of performing, her days in the Périgord were peaceful. Or as peaceful as anyone’s days can be with 12 small children, multiple monkeys and a pet cheetah.