James Baldwin

The American writer and humanist was one of Saint-Paul de Vence's most striking celebrities. A Provençal house in the country was his home for the last 17 years of his life…

James Baldwin was born in the poor New York neighbourhood of Harlem in 1924. He conducted a life-long battle against the racism and discrimination suffered by the black and homosexual communities in the United States. He became an emblematic figure of the Civil Rights Movement alongside Martin Luther King. Rejecting violence, his only weapon was his pen (he wrote twenty or so novels and essays). After the war he continued his tireless fight from Paris and subsequently Saint-Paul de Vence from 1970.

He and his companion Bernard Hassell chose an old Provençal house on Chemin du Pilon, within a stone's throw of the village ramparts. Its immense garden studded with olive and orange trees and laurels was an inspiration. Friends were always dropping in on the couple. American painter Beauford Delaney, a close friend of James Baldwin, made their house in Saint-Paul his second home, often setting up his easel in the garden. Beauford Delaney painted several portraits of James and Bernard. James's brother David was another regular house-guest, as were actors Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitiers.

A lot of Baldwin's musician friends dropped in during the Nice and Juan-les-Pins jazz festivals: Nina Simone, Josephine Baker (whose sister lived in Nice), Miles Davis and Ray Charles for whom James Baldwin composed several pieces of music. Actor Bill Cosby had a bouquet of red roses delivered to Baldwin every year on his birthday - with one more flower every time! James Baldwin spoke impeccable French and developed friendships with Yves Montand, Simone Signoretand Marguerite Yourcenar, who translated his play The Amen Corner .

James Baldwin's years in Saint-Paul de Vence were also years of work. Sitting in front of his sturdy typewriter, his days were devoted to writing and to answering the huge amount of mail he received from all over the world. Just Above My Head, If Beale Street Could Talk and Harlem Quartet were written in full or in part in Saint-Paul de Vence, as was Little Man Little Man, a children's book illustrated by Yoran Cazac and published in 1976. It was also in his Saint-Paul house that James Baldwin wrote his famous Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis, a plea against intolerance, in November 1970.

France paid tribute to James Baldwin by making him a Knight of the Legion of Honour and dubbing him for his outstanding achievements in the arts. In 1982, he was awarded an honorary PhD from Nice University.

Saint-Paul's adopted son, who wrote Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, passed away in Saint-Paul de Vence on 1 December 1987. His grave is in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, near New York.

James Baldwin talks of his childhood in Harlem in an interview recorded in Saint-Paul de Vence in 1972 - See the video
James Baldwin 23 sept 1985
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