Special to the AmNews
“Yes, my friends. I guess we are all Charlie. Praying for a better world … Love, Jean-Claude.”
These were the last words my wife and I received from Jean-Claude Baker four days before his death this Thursday. We had sought to commiserate with him about the horrific tragedy in France with a note, stating, “Je Suis Charlie,” the popular mantra and rallying cry.
But now it must be, at least for his thousands of “mes amis,” his best friends, “Je suis Jean-Claude.”
It is rumored that he took his life, that he at last succumbed to the depression that often shadowed him, sending him in flight to the Hamptons and shelter. He was 71.
For those fortunate enough to have experienced Baker’s company, heard his greeting of “dahling,” felt his warm embrace, luxuriated at one of his tables at his café/restaurant Chez Josephine, his shrine to his “mother” on 42nd Street near the Broadway theaters, or listened while he regaled you with ceaseless tales from his adventurous life, his memory is forever burnished.
He was a gregarious and gracious host—and a generous one, too—who was a born raconteur who sometimes pranced about his establishment like a bantam rooster, working the room and roosting temporarily at a table to get some gossip going or share another piece of his wild life before darting off to another table or to the door to welcome one more celebrity to his joint. Is that Jessye Norman, the diva? Is that Trixie or Joyce Randolph of the “The Honeymooners”? Is that The New York Times’ Margo Jefferson?
Sometimes, if we had stayed away too long—and I’m sure we were not the only ones on his Rolodex for special treatment—he would call and want to know why we hadn’t been to see him. “My dahlings, you must come and see me,” he would beckon, and it was almost as if you could see him in one of his colorful Chinese shirts that only accentuated his flamboyance.
Our dinners there were not complete unless he spent at least 20 to 30 minutes with us, wanting to know what was going on in our lives, and to relate the challenges he was facing, keeping the restaurant afloat, caring for his ailing brother Jari and dealing with his personal demons. But it was Black history and culture where he truly shined, and we often tried to top each other on African-American minutiae, particularly in the world of entertainment, where he excelled.
That wide range of recall and arcane information abounds in his biography of his mother, Josephine Baker. Well, he was just one of her “Rainbow Tribe,” the last one she adopted when he was 14 and who somehow had managed to survive in various venues of Europe after leaving his beloved Paris.
In the introduction to “Josephine: A Hungry Heart,” a book he wrote with Chris Chase, Baker offers this beginning: “I was born Jean-Claude Julien Leon Tronville, a bastard. It was a tragedy for my thirty-five-year-old mother, who was very pure and Catholic, and would have become a nun if Hitler had not come along. Once the war started, the convent sent her back to her family in Paris, and at the train station she met a gentleman who looked like Rudolph Valentino. Nine months later, I came into the world in Dijon. Because of the war, my parents moved to a little village in Burgundy. Everyone else had been there two hundred years; I never felt I belonged.”
Where he belonged was out in the world, in the bistros of Paris, the nightclubs of Berlin and, finally, perhaps most comfortable for his vagabond restlessness—whose heart was no less hungry than his mother’s—New York City.
When he opened Chez Josephine in 1986, I was assigned to cover the opening, and it was an opening also to his wondrous life. There was not a dinner or an occasional drink when I was in hurry, especially after the 9/11 catastrophe, that I wasn’t the recipient of another tidbit of his amazing odyssey.
Already the obituaries are coming, but only a precious few will be able to read between the lines, to relive again those splendid moments at his ever-loving moveable feast, where we eagerly awaited his return from flitting around and to make him recount once again some crazy episode from his life well-lived.
He was not exactly one of a kind. There are a few who match his gift of laughter, his keen wit and his endless love for the party, but he brought a special meaning to the sound of “mes amis,” a special and enduring sincerity that even now cries out, “Je Suis Jean-Claude.”
A requiem mass will be held for him Saturday, Jan. 31 at 10:30 a.m. at Holy Cross Church, located on West 42nd Street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues.