July/August 2008 -- Every now and then, Larry Barnes rides his big brown horse, Duke, around town and at nearby tourist destinations. But he often becomes a tourist attraction himself. Not surprising; after all, how many cowboys would they expect to find in France?
And how many French cowboys are also black?
Barnes, who actually calls himself “the Black Cowboy,” has become something of a local legend in the Hautefort community. In fact, it seems that everybody in the area knows and loves the man.
The 55-year-old smiles and laughs as he lugs his bulky saddle for a quick photo in front of his quaint French cottage. But when the shutter clicks, those lips pucker up, and Barnes—who once sparred with Muhammad Ali and worked undercover to fight urban gangs—looks like the tough guy of old.
“I never smile for the camera,” he explains simply.
Between shots, though, he manages to show off those pearly whites. Because Larry Barnes has a lot to smile about.
Raised with five brothers by loving parents who instilled discipline, Barnes—like many blacks growing up after the civil rights movement—frequently faced racial barriers. A major investment firm, still in business today, was interested in hiring him after several telephone interviews. But while he was in the waiting room with a white applicant, the hirer entered, shook the white man’s hand, and said, “Larry, it’s great to finally meet you.” After the real and very-much-non-white Barnes introduced himself and had a brief interview, the hirer confided, “Larry, I like you, but they will not let me hire you. If you tell anybody, I’ll deny it. They won’t let me hire blacks.”
It was the same story when he tried to buy a house in 1979. He was repeatedly turned down for loans, despite having good credit and more than enough money for a down payment. Finally, he didn’t check “black” under “race” on the application—and suddenly he received a mortgage.
Yet rather than play the victim or rage against society, Barnes moved on and chalked up these circumstances as just part of life.
Several years ago, the former California real-estate agent sold a property for $36 million and used those proceeds to purchase land in the south of France. A trained carpenter and long-time businessman, Barnes employed his skills to turn the 1700s stone Perigordian farmhouses into Les Gites Fleuris, a bed and breakfast that’s his own little slice of heaven and the gateway to one of the world’s most tranquil travel destinations: the French countryside. When he first saw the vast land and heard the sweet nature sounds, Barnes says, “it’s like I always belonged here.”
Dennis Byron, owner of Byron & Associates Realty and past chairman of the Silicon Valley Association of Realtors, is an old friend. “When he told me he was going to Europe to look for properties, I thought he was just looking for investment opportunities. I didn’t anticipate him buying a bed and breakfast and uprooting his whole family and moving there,” he says.
Today, with the euro more valuable than the dollar, Barnes’s land is worth around four times more than he paid. More important, the property is home. His two daughters, Sienna, 13, and Tatyana, 12, attend school there, and his lovely wife, Renata—a former travel agent who plans trips for the Les Gites Fleuris’s guests—helps him run the resort full time.
According to Byron, Barnes occasionally returns to the U.S. to make a quick real-estate deal or two, because some people won’t work with anybody but him. For three months worth of work, he makes more than the average agent does in the entire year.
“I have really tried to adapt to the French ways and customs, which a lot of foreigners (namely, the English) don’t try to do when they move here,” he notes. “And,” he adds, “the French appreciate that.”
It’s a flexibility typical of the cowboy capitalist who has rolled with life's punches in order to achieve success. “He’ll overcome what his obstacle is, then he’ll try to help others overcome theirs,” says Renata Barnes. “He’s just a great guy.”