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Breaking Into James Baldwin’s House

Thomas Chatterton Williams |The New Yorker   in  ·
October 29, 2015

Last May, my wife, Valentine, and I and our friend Shahin took an overnight train from Paris to the Cote d’Azur. The bunks on these couchettes are not comfortable, nor is the trip even a bargain against the high-speed option, which gets you there in less than half the time. But it is worth it for the stretch, early in the morning, when day breaks over Marseille and the train shifts from its southern descent and veers east along the corridor linking Toulon, Saint-Raphaël, and Cannes. Suddenly, the sky fills with pastels that turn to gold and shatter on the sea. Standing in the narrow hallway, hands against the glass, your whole body lets you know that you are in the South. From Nice, the terminus, we took a car twenty minutes inland through nondescript suburban sprawl that opens onto the pristine medieval hilltop village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. As a belated wedding gift, Shahin had booked a duplex in the Colombe d’Or, an unfussy, family-run hotel perched at the base of the ancient ramparts. Since the nineteen-twenties, the hotel has provided a haven to all manner of guests, many of them artists eager to exchange canvases with the forward-thinking patron for room and board. A short list includes Matisse, Braque, Picasso, Léger, Miró, Calder, Cocteau, and Chagall—all of whom have work hanging casually, almost negligently, in the dining room or built into the spectacular landscape around the hotel’s cloistered terrace and swimming pool. Writers have come, too, and we were on a pilgrimage to retrace the steps of one we hold especially dear. For the last seventeen years of his life, until his death in 1987, James Baldwin, lifelong “transatlantic commuter,” emblem of a free black man, was a regular at the bar of the Colombe d’Or, and called home a sprawling ten-acre property, just down the hill, on the Route de la Colle.

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