This story is part of T’s Book Club, a series of articles and events dedicated to classic works of American literature. Click here to R.S.V.P. to a virtual conversation, led by Ayana Mathis, about “Go Tell It on the Mountain” on Dec. 17.
It is impossible to read the work of James Baldwin — who often wove memorable details from his life into his fiction, plays and essays — and not want to learn more about the man. Born in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin reached the height of literary success soon after the publication of his first few books, while also becoming a vocal and visible advocate for the civil rights movement beginning in the late 1950s. Known for being a magnetic speaker, with his wide eyes and mercurial temperament, Baldwin was also an irresistible presence and very clearly an intellectual star few could rival. Throughout the decades, he became friendly with a dazzling array of different writers, artists, activists, actors, musicians and more — all people whose lives he touched and who, in turn, helped to shape his own. Below, a primer on 10 individuals Baldwin encountered and, in his way, kept close until his death in 1987.
While Baldwin lived in Harlem in the late 1930s with his mother, stepfather and eight younger siblings, one of his teachers at the local junior high school was the Harvard-educated Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen, who likely influenced the budding writer to attend his alma mater, DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. A prestigious all-boys public institution at the time, it counts among its alumni dozens of 20th century luminaries, including the painters Barnett Newman and Romare Bearden, the electronics pioneer Avery Fisher and the literary critic Lionel Trilling. It was there that Baldwin found succor amid a fierce coterie of intellectually fecund, largely working-class Jews. Much of his energy was channeled into the school literary magazine, The Magpie, where one of its editors was Richard Avedon, the son of a Jewish Belarusian immigrant, who would become one of the dominant fashion photographers and portraitists of the 20th century. A year older than Baldwin, Avedon was not only visually gifted — he started taking pictures at age 12, using his father’s Brownie box camera — but an accomplished poet; as a senior, he took first prize in a citywide high school poetry contest. The two boys, both sensitive, came from high-tension homes. The Depression had cost Avedon’s father his retail dress business, and the photographer’s beloved sister, Louise, would soon begin a descent into mental illness. Baldwin’s preacher stepfather was perpetually angry, overwhelmed by his large family, and en route to madness, as well. But in high school the boys blossomed, collaborating on a magazine that showcased stylish Art Deco-inflected graphics and modernist verse. After high school, Avedon joined the merchant marine, Baldwin decamped to Greenwich Village, and they largely fell out of touch.
Then, in 1962, Avedon, by then famous for his work in Harper’s Bazaar and Life, was asked to photograph him. The shoot sparked “Nothing Personal,” a revelatory 1964 monograph in which Avedon’s photographs are accompanied by a 20,000-word essay by Baldwin. The project, as the critic Hilton Als put it, brought together four aspects of contemporary American life: civil rights, mental health, Black nationalism and the transfer of cultural power from Old Hollywood to the rock ’n’ roll generation; portraits of Allen Ginsberg and Marilyn Monroe are juxtaposed with shots of the American Nazi Party and patients in an asylum. Baldwin’s text, which is only loosely connected to the photographs, includes lucid reflections on how television advertising mirrors the zeitgeist, and the ordeal of being stopped and frisked while showing a white European friend around New York City. The book limns how the two men, so different in their origins and art, were remarkably similar in profound ways. As Als points out in his introductory essay to a new edition of the book from 2017: both were perennial outsiders, “menaced, and so, therefore, perceived as menacing despite their commercial and critical success; they knew power could be positive and effective but was ultimately illusory, fake.”
“I learned about the light from Beauford Delaney,” began Baldwin’s introduction to the catalog for a 1964 exhibition of the work of the Knoxville, Tenn.-born modernist painter at Paris’s Galerie Lambert, “the light contained in every thing, in every surface, in every face.” Baldwin had been a 16-year-old student at DeWitt Clinton when he first met the 39-year-old Delaney in 1940, introduced by Emile Capouya, a fellow classmate and contributor to The Magpie who would one day publish works by Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Primo Levi. Capouya figured that his friend Baldwin, who was struggling with his identity, would find common ground with the artist, whose studio was located at 181 Greene Street. Delaney, Baldwin would later write, “was the first walking, living proof for me that a Black man could be an artist.” Delaney was a paternal figure who disabused Baldwin of the notion that jazz was sinful, and played Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller and Bessie Smith for the boy on his scratchy record player. Queer and closeted, Delaney lived a complicated, compartmentalized life: in the Village, where he felt freer to be himself than with his more conservative friends in Harlem, he moved in bohemian circles, developing friendships with artists such as Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Baldwin remained a constant in the painter’s life, however. In 1948, when Baldwin was 24, he left the United States for Paris, fleeing American racism. Five years later, Delaney joined him there, extending what was to be a vacation into a permanent stay. In 1955, the painter relocated his studio to Clamart, a southwestern suburb, a move thought to support his mental health, which had started to decline. Throughout, Baldwin was loyal to his friend. When Baldwin moved to the South of France, Delaney, who died in 1979, spent weeks sitting at his easel in the writer’s garden. During Delaney’s time in France, his work, once primarily colorful figuration, reflected his deepening interest in abstraction. “In a warmer time, a less blasphemous place,” Baldwin wrote, “[Beauford] would have been recognized as my master and I as his pupil. He became for me an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times, and I lived to see him broken, but I never saw him bow.”
In 1943, Delaney introduced a 19-year-old James Baldwin to Connie Williams, a Trinidadian restaurateur who had just opened Calypso Restaurant — whose patrons would include Tennessee Williams and entertainers such as Eartha Kitt and Paul Robeson — in a basement space on Macdougal Street. Hired as a waiter at Calypso, which had live music and dancing, Baldwin mixed with the bohemian clientele. Among the habitués who befriended the erudite young server was the writer Henry Miller. But the occasional customer with whom he may have developed the most enduring friendship was Marlon Brando, who was born the same year as Baldwin and had followed his two older sisters to New York that year and become a student of Stella Adler at the New School’s Dramatic Workshop. The men may have even shared a space together for a brief time. (Brando, who had a lifelong talent for offbeat friendships, would later become roommates with a childhood pal from Evanston, Ill., the proto-nerd character actor Wally Cox).
Brando and Baldwin bonded over a passion for racial and social justice and for the theater, forging a connection that lasted through the decades. It was Brando who, in 1952, fresh off his star-making turn in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” lent Baldwin, who had just finished writing the manuscript for “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in Switzerland, the money to fly to New York to meet the Knopf executives who wanted to publish his semiautobiographical novel. The two men were — along with Charlton Heston — among the most recognized presences on the podium at the 1963 March on Washington and, in 1966, when the actor visited the writer in Istanbul during one of Baldwin’s frequent stints in Turkey, a local friend ferried Brando in his compact car in an unsuccessful attempt to elude photographers. When the author James Grissom interviewed Brando in 1990 for a book about Tennessee Williams (“Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog,” 2015), the conversation veered unexpectedly: “If you wish to ask me what I cared about most now — if you ask me to state what was important or lasting,” he told Grissom, “it would have to be that I walked and sat and dreamed next to a man named James Baldwin. James — or Jimmy — knew how to analyze, place, describe, repair and destroy things — all in the right way and for the right reasons. Baldwin, as I liked to call him, taught me to think in a piercing way about things far more important than scripts or contracts or poems — he taught me to look into and understand people and their motives and their identities. And I didn’t always like what I saw, but it led me toward something that might be called freedom.”
Just hours after President John F. Kennedy gave his historic civil rights address in June 1963, a speech that had likely been spurred by the pressure that Baldwin and other leaders had exerted on the administration, the writer’s friend, 37-year-old Medgar Evers, Mississippi field secretary for the N.A.A.C.P., was shot in the back and killed in his driveway by Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist and Klansman. Evers had been the target of several other assassination attempts in the months before. Baldwin observed that Evers seemed resigned to the fact that he would die from his activism. One imagines that Evers might have hoped, at least, that his wife, Myrlie, and children, always nervous for his safety, would not have to witness his death, or that it would take months for his killer to be convicted, rather than 31 years. Although Baldwin was already deeply involved with the movement by then — he had first met Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 while touring the South on assignment for Harper’s and The Partisan Review, and had, over the years, developed a complex relationship with Malcolm X — he had only known Evers for five months. They met that January in Jackson, after the Congress of Racial Equality had sent the writer on a lecture tour of the Deep South. Evers invited him along to interview bystanders to the killing of a Black man by a white shopkeeper — an experience that Baldwin found terrifying; the young civil rights leader also told him of the tree he had walked past daily in his childhood, draped with shreds of clothing from a man who had been lynched there.
The image, and Evers’s reconciled attitude to the possibility of his own violent and untimely death, had a profound effect. Baldwin’s memory of the last time he saw Evers, at the activist’s small ranch home, where he had gone to sign some books for the family, is among the most transfixing points in Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” premised on “Remember This House,” Baldwin’s unrealized book about King, Malcolm X and Evers, for which only 30 pages of notes exist. Completing the project would have required Baldwin to travel back down to places like Selma, Ala., and Jackson, Miss., to interview the widows and children of slain leaders. The writer, by then suffering from the esophageal cancer that would kill him in 1987 at 63, was not in any shape to do it. He had become increasingly depressed about the state of American race relations. By the 1980s, according to his former literary assistant, David Leeming, who became his biographer, Baldwin’s outlook was one of “general pessimism” about the “unlikelihood of the white world’s changing its ways.”
Both Baldwin and the epic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis considered themselves to be guarded people, in possession of a kind of “artistic shyness,” as Davis once described it in his 1989 autobiography, wary of other people taking up too much of their time. Davis even thought they resembled each other enough to be brothers. A mutual friend introduced them in the ’60s, and when the musician played gigs in Cap d’Antibes and at the yearly Jazz à Juan festival, he stayed for a couple of days at Baldwin’s farmhouse in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, an idyllic town in Provence. They were in awe of each other at the beginning. (“He was so goddamn heavy, all those great books he was writing, and so I didn’t know what to say to him,” Davis would recall. “Later I found out that he felt the same way about me.”) Baldwin had long been enamored of the musical process. “The man who creates the music,” he wrote in the 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues,” “is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.”
Despite their similar reputations as mercurial, the men, in fact, came from divergent backgrounds: Davis, who had attended Juilliard, was the son of a dentist and grew up in East St. Louis, Ill. But they had each developed elaborate personas that helped them navigate celebrity and a hostile white world. When they were together, however, those boundaries receded. “We would just sit in that great big beautiful house of his telling all kinds of stories,” Davis recalled. “Then we would go out to that wine garden he had and do the same thing.” Baldwin’s death shook the famously unflappable Davis. Quincy Troupe, who helped Davis write his autobiography, recalled the day he told the trumpeter that Baldwin was gone. “He was convinced that among all his friends, Jimmy would outlive him. I thought I saw tears welling in his eyes but, if there were, Miles covered it up well by going to the bathroom. One thing is certain: Miles Davis wasn’t going to let me or anybody else see him cry. But I think on this cold December day in 1987 Miles Davis was crying in the bathroom for his great friend now gone, Jimmy Baldwin.”
While Beauford Delaney was Baldwin’s idealized father figure (and the antithesis of his stepfather), the writer had a far more fraught bond with the novelist Richard Wright, his literary father. In 1944, Baldwin was 20 when he knocked on the Brooklyn door of the older writer, then 36. Four years earlier, Wright had become internationally known for “Native Son,” the harrowing tale of a young Black man who accidentally kills a white woman and then, while on the run, rapes and murders his own girlfriend. The novel, which sold 215,000 copies, focused attention on the relentless racism of modern America. Like Baldwin, Wright had a fraught childhood; he was born in a log cabin in Mississippi into a family of sharecroppers, with four grandparents who had been enslaved, and a father who would desert the family when the writer was five. He was bounced around to relatives’ homes throughout the impoverished delta, winding up with his severe Seventh Day Adventist grandmother, who forbade books other than the Gospels. Wright, a precocious student, had to work to support himself instead of attending high school. Eventually, during the Great Migration, he moved to Chicago, where he got deeply involved with the Communist Party and, in 1937, moved to New York. There, he developed a friendship with the writer Ralph Ellison and began successfully publishing short stories, including those in his 1938 collection “Uncle Tom’s Children,” with its harrowing description of lynchings in the Deep South.
To the young, ambitious Baldwin, he was like a god. Over the course of the early years of their relationship, Wright — who moved to Paris with his wife and child in 1946, soon after the publication of his memoir “Black Boy” — read early drafts of Baldwin’s novel that would eventually become “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and helped Baldwin land a fellowship that launched his writing career. When Baldwin also moved to Paris, Wright introduced him to the influential editors at the new literary magazine Zero. But, in a stunning Oedipal feat, the 24-year-old’s first piece for Zero, published in 1949, was a fierce takedown of “Native Son” titled “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” In it, Baldwin skewered race-based political fiction, starting with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852), made limp by the “wet eyes of the sentimentalist,” and lambasted Wright for making his protagonist Bigger Thomas a bookend to that portrayal, a cardboard character who merely reinforced the prejudice and stereotyping of Black people as subhuman, violent and trapped by circumstance. As Als noted in The New Yorker in 1998, the essay was “meant not only to bury the tradition of Black letters which had its roots in a Communism supported by white dilettantes but also to supersede Wright as the one Black writer worth reading in the largely white world of American letters.” Predictably, Wright felt betrayed, and although they stayed connected, they never fully reconciled. (Baldwin would later concede that it had been wrong to hurt Wright.) In “Alas, Poor Richard,” a 1961 essay he wrote after Wright’s death, at age 52 of a heart attack, Baldwin, searching to understand the complex friction between them called him “my ally and my witness, and alas! my father.”
He called her Sweet Lorraine, a likely reference to the Nat King Cole version of the jazz standard, but also a tribute to her particular combination of steely intelligence and gentleness. They met in New York in 1958, when the writer and playwright, whom Baldwin would later refer to as “that small, dark girl, with her wit, her wonder and her eloquent compassion,” came to a theater workshop production of his melancholic gay-themed novel, “Giovanni’s Room” (1956). Baldwin, 34, was already famous, having published “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and his first collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955); the 28-year-old Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun,” its title derived from “Harlem,” a poem by her mentor Langston Hughes, was about to debut on Broadway, making her the first African-American woman to have her work appear there. While the assembled mandarins attacked “Giovanni’s Room,” Hansberry — petite and relentless, a geyser of well-reasoned passion — defended Baldwin as a meteoric talent and a teller of naked truths. That they were both queer likely strengthened their connection even more. Over the course of his life, Baldwin wrote rhapsodically about many friends, especially those in the civil rights movement, but his recollections of Hansberry, who died in 1965 at 34 of pancreatic cancer, had an unparalleled luminosity and joy.
Their evenings together in her Greenwich Village apartment were full of arguments, booze and humor. Although she was a committed Marxist while he was untethered to a single ideology, together they became the literary conscience of the Black liberation movement. In 1963, in the wake of the publication of Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” she was among the people he took (along with others including Harry Belafonte, the psychologist Kenneth Clark and the singer and actress Lena Horne) to a historic and antagonistic secret meeting requested by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Despite a tsunami of rancor, the gathering, in which an enraged Hansberry suggested there was “no alternative except our going in the streets … and chaos,” contributed a month later to John F. Kennedy’s famed civil rights address. To Baldwin, she possessed a remarkable alchemy of femininity, dagger sharpness and fidelity to uncompromising ideals, which he found irresistible. “I would often stagger down her stairs as the sun came up, usually in the middle of a paragraph,” he recalled in Esquire in 1969, “and always in the middle of a laugh. That marvelous laugh. That marvelous face.” But the pair shared an ineffable isolation as well, born of their acute awareness of the racial oppression that hung like soot in the air, clinging to everything. “Her going,” he wrote, “did not so much make me lonely as make me realize how lonely we were. We had that respect for each other, which perhaps is only felt by people on the same side of the barricades, listening to the accumulating thunder of the hooves of horses and the treads of tanks.”
In September 1960, Rose Styron, the forbearing wife of the 35-year-old novelist William Styron, fielded a call to their home in bucolic Litchfield County, Conn., from Robert Silvers, an editor at Harper’s Magazine. Silvers, then 30, who a few years later would co-found The New York Review of Books, was working with Baldwin, 36, on an essay about Martin Luther King Jr. It was slow going; Baldwin, who had come back from France to work on the front lines of the civil rights movement, was feeling burned out in Greenwich Village. Could he come stay in the Styrons’ gracious 19th-century home? William Styron, a Virginian WASP descended from slave owners who had become famous in 1951 for his novel “Lie Down in Darkness,” was gestating the 1967 book that would at first gain him outrageous accolades and a Pulitzer Prize, and then bedevil him when critical opinion turned vicious: “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” The story of a violent 1831 slave revolt that resulted in more than 200 deaths and unimaginable carnage, the rarely discussed incident had been an obsession of Styron’s since adolescence.
Baldwin remained on the couple’s five acres in Roxbury for eight months, taking over the guesthouse that Styron used as a studio. He worked on the novel “Another Country” (1962) and may have even prepared to interview the Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad in Chicago for an essay that would be included in “The Fire Next Time” (1963). At night, after Rose put their young children to bed, the three adults would retreat to the living room, with glass doors that overlooked the property. There was a fire in the hearth and plenty of Jack Daniels. Sometimes other local literary friends would stop by, including Philip Roth and Arthur Miller. Though Baldwin later told The Paris Review, “It was a wonderful time in my life, but not at all literary. We sang songs, drank a little too much and on occasion chatted with the people who were dropping in to see us.” Before he left, Baldwin convinced Styron to take the leap that would eventually put him in the cross hairs of critical opinion: to write Nat Turner in the voice of the slave preacher himself. Upon its publication, everyone from John Cheever and Robert Penn Warren to Carlos Fuentes and Alex Haley breathlessly hailed the achievement but, six months later, the work was bitterly castigated as a racist tract that demeaned the Black folk hero. Styron was devastated at the publication, in 1968, of “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.” That spring, Baldwin, who had declined to contribute to the volume, moderated a debate between Styron and the activist and actor Ossie Davis, who was leading a protest against an upcoming film version of the book, which was never made. Rigorously tactful, Baldwin argued that Styron was well within his rights to enter into a “confrontation with his history.” No one, he told the audience, “can tell a writer what he can write.”
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.
The novelist and professor Toni Morrison, who died in 2019, was only seven years younger than Baldwin but, as a writer, she belonged to the generation that came after his. Partly that was because while he had started publishing work in his early 20s, Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in 1993, got a later start. Her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” came out in 1970. She was 39 and working at Random House, a job she held for two decades, editing the works of Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara and Muhammad Ali. The two writers met in 1973 to discuss a potential book contract, which never came about. As they aged, their legends were burnished and they were asked about one another by journalists and critics. In 1987, the poet Quincy Troupe, who co-wrote Miles Davis’s autobiography as well as “James Baldwin: The Legacy” (1989), asked the dying Baldwin his thoughts about Morrison: “Toni’s my ally,” he said, “and it’s really probably too complex to get into … Her gift is allegory … in general, she’s taken a myth, or she takes what seems to be a myth, and turns it into something else. I don’t know how to put this. ‘Beloved’ could be the story of truth.”
In the tribute Morrison delivered at Baldwin’s funeral, her debt was clear: “You made American English honest — genuinely international. You exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was a truly modern dialogic, representative, humane. You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity. In place of soft, plump lies was a lean, targeted power. In place of intellectual disingenuousness and what you called ‘exasperating egocentricity,’ you gave us undecorated truth. You replaced lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance. You went into that forbidden territory and decolonized it, ‘robbed it of the jewel of its naïveté,’ and un-gated it for Black people so that in your wake we could enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion.” After Baldwin’s death, many considered Morrison an heir to her friend’s vast role in American life. She edited two collections of his writings among her lengthy oeuvre and in 2017 published “The Origin of Others,” a memoir and cultural exploration in the Baldwin mold.
Top photos and videos: Pierre Fournier/Sygma/Getty Images (Davis); © Inge Morath/Magnum Photos (Styron); Pond 5 (Baldwin car video); © Van Vechten Trust/ courtesy of the Beinecke Library (color Baldwin); Steve Schapiro/Corbis/Getty Images (Evers); Getty Images (Brando video) Dominique Beretty/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images; David Attie/Getty Images (Hansberry); Photofest (Avedon); © Bob Adelman Estate (Baldwin); © Hakim Mutlaq (Morrison); from the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, © Estate of Beauford Delaney by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, court-appointed administrator; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY (Delaney Painting); Courtesy of the Estate of Beauford Delaney and Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY (Baldwin/Delaney); Louis Monier/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images (Yourcenar)