Campaigners Fight to Save James Baldwin’s Home In France

James Baldwin in his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1979. Photograph: Ralph Gatti/AFP/Getty Images
James Baldwin in his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1979. Photograph: Ralph Gatti/AFP/Getty Images

The writer’s home was a regular haunt of African-American cultural giants

In the Provençal town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the picturesque stone house beneath the medieval ramparts is known as “la maison de Jimmy”. The official records office lists it as the ancienne maison Baldwin.

Here in the hills behind the Côte d’Azur, the Harlem-born writer and social critic James Baldwin lived, composing his later works on a clackety old typewriter and entertaining friends including Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, Simone Signoret and Nina Simone. It was here he died of stomach cancer in 1987, aged 63.

For 17 years, the local people adopted the African American author as one of their own. He was often seen chatting in the bar of the local Colombe d’Or hotel, and the affection was reciprocal. Today campaigners are battling to secure the future of his 17th-century house and its grounds, which have been earmarked for development into 18 luxury €1m flats. Two wings of the property on the 10-acre plot have already been demolished, including one in which he wrote.

The Paris-based American novelist Shannon Cain, who is leading the fight to save the property, recently squatted in the surviving section of the house for 10 days in an attempt to stop further development. “Apart from his books, the house is all that remains of Baldwin’s physical presence,” she told the Observer. “It was his dream that the property should become an artists’ colony or residence, and it would be a tragedy to let it go.” Neighbour Hélène Roux remembers “Jimmy”, the kind, lively American who was a larger-than-life presence at Colombe d’Or, run by her late mother, Yvonne. “He was a big presence in my childhood. Jimmy used to write at night and pop up to the village each day around 4pm to come and sit and chat with my mum. Every day he would show up, so he was always there when I came back from school.

“At first he seemed intimidating, then you saw the life in his eyes and the smile that illuminated his face. And every day he would ask how my day at school had been. My mother held him in high esteem and vice versa. She was his great friend; it was a lovely relationship.” The pair were so close that Baldwin named the main character in his 13th novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, Clementine “Tish” Rivers; Clementine was Yvonne Roux’s middle name.

“It was no coincidence,” Roux said. “The degree of generosity and affection he showed with his time and incredible intelligence was wonderful. He followed us through childhood; through adolescence, the tribulations, boyfriends … Jimmy was there.”

Baldwin bought a one-way ticket to Paris at the age of 24, despairing of American prejudice against African-Americans and gay people, and was soon adopted into the cultural mêlée of the French capital’s Left Bank. In 1970 he settled in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where American painter Beauford Delaney, a regular guest, set up his easel in the garden, and Josephine Baker, Miles Davis and Ray Charles visited.

In his autobiography, Miles Davis wrote that he and Baldwin would “get comfy in that beautiful, big house and he would tell us all sorts of stories … he was a great man”.

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SOURCE: The Guardian