James Baldwin in France


Ulf Andersen

The late novelist and essayist James Baldwin spent the last 17 years of his life as an expatriate in France, finding creative and personal fulfillment in a country where he felt, finally, accepted. Best known for his novels Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, and Another Country, as well as essay collections such as Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin is the subject of a biography by alumnus Jules B. Farber, James Baldwin: Escape From America, Exile in Provence (Pelican Publishing Company, 2016) that recounts the writer’s last years in the village of Saint-Paul de Vence. Farber RC’50, a journalist who has written eight other books, spent four years researching James Baldwin, interviewing 70 people who knew Baldwin.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: What was your motivation for writing the book?
Jules Farber: Rather than write a classic biography of James Baldwin in the last cycle of his life—from his arrival in 1970 as a black stranger in the all-white medieval village of Saint-Paul de Vence until his death there in 1987—I sought to discover the author through the people who were part of his life: friends, lovers, barmen, writers, artists, taxi drivers, his doctors, and others who retained memories of their encounters with him. I also contacted cultural figures like Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Angela Davis, Bill Wyman, and others. I conducted more than 70 interviews—in person in places as distant as Paris, New York, and Istanbul, and by telephone—over four years during the research and writing of the manuscript.

The concept for James Baldwin: Escape From America, Exile in Provence was formulated at La Colombe d’Or, an iconic hotel and restaurant in the fortified medieval village of Saint-Paul de Venice, 12 miles from Nice. While I wandering in the narrow halls, I discovered a photograph of James Baldwin that caught my attention. I asked the waiter why there was a photo of Baldwin hanging so prominently. “We all knew ‘Jimmy,’ as we called him, like a member of the Roux family who owns this place. They adopted him as one of them soon after he arrived and he was always en famille here.”

RM: How did Baldwin end up living in Saint-Paul?
JF: Life in the United States had become too much for him. He was haunted by the assassinations of black protest leaders, distressed by the setbacks in the civil rights movement, and wounded by malicious FBI scrutiny. At the age of 46, he left the hostile atmosphere of America, returning to France to start on the third and final act of his literary career. But his well-being was short lived: he suffered from exhaustion and depression. Soon after he arrived in Paris, he collapsed and was placed in the American Hospital in Neuilly. When he was recuperating, friends shipped him off to Saint-Paul, where he had some acquaintances from earlier visits.

I became interested in finding out from people who actually knew Baldwin in Saint-Paul, about his lifestyle and integration in this all-white conservative enclave from 1970 to his death there in 1987. Baldwin’s literary work in this extended period rarely hinted at his French surroundings, although his 1978 novel, Just Above My Head, contained brief descriptions of France. He felt he was American foremost and could have been living in America reflecting on American themes and philosophy. Perhaps that is one of the compelling reasons why I became so enthusiastic about discovering Baldwin’s last period, when he remained a writer in self-exile like Henry James, his role model and literary mentor.

RM: The idea of America was never far from his thoughts, evidently.
JF: Baldwin’s schizophrenic bond with the United States, which lasted virtually from the day he set foot in Saint-Paul until his passing, was usually mentioned during my contacts with many of the renowned American personalities who regularly visited the Baldwin household. Actually, Baldwin had reopened his early wounds shortly before his death in 1987 when he wrote 30 pages for a book entitled Remember This House, recounting the lives and murders of three of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. Based on that text, the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck (with assistance from brother Hébert Peck, who works at Rutgers) brought James Baldwin’s legacy to the screen. Entitled I Am Not Your Negro, the film was nominated for a 2017 Oscar as a documentary feature.

RM: What you can tell us about some of the famous people whom you interviewed?
JF: Among well-known Baldwin friends whom I contacted was the writer Maya Angelou. “The ambiance and climate of Saint-Paul gave Jimmy the opportunity to be more of an American than the climate offered in the United States,” she said. “However, in his later years, he often talked about his old remaining pain in the ongoing struggle for equality.”

Music producer and calypso singer Harry Belafonte told me: “As Americans, we often discussed America. We each had our wounds from the past but Jimmy was particularly hurt, before and after he moved, by the criticism aimed at him, both from the left and the right. He talked like an expatriate living in France as contrasted to his living in the United States and how agonized he had been there, frustrated, angry, preoccupied by race problems and violence. Once in France, he felt he could deal with his life, celebrate his freedom, the newly found ease of his existence, a capacity to handle problems without someone breathing down your neck.”

RM: He certainly had mixed emotions about America, it sounds like.
JF: Notwithstanding his love–hate relationship, he prided himself on being an American and traveled there whenever required professionally or to earn much-needed additional funds at universities, teaching annually for a semester. Despite always being short of funds, he lived and entertained lavishly the year round. Black jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Canonball Adderley, and Ray Charles never failed to stop by when they were playing the neighboring festivals. Miles Davis and Nina Simone stayed at the house, as did Toni Morrison with her young son for a week. Literary friends, mostly white, were regulars.

RM: And lesser-known personalities shed light on Baldwin, right?
JF: During one of my frequent wanderings in the village, I was advised not to miss meeting a Dutch woman by the name of Wanda van Dijk. “Discussing his work became our first bond,” Wanda said to me about Jimmy. “We didn’t go into politics, but very often he talked about racial problems. Jimmy was always Jimmy, fast to express his ideas. He made jokes about himself and about blacks and Jews. He believed in freedom and liberty everywhere, not just for the blacks.” Wanda also recalled Baldwin’s visits to their home. “Jimmy came often, whenever he wanted to just get away from too many people and noise at his place. He always felt he could relax here, sometimes not even talking. Often he would go into the garden and sing Negro spirituals.” The contact clicked and Wanda and her late husband, Dick, became close friends and regulars at the Welcome Table.

RM: The Welcome Table?
JF: In the Baldwin household was a simple iron-and-glass table in the garden under the olive vines, as well as one inside. Its name was inspired by a verse from a Negro spiritual. Just as the Welcome Table was the central point of Baldwin’s endless entertaining, he hoped until the end that the elegant 17th-century residence would one day be developed into a haven for young artists and writers. Unfortunately, the house was razed in 2017 to make way for luxury apartments. (The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian is developing a virtual Baldwin house.)

Baldwin would probably have shrugged his shoulders and stoically accepted the loss of the house with an outward abandon. “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition,” he wrote in his 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room. The only written description of his residence appeared in Architectural Digest “Architectural Digest Visits: James Baldwin, Text by James Baldwin,” published in the magazine’s August 1987 issue, four months before he died.

“A house is not a home: we have all heard the proverb. Yet, if the house is not a home (home!), it can become only, I suppose, a space to be manipulated—manipulation demanding rather more skill than grace. I have lived in many places, have been precipitated here and there. The beginning of my life rather recalls a shipwreck, and the shipwrecked can find it difficult to trust daylight or dry land ... Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while I was living in California. That devastated my universe and was ultimately to lead me to this house.”