Château des Milandes
© Sedecs/Terroirs-of-France/M. Durman
...on the banks of the Dordogne river
In this region of 1001 châteaux, on the banks of the Dordogne river, François de Caumont, Lord of the château de Castelnaud built a château in 1489, for his wife Claude de Cardaillac who wished a "house" that would be less austere than the feudal Castelnaud.
The Caumont family used the Milandes as their principal residence from where they administered the whole of their estate until 1535. After the death of their last descendant, the castle was more or less abandoned until the 1900s, when a rich industrial, Mr. CLAVERIE became the owner and made some improvements. Later, his widow yielded the Milandes to a doctor.
With its wonderful panorama onto the Dordogne valley, its sloping roofs covered in lauzes(flat stones/schists), this Renaissance château has preserved both its architectural charm and a certain soul of its past. And this is probably why Josephine Baker fell in love with the Milandes when she discovered it while visiting a friend in the Dordogne. She bought it before the war, restored it during the years following the war and lived in it until 1968.
Today, while visiting the Château, it is a bit of her that we visit. Her presence is felt throughout the visit. The Henry de Labarre family, owners of the Château de Milandes since 2001, have presented the fabulous story of this great dame of the Music Hall in a permanent exhibition.
The visitors are received in the entry hall with an audio commentary on the history of the Château. During the days of Josephine Baker, this was the billiard room where the mosaic floor ordered by her represents the coat of arms of the Caumont family.
In the next hall it is her singing voice that echoes through the walls on which hang a collection of black and white photographs of her. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1906, after a difficult childhood and a debut on Broadway, she landed in Paris in 1925 and became famous for her performance in the Revue Negre. She later performed in the Folies Bergères finding more acceptance as a ‘coloured’ performer in France then in the US. She soon became one of the world's most versatile entertainers, performing on stage and screen, singing and recording.
Through the stairs, the corridors and upstairs a countless number of her personal memorabilia and artifacts are displayed. The fabulous Art-Déco bathrooms in each bedroom is sheer luxury, and in the children’s bedrooms the audio commentaries have baby voices in the background, livening up these rooms. Children, there were many in this house, all 12 of them by 1962. All adopted, they formed a group of ethnically mixed children she called her “Rainbow Tribe”. Josephine wanted to prove that "children of different ethnicities and religions could be brothers". She was also a civil rights activist and always refused to perform for segregated audiences.
The visit continues through another hall where many of her show costumes and accessories are displayed including the famous banana belt. In yet another hall, her glamorous gowns are exhibited.
Her story would not be complete without the mention of her contribution during the war. She served with the French Red Cross during WWII. With the fall of France in 1940 she became active in the resistance movement. Using her career as a cover she became an intelligence agent. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre, and received a Medal of the Resistance in 1946. In 1961 she received the Legion d'Honneur for her efforts from Charles de Gaulle. There’s a hall dedicated to this period of her life, where the original letter from General de Gaulle is also displayed as well as many documents, press clippings, photographs and posters.
Going back downstairs, a Josephine Baker in wax from the Grévin museum receives the visitors in what was once her dining room. The table is set, the champagne is in the bucket and the huge Renaissance fireplace just waiting to be lit.
The last hall to be visited is the kitchen, almost unchanged since the days where the family used to have their meals. The audio commentaries speak of the last few years of Josephine Baker. By 1964, Les Milandes was in serious financial difficulties and in 1968 she was evicted from her château which was then auctioned off to pay her debts.
Back to the outdoors, visitors can end their visit by the gardens and the gargoyles, or watch a display of the art of falconry.