The book that kept Matthew Pratt Guterl indoors all last summer was published last month by Harvard University’s Belknap Press. Rebecca Onion gives it a nice rundown here at Slate:
Baker was born in St. Louis but moved to France in 1925. Her danse sauvage, famously performed in a banana skirt, brought her international fame. During World War II, she worked for the Red Cross and gathered intelligence for the French Resistance. After the war, married to her fourth husband, Jo Bouillon, she struggled to conceive a child. Meanwhile, her career waned. Guterl’s book is about this period of Baker’s life, as she built her large adopted family, became ever more active on behalf of the nascent civil rights movement in the United States, and re-emerged into fame.
Baker purchased her estate, known as Les Milandes, after marrying Bouillon in 1947. In addition to the chateau, the property boasted a motel, a bakery, cafés, a jazz club, a miniature golf course, and a wax museum telling the story of Baker’s life. As Guterl makes clear, the place was over-the-top, but its ostentation was a political statement. Les Milandes, with its fairy-tale setting, announced to the world that African-American girls born poor could transcend nation and race and find wealth and happiness.