“ I wasn’t really naked, I simply didn’t have any clothes on” – Josephine Baker
I wonder, if like me, you’ve never actually heard of Josephine Baker or perhaps the name rings a faint bell. I first became intrigued with her story after visiting a very pretty Château in the Dordogne region called “Château des Milandes.” Situated very close to one of our cottages in France I think it’s proximity to the much grander and historically significant Château Castelnaud with its impressive display of medieval armoury, renders it less noteworthy for the first-time tourist.
But, in fact, it’s really rather wonderful and quite a surprise packet in many ways for those who take the time to discover it.
Another of its surprises is its architecture-a fine example of the Renaissance period with its attractive stonework and period features. It’s actually small as far as chateaux go and is really more of a manor house, but nonetheless, it has pretty turrets, mullioned windows, pointy roofs, stain glass and lovely gardens.
Originally built in the 15th century by François de Caumont for his young wife, it fell into disrepair during the French Revolution but was brought back to life when Josephine Baker bought it in 1947 and renovated it. So, unlike other Châteaux in the area, its most famous era in its history was actually during the 20th century.
Another surprising feature is its Art Deco inspired interior decoration and in particular Josephine Baker’s bathrooms and bedrooms.
The living area features a display of her costumes from her career as a singer and dancer in Paris and in New York, with the famous “ banana dress” she wore at the Folies Bergère in 1928 ( made from only 16 bananas! )
The first thing I noticed about these costumes were their tiny, almost childlike size, followed very closely by their rather risqué designs.
“Who was this person?”I kept thinking. The beautifully classic Château seemed at odds with its burlesque-performing owner.
So I dug deeper and what I learnt was yet another lesson in the school of “never judge a book by its cover”. This woman was a National treasure! -A celebrated dancer and singer, a civil rights activist and (during WW2)- a worker for the french Resistance.
Born into poverty in the US state of Missouri in 1906, Baker learnt to dance and successfully made her way to Broadway at an early age. She was spotted by a talent scout and taken to Paris to appear in the Revue de Nègre. Her famous dance in just a skirt of feathers attracted attention. Called the Dance Sauvage, Baker appeared on stage dancing wildly and beating her buttocks wearing very little indeed. She caused a sensation! From there she appeared at the Folies Bergère, (in her famous banana dress), to rave reviews and captured the attention of the likes of Picasso and Hemingway, among others. She soon became one of the highest paid entertainers in all of Paris, appeared in films and was revered as an artiste extraordinaire.
With her newly acquired wealth she bought the Château des Milandes in 1947 and quickly moved her family from Missouri to join her.
Before this however, in 1937 she returned to New York to hopefully continue her career there, but she fell victim to racial abuse and ill treatment, and returned to her beloved France disillusioned and broken-hearted.
During The Second World War she worked for the Red Cross, travelled abroad to entertain troops and often carried secret documents for the Resistance either in her sheet music or even in her underwear. For her service to France she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion of Honour. Two of the country’s highest honours.
In the 1950’s Baker frequently returned to the United States to lend support to the Civil Rights movement and to participate in demonstrations boycotting segregated clubs and concert venues. In 1963 she marched with Martin Luther King Jr in the March on Washington and was one of the notable ( and only female ) speakers of the day.
Among all of her achievements however, it was her commitment in the 1950’s to adopt a “rainbow tribe” of children which impresses me the most. In all, Josephine Baker adopted 12 children from all over the world to illustrate the point that children from vastly different ethnic backgrounds could live happily and at peace with one another. She called it her “experiment in brotherhood.”
In April, 1975 to commemorate her 50th year since her debut in Paris, Baker performed a concert to the delight of her many fans. In the audience that night was not only Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Mick Jagger and Sophia Lauren but also Josephine’s close friend, Princess Grace of Monaco. Baker constantly proclaimed
“ I shall perform until the day I die!”
Sadly, just a few nights later, Josephine actually did die in her sleep from a cerebral haemorrhage, aged 68. In a tribute speech at her funeral, Shirley Bassey said “ I have never seen and probably shall never see again, such a spectacular singer and performer.”
She was the first American woman in history to be buried in France with Military Honours.
Her life was nothing short of extraordinary and to know more of it now is to perhaps compel you to visit her Château in the Dordogne. You won’t be disappointed. It is surrounded by beautiful gardens and grounds. There is a sunny café at the bottom of the garden and for the young at heart, a very professional falconry exhibition is performed twice daily Our cottage “ La Maison du Château” is a ten minute drive from the Milandes estate and a perfect place to stay when visiting this captivating and dare I say, intoxicating area of France.