The Soul of Jazz
By Jessica Powell
2006 marks the 100th birthday of Josephine Baker—dancer, diva and Resistance fighter.
It was October 2, 1925, the opening night of La Revue Nègre. Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger and Gertrude Stein were among the many who had packed the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, excited at the prospect of watching African-Americans perform on the Paris stage.
In front of a Mississippi riverboat backdrop, saxophonist Sidney Bechet dazzled the crowd with his playing. Chorus girls danced the Charleston. And a 19-year-old girl entertained the audience with the comedic flair that had lifted her out of poverty in St. Louis and carried her on to Broadway: She folded her knees back, crossed her eyes, and walked like a chicken.
When the vaudeville portion of the show ended, the girl reappeared, this time slung over the back of a half-naked African dancer. She was nude except for a few pink feathers at her waist and ankles. When the first thumps of the jazz orchestra were heard, the girl began to writhe, as though making love to the man. Some audience members were appalled but most were fascinated. The “Danse Sauvage,” wrote one critic, was “a return to the customs of the Dark Ages.”
Before the night was over, Josephine Baker, the young star of the “Danse Sauvage,” would be a celebrity.
And yet just hours before, she seemed on the verge of ruin. She had fallen asleep after applying hair straightener and had awakened to discover herself nearly bald. But as would happen so many times in Baker’s career, she was saved at the last minute. Struck by inspiration, a hairdresser glued a black paper cap to her burned scalp. From afar it looked like real hair, even a bold fashion statement. “Her hair is stuck to her head as if made of caviar,” raved one critic.
But her hair was hardly her most striking feature. As Janet Flanner explained, Baker’s performance in the “Danse Sauvage” established two specific elements: “Her magnificent dark body, a new model to the French that proved for the first time that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of hedonism of all Europe—Paris.”
Black may have been beautiful in France, but it was far from the case in America, where Josephine, who believed her father was white, often found herself rejected by both white and black communities. But she arrived in Paris to discover a city where nudity was acceptable on the stage and where men and women kissed in public. On the day following her opening at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, she recalled with tears in her eyes that the previous night she had been invited to dine with white people for the first time in her life.
In fact, it seemed she could not be black enough in Paris. Some critics and attendees complained that the performers were mulattos, not dark Africans, and the producers tried in vain to dissuade the cast from using the white face powder that had been so necessary in the U.S. However most Parisians, working from their images of French colonial Africa, were entranced by these Black Americans whose culture they assumed mirrored that of Africa. As one article on La Revue Nègre in Paris-Midi expressed, “Everything we’ve ever read flashes across our enchanted minds: adventure novels, glimpses of enormous steamboats swallowing up clutters of Negroes […] plantation landscapes, the melancholy songs of Creole nurses, the Negro soul with its animal energy.” More than one critic found that Josephine personified this exotic, primitive culture: “Her lips are painted black, her skin is the color of a banana […] her body slithers like a snake.”
Baker was far from the first black American to perform in Paris. Earlier visits by African-Americans—and in particular black musicians—had set the stage for her triumphant debut there in 1925.
The same year that Baker’s hometown of St. Louis recorded more than 30 lynchings, black Americans went off to fight in WWI in Europe, bringing the sounds of jazz with them. In the following years, Paris, striving to forget the destruction of WWI, once again became the European capital of hedonism and pleasure. American jazz music and the fast steps of the Charleston rang in Les Années Folles, and with her short hair, exotic coloring, and unabashed pride in her body, Josephine Baker—“the soul of jazz”—became a symbol of the era.
Along with Sidney Bechet, Bricktop and Quintet of the Hot Club of France, Josephine Baker helped secure jazz’s permanent place in French culture. Following her show at the Champs-Elysées, she headed to the hills of Montmartre—known to many black performers as the Harlem of Paris—where she performed in the small clubs that sprang up in the ’20s. Josephine was in demand throughout Paris and Europe, and in 1926 opened her own Montmartre club, Chez Joséphine, where she performed each night, rubbing the bald heads of her male clientele while her fat pig, Albert, wandered among the guests.
Her celebrity only grew as the 1930s approached. Following a European tour, she appeared at the Folies Bergère in little more than a skirt fashioned of bananas, which flapped wildly against her skin as she danced. Chic Parisian women stocked up on Bakerfix, her trademark hair cream, and some went so far as to copy her mulatto color by tanning.
Gertrude Stein’s lover (and later cookbook author), Alice B. Toklas, invented a banana dessert called Custard Josephine Baker. The architect Adolf Loos hoped to build her a house after she taught him the Charleston at her club, and poets like Jean Cocteau dedicated verses to her. And the diva planned to launch Josephine Baker’s Magazine with another fan, Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon. (The project fizzled, as did her relationship with Simenon. Although the two had talked of marriage, Simenon decided he didn’t want to be “Mr. Josephine Baker,” an opinion that would be voiced by more than one of Josephine’s lovers.)
Although French producers may have exploited Baker—preferring to play up her “primitive” exoticism—Baker was in favor of most any costume or script, provided it would please her public. In fact, when she saw Parisians tiring of the Charleston and her Revue Nègre steps, she reinvented herself. She toured Europe, signed a movie contract and allowed a faux Italian count with whom she was involved to tutor her in European ways. She learned about literature and painting, and practiced French diction with a countess. For Josephine, who had thought her hotel room bidet was a bowl she could use for her goldfish, this training was a revelation.
By the 1930s, Josephine Baker was a different kind of star. She was still an exotic beauty, but her singing and carriage were far more polished. She had also become a full-fledged diva. She filled her home with statues of herself, fired an actor for refusing to sleep with her and showed up late to performances. But the producers put up with her because there was usually a payoff: The public loved Josephine. She could even draw crowds as she walked along the Champs-Elysées with her intimidating pet cheetah, Chiquita, by her side.
With Parisians delighting in her command of French, her glamour and her freedom with her body, Baker assumed she would have the same success in America and returned to her native country. But while she was a headliner in France, in America she was a black performer who had to play second fiddle to white stars and whose wild, semi-nude Paris performances were curtailed by producers fearful of the public’s reaction. Although she was traveling with her Italian count and was bedecked in furs and jewels, she was repeatedly turned away by hotels.
But it wasn’t only white America that was cold to Josephine. Black Americans were also suspicious of her and accused her of having forgotten her roots—she made a point of surrounding herself with white friends and staff, and when visiting Harlem (her last U.S. residence before Paris), she spoke only French. Although she vociferously spoke out against racism and would later become involved in the civil rights movement, her personal behavior was more controversial.
Rebuffed by America, Josephine returned to Paris and told her fans, “My country, it is Paris, and Paris, it is my country.” She opened a new Chez Joséphine, where she called in the young, straggly Edith Piaf to sing in her place whenever she found her audience uninspiring. Unlike the first Chez Joséphine, her new club was not in Montmartre—the heart of black Paris—but rather on the chic rue François Ier, just off the Champs-Elysées. In fact, while Josephine would remain welcoming toward African-American artists arriving in Paris, she distanced herself from the black community of Montmartre, ran with a mainly white crowd and was no longer simply a jazz star but a mainstream French entertainer. She soon solidified her French identity by marrying a white Frenchman. He was not to be her last husband, nor was he the first—that had happened in St. Louis at age 13.
Her commitment to her adopted country was so great that Baker participated in the French Resistance during WWII. By then in her mid-thirties, Josephine attended parties at the Italian and Japanese embassies and reported what she overheard to French intelligence. She entertained the French troops, and while filming a movie and performing on stage, she also helped run a homeless shelter. When she finally left Paris to take refuge in southern France, Baker continued to aid in the war effort, traveling to Portugal to deliver information to the English. No one suspected that the chic star was hiding important photographs underneath her clothes or that intelligence information was scrawled in invisible ink atop her sheet music. She was decorated for her war efforts and, years later, also received the Légion d’Honneur.
After the war, Josephine returned to Paris a hero and was soon spotted at Les Halles, the old food market, buying up pounds of food that she planned to distribute to the needy. It was the Baker paradox: She would steal from her producers, neglect her debts and even betray friends, then turn around and give an enormous tip to a doorman or pawn her jewels in order to buy food for the poor.
It was behavior that her children came to know well. A congenital malformation of the uterus had left Josephine unable to conceive, but in 1954 she began adopting children from around the world. By the early 1960s, the self-styled “Universal Mother” had adopted 12 children, saving them from impoverishment in countries as far away as Venezuela and Japan. She dreamed of a family of multiple colors and religions and went so far as to impose new religions and names on her new family members. One of her Algerian children was made Catholic, the other Muslim; one of the French boys she adopted was renamed Moïse, declared Jewish and fed only kosher food.
She had just as lofty visions for Les Milandes, her home in Périgord, where she planned to build an amusement park, first-class hotel and a museum chronicling her life. She brought her sister Margaret from the U.S. to run a bakery on the premises and dressed her gardeners in American sailor outfits. She even incorporated her children in the display, initially placing a sign outside Les Milandes inviting visitors to come see her “rainbow tribe.” Paying tourists could watch the children eat and play through a window—proof, Baker believed, that all races can coexist.
For a short while, Les Milandes was a moderate success with tourists coming from all over France to see such artists as Louis Armstrong and Jacques Brel perform in the outdoor theater. But from the start the place was mismanaged, and Josephine wasted money and made no friends of her neighbors. (In one of her more famous exploits, Josephine, having generously replaced the old statues of the nearby chapel, asked the abbey to bless her new donation. The abbey was startled to discover that one of the new saints was a replica of Josephine.)
As Josephine neared 50, she was seen by many producers as either a troublemaker or a has-been. Her property was siphoning money, she was on the outs with her latest husband and was booking cabaret gigs whenever she could get them. In the early 1960s, she had roughly 20 lawsuits pending against her. Her dozens of monkeys at Les Milandes started to go without bananas, the children complained of ill-fitting clothes, and soon all of France heard that Josephine’s famous home had been seized by creditors.
But just as a hairdresser rushed to her rescue before the opening of La Revue Nègre, so was Josephine saved at the last minute by Brigitte Bardot, who appealed to Frenchmen on national TV to save Josephine and her rainbow tribe. (Money is said to have come from both Zsa Zsa Gabor and Pope Paul VI.) Her friends urged her to sell Les Milandes and live more modestly. Meanwhile, Charles de Gaulle, with whom Josephine had been close (some say very close) since the war, beseeched her to return to Paris, “where people love you.”
In 1968, 28 years after Josephine first rented the château, Les Milandes was auctioned. She moved her children to Paris and took any gig she could land. She was constantly tired and increasingly sick but when on stage would light up once again.
Near the end of her life Josephine’s luck turned once more. On her 67th birthday, she triumphed at Carnegie Hall, winning over the Americans who had spurned her years before. Then came her lauded 1975 performance at the Bobino Theater. The 68-year-old had only a few tufts of hair left, but she wound them tightly around pins so that the public would see her in her glamorous wig. The show—a retrospective of her life—was a hit with critics. However, she managed to perform only 14 nights before being discovered on the morning of April 12 in her bed, collapsed over newspapers trumpeting her latest conquest of Paris.
The day of her funeral, Paris was still plastered with posters of Josephine’s face, and her name shone brightly under the lights of the Bobino Theater. Sophia Loren and Princess Grace were in attendance at the Madeleine church, while outside, 20,000 fans gathered. It was nearly 50 years to the day after she had first captivated Paris.
THEY HAVE TWO COUNTRIES
“If we want the world to listen to us, we must first listen to the world.” In April 2004, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the former French Minister of Culture, used this simple statement to explain to his fellow ministers why he was introducing an array of measures designed to make it easier for foreign artists to live and work in France. His package included everything from simplified procedures for obtaining visas and work permits to tax advantages, social benefits and grants.
According to the Culture Ministry, there are currently some 25,000 foreign artists in France including such world-renowned talents as William Christie, Angelin Prejlocaj, Milan Kundera, Dee Dee Bridgewater, François Cheng and Andrée Chedid. Who was the first creative soul to decide that life just might be better—or at least more fun—in France? Some point to Jean-Baptiste Lully, who left his native Italy to regale Louis XIV’s court. But it is doubtful that even Versailles offered the legendary good times enjoyed by the likes of Josephine Baker, Serge Diaghilev, Marlene Dietrich, Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway and all the other luminaries who flocked to Paris between the two World Wars.
During the postwar years, the world’s artistic center shifted to New York. “That lasted through the 1980s,” says Guillaume Durand, the host of French TV’s popular literary and music shows Campus and Trafic.music. “But now, you can no longer say that everything is happening in Manhattan, as it was for Keith Haring, Basquiat and others.”
Indeed, new communications technologies, especially the Internet, have combined with better and cheaper transportation to radically reshape the cultural landscape. “Everything has sort of exploded everywhere,” says Durand. “The great Spanish painter Miguel Barcelo divides his time between Mali and Paris. The Italian painter Francesco Clemente lives between India, New York and Italy. The German painter Anselm Kiefer lives in France and in Germany. In other words, many of today’s cultural superstars have adopted a nomadic lifestyle—you’ll find them in Barcelona one week and in Miami the next.”
Sometimes you even find them where you least expect. “The other day, I was reading a book about Neo Rauch,” recounts Durand. “He’s considered one of the most creative painters in the world today—and he lives in Leipzig! Who would have believed that 10 years ago? Nobody. But today it’s possible.”
Yet even amid this new cultural world order, France continues to exert a special pull on artists. Some come for political reasons, others for the love of the language or the love of a woman. And just about all have an almost visceral attachment to the country’s savoir-vivre. “Paris is still a sublime city,” says Durand. “Berlin isn’t sublime, and New York is magnificent but stressful if you don’t have a lot of money. Of course, that’s true in Paris as well but less so. But above all else, France is a welcoming country. It’s part of our tradition—we welcomed Picasso, Joan Miró, all the black jazzmen in the years after WWII. And I think that despite the unrest we experienced this past fall, this is still a welcoming and generous country.”
Grant Rosenberg & Lisa Olson
JOSEPHINE'S HUNGRY HEART
Author and restaurateur Jean-Claude Baker
recalls his adoptive mother
Jean-Claude Baker is remembering how he met Josephine Baker—his “second mother”—in Paris when he was 14, and how they were reunited many years later, when he was successful and she was a ghost of a diva with a throaty voice and an empty bank account.
He tells the story in bursts, jumping to his feet to re-enact scenes as if pulled onto a stage by an invisible hand. Like the time she tucked a tiny Brazilian monkey into her bra and (pacing) asked Prince Rainier to take care of it. “But it died,” he says, sitting down. “She was full of good intentions but had no common sense.”
Dressed in a coral-colored shirt and a Mao jacket (a gift, he says, from the late pianist Bobby Short), Baker, 62, is ensconced in Chez Josephine, his well-known bistro near Times Square. Surrounded by posters, paintings and other Baker memorabilia, his cocoa-colored eyes flash and his accent thickens as he reflects on a relationship that has entangled him for most of his life.
Superficially, he and Josephine had little in common: He is white, from a small town in France; she was black, a refugee from American racism and a St. Louis ghetto. Yet they shared things that counted. In Jean-Claude’s Burgundian village, he and his mother were outsiders, “white niggers because we had no family in the cemetery.” He and Baker both severed themselves from their roots, learned to perform and ingratiate themselves with audiences—and developed steely cores. “I couldn’t feel sorry for myself and cry,” he says, describing his determination when he took the train to Paris on his own at age 14. His mother had accompanied him to the station, thinking he would return a week later….
He and Josephine met shortly after that, when he was working as a bellhop at the Hôtel Scribe and she was a guest. In her typical fashion, she recognized a vulnerable soul and drew him out. He was dazzled. She moved on.
Flash forward to Berlin, 1968. Jean-Claude—by then a performer, radio host, discotheque owner and entrepreneur—encounters Josephine in decline. She was an aging star, nearly delusional in her craving for a comeback, doing shows in little gay bars. “Always with great dignity,” he adds kindly.
So he swung into action, serving as her impresario and indulgent friend, becoming her protector and defender. “Today, no one knows that I was there when no one else wanted to be there,” he says softly.
He stuck by her for seven years, not as her paid manager but as her volunteer champion, orchestrating some of her last stage appearances and serving as a kind of spokesman for her 12 adopted children. (Although she never officially adopted him, she considered him one of her own.) He helped her make her longed-for comeback, first at Carnegie Hall in 1973, then in Los Angeles. A year later, she returned to Paris, and Jean-Claude, after some hesitation, left for New York, taking along his own nightclub act.
It was her idea that he settle in the United States, he says. “She was a kind of psychic. She said ‘Americans will love you and your cleft chin.’”vHe reestablished himself as a singer, then a television producer and ultimately a restaurateur. But he never got over Josephine Baker. After she died in 1975, leaving fanciful memoirs about her upbringing and rise to success, he embarked on a quest to learn the truth about her life. Fueled with equal parts love and skepticism, his search took him around the world and into the confidence of more than 2,000 people. The quest nearly consumed him for close to 20 years.
His goal was to produce the definitive biography. “I was appalled,” says Chris Chase, the New York writer whom he approached with boxes of transcripts, photographs, newspaper clips, film snippets, cassettes and notes and a proposal to co-author the book. “Afterward, I realized I was lucky. Someone had done all the hard research.”
Together they struggled to produce Josephine: The Hungry Heart, a sprawling, hypnotic read released by Random House in 1993. The book, which received rave reviews, is shot with revelations and touching interactions between subject and chronicler. As Baker piles on the gritty details, he laces them with cheers for her talent and chutzpah—and withering contempt for her lies and self-deceptions. “He’s a combination of poet and street fighter,” observes Chase.
In 1986, while still working on the book, Baker opened Chez Josephine. Not much of a food person—”I am allergic to garlic,” he confesses—he turned to such friends as chef and author Pierre Franey for help getting the restaurant off the ground. “You can’t help but like Jean-Claude,” says Franey’s widow, Betty, a longtime friend. Her sentiments are clearly shared by the tourists and regulars who could be seen falling under his flirtatious charm as they walked through the door early one evening in October.
Situated in the theater district, Chez Josephine is a perfectly polished place where history is allowed to shine and the host is a veritable master of ceremonies, regaling everyone in the restaurant, which is clearly his stage. “When you are performing, there’s that magic moment when you forget everything, when you are flying,” he says, suddenly sounding like his second mother’s son.
While Josephine Baker’s memory is celebrated nightly here, her allure endures well beyond these walls. Was it her exotic beauty? Her sex appeal? Her talent? Of course, he says, but it was also something more, something painful. “She was the very essence of a survivor,” says Baker. Raised by an adoptive grandmother who was born a slave, she was propelled by a force that “was not love, it was anger.” He recalled her impatience with those who romanticized her life, and the time she nearly spat out the words, “It has taken me 50 years to make my name. And to keep it. Do think it’s fun for me to sing ‘J’ai Deux Amours’ every night like an idiot?”
“She kept her persona alive to the end,” he says, “but you see what she had to go through to do it. She created magic, but she never found peace. That’s what breaks my heart.”