CASTELNAUD-LA-CHAPELLE, FRANCE -- It was, as the French say, un coup de coeur -- something like love at first sight, but stronger -- when Josephine Baker saw Chateau des Milandes above the Dordogne River in southwestern France.
It was 1937. She was the black waif from St. Louis who had taken Paris by storm and still reigned supreme, dancing to hot jazz in little more than sequins and feathers. Photographers snapped her picture when she strolled the Champs-Elysees with her pet cheetah, Chiquita; Jean Cocteau celebrated her in verse; and mystery writer Georges Simenon fell in love with her.
Most Americans remember her only as the black Cinderella who left a racially segregated United States and found stardom and acceptance in France. But Baker was more than a Jazz Age siren, as visitors discover at the Chateau des Milandes, the fairy-tale castle where she lived from 1947 until the late '60s, raised 12 orphans and created a theme park dedicated to multiculturalism long before the term was coined.
Baker, a civil-rights advocate who refused to perform in segregated American clubs, dreamed big. But she went broke trying to turn the chateau into a showplace for racial harmony.
Privately owned thereafter, the chateau was purchased in 2001 by Henry and Claude de la Barre, who began restoring the 15th-century castle and gardens. Now, the chateau is a museum dedicated to Baker, managed by the De la Barres' 30-year-old daughter, Angelique.
I came here in June for the 100th anniversary of Baker's birth, when a statue of the music hall star was unveiled in the village of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle below the chateau.
I rented a cottage at La Grande Marque, an old farmhouse on a wooded hillside overlooking the village of Siorac.
My principal objective was to get to know the Chateau des Milandes and the beautiful, headstrong woman who lived there.
The late Gothic/early Renaissance castle was built in 1489. It was in relatively good repair in 1947, when Baker married band leader Jo Bouillon in the chateau's chapel and moved in.
Baker added electricity, modern plumbing, a pool and tennis courts and decorated the guest rooms in the styles of different countries.
Claude de la Barre and daughter Angelique found and reassembled much of the Baker-era furniture and memorabilia, including a stunning series of nude art photos of the star known as "the Black Venus."
Other displays focus on less well-known facets of her life, especially her work with the French Resistance during World War II.
In 1961, her adopted country awarded her the French Legion of Honor for her war efforts.
Unable to have children of her own, Baker began adopting infants and assembling her rainbow tribe in 1954: first Akio from Korea, Teruya from Japan, Jari from Finland and Luis from Colombia, followed by eight more little ones from around the world.
In the kitchen, a 1969 photo of Baker in a bathrobe, shower cap and dark glasses recalls one of the saddest episodes in her life. Fundamentally impractical and profligate with money, Baker was deeply in debt by the late 1950s. Although actress Brigitte Bardot, Princess Grace of Monaco and many others friends tried to bail her out, she kept pouring money into the castle resort, with ever-diminishing tourist receipts.
The chateau was sold out from under her in 1968 to pay off creditors. Several months later, she broke into the property and camped on the kitchen steps in the pitiable state depicted in the photo.
Baker died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1975 while launching a comeback in Paris.
Susan Spano writes for the Los Angeles Times.
If you go
Chateau des Milandes -- 24250 Castelnaud-la-Chapelle 011-33-5-53-59-31-21, milandes.com, is open April to October. Admission: $10 for adults, about $7 for children.
La Grande Marque -- Marnac 24220; 011-33-5-53-31-61-63, has seven rooms of bed-and-breakfast accommodations, $98 per night, and four cottages, $715 to $1,820 per week.
Black Paris Divas
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