Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

“J’ai Deux Ampurs”

Jul 03, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


 “J’ai Deux Ampurs”

“I don’t lie. I improve on life.”

–Josephine Baker


Château & Jardins des Milandes (opened 2001)

Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, France


“Un coup de coeur” loosely translates to “love at first sight,” a French expression that describes how Josephine Baker felt upon first gazing at what she called Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. To experience the enchantment, step back in time and enter the Château des Milandes.


The entertainer who gave bananas a niche in the pantheon of entertainment, who trod the path from ghetto to castle, wore many lavish hats. “A black childhood is always a little sad,” Josephine remarked, and hers began in 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, as Freda Josephine McDonald. Her teenaged washerwoman mother, Carrie, called her chubby baby, Tumpy, a play on Humpty Dumpty, a nickname that stuck even after poverty made her daughter rail thin. Carrie beat her daughter and informed her that she had been an accident. By age eleven, Josephine was working as a maid for a white family, where her employer, Mrs. Keiser, burned her hands with scalding water for using too much laundry soap. A lifelong scar was her city’s race riot that resulted in the deaths of thirty-one blacks.


Shedding the name Freda, at age thirteen, she wed Willie Wells, twice her age, who hit her on her head with a bottle during an argument. She fared no better with her second husband, railroad porter William Howard Baker, who she wed at age fifteen. Josephine fled from William and St. Louis, desperate for a fresh start. 


Josephine booked a one-way ticket to New York where she electrified black Broadway in her role of Shuffle Along that thrust her into the Harlem Renaissance. In 1925, Anita Loos published Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a title the nineteen-year-old Josephine refuted when she became one of the world’s most popular entertainers. In Paris, Josephine starred in the production, La Revue Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The finale was the “Danse Sauvage” where Josephine performed nude except for a pink flamingo feather between her legs. While the hit song of 1923 had been, “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” Josephine had sixteen gold ones on her infamous banana skirt. Her sexual gyrations ushered in France’s love affair with the dancer Parisians dubbed “The Bronze Venus.” The crowds cheered for “La Ba-kir” then, simply, “Jasephine.” Ernest Hemingway declared her, “The most sensational woman anyone ever saw.” Pablo Picasso dubbed her “the Nefertiti of now.” Alexander Calder created a sculpture of her in wire. Her role in the 1927 film, Siren of the Tropics, made her the first black woman to star in a movie. Dolls bore her likeness, clad in her banana skirt. The girl who had started out on the wrong side of the tracks  wore couture by Dior and Balenciaga, walked Chiquita, her pet cheetah who sported a diamond-studded leash and socialized with Picasso, Colette, and Hemingway.


Not everyone was in Camp Jasephine. The Catholic Church condemned her blatant sexuality and hounded her stiletto-heeled footsteps. Austrian headlines denounced the “Black Devil.” The Third Reich’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, held her up as an example of degenerate, untermenschlich art.


With a dread of sleeping alone, Josephine had a relationship with a Spanish gigolo, and the self-styled Italian Count Abatino who served as her manager. Cohabiting with “the Count” did not preclude affairs with an Indian maharajah, a Swedish prince, and alleged liaisons with Colette and Frida Kahlo. A third trip down the aisle was with the French, Jewish industrialist, Jean Lion. Despite the appeal of his surname for the animal-loving star, Madame Lion filed for divorce due to his infidelities. 


When the Nazis goosestepped into France, Josephine enlisted in the-as she referred to it in her heavily accented French-Rey-zis-tonce and traded her banana skirt for a uniform. In her country castle, the Château des Milandes, once a fifteenth century fortress, became a fortress once more that harbored fugitives and arms. When Nazi officials arrived at her door with a search warrant, the Château did not divulge its resistance fighters. One mission entailed smuggling military intelligence using invisible ink on her undergarments. In case of capture, she carried a cyanide pill. After the war, President Charles de Gaulle pinned the medal of the Rosette of the Resistance on her uniform.


In 1947, Josephine married her bandleader, Jo Bouillon; after a miscarriage, she opened des Milandes to orphans of various countries-such as Korea, Finland, Algeria, Columbia, Japan. In a Christmas card, she wrote of “twelve tiny tots who were blown together by a soft wind as a symbol of universal brotherhood.” She dressed her “Rainbow Tribe” in their native garb and maintained their birth religions. She tried to provide them with the happy childhoods she had never experienced; however, busy operating des Milandes as a theme park, nannies often served as nurturers. Josephine commissioned a wax statue of herself as the Virgin Mary surrounded by her children. When their offspring numbered a dozen, Bouillon bid adieu.


Another windmill Josephine slayed was racism. In the United States, she refused to perform in segregated clubs, and historians credit the activist with the desegregation of Las Vegas casinos. When Manhattan’s Stork Club refused service, she made a show of walking out in the company of Grace Kelly who had overheard the confrontation. The NAACP formed a picket line in front of the restaurant, and Josephine filed legal charges. J. Edgar Hoover placed Josephine on the FBI watch list; the Ku Klux Klan left threatening calls.


As the organizers of the 1923 March on Washington did not allow women as keynote speakers, Josephine addressed the crowd before the official program. On that historic occasion, there was no banana skirt or rhinestone-studded microphone. Instead, she wore the uniform of the Free French Air Force that displayed her Legion of Honor Medal. In contrast to her flamboyant dance moves, her speech was spartan, “I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee…” Before she concluded, she looked out over the quarter of a million black and white crowd and stated, “Salt and pepper-just what it should be.” Post march, Josephine wrote a letter to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. that she signed, “Your sister in battle.”


Contrary to the expression “cheaper by the dozen,” the cost of caring for her children and the upkeep of her castle dissipated her fortune. During a rainstorm, gendarmes physically evicted a hysterical Josephine from her adored Milandes. Financial assistance from Princess Grace and Bridgette Bardot allowed for the purchase of a Monaco villa. The last performance of her half a century career took place at the Club Bobina where the diva drove a motorcycle across the stage. In attendance were Sophia Loren, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. A few days later, Josephine passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage; glowing reviews of her show lay on her bed. Twenty thousand mourners lined the streets to bid farewell to “Jasephine.” 


Château des Milandes: The 1489 castle that overlooks the Dordogne River and valley was the home/fortress of the Caumont family until the French Revolution. François christened it mi-landa, “among the moors.” In 1950, Josephine installed a ground-floor mosaic that displays the Caumont’s coat-of-arms with three gold leopards that also appears above an oversized fireplace. Medieval mementoes are stained-glass windows, turrets, and gargoyles. The chapel served as the venue for Josephine’s 1947 marriage to Jo Bouillon, and where she baptized her children who hailed from a Roman Catholic heritage. During a 2017 renovation, builders unearthed paintings by Renaissance painters and a crypt. The current owner is Angélique de Saint-Exupéry whose husband is a relative of Antoine de Saint-xupéry,  the author of The Little Prince.


Josephine employed ten gardeners to maintain the 300-acre estate whose path leads to a riverbank. The grounds’ six parks exhibit Ural Owls, white-tailed eagles, and hedgehogs. Guests can participate in the medieval sport of falconry. One can imagine Josephine’s menagerie walking its grounds: her Great Dane, Bonzo, her monkey, Glouglou, and her pig, Albert.


Josephine created Jorama, a wax museum that showcased her in various incarnations such as a life-size Josephine in her scandalous La Revue Nègre costume, lounging before an Art Deco backdrop. The grand salon with velvet-covered walls houses dozens of the star’s costumes and dresses, most involving crystals, all in remove-a-rib size. The library holds the crown jewel: the gold banana skirt-encased in glass–that touts it as “the most famous costume in show business.” A bathroom resembles a bottle of Arpège by Lanvin, her favorite scent; accents are gold-plated taps, Murano glass mosaics, and a green porcelain tub. The Resistance Room has exhibits depicting Josephine’s valor, including a letter from President Charles de Gaulle. The only photograph of Josephine in distress is one of her 1969 eviction where she is sitting on her home’s front steps in the rain, refusing to relinquish Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.


Forty-six years after her death, members of the French Air Force carried Josephine’s flag-draped coffin-that held soil from St. Louis, Monaco, and the Château des Milandes into the Panthéon, making her the first black woman to be honored in the hallowed tomb. Per the request of her family, her body remains in a Monaco cemetery. The backdrop of the ceremony was the cadence of Josephine’s signature song that could have symbolized her adoration of France and Milandes: “J’ai Deux Amours” which translates to “I Have Two Loves.”


The Window of Her World: Looking over the expanse of the Dordogne Valley, although she never returned to St. Louis, the image of her the McDonald family tenement never faded.