Josephine Baker’s Château des Milandes is a wonderful mix. It’s a traditional grand château but it’s a château devoted to its most intriguing and unusual owner, the legendary black American singer and dancer.
Set high above the Dordogne river in the little village of Les Milandes, the château was built in 1489 by the local lord of nearby Castelnau, François de Caumont, for his wife. It went through various fortunes, and like so many other great buildings, fell into disrepair after the French Revolution.
The 1900s and a New Owner
For decades the château languished…until 1900 when it was bought by one Charles Auguste Claverie. The 1900s was a good time for many of these old châteaux which were being snapped up by a new self-made, moneyed class. It happened all over France; in the Loir valley, the Château des Bazouges was similarly saved – by a publisher.
Claverie’s fortune had come from selling erotica in his shop in Paris and then branching out into ladies’ corsets which he also manufactured. On his newly acquired country estate he restored much of the old château and added new towers, rooms, a winery and farm to make the property self-sufficient.
Claverie died in 1919 leaving the estate to his widow. Josephine Baker, along with her fellow actresses/singers Arletty and Mistinguet, had long been a customer at his store for ladies essential underwear so she knew about the sale of the pale sandstone castle with its turrets and towers, gargoyles and curlicues. For 30 years the château became her sanctuary and her beloved home.
A New Era
Sadly Josephine Baker was forced to sell the Château des Milandes in 1968. In 2001, Claude de Labarre and her daughter Angélique de Saint-Exupéry, bought the château. Angélique’s mission has been to create the museum as a homage to Josephine Baker. She has done it in the castle the charismatic performer so loved, telling the story of this extraordinary woman’s life.
What you see
Enter the château through wrought-iron gates into a courtyard with a chapel and attractive outbuildings. In typical French style, neat flower beds are divided by mall box shrub borders.
A splendid Gothic doorway invites you into a building whose rooms house a mix of original furniture, restored sculptures and huge Renaissance fireplaces. This, you feel, was a real family home, a grand one of course, but a very liveable place.
Josephine Baker’s Extraordinary Life
Each of the main rooms illustrates a different aspect of Josephine Baker’s life with a mix of costumes, posters, photographs, documents and artefacts…and in the background always the voice of Josephine Baker singing the songs that made her a star.
It’s a famous rags-to-riches story, starting with the difficulties of growing up as a black American in the early 1900s. Born in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3rd, 1906, her childhood was a miserable one. But at the age of 14 it changed forever when a performance at the Booker Washington Theater in St. Louis, Missouri lit up the world.
Music Hall Days
The old library has been transformed into a music hall which takes you through her early career from Missouri to New York.
In 1925 she performed in Paris with the Revue Nègre at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées. Semi-naked, with a few modest rose petals adorning her stunning body, she was sexy, energetic, daring, and quite like anything the audiences had seen before. She was an immediate success.
The Folies Bergères followed in the late 1920s, then her La Folie du jour when she danced in the famous banana belt on display in the château. She became known as the ‘Black Venus’, the ‘Black Pearl’ and the ‘Creole Goddess’ and rivalled Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford.
Being a nude dancer might have brought fame and fortune, but Josephine wanted more and started a film career with Siren of the Tropics.
Check out the Costumes
The Grand Salon, the final room in the 15th-century section of Josephine Baker’s château, is full of the star’s costumes. They run from the ultra-glamorous to the faintly ridiculous (one of them, a jump suit she wore at Carnegie Hall in 1973, looks like an ABBA costume).
You move on through rooms decorated with tapestries, display cases and old furniture. You see her original bedroom, which was subsequently devoted to her family. Starting in the 1950s she adopted 12 children of all races, creeds and colours for her ‘Village du Monde’. Her ‘Rainbow Tribe’ was the ultimate multi-racial, harmonious family unit, supported by her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, a jazz band leader. They met in 1933 and eventually married in 1947 in the little chapel beside the château.
Public Works and Private Pleasures
Josephine worked hard on the château. She had electricity and running water installed inside the chateau; she had the same amenities installed in the village, organized the first bus stops there and bought many of the surrounding local buildings.
She loved bathrooms, spending lavishly on the most expensive decor; one is designed in the style of the Arpège by Jeanne Lanvin perfume bottle, with gold and black mosaics and a gold leaf-painted ceiling.
Above all, she loved to party, inviting showbiz stars of the day like Jean Gabin. Between 1954 and 1960 over 500,000 people were invited here for summer ballets, jazz evenings, fireworks displays and dances.
A French Heroine
The story moves on to her role in the Resistance in World War II, showing how she was recruited by the Free French Forces in 1939. “It is France that has made me who I am, I will be forever grateful to this country…I am ready to give my life for France…use me however you deem fit.” It’s a brave, defiant statement and a sad reflection on the USA which had rejected her.
There’s more in the ground floor kitchen, the billiard room, and the dining room where she entertained at a huge dining table. But the story of Josephine Baker and her beloved château ends sadly. Always wildly extravagant, she spent her fortune; her husband Jo Bouillon left France for Argentina and she was forced finally to sell the château. Initially evicted, she was then allowed to stay for a year.
The Final Years
Later she settled in Roquebrune on the Cote d’Azur, supported by admirers and friends like Grace Kelly and Brigitte Bardot.
In 1975 at the age of 69 she appeared in public for the last time at the Bobino Theater in Paris. She died the next day from a brain haemorrhage.
Her funeral was at the Madeleine church in Paris. Over 20,000 gathered and the French government honoured her with a 21-gun salute. She was the first American woman buried in France with military honours.
On the day of her funeral, over 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris to witness the procession. The French government gave a 21-gun salute, making her the first American woman to be buried in France with military honours.
She is buried in the Monaco cemetery. As Grace Kelly said: ”This queen of the music hall could not be buried anywhere else other than a place fit for a princess.”
In November 2021, Josephine was given France’s highest honour. She was inducted into the French Pantheon, the nation’s mausoleum of heroes, alongside the likes of Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Marie Curie. As the French President, Emanuel Macron said: “She broke down barriers. She became part of the hearts and minds of French people…Josephine Baker, you enter the Pantheon because while you were born American, deep down there was no one more French than you.”
She is the first performing artist, the first black woman and the first American to be so honoured.
Visiting Josephine Baker’s Château des Milandes
While the main interest of the château is about Josephine Baker and her life, it’s geared up for the whole family, with a Birds of Prey show keeping children (and adults) intrigued. The gardens are delightful, and there’s also a good gift shop and restaurant.
Château des Milandes
Tel: 00 33 (0)5 53 59 31 21
Open Feb-Dec daily. closed 25 Dec, 1 Jan
Check website for detailed opening times
Admission Adult: 12.50euros. 5-16 years 8.50euros. Under 5s free
A little light reading:
The Dordogne – one of the main rivers of France
Jane Birkin – another famous foreign French woman