If you are ever travelling through what is called the Perigord region, within the Dordogne department of France, take a visit to the Chateau des Milandes. It is quite close to the famous, feudal fortress of Castelnaud. The Chateau presents a very exclusive monument to twentieth century French culture.
The Chateau des Milandes is a very imposing, privately owned house surrounded by its own estate. It has a varied history going back to its original construction in 1489 but came to popular prominence when it was occupied by a certain Josephine Baker in 1937.
Josephine Baker was an unparalleled celebrity and was adored across all of France. She was born originally in St. Louis, in the United States in 1906. She had a difficult childhood and had to go to work at an early age. Her father’s name is not confirmed and her mother was coloured. She was badly treated as a young child by her employers but quickly found her talent lay in the music hall. She excelled at dancing and performing and quickly found notoriety and success. At the age of just fourteen she played her first part in a play at the Booker Washington Theatre. She was offered a stand in role as a trouper and enjoyed instant success. She became known as the ‘funny girl’ by the audience because of her particular performance style. Further success came for her in New York where she was discovered by a Parisian talent scout. Josephine left for Europe in 1925 and began her great life adventure in France.
She appeared in the ‘Revue Negre’ at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees wearing only rose petals as covering. Her unique and very sensual form of dance instantly obtained for her great acclaim from the French audience. Her delicate style seemed to push back the moral boundaries from an earlier period. It was a new art form that had immediate appeal. Two years later, the director of the Folies Bergere offered Josephine a part in his new and contemporary revue. During these performances in 1927 and 1928, she wore her famous banana belt skirt that so exactly suited her erotic style of presentation.
Josephine Baker became quickly very wealthy. She started a cabaret show of her own that attracted vast audience attention. She wanted to evolve her style away from mere semi-nude dancing into a more sophisticated form. She dressed in high fashion and made her first film appearance in the movie ‘The Mermaid of the Tropics’. She also undertook lessons in French and singing to progress and evolve her career. In 1930, when Josephine was only 24, she received an ovation from the audience as she played a role in ‘J’ai deux amours’ in Paris.
Josephine Baker had a rare, indefinable talent coupled with striking good looks and an extrovert persona. Photographs of her today show just what a unique performer that she must have been. Despite her early childhood experience of life, she had the most sophisticated taste in houses, possessions and clothes. Her enormous wealth allowed her to initially rent then purchase the Chateau des Milandes in 1947.
Today, part of the house is preserved as a permanent museum, almost a shrine, to the life of Josephine. Her beautiful library, office, bedrooms and bathrooms are kept in exactly the style that she chose for herself. They are a monument to her extravagant personality, ambition and style that created so much wealth for her in the first half of the twentieth century. As you wander through the rooms, you can view many photographs that capture the pace of her life. You can see a few of the dresses that she wore and some of her furniture and possessions. As you move through the house you can contemplate the absolute quality of her life in the Chateau.
Like so many other very successful people in the public glare of show business, Josephine led a very chaotic personal and financial life. She married four husbands. The first two came from her early days in the United States when she was very young. She was just 13 when she married for the first time and only 14 on the second occasion. Both of these marriages ended very quickly due to the disruption created by the vast travel arrangements that she committed herself to. Josephine’s second husband in the US was called Willie Baker. That was the name that she always kept and used for the rest of her life.
Josephine came to Paris when she was just 20 and married a French industrialist called Jean Lion in 1937. That ended in divorce in 1941. She later married her fourth husband in 1947. His name was Jo Bouillon and he was a well known orchestra conductor. The wedding took place in the Chapel, next to the Chateau, on the estate. They had known each other since 1933 and had two children, Akio and Marianne. The sumptuous bedroom that was used by the children is splendidly preserved in the museum.
Some two years after buying the Chateau, Josephine’s outrageous financial extravagance allowed her to become the owner of the tiny village next door called Milandes. She was the first person to provide the village with piped water and other utilities. Josephine’s view of herself was dominated for all of her life by her mixed parentage background. She was somehow obsessed with the false idea that she was not as others. She wanted to create regularity for herself and adopted 12 children, all of a different nationality and culture. There were two girls and ten boys from different races and religions from across the world. She established a school in the village of Milandes at her own expense where all of these children were educated privately in their own language. Certainly, at least one of her adopted children still visits France today.
When the war came in 1939, Josephine committed herself to the Resistance in France. She had become a French citizen after her marriage to Jean Lion and felt much patriotism and duty to her adopted country. France was giving her such a splendid life and career. Her service in the name of French freedom was quite complex and indeed heroic. She combined it with her acting, dancing and music hall life and this served as great cover from enemy observation. At the end of the war she was warmly decorated by the French state. On the liberation of Paris, she was awarded the Medal of Resistance, The Legion of Honour and The Croix de Guerre with palm. She received these decorations whilst coping with great difficulties from her own poor health at the time. She was very gratified to declare publically her great pride in serving France in her war role. Look at the photographs in the Chateau.
Josephine was able to formally return to the stage in 1958 but life had become so different for her. She had to sell all of her properties to repay her vast debts that her tumultuous financial life had led to. She was evicted from the Chateau by its then new owner and spent the first night outside just sitting on the kitchen steps. She was taken to the local hospital the next morning weak and in shock about the destruction of her old life. Her husband, Jo Bouillon, had already left her to open a restaurant in Argentina.
Josephine eventually settled, at the age of 62, in a village on the Cote d’Azur. Whilst she was there, she was invited to perform at the Bobino Theatre in Paris to mark her 50 years in show business. Her performance was intensely acclaimed by the audience. The next day she was found unconscious in her apartment and died later in hospital of a brain haemorrhage. It was April 12, 1975.
Josephine Baker was one of the unparalleled and memorable icons not only of stage and screen but even so much more of French culture and French living. The Chateau des Milandes presents a perfectly preserved, quite engaging tribute to a unique personality who became a French devotee. Angelique, the daughter of the current owners, the de La Barre family, devotes her life to her own husband, child and the memory of Josephine Baker. She is an encyclopaedic authority on the life of the actress. Visit Angelique at the house and enjoy her so enthusiastic and devoted guided tour.
From London, you can travel to the nearest airport at Brive la Gaillarde. Use either Ryanair from Stansted or CityJet from London City Airport.
Photos courtesy of Chateau des Milandes and Lyn Funnell.