If you are ever travelling in the area known as the Perigord region, within the Dordogne department of France, don’t miss out on a visit to the Chateau des Milandes once the home of Josephine Baker, the legendary American entertainer…
The Chateau des Milandes is a very imposing, privately owned house surrounded by its own estate – it is also a very exclusive monument to twentieth century French culture. It has a varied history going back to its construction in 1489 but came to popular prominence when it was occupied by a certain Josephine Baker in 1937.
Josephine Baker was adored across all of France having been born in St. Louis, United States, in 1906. She had a difficult childhood but was a natural and excellent dancer and at a very early age, she found notoriety and success in the music halls of the day. At the age of just fourteen she landed her first part in a play at the Booker Washington Theatre and was an immediate hit becoming known as the ‘funny girl’ by the audience because of her quirky performance style. Further success came for her in New York and there she was discovered by a Parisian talent scout which lead to her moving to the City of Light to find fame and fortune.
Her unique and very sensual form of dance won great acclaim from the French audiences in Paris. Her delicate style seemed to push back the moral boundaries from an earlier period. It was a new art form and it had huge appeal. Two years after she arrived in Paris, the director of the famous Folies Bergère in Paris offered Josephine a part in his new and contemporary revue. During these performances in 1927 and 1928, she wore her famous banana belt skirt which you can see on display at the Chateau.
Josephine Baker became very wealthy and had the most sophisticated taste in houses, possessions and clothes; her enormous wealth enabled her to 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. As you wander through the rooms, you can view many photographs that capture the pace of her life and see some of the dresses that she wore, her furniture and possessions.
Josephine led a chaotic personal and financial life. Married four times, she was just 13 when she took her first husband and 14 when she married Willie Baker whose name she kept for the rest of her life. She married twice more in France and had two children. She adopted 12 children, all of a different nationality and culture – two girls and ten boys, and established a school which they attended with the local children in the village of Milandes, the village she had purchased in 1949.
When the war came in 1939, Josephine committed to the Resistance in France. She had become a French citizen and felt much patriotism for her adopted country. 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 which served as great cover from enemy observation. At the end of the war she was awarded the Medal of Resistance, The Legion of Honour and The Croix de Guerre with palm.
In 1958 the charmed and successful life changed for Josephine. Burdened with vast debts, she had to sell all of her properties and was evicted from the Chateau by its then new owner, She spent the first night outside sitting on the kitchen steps and was taken to the local hospital the next morning weak and in shock over the destruction of her old life. Her husband, Jo Bouillon, left her to open a restaurant in Argentina.
Josephine eventually settled, at the age of 62, in a village on the Cote d’ Azure. She was invited to perform at the Bobino Theatre in Paris to mark her 50 years in show business and the audience gave her a standing ovation. The next day she was found unconscious in her apartment and died in hospital of a brain haemorrhage. It was April 12, 1975.
The Chateau des Milandes presents a perfectly preserved, engaging tribute to a unique personality. Angelique, the daughter of the current owners, the de Labarre family, is an encyclopaedic authority on the life of the actress; her tours are enthusiastic and offer a glimpse into the life of an icon of stage and screen and of French culture and French living…
Find out more from the Chateau Milandes website