May 7th, 2017, 06:54 PM

Finding the Light: Famous American Expats in Paris

By Asia Letlow
Josephine Baker
Through their work, these American expatriates found themselves in Paris.

Though it tends to be romanticized, coming to Paris to pursue artistic achievements has influenced the way artists see themselves and also the world around them; their presence also has an impact on the country they leave and the country they come to.

Many famous American expatriates came to Paris to escape racial discrimination in the United States. Other American artists came to Paris to seek inspiration and to connect with their art and themselves. Through their work, they all have made a lasting impact on citizens of both countries. Let's look at just a few of the famous Americans who made Paris their home. 

Josephine Baker (1906-1975)


Josephine Baker.

Josephine Baker was born in born in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1906. The famous dancer and activist struggled to make ends meet with her family when she was young. To help earn money to support them, she sought jobs to serve white families. She discovered dancing in her early teens and traveled to Paris in 1925 at the height of the "Jazz Age" when  American music was popular. She quickly became admired by famous artists — such as Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso — and was legendary for her controversial stage performances. Baker worked for the Red Cross during the Second World War and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and Légion d'Honneur. She is the first American woman to be buried in France with military honors. 

Richard Wright (1908-1960)


Image Credit: Biography.com

Known for works such as Native Son and Black Boy, poet and writer Richard Wright was born in Roxie, Mississippi in 1908. Wright’s work gave raw accounts of the tension of living under racial discrimination. Growing up, he had limited access to education and stayed in school only until the ninth grade. Living under segregation, he struggled to obtain books from the libraries that were restricted to him because of his color. Using literature as a means of escape, his career took off when he moved to New York City and won a Guggenheim Fellowship. He moved to Paris after Communist ideals left him disappointed and published the last of his works as an expatriate, there. He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.

James Baldwin (1924-1987) 

Author and playwright James Baldwin was born in New York City in 1924. Known for his works Go Tell it on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin’s work covered the controversial aspect of racial discrimination and sexuality. He became friends with Richard Wright and was awarded a fellowship in 1945. Similar to Wright, being away from American soil allowed Baldwin to express his feelings about American politics and racial tension as a black man without being inhibited by the country’s repressive landscape. By moving to Paris, Baldwin was able to reconcile with all of his identities without the burden of social and racial tension that was prevalent in the United States. Baldwin spent the rest of his life in Paris and died in 1987 in Saint Paul de Vence.

Jim Morrison (1943-1971) 


Jim Morrison (front) with The Doors. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Joel Brodsky

In relocating to Paris, some well-known American artists do not only find an escape, but they also encounter a sense of clarity and rediscovery of self upon arrival. Rock singer Jim Morrison was one of them. He was born in Melbourne, Florida in 1943 and studied film at UCLA where he met the members of The Doors. Though they released several hits as a band, including "Light My Fire", Morrison’s drug and alcohol issues clouded his performances. He moved to Paris with his partner Pamela Courson as a way of separating himself from the stress of his career and his destructive behavior, but his demons followed him. He died at his Paris apartment at age 27. The official cause of death was listed as heart failure. He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.  

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

Stein was born into a wealthy family in the Allegheny West neighborhood of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and raised in Oakland. She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1898 and moved to Paris in 1903 to be with her brothers. In Paris, she gained a reputation as modernist writer, art collector, and host of a famous Left Bank salon that attracted artists including Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others. It was in Paris that she met her life companion, Alice B. Toklas, and in 1933 wrote a semi-memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  She died in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.