Above left: American writer James Baldwin is photographed at his Saint Paul De Vence house on the French Riviera, March 15, 1983. Right: The front door at Chez Baldwin. Read more below.
I first visited that house, known locally as “Chez Baldwin,” in the Provençal village of St. Paul-de-Vence in June 2000. I was fascinated with the writer’s international peregrinations and admired his cosmopolitan, decades-ahead-of-our-time approach to how one’s composite self, inflected by race, gender, sexuality, and class, was key to understanding one’s national identity within and without one’s home country. I also wanted to get a sense of the domestic environment in which he wrote his later works, and where he thrived as a black queer American artist, who was reviled both by U.S. black nationalists and white liberals at the time.
My first visit to the house and surrounding gardens in June of 2000 was a revelation on several levels. First, because of how unlike the place that Baldwin had come from it was, and second, because it made him into a homeowner and someone who lived, so to speak, on and off the land. Third, as he explains it in the little-known Architectural Digest piece on his house published just a few months before his death in 1987, as he grew older and frailer, he loved the light, peace, and quiet that filled the old structure. He had first rented rooms, and then bought, piece by piece as money from his books came in, the property from an eccentric old lady. In his last interview, literally on his deathbed, he explains that the place had led him to discover and embrace a rather mythic “peasant” mindset that he traced back to his parents, who migrated to New York from Maryland and Louisiana. He loved the ancient olive, orange, and almond trees, and enjoyed flowers and herbs that enveloped the house in a lush embrace. He was beloved by the town, and wished to be buried there after his death, which we know did not happen. The more I looked, the more I found and realized, too, that Chez Baldwin had to be a character of sorts in the book along with the writer.
The house helped me appreciate how his acts of dwelling were inextricably intertwined with acts of literary creativity, how the rooms and gardens provided a stage on which he placed his characters (The Welcome Table) or how architectural elements of the interior and its decor appeared on the pages of his novels (Just Above My Head), not to mention his local friends’ influence on all of his works that he would read to and discuss with them regularly. The house embodied and exuded but also enabled and nurtured his fascinating, complex personality. The late Baldwin insisted on his uniqueness precisely because his blackness and queerness, his effeminate, “sissy” mannerisms made him an outcast in his home country and elsewhere. That house was a domestic and authorial haven where he could be fully himself.