Sunday 18 March 2018

Campaign to preserve French home of author

Writer James Baldwin's house has been earmarked for development despite its cultural significance. The battle is now on to preserve it, reports

The Provencal town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, near the Cote d’Azur, which adopted James Baldwin as one of its own, until his death in 1987.
The Provencal town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, near the Cote d’Azur, which adopted James Baldwin as one of its own, until his death in 1987.

Kim Willsher

In the Provencal 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 Cote 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.

James Baldwin.
James Baldwin.

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 e1m 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 in an attempt to stop further development. "Apart from his books, the house is all that remains of Baldwin's physical presence," she said. "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 Helene 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."

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 melee 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".

The town, near the Cote d'Azur, has long been a magnet for the rich and famous. Picasso and Chagall worked here, Rolling Stone Bill Wyman has a nearby property, and Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch honeymooned there.

After Baldwin's death, there was a dispute over ownership of the house. The Baldwin family fought a long legal battle, which it eventually lost. Cain is now back in Paris after the developers took advantage of her absence from the house to remove her belongings to a nearby hotel and brick up the doors and windows.

She wants to persuade France's culture ministry to declare the house part of the country's heritage and take it over. Failing that, she says she will try to raise #10m to buy it. "The plan is the same as it's been from the outset - to work with the ministry of culture to seize the house on the grounds that historic preservation laws were violated, and if that plan fails to raise the money to purchase the house," she states on the campaign website. Baldwin's literary estate has stopped Cain using his name for her campaign and has been "like many literary estates... uncooperative and recalcitrant", she says, but she is hoping to bring relatives on board and begin negotiations with the developer next month. Helene Roux says it would be a tragedy if Baldwin's last home were lost. "It would be heartbreaking for it to disappear. What is really devastating is that very often my doorbell rings and people ask where they can find James Baldwin's house, and I have to direct them to this devastating sight."

© Guardian

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