In the Provençal town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the picturesque stone house beneath the medieval ramparts is known as “la maison de Jimmy”. The official records office lists it as the ancienne maison Baldwin.
Here in the hills behind the Côte d’Azur, the Harlem-born writer and social critic James Baldwin lived, composing his later works on a clackety old typewriter and entertaining friends including Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, Simone Signoret and Nina Simone. It was here he died of stomach cancer in 1987, aged 63.
For 17 years, the local people adopted the African American author as one of their own. He was often seen chatting in the bar of the local Colombe d’Or hotel, and the affection was reciprocal. Today campaigners are battling to secure the future of his 17th-century house and its grounds, which have been earmarked for development into 18 luxury €1m flats. Two wings of the property on the 10-acre plot have already been demolished, including one in which he wrote.
The Paris-based American novelist Shannon Cain, who is leading the fight to save the property, recently squatted in the surviving section of the house for 10 days in an attempt to stop further development. “Apart from his books, the house is all that remains of Baldwin’s physical presence,” she told the Observer. “It was his dream that the property should become an artists’ colony or residence, and it would be a tragedy to let it go.” Neighbour Hélène Roux remembers “Jimmy”, the kind, lively American who was a larger-than-life presence at Colombe d’Or, run by her late mother, Yvonne. “He was a big presence in my childhood. Jimmy used to write at night and pop up to the village each day around 4pm to come and sit and chat with my mum. Every day he would show up, so he was always there when I came back from school.
“At first he seemed intimidating, then you saw the life in his eyes and the smile that illuminated his face. And every day he would ask how my day at school had been. My mother held him in high esteem and vice versa. She was his great friend; it was a lovely relationship.” The pair were so close that Baldwin named the main character in his 13th novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, Clementine “Tish” Rivers; Clementine was Yvonne Roux’s middle name.
“It was no coincidence,” Roux said. “The degree of generosity and affection he showed with his time and incredible intelligence was wonderful. He followed us through childhood; through adolescence, the tribulations, boyfriends ... Jimmy was there.”
Baldwin bought a one-way ticket to Paris at the age of 24, despairing of American prejudice against African-Americans and gay people, and was soon adopted into the cultural mêlée of the French capital’s Left Bank. In 1970 he settled in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, where American painter Beauford Delaney, a regular guest, set up his easel in the garden, and Josephine Baker, Miles Davis and Ray Charles visited.
In his autobiography, Miles Davis wrote that he and Baldwin would “get comfy in that beautiful, big house and he would tell us all sorts of stories … he was a great man”.
The town, a few minutes from the Côte d’Azur, has long been a magnet for the rich and famous. Picasso and Chagall worked here, Jacques Raverat and his wife Gwen – Charles Darwin’s granddaughter – lived here, Yves Montand and Lino Ventura visited, Rolling Stone Bill Wyman has a nearby property, and the actor Donald Pleasence died in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
After Baldwin’s death, there was a dispute over the ownership of the house. The Baldwin family fought a long legal battle, which it eventually lost. The house has since been sold three times.
Cain is now back in Paris after the developers took advantage of her absence from the house to remove her belongings to a nearby hotel (they paid for two nights) and brick up the doors and windows.
She wants to persuade France’s culture ministry to declare the house part of the country’s heritage and take it over. Failing that, she says she will try to raise more than €10m to buy it. “The plan is the same as it’s been from the outset – to work with the ministry of culture to seize the house on the grounds that historic preservation laws were violated, and if that plan fails to raise the money to purchase the house from the developer,” she states on the campaign website.
“The aim for this startup phase is to establish an organisation with the capacity to raise a significant amount of money – in the neighbourhood of €10m – to purchase and/or renovate this house, as well as to establish a permanent endowment that will support an artist residency in perpetuity.”
Baldwin’s literary estate has stopped Cain using his name for her campaign site and has been “like many literary estates … uncooperative and recalcitrant”, she says, but she is hoping to bring relatives on board and begin negotiations with the property developer next month. “This is a passion project for me. I cannot let it go.”
Hélène Roux says it would be a tragedy if Baldwin’s last home were lost. “This is where Jimmy wrote and lived and died. If this house is lost, there would be absolutely nothing left of James Baldwin in this village, a place where he was very happy and where we were happy to see him,” Roux told the Observer.
“It would be heartbreaking for it to disappear. What is really devastating is that very often my doorbell rings and people ask where they can find James Baldwin’s house, and I have to direct them to this devastating sight.”