Josephine Baker (117838)

The recent death of Jean-Claude Baker, while a sad occasion, is an opportunity to renew our acquaintance with his “mother.” Jean-Claude was the last of the 12 children Josephine Baker adopted who comprised her “Rainbow Tribe.” The flamboyance that characterized Jean-Claude’s life may have been transmitted from his intimate association with Josephine who stunned Paris with her fantastic dancing, singing and acting after arriving there in 1925. Much of her amazing life and adventures is captured in her biography “Josephine—The Hungry Heart,” co-authored by Jean-Claude and Chris Chase.

“La Baker,” or the “Bronze Venus,” as she was famously known, was born Freda J. McDonald June 3, 1906, in St. Louis, Mo. The hospital where she was born specialized in the treatment of prostitutes with venereal diseases and ironically, when she died in 1975, it was in a hospital built to care for destitute prostitutes. But between these unremarkable hospitals, Baker recorded an incomparable career; a career that has all the makings of a Cinderella story.

As a child, Baker often appeared on stage with her parents, who performed a song and dance routine. But that ended when the couple separated, leaving Baker to fend for herself as a street urchin. To survive, she would do some of the twists and turns she learned from the stage, adding an assortment of flips, spins and gyrations that would later be perfected in France.

She was still a teenager when she embarked for New York city and caught the attention of the producers of “Shuffle Along” in 1921, the first all-black musical with music and lyrics composed, respectively, by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. Baker was placed in the chorus line as the last performer, whose responsibility it was to appear not to know what the choreographed routine was all about, improvising in a comic, stumbling manner, and then return to show she knew exactly what the others were doing. It was a show stopper and the beginning of her way of commanding the spotlight.

There were several other productions, including “Chocolate Dandies,” in which she was featured before she set her sights on a broader, international stage in Paris. From the moment she appeared practically naked in the musical “La Revue Negre,” she was a hit, and her erotic dancing was suddenly the talk of Paris and she was the toast of the town.

Her reputation increased when she was contracted to perform at the Folies Bergere as a headliner. With an array of costumes—none more controversial that a string of artificial bananas covering the middle of her nude body—she created dance numbers that were sexually seductive, undeniably primitive and sometimes so hysterically funny that the overflow audience was never sure what to expect. And the surprises would become all the more audacious when she paraded the boards with her a pet cheetah straining at the leash.

It was merely a matter of time before she began to receive marriage offers from a number of infatuated wealthy notables, as well as movie deals, many of which she took, including “Siren of the Tropics,” “Zouzou,” and “Princess Tam Tam,” all of them featuring her singing and dancing in some form or fashion.

Along with the films, which were widely distributed in Europe, were her recordings, including her signature song “J’ai Deux Amours,” two loves have I. Critics found it incredible that a dancer and singer at a burlesque show could suddenly be a popular chanteuse, a singer of renown. But they didn’t know how resourceful and talented Baker could be when she set her mind to it. However, no matter how diligently she applied these skills, they had no meaning for American audiences, and after failing to win them over in the mid-1930s as part of the Ziegfeld Follies, she returned to France and resumed her glorious career.

With the outbreak of World War II, the chanteuse tossed aside her flimsy negligees and sweeping gowns for a uniform, becoming perhaps the only Black woman member of the French Resistance. In this capacity, working for the underground, she either compiled useful information for the war effort against the Nazis or delivered secret messages to members of the Resistance in other parts of Europe and Africa, sometimes traveling as an entertainer.

So effective were these endeavors that when the war was over, Baker was a highly decorated patriot, honored with some of France’s highest awards, the prestigious Croix de Guerre among them.

After the war, she returned to the Folies Bergere to astounding success because her wartime activities were prominently advertised. In 1951, she ventured once more to the U.S., with great reviews and sold-out audiences in the beginning. But it all came to end after an incident at the Stork Club, where she encountered discrimination and challenged the well-known journalist Walter Winchell to come to her aid. Instead, he attacked her behavior. Even so, thousands marched with her through Harlem, the highlight of triumphant engagement in America.

Although based in France, Baker continued to support the Civil Rights Movement in the states. She also began adopting the children, all of whom were of different ethnicities. Caring for them was an arduous task, and thanks to her third husband, Jo Bouillon, there was some temporary relief.

In 1963, she was back in the U.S., where she attended the March on Washington, wearing the uniform she popularized during her days with the French Resistance. She was hailed at the rally, but her stay was brief.

In fact, she had to hurry home to a daunting financial situation that eventually caused her to lose the castle-like chateau where she lived with her “tribe.” A documentary of her life captures how desperate these circumstances were, with her sitting tearfully on the steps of her former residence. Four years later, in 1968, she valiantly tried to revive her career and did reasonably well, with major performances across the globe, even one at Carnegie Hall in 1973.

Four days after a tremendous gala at the Bobino in Paris, with such notables as Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger and Diana Ross in the audience, Baker died April 12, 1975.

She was found lying peacefully in her bed, surrounded by all the newspapers with headline stories about her magnificent performance at the Bobino. It was her last resounding hurrah.

Even so, her legacy lived on when Jean-Claude opened his restaurant Chez Josephine in her honor on 42nd Street in 1986. Her majesty was has been captured in several television and film productions. Actress Lynn Whitfield portrayed her in a biopic, and she was given a cameo turn in “Frida” by Karine Plantadit. Far more enduring, there is Place Josephine Baker in the Montparnarsse Quarter in Paris, named in her honor, and she was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians in 1995.