The French Riviera has attracted not just artists but also writers. In particular, Saint-Paul de Vence became a destination of choice for French culturati soon after Cannes hosted its inaugural film festival in 1946; it was a tranquil haven for the celebrity overspill.
Following the lead of previous brush-wielding frequenters such as Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Miró – who had traded artworks, some still on display, in return for board and lodging at the Colombe d’Or – the place became a veritable haven for writers, painters and thinkers seeking sun, creative inspiration and a quiet rural life.
All left their mark on the village and are remembered fondly. But the one artistic arrival who came to call the village home, and yet does not get the recognition he merits, is the American writer James Baldwin (‘Jimmy’ to his friends), who came here in 1970.
The American writer and humanist was one of Saint-Paul de Vence’s more striking celebrities, born in the poor New York neighbourhood of Harlem in 1924, here he is chatting to Maya Angelou.
Jimmy conducted a life-long battle against the racism and discrimination suffered by the black and homosexual communities in the United States – a battle that sadly continues to this day. He became an emblematic figure of the Civil Rights Movement alongside Martin Luther King. Rejecting violence, his only weapon was his pen (he wrote twenty or so novels and essays). After the war he continued his tireless fight from Paris and subsequently Saint-Paul de Vence from 1970. He and his companion Bernard Hassell chose an old Provençal house on Chemin du Pilon, within a stone’s throw of the village’s ramparts.
The social and political activist, civil rights spokesman and writer has been the subject of long overdue attention and reappraisal recently, not only in the critically-acclaimed documentary film I Am Not Your Negro, but also in Jules B. Farber’s superb book on Baldwin’s time in Saint-Paul.
France finally paid tribute to James Baldwin by making him a Knight of the Legion of Honour and, in 1982, he was awarded an honorary PhD from Nice University.
Baldwin and President Mitterand. (image courtesy of Pelican Publishing Company)
Farber’s book features countless interviews with those who knew the writer and his friends during the years he spent in Saint-Paul until his death in 1987, aged 63. It presents a picture of a man who became deeply fond of the village, was a lively socialite with an open-door policy, and who welcomed many of his American friends such as Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Sidney Poitier and Miles Davis to stay whenever they were visiting or performing at one of the notable jazz festivals on the Riviera. All of this despite initial hostility towards him, not least from his openly racist landlady, Jeanne Faure (though she went on to become his greatest ally).
As a gay black man, it cannot have been easy for Baldwin to fit in here. ‘‘Initially, there was suspicion and fear about suddenly having a black man actually living in their midst,’’ says Farber. ‘‘Locals – primarily farmers and wine growers who had never witnessed such a phenomenon – were aggressive in their contact. For them, he was clearly a strange creature from another world. They were insulting and treated him with disrespect. It was racism as he had experienced in the US.’’ (The very reason he traded Harlem for the Riviera in the first place; that and close FBI scrutiny.)
However, Baldwin’s charisma and openness stood him in good stead. ‘‘Jimmy confronted the tormentors with his great smile and open-heartedness that broke down the barriers, leading not only to his acceptance but to his being loved in the village.’’ His landlady soon became very fond of him, often letting him delay his rent payments. ‘‘Jimmy’s move to Saint-Paul meant he could live in peaceful splendour in a great house, surrounded by local creative friends, visited frequently by renowned American musical and literary friends – but with none of the hassle and confrontations he had been experiencing in the US.’’ Baldwin continued to write though, as Farber points out, these last 17 years of his career were not his most productive.
The Colombe d’Or was a favourite haunt. It was (and still is) run by the Roux family, which had adopted him as one of their own. He also frequented the Café de la Place and enjoyed watching pétanque, plus he went to many of the exhibitions in the Fondation Maeght just outside Saint-Paul.
James Baldwin’s house. (Image courtesy of Pelican Publishing Company)
The ongoing tale of a permanent physical legacy for Baldwin’s place in the village’s history books has had an unhappy ending. The spacious mas on chemin du Pilon in which he lived and worked until his death (he never owned it), has been demolished by property developers and luxury flats called (ironically) Le Jardin des Arts erected in its place.
Most of the physical topography of Baldwin’s house has been lost forever – there are few preserved images from the time he lived there and it remains unmarked.
An association called Les Amis de la Maison Baldwin had been trying to raise funds to save the building and convert it into a residence for artists and writers. Sadly the bid failed, but you can still raise a glass to the writer at the Colombe d’Or or the Café de la Place.