A short ride from Sarlat, in the gorgeous countryside of Dordogne, you’ll find the Chateau and gardens of Milandes. It’s the former home of Josephine Baker, legendary entertainer of the early 20th century…
History of Chateau des Milandes
There was a fort on the site for hundreds of years in the village of Les Milandes. However in the late 15th century, the Lord of Castelnaud, Francois de Caumont, built the chateau we see as a wedding present for his wife. He created terraces and gardens leading down to the river. And the castle was designed in French Renaissance style, all towers and turrets, it’s very romantic.
The Caumont family lived there until the French Revolution, and though the chateau survived, it became run down.
In the 1930’s, Josephine Baker, a wildly popular American singer and dancer whose performances in Paris cabaret are legendary, fell in love with the chateau. She rented it as a holiday home and spent as much time as she could there. During WWII she even ran an arm of the French Resistance from here, hiding and helping British RAF pilots Poles and Belgians.
In 1947 the castle was put up for sale and Josephine Baker bought it.
Josephine Baker at the Chateau des Milandes
Josephine lavished money on the chateau, installing glamorous bathrooms with black Murano glass tiles and real gold embellishments. She took her inspiration from perfumes she was wearing. The black and gold theme for instance came from Arpege, a classic Lanvin.
Adopting 12 children, Josephine created her dream “world village”. Her goal was to give a home to orphaned children of different races, religious and nationalities. She was a fierce civil rights activist, marched with Martin Luther King and, as an African-American suffered from racism herself. In a restaurant in New York, waiters refused to serve her because she was black. Grace Kelly was at another table and witnessed the act. Disgusted by the staff, she led her entire table out. The two women became firm friends after this.
Josephine opened a theatre and a park and put on performances at the Chateau. Some of the older locals recall up to 4000 cars arriving as people flocked to see her. She helped improve living conditions in the town, installing electricity and water, putting up bus shelters and helping out in the community.
Chateau des Milandes today
However, the business plans for the chateau didn’t work and in 1964, Josephine was forced to sell her beloved home. She had by then accrued a mountain of debts. Grace Kelly offered her friend a villa to use in Monaco. Josephine lived there until her death in 1975.
At the Chateau, it feels as if time has stood still. The current owners have kept as much as possible just as it was and it looks much as it did when Josephine was here. Her bedroom is as it was, there are children’s toys in some bedrooms, the bathrooms are glorious.
There are display cabinets of her wonderful costumes, jewellery and accessories (no photos, as they’re not allowed). The kitchen is virtually untouched.
In the attic there is space dedicated to Josephine’s work in WWII. After contacting General de Gaulle and offering to help, she worked as a nurse, toured to sing to troops and delivered messages written in invisible ink on music sheets. The chateau was used for storing ammunition and weapons and supporting the work of the local Resistance.
It makes for a fascinating visit, you really get a feel for this talented woman who was ahead of her time. The castle is beautiful, the gardens are lovely (from Spring to Autumn there’s a fabulous birds of prey show) and it’s well worth a detour.