At this moment, the house where American author James Baldwin spent the last 17 years of his life—a house written about so beautifully by Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New Yorker in 2015—is undergoing a dramatic change. A historical monument to Baldwin’s legacy, and perhaps the closest peek we have into the final years of his life, for decades it’s been an unofficial mecca for writers, artists, and free-thinkers. Here, he wrote six books (three essay collections, a book of poetry, and another novel) and lived what many say were his happiest years. But when my partner and I traveled to see what is colloquially known as “the Baldwin House” in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France last month, we were afraid it no longer existed. Slated to be folded into a luxury apartment complex, opening in 2019, it will be called “Le Jardin des Arts.”
Black writers, like Williams and Stephen Casmier, have discussed the journey to Saint-Paul before. On NPR’s Code Switch website, Casmier, a professor at Saint Louis University, pointed to a 1984 interview Baldwin gave to The Paris Review, explaining the need to leave America or else succumb to the racist ideologies of the politicians and policemen choking the life out of black men in the States. I am one of many who has been moved to take this trip, but also one of the last to see the home as Baldwin once did.
Instead of a train from Paris, as Williams and many others arrived, we took an Uber at night from Grasse to Saint-Paul; but the effect of first beholding the town was no less spectacular, the city illuminating itself in a triumphant glow. A former 15th-century medieval fortress, it very much feels like one, most of the restaurants and shops walled with stone and the streets paved with cobble.
“It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America,” Baldwin told The Paris Review’s Jordan Elgrably in the Spring 1984 issue. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in France, but I knew what was going to happen to me in New York. If I had stayed there, I would have gone under.”
Author Jules B. Farber captured this era in the author’s life with 2016’s James Baldwin: Escape from America, Exile in Provence. He wrote of Baldwin’s penchant for watching pétanque, the French version of bocce, in the dirt square in front of Café de la Place, before lumbering home to his large farmhouse, framed by a view of the Mediterranean.
“Jimmy’s move to Saint-Paul meant he could live in peaceful splendor in a great house, surrounded by local creative friends—but with none of the hassle and confrontations he had been experiencing in the U.S.,” wrote Farber.
Instead of staying at the hotel and restaurant la Colombe d’Or, as Williams, Picasso, and Matisse once had, my partner and I holed up in a nearby AirBnB. In the morning, we visited for a late breakfast of radishes in fish sauce, skirt steak, and red wine underneath a still life of a lobster by early-20th-century French artist Georges Braque.
Known for its legendary art collection, mostly acquired by the late Madame Yvette, patron saint of Saint-Paul, the bar is decorated with rare treasures. Mirós and Picassos and Matisses, and at least a dozen Calders hinted at both the hotel’s former clientele and the town’s historical importance as a crucial gathering point for 20th-century artists (Marc Chagall’s tomb is found on the other side of town). It was here that Baldwin held court most frequently, as we learned from a man named Manuel as he poured me an espresso; he had tended at la Colombe since the 80s.
“Jimmy had such a big laugh,” said Manuel, who said he had been to Baldwin’s home to visit, and considered him a friend. “He would come with his brother, David, and when I would go home at 12, they would still be here laughing.”
I think of how noticeable Baldwin must have been: boisterous laughter coming from a gay, black American in a Provençal village. Farber’s book details stories that the townspeople took time to warm to him—even detailing racist encounters with farmers and his landlady, Jeanne Faure—but he eventually became a beloved local hero, a friend to most. He and Faure even became great friends. Faure had allegedly promised the house to Baldwin, but later a former housekeeper claimed the same. After a 20 year legal battle, the courts ruled in favor of the housekeeper, who sold the property to developers—which leaves the house in its current predicament.
The Baldwin home’s guestlist was nearly as long as that at la Colombe: Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sidney Poitier, Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte. He eventually befriended and entertained Montand, Chagall, and Bill Wyman, the Rolling Stones’ bassist who still has a home in Saint-Paul. Baldwin’s boyfriend, artist Lucien Happersberger, lived at the home, too.
We weren’t sure if the house would be there when we exited the fortress of Saint-Paul, walking towards a construction site a few minutes outside city walls. There, we found a large foundation hole with rebar spiking up—a giant crane looming overhead. There is a test house already built, on the front of it a giant photograph of what the development will look like: a family playing in an infinity pool in front of a luxury duplex.
Behind the fences it’s still there—Baldwin’s house—but its future remains precarious. The doorways are filled in with cinder blocks and concrete, prepped for demolition. It was once supposedly a handsome farmhouse with gardens and a view of the sea; but now, the house, with its chipped yellow and blue paint splotches, looks like it’s about to fall over.
On January 16th, Nice-Matin, the paper of record in the nearby city of Nice, published a story titled La maison Baldwin ne sera pas sauvée à Saint-Paul-de-Vence. “The Baldwin House will not be saved in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.” A last-ditch art auction by a preservation group, “His Place in Provence” had failed to raise the funds necessary to strike a partnership with the developers. When I return to the States, I contacted Laurence Chaleil, the managing director at Côte d'Azur Sotheby's International Realty, who manages the property. “I confirm that the bastid of Mr. Baldwin will remain on the property,” he writes in an email. However, further requests for clarification went unanswered.
“The thought that one of the most gifted and munificently alive writers of the twentieth century, the quintessential black American in France, would soon be rid of his only geographical footprint, that his only genuine home—like those of so many nameless black families who never get to pass on a legacy—would now be wiped away, struck me as unbearably sad,” Williams wrote in 2015.
Baldwin’s time in Saint-Paul wasn’t his most fruitful. Indeed, his only canonical work completed there was If Beale Street Could Talk, published in 1974. But it remains one of Baldwin’s “great” books, currently being developed into a film by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins.
Maybe the lack of activity shows he was settled comfortably here in Saint-Paul. Late nights at la Colombe, a visit to an opening at the Fondation Maeght, a private art museum up the road, and time to wander the medieval streets. Though he frequently traveled back to the U.S., here he was Jimmy.
While the future of James Baldwin’s house is still unknown, we can say with certainty his ghost is still sitting at the bar at la Colombe, laughing away.