April 12, 2017
The fraught effort to save James Baldwin’s house in France
by Kait Howard
A group leading an effort to save the house James Baldwin lived in in southern France is facing multiple challenges, including criticism from the Baldwin estate.
Last week, the New York Times’ Rachel Donadio reported on the controversy surrounding the group, which is led by American novelist Shannon Cain, to raise funds to purchase the house in the medieval village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence from a developer who plans to tear it down and replace it with apartments. The group’s efforts have provoked protest from the Baldwin estate and family members, who are concerned about the motives underlying Cain’s attempt to buy the house and turn it into a center for visiting writers. In addition to the fact that Cain plans to take a salary from donations raised to save the property, Baldwin’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart, cited the family’s worries about “who gets to represent James Baldwin’s legacy and who gets to speak about who he was.” Cain had spent some time squatting in the house last year, apparently as part of her attempt to preserve it.
In fact, this isn’t the first time the house—to which Baldwin moved into in 1970, fleeing harsh treatment by fellow members of the US civil rights movement and suspected government surveillance—has been in dispute. As Donadio recounts, after Baldwin’s death, “a complex legal battle ensued” among his family, the relatives of his landlady—from whom he’d been buying the property in installments—and a former housekeeper of the landlady, who eventually won her suit claiming that the house had actually been left to her.
In any case, according to Donadio, even if the group can raise enough money to buy the property “it’s not clear that the house can be reclaimed,” as the developer recently said that the property is no longer for sale and that construction is set to begin soon.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.