Who James Baldwin Knew

The Provençal village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, about 10 miles west of Nice, traces its origins back to roughly 1000 A.D. But since the 1920s, the center of cultural life there has been a rustic family-owned inn called La Colombe d’Or. At first, it was the artists who came, in a sun-baked retreat from the dense scene of between-the-wars Paris. The owner, Paul Roux, who lacked much formal education but possessed exquisite taste, would encourage them to pay for meals or lodging with works. Over the years, the place became filled with pieces by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Fernand Léger, many of which still hang with an insouciance that belies a top-notch security system, on the scuffed plaster walls. By the 1950s, as the Cannes Film Festival started to take off, the inn would become the magnet for movie stars, rock gods, bon vivants and tourists that it remains today. So enchanted was Baldwin by the little hotel and the town that buzzed around it that, in 1970, he began renting an apartment there, eventually writing his novel “Just Above My Head (1979) at Chez Baldwin. The Colombe d’Or — always more than a just a restaurant with rooms upstairs, the kind of place where you can spend the day by the pool, nibbling on a bouquet de crevettes and ordering another bottle of rosé — became his second living room.

While he often brought along house guests, including the singer Nina Simone and the actor Sidney Poitier, on other days he hung out there with a trio of regulars — the married actors Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, who had first met at the inn in 1949, and the aristocratic Belgian-born writer Marguerite Yourcenar, lionized for her novel “Memoirs of Hadrian” (1951). Montand co-owned Cafe de La Place across the street from the hotel, where there was a designated area for everyone to play pétanque, a lawn bowling game similar to bocce. It made sense that Yourcenar and Baldwin would get on; they were both philosophical writers with a strong moral and historic frame (and a theatrical affect); she, too, toggled between essays, novels and short stories. And, like him, she lived nearly all her life openly queer, mostly in the U.S. with her English translator, Grace Frick, from 1939 until Frick’s 1979 death; their white clapboard house in a tiny Maine village had obvious parallels to Baldwin’s refuge in Saint Paul-de-Vence. After Frick’s demise, Youncenar visited the French town with her traveling companion, a young gay man named Jerry Wilson. In 1983, she translated Baldwin’s play “The Amen Corner” (1954) into French, and when he received the Légion d’Honneur in 1986, a year before her death at 84, she was said to be in Paris, at his side.