Fight to save writer's home

The former home of American novelist James Baldwin in Saint-Paul-de-Vence is in disrepair.
The former home of American novelist James Baldwin in Saint-Paul-de-Vence is in disrepair. PHOTO: NYTIMES

A group is raising money to buy American James Baldwin's home in France, as there are plans to build apartments on its site

SAINT-PAUL-DE-VENCE (France) • From 1970 until his death in 1987, James Baldwin lived and wrote in a house with an idyllic garden in this mediaeval village on the Cote d'Azur, with the Alps at its back and the Mediterranean visible far below.

But those who arrive today to pay homage to the American novelist, playwright and essayist will not find anything commemorating him. No house museum greets them or even a plaque with his name.

The wing where Baldwin lived was torn down a few years ago. The remaining two houses on the property are in disrepair, the onceverdant garden unkempt.

And the local real estate developer who now owns the property, after the Baldwin family lost control of it more than a decade ago, plans to build three apartment buildings and a pool.

Heartsick at the prospect, a group started last year by an American novelist in Paris began fund-raising to buy the property, which is nearly 3ha, and convert it into a writers' retreat dedicated to Baldwin. But the group does not have the blessing of his family, some of whose members question its tactics and its standing to champion the cause.

"To me, the issue is very straightforward: It's about representation," said Ms Aisha Karefa-Smart, Baldwin's niece. "Who gets to represent James Baldwin's legacy and who gets to speak about who he was."

The interest in the house comes at a time when the writer, with his prescient insights into race relations in the United States, is having something of a posthumous revival, fuelled by the Black Lives Matter movement and the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro.

Baldwin, who had lived in Paris earlier in his life, came to Saint-Paul-de-Vence in 1970, at the age of 46, after a breakdown. He had been excoriated by fellow members of the civil rights movement - some called the author, who was gay, Martin Luther Queen - and believed he was under surveillance by the US government. In France, he found the tranquility and distance to write.

At the time of his death from cancer, he had been buying the house in instalments from his landlady, Ms Jeanne Faure, who grew up in Algeria under French colonial rule. Despite her right-wing politics, they had become best friends.

Friends of the writer in Saint-Paul recall that Ms Faure was adamant that he have the house after her death. But a complex legal battle ensued among the Baldwin family, her relatives and a woman who had been her housekeeper.

In 2007, a court ruled in favour of the former housekeeper, Ms Josette Bazzini.

Shannon Cain, the American novelist leading the campaign to create the writers' retreat, said she was inspired to rescue the house after reading an opinion piece in Le Monde last March, France Must Save James Baldwin's House, by a writer in Paris.

But her efforts have upset the Baldwin estate and family members.

Last year, the Baldwin estate threatened legal action after the group registered a website using James Baldwin's name without permission. Ms Karefa-Smart's mother Gloria is the sole executor of the writer's estate and is known by scholars for her protectiveness over the rights to cite his work.

"We don't know who she is and this organisation is not legit, it's not a 501(c)(3)," Ms Karefa-Smart said, referring to its lack of nonprofit status under the US tax code.

Cain, who is white, later sent a letter to the family introducing herself and, in an interview, said the organisation would apply for nonprofit status in the US this week.

She called herself "an imperfect candidate for this job" because of her race. She said she would leave the organisation if her presence hindered efforts to save the house.

In recent months, the group, now called His Place In Provence, has expanded. Among the principals are Dereke Clements, an AfricanAmerican dancer in France, and its advisory board includes writer Rebecca Walker.

Ms Helene Roux Jeandheur, whose mother was close to Baldwin and whose family runs the art-filled Colombe d'Or hotel here, where he used to spend time in the evenings, is helping to set up a French non-profit.

But even if the revamped group can raise more money, it is not clear that the house can be reclaimed.

In November, a local developer, Socri, said it would consider selling the property for €9 million (S$13 million), according to an e-mail from its real estate agent provided by Cain. But in an e-mail last month, Ms Mendi Leclerc, an assistant to the developer, said construction will move ahead "very soon".

For some in France, the lack of recognition shows disrespect for Baldwin in a town that honours other cultural figures who lived here, including Matisse and Chagall.

The writer left behind an unfinished play, The Welcome Table, about an African-American living in the south of France. Its title refers to the table in his garden here, where friends would talk late into the night. In the developer's plans, that patch of lawn will become the entrance to an underground garage.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2017, with the headline 'Fight to save writer's home'. Print Edition | Subscribe