24 hours with Josephine Baker at Château des Milandes


Dordogne ValleyCultural HeritageNature and Outdoor ActivitiesVillages and Countryside

L'oasis -et utopie- de Joséphine Baker était le château des Milandes, un édifice Renaissance dans la Vallée de la Dordogne.
© Banana Walery/Milandes façade bégo - L'oasis -et utopie- de Joséphine Baker était le château des Milandes, un édifice Renaissance dans la Vallée de la Dordogne.

Reading time: 0 minPublished on 21 March 2024, updated on 15 April 2024

After toiling against the forces of evil with a mixture of courage and cunning, she returned to her château in the French countryside to raise her rainbow family. While Josephine Baker's life around WWII may seem like a medieval epic, the French-American actress and resistance fighter's life at the Château des Milandes was as real as the Renaissance castle itself.

From poor beginnings in St. Louis, to chorus-girl days in New York and cabaret superstardom in Paris, then a quieter family life in the Dordogne Valley, Josephine lived many lives before even reaching middle age. Her true home may have been the stage, but her heart also belonged to the Château des Milandes. The actress fell in love with her "Sleeping Beauty" castle in the 1930s, later purchasing and transforming the Renaissance château into her dream utopia. Today the chateau is a museum, honoring her life and career, offering visitors a glimpse at the actress, musician, madonna, spy, PR whiz, performer throughout the castle and its grounds.

La tribu "arc-en-ciel" de Joséphine se baladait dans les jardins du château, aujourd'hui ouverts aux visiteurs.
© Château des Milandes - La tribu "arc-en-ciel" de Joséphine se baladait dans les jardins du château, aujourd'hui ouverts aux visiteurs.

9am: walk through the garden with the Rainbow Tribe

Baker did something extraordinary in the 1950s, something the world had never seen before—the international superstar adopted 12 children from across the globe, bringing them together to form a "Rainbow Tribe." Uniting children from lands like Japan, Finland, Algeria and Peru, her plan was to"“...make every effort so that each shows the utmost respect for the opinions and beliefs of the other...I want to show people of colour that not all whites are cruel and mean. I will prove that human beings can respect each other if given the chance.” Wishing to demonstrate her family as a model to the world, she transformed the château into something of a stage where they could be displayed. Josephine blurred the lines between performing and private life, creating an "it's a small world after all" idyll come to life. Visitors would come to les Milandes to take pictures with the children, and Josephine would trot them out among the lush greenery of the garden or by the wrought-iron gate to be seen by the masses.


11am: Re-tread the boards

In many ways, les Milandes was a museum to Josephine while she still walked its halls. To immortalize her fantastic career, Josephine created Jorama-a wax museum. Though many of the originals were lost when Josephine ceded control of les Milandes, the figures depicted the highlights of her life. Today, a statue of Josephine in her scandelous "Revue Nègre" costume lounges before an Art Deco backdrop. This is the Josephine most of the world knows—the performer of liquid moves, the It-girl of the Paris 20s who was known to walk her pet cheetah on a leash. The château houses dozens of her costumes and dresses today, pieces of Josephine at home in her castle.


3pm: Tour the castle and find the Renaissance traces

Though Josephine was by far the château's most famous resident, les Milandes' storied history began well before the famed chanteuse was born. Constructed at the end of the 15th century, the manor was built by François de Caumont for his wife, giving it a name that evoqued its bucolic setting (Milandes coming from mi-landa, roughly meaning among the moors). The castle later housed the local lords of the Dordogne. Sporting finials and towers, gargoyles and stained glass, it's a lovely medieval structure lifted out of the pages of a fairytale. The medieval and Renaissance touches are woven throughout the castle and its grounds, from the facade to the falconry. But perhaps the most illuminating aspect are the stained glass windows, technicolor reminders of les Milandes dreamy history, a facet Josephine treasured.

Josephine Bakers fantastiske art deco badeværelse
© Château des Milandes - Josephine Bakers fantastiske art deco badeværelse

5pm: freshen up in the Art Deco bathroom

Josephine's Jazz Age past feels present in the fabulous Art Deco bathroom. Gold-leafed and black studded, with jade-colored porcelain (allegedly designed to match the bottle of Arpège, her favorite perfume), the dazzling deco powder room screams Left Bank. You can practically imagine the chanteuse crooning "J'ai deux amours" or "C'est lui" while luxuriating in the big green bathtub.


7pm: Relive her days as a WWII spy

Josephine was seldom at home in Les Milandes during the Second World War, though it reportedly functioned as a haven for Jews during this time—recruited as a Résistance fighter, spying for France. She was an ideal candidate for this job, as her work kept her traveling and took her to rarified air where she could pass along sensitive information, often through codes in her sheet music. Josephine even performed for Allied troops in North Africa, declaring: "It’s France that has made me. I’m prepared to give it my life. You can use me as you will." Her efforts for France were honored by a Croix de Guerre and a Legion of Honour, and much of her memorbilia from this time is on display at the museum.

Find out more:

Josephine Baker will be reinterred at the Pantheon monument in Paris on November 30, 2021.

By France.fr

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