A weekend in the Dordogne: More on the story of Josephine Baker…singer, dancer, spy

Saturday 23 July 2022

Saturday afternoon we embarked on a journey to Chateau des Milandes, the chateau Josephine Baker (see our Morocco blog) had rented prior to the war from 1937 (and later purchased in 1947). She unfortunately lost it towards the end of her life, in 1968 after going broke.

Situated in the Dordogne region, some six hours from Nimes, the chateau was originally built in 1489 by the wife of Claude Caumont when she got bored of her other chateau and wanted to live somewhere new. The château remained in the Caumont family until the French Revolution. It was purchased by the Labarre family in 2001 and restoration started. It has hosted an exhibition about Josephine Baker since then. In 2012 it was awarded the label ‘Maison des Illustres’ a French heritage cultural classification, due to its association with ‘one of the most exceptional women of the 20th century’.

The GPS took us off the toll roads through some French countryside made up of forests and farmland dotted about with numerous picturesque castles, ruins and small towns. We eventually arrived at the town of La Roque Gageac, one of the most stunning towns we have seen in France, built into the cliffs alongside the Dordogne river. We checked into the Manoir de la Malartrie, a bed & breakfast sited in a stunning old manor across the road from the river at the east end of the town. With a swimming pool, tables and chairs set among the trees in the well-tended gardens, it is a very picturesque place.

We headed back into the town looking for a pizza and a glass of wine but the town was full of tourists and the service was typically french (as in lacking!). We headed down the road and back across the river to Cenac et St Julien, but no luck there either. We eventually settled for an ice cream and headed back to the Manoir, admiring the dozen-or-so hot air balloons that had popped up from over the hill.


Sunday 24 July 2022

We enjoyed an excellent home-made breakfast, with a wide variety of fabulous dishes including a tomato tart, orange cake and apricot flan as well as a great selection of breads, cheeses etc, in the garden, along with the delightful service of the lady of the house, originally from Morocco. We then followed the GPS along the river, crossing the river below the Chateau Castlenau, and continued up the hill, and through a lovely wooded area, eventually arriving at Le Chateau des Milandes, which over the last 20 years has undergone a restoration and has magnificent gardens.

Our tour through the castle itself (no photos allowed) showcased different periods of Josephine’s life in the many different rooms, including her marriage to Jo Bouillon during which she adopted twelve children (two girls and one boy) of varying nationalities and religions. She referred to them as her ‘Rainbow Tribe’.

A world-famous entertainer, singer and dancer, Josephine seems to have been quite a character. At the fall of Paris she located herself at the chateau, working with the French resistance, eventually smuggling from France a large amount of secret documents about the German activities. She secreted these documents, written in invisible ink, into the large trunks she traveled with as part of her performances, and was able to get them into the hands of the British Intelligence services.

During her tenure in the chateau she turned the village into a tourist attraction with her brother running the petrol station and her sister running a hotel, but unfortunately, despite being a gifted performer, she wasn’t fiscally wise. Some tradesmen sent her several duplicate bills, all of which she paid, eventually sending her broke, eventually losing the chateau to creditors. She barricaded herself in the kitchen for three days but was eventually evicted.

Having been a spy, she thought for the Free French and De Gaulle, but it later transpired she had been working for the British Intelligence services. While in Morocco in the early part of the wars, she and her handler and lover,Jaques Abtey, played a large part in the success of Operation Torch, where an armada of some 70,000 troops sailed from the US and another 30,000 from British, landing in both Algeria and Morocco in 1942. For a large part of this time she was hospitalised with peritonitis in Casablanca but even though on death’s door, her hospital room was a safe place for the meeting of various people to meet and share information, hiding from both Nazi and Vichy French spies.

After the invasion she was offered a contract from the US to entertain the troops but turned it down on the basis that she wanted to give her services for free – not only to the US but to all the allies who were fighting Naziism. She continued to gather and pass on information to the SIS during this time.

In the chateau was a cabinet full of the numerous awards she received from the Free French, the British and the Americans, including the French Legion of Honour.

After the war, she became an active crusader for the Civil rights movement, especially in her native US, where she was the speaker immediately before Martin Luther King gave his historic « I have a dream » speech.

Outside the chateau we enjoyed a raptor show, put on by some of the staff in the castle, showcasing a number of bords including a Giant African Eagle Owl and a Bald Eagle. At one point a man walked around showing a ferret, that is used to get the rabbits out of their holes so the birds can pounce. A motorised rabbit was pounced on by a large hawk.

Spotted Eagle Owl

Barn Owl

Eurasian Eagle Owl

Caracara

Bald Eagle (f)

While we enjoyed lunch at the chateau brasserie they played songs from Josephine in the background. We enjoyed the magnificent gardens before heading back to the car for the long drive home.

Once again, we avoided the toll roads, taking a route along a ridge line, which gave us extensive views over some of the best scenery we’ve seen in France. All in all a great weekend…

5 thoughts on “A weekend in the Dordogne: More on the story of Josephine Baker…singer, dancer, spy

  1. Rosie says:

    Great photos again. And great story. Thank you.
    Love the bird shots.

  2. Stan says:

    Like something out of a Bond movie. Very nice.

  3. Molly Murray says:

    Fascinating as usual
    Wish we knew how much time you have!
    Love M&Mxxx

  4. Jo-Anne Hitchcock says:

    I think the Dordogne is my favorite area of France! They call it the place of 1000 chateau, because every corner you come around on the road, there’s another one on the hill. Such a beautiful area! All that forest, then the golden stone villages. The Josephine Baker story is interesting. I never heard about that when i was there. I’d love to see it

  5. ALISTER says:

    once a gain you two are amzing ENJOY AND KEEP THE BLOGS COMING

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