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Flash Dispatch, 9-3: Who Can I Run to?
Out in the Cold with Josephine Baker in the Vallee of the Dordogne

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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CASTELNAUD-LA-CHAPELLE, Vallee of the Dordogne, France -- She could be any homeless person, a bespectacled middle-aged woman, her hair covered unflatteringly in a scarf, a blanket pulled over her lap and water bottles surrounding her bare feet as she camps on the doorstep of the home of 22 years from which she's just been evicted and locked out. But she is not just any homeless woman, and not just any woman. She's the woman Hemingway once called the most beautiful in the world. She is Josephine Baker, one-time star of the Folies Bergere, child of St. Louis who went on to become hero of the Resistance, black performer who refused to play segregated halls when she returned to her native land, American darling of 1920s France sometimes credited as the inventor of the Charleston and inspirer of Le Jazz Hot, mother to 12 adopted children -- a legend, unceremoniously dumped on the back porch like a piece of meat past its prime, poignantly pleading to a reporter, "I won't leave my home."

The photo which tells us this story, originally published in France Soir, is one of the few sad artifacts in the Josephine Baker Museum which opened in 2001 in the Chateau des Milandes, the 500-year-old chateau overlooking the Vallee of the Dordogne and the Dordogne River here in the Perigord Noir, so called because the density of the tree tops sometimes makes the foliage appear black. Climbing the interior stairs and weaving through the rooms of the chateau to a score of Josephine (can anyone, especially a fellow expatriate, resist calling her simply "Josephine"?) crooning "J'ai Deux Amours" and "La Petite Tonkinoise," a visitor sees both where Josephine, her husband Jo Bouillon, and the children lived, and how. Yes it's a chateau, but the accommodations are relatively modest and certainly not gaudy. It's a big old rambling house, really -- not an extravagance, but a necessity for accommodating Baker's large adopted family. Other items include original gowns, a photo of Baker in uniform receiving the Legion of Honor from De Gaulle for her work for the Resistance -- she would send out coded messages in song scores, among other assignments -- and an extraordinary series of pristine nude photographs from the 1920s taken in the studio of Paul Colin, to be used as the basis for his posters of Baker. There's also the original banana belt, a photograph of Baker in the 1963 March on Washington, and a program from the 1921 "Shuffle Along," Broadway's first black musical. ("Originally rejected from the show for being too young, too thin, and too dark, " writes Lisa Clayton Robinson on the web site Africana, "she eventually won the role of the comic "end girl" in the chorus line -- the one too confused to keep up with the moves -- and wound up stealing the show.")

Thus it is that after recalling how she was celebrated, one arrives in the final room of the tour, the kitchen, to discover the large photograph of a 62-year-old Baker unceremoniously locked out of her home.

Baker had staved off financial problems in the '50s by returning to the stage, but only temporarily; in 1964, "the sale of the chateau by auction was announced," recounts the museum's tour material. The sale was avoided at the last minute thanks to the intervention of Brigitte Bardot and others, but the chateau was ultimately auctioned off in 1968 -- for one-tenth of its value. A clause in the sales contract allowed Baker to remain in her home until October, 1968, and a subsequent reprieve until March of the following year. While on the road, she learned that the owner planned to evict her, so she returned from touring, sent her children to Paris to stay with her sister, and barricaded herself in the kitchen. While she was out one morning collecting water -- it was Baker who, on buying the chateau in 1947, had first installed running water and electricity to the estate -- the owner locked her out. Josephine Baker, one-time toast of the country, found herself without a roof over her head. After spending the rest of the day and most of the night on the outside stoops of the kitchen (and the temperature can dip in the Vallee of the Dordogne at night, recalling the prehistoric times when this capital of prehistory was filled with ice), she was rushed to the hospital in Perigueux, the county seat, in a state of shock.

Josephine Baker received another reprieve when Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III offered her a villa in Monaco, but financial troubles again forced her to return to performing. On April 12, 1975, four days after a triumphant return to the Paris stage, Josephine Baker died after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

In September 2001, the fourth family to own the Chateau des MIlandes since Josephine Baker opened it to the public, filing the chateau's halls with a treasure trove of Baker photographs and other memorabilia. Open to the public every March 27 through October 31, the chateau's attractions also include a falcon show. Bring a picnic; the surrounding park shows you the incredible vistas which helped raw Baker to the Perigord. The chateau's Web site is sketchy, but if you're curious you can check it by clicking here. (Just click on the Brit flag at the bottom of the page for the approximate English version.)


Ed Winer contributed to this dispatch.

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