The Woman Behind the Icon

I have been meaning to write this post for weeks now, but I figure better late than never.

Just because Black History Month is officially over doesn’t mean that we move back to the present day and forget all about honoring our predecessors for another year. Black History Month should be every month, in my opinion.

I digress.

To celebrate Black History Month here in Miami, the World Erotic Art Museum paid homage to Josephine Baker with a stunning display of owner Naomi Wilzig’s collection of gorgeous Josephine Baker portraits.

From the minute I heard about this, I knew I had to write about it for work, and for Afrobella.

I was granted an interview with Jean-Claude Baker, Josephine’s thirteenth adoptee, the last member of the Rainbow Tribe. He was the only one of her children to perform on stage with her, in the twilight of her years. Jean-Claude is the owner of the popular New York City restaurant Chez Josephine and he’s a natural raconteur with an endless supply of fascinating, ribald stories to tell.

We talked for like 45 minutes, and he shared many memories of his mother. Some were pretty risque, all were vivid and honest. There might be some strong language in this post, and don’t blame me, it’s all Jean Claude. The dude is an unmitigated riot with a thick French accent. Love him!

It took Jean-Claude twenty years to write Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart, a biography that is more than a labor of love.

“I interviewed over 2000 people, from a school teacher back in St. Louis to her collaborators in France. What people forget about Josephine is that she lived for 19 years in America, in what I call the springtime of her life. And yes, it was terrible discrimination. But when you are an artist, you are privileged because an artist can rise above discrimination. The talent is there. Even with racism, white people would applaud for Josephine. So it’s so boring to always talk about and blame everything on racism, you understand? Josephine’s talent was very well recognized before she went to Paris. The New York Times, Variety, and the Chicago Defender all wrote about her. She was known as the most famous chorus girl in America — black or white! She was making $125 dollars on Broadway in 1923, when white women there were making $16! But the discrimination was always there, she couldn’t go to Bloomingdale’s to try on a pair of shoes.”

Against the backdrop of Jim Crow era racism, it’s easy to portray black cultural icons as two-dimensional figures. It’s easy to paint the portrait of Josephine Baker: Groundbreaking Black Woman who lived in France and returned to stand alongside Martin Luther King, because she really was that woman who stood alongside Dr. King at the March on Washington.

“She was one of few entertainers who spoke next to Martin Luther King. She was such a fabulous entertainer, so polished. This is what she said word for word. “I have been waiting thirty years for this day, to see people next to each other like salt and pepper. You cannot put freedom at the lips of the people, and don’t expect them to drink it.” Even Shakespeare could not have said it better!” gushed Jean-Claude.

But even though La Baker was an icon and fought for the movement, smuggled documents during WWII and fought for what she believed in, the real Josephine was also a full, real woman who did noble and naughty things, who was flawed and real and beautiful all at the same time. Jean Claude didn’t want to linger on the obvious parts of her life that everyone always recounts. He loved the fact that the erotic museum had chosen to honor his mother, and not just some stuffy shell that would be put on the same dusty pedestal that every Black History Month celebrant is hoisted up onto for 28 days every year.

“Josephine would be very proud to be remembered for Black History Month, and she would have a little wink and a smile to be remembered as an erotic figure,” he explained. It’s worth going further back into her history to reveal the woman behind the carefully preserved image.

“When she came to Paris, overnight she became a hit because of the color of her skin. Most of the girls in the La Revue Negre were high yellow. And Josephine had beautiful brown skin. She had no complex about flaunting her body. People thought she was African, but she was not! She was from America, she had never seen the coconuts in the trees, or been to Africa. And Josephine was a naughty girl! She had no complex about flaunting her body. She danced bare breasted to the Dance de la Sauvage, a mating dance with an African dancer. Everything went on but penetration! Opening night was October 2, 1925 in the Theatre de Champs-Elysee; half of the theater’s audience left the theater screaming that black Americans and jazz would destroy the white civilization!” he laughed.

Seems like the same arguments that were being made back then about jazz are currently circulating about hip hop. History will teach us nothing.

Back when La Baker was dancing topless in a banana skirt, she was the epicenter of scandal. “Six months later she opened at Paris at the Folies Berger, which is the temple of tits and asses — forgive my expression! Josephine arrived, described as a little girl from Africa. And there she came, naked but for a belt of bananas, and satin with some rhinestones… even though we were in 1926, but even if you were a nun erotic thoughts would come into your head. But the magic of Josephine — and this is where I will defend her — nothing was dirty with her. It was almost childish naivety,” Jean Claude explained.

And he’s right, even in the sexiest topless photos of La Baker, there is a magic in her eyes, and an expression devoid of sleazy intent. There is not one ounce of the predatory femme fatale gaze. When I said that to Jean Claude, he responded with delight.

“Exactly! You could never described her as a femme fatale, because you wanted to be friends with them. You felt like a sister to them. Women would tell her put a coat on, you’re going to catch a cold. To me, there have been two great sex symbols. Josephine Baker and Marilyn Monroe. What those two women have in common — women should have hated those women! When you are with your boyfriend or your husband and he is having sex with you, perhaps he is thinking of Josephine or Marilyn Monroe. But women, they recognized the childishness within them, and women loved Josephine and Marilyn.”

C’est vrai. Which is why it gets my ire up when people try to compare Anna Nicole Smith to Marilyn Monroe. Wanting to be someone and actually being like them — having the same innocent, luminous quality and undeniable singing and acting skill — is two totally different things. I gotta side with Elton John on that point.

Back to Josephine. Nowadays we seem to have regressed into a more sexually judgmental society. I wonder if the same offhanded assumptions and rumors that bloggers make about celebrities would have been aimed at Josephine Baker if she were around today. Because according to her son, those weren’t rumors at all. She lived a free and lusty life, particularly in her early days.

“She was today what you would call bisexual, and I will tell you why. Forget that I am her son, I am also an historian. You have to put her back in the context of the time in which she lived. In those days, chorus girls were abused by the white or black producers and by the leading man if he liked girls. But they could not sleep together because there were not enough hotels to accommodate black people. So they would all stay together and the girls would develop lady lovers friendships, do you understand my English? But wait wait — if one of the girls by preference was gay, she would be called a “bull dyke” by the whole cast. So you see, discrimination is everywhere!”

Good Lord, I wish I could have uploaded this interview onto the internet so you could hear Jean Claude. He had me laughing almost all the way through the interview, with his disarming candor.

In her latter years, Josephine wanted to abandon that sexualized image, pretend the sexual freedom never swayed her, deny that she danced with a skirt of mini-phalluses strapped to her waist. The burden of being the-one-and-only-Josephine-Baker became more difficult as the image of the sex symbol faded away.

“She decided to be a very Victorian mother. She was very strict.”

She even got involved with her son’s fashion choices. “It was at the time when the flower children were coming out, and my brother wanted to get one of those hippie shirts with the flowers. Josephine said no, no you cannot have that! That is for homosexuals! And my brother said but maman, all your friends are homosexuals! And I myself am gay, you understand. And then my brother Louis who is a black man from Colombia, said “But mama, what about you dancing naked with bananas?” And she said no, I don’t want to talk about that! In her old age, she had become a little prude. She didn’t want any of us children to know about the naughty little things she did in her youth, which is quite funny! So you see, Josephine is like any mother around the world. I interviewed many of her costars from Shuffle Along and those films back in those days. All those girls, they had lady lovers and they fuck with everybody, but at the end of their life they find Jesus. I don’t think Josephine found Jesus, I think he found her.”

She passed away on April 12, 1975, succumbing to a cerebral hemorrhage the day after a magnificent comeback show.

“The last show in Paris, they were not supposed to film it. A little camera came at the end, to her dressing room. They said Miss Baker, how do you feel? And she looked straight in the camera and said “good. Very good. Because at least I will know what they think of me while I am still alive.” She died the same night. She never saw that film that was broadcast the next day. She died in bed reading her own reviews. Even that is unbelievable. Like a fairy tale.”

And in the best fairy tales, there isn’t always a stereotypical princess or prince who is always pure as the driven snow.

Interviewing Jean Claude made me think long and hard about celebrity — how we read obsessively about these people who are just like us, who put their pants on one leg at a time, who go to the bathroom, eat, get wasted, make terrible mistakes, and love just like we all do; all within the confines of the fishbowl we’re so eagerly peering into. I loved getting a glimpse at the woman behind the iconic image. It made me admire Josephine Baker even more than I already did.

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Comments

  1. kinkygirl says:

    yes josephine was and still is an icon, what a beautiful and talented woman.

    great post bella

    • Agner Noer says:

      Hi!

      When I was 7 years old (1974) Josephine Baker and I was hospitalized on the same floor at “Rigshospitalet” in Copenhagen.
      I believed it was because of her first stroke, but I don´t remember the exact date.

      I´ve never seen a black person at that time, and was very curious about her.
      But we became very good friends and she gave me ice cream every day!

      And I did´nt now which celebrity she was, but she was very kind and like children very much!

      Best regards

      Agner Noer

  2. I really enjoyed this article. I am definitely inspired to read more about her now. Black History continues…

  3. Oh yeah, and I loved the part about how Josephine was admired in Paris because she was brown-skinned and not high yellow. I think this is an important point to remember. I wonder if darker skin gets more love abroad?

  4. what a beauty… what a force! amazing that even back then, a girl had 2 leave her home & travel far & wide 2 be appreciated because of people’s prejudices!

  5. EMPRESS says:

    This is my idol. I have a couple of things that belonged to La Baker even and autographed album. To answer your question Lady80, yes dark skinned is appreciated abroad. As for her being bisexual no one knows but her regardless of if he was her son or not, that is not something you put out there without proof.
    I wish yall could see my house and my screensaver…its full of Josephine!

    Long lives Josephine!

  6. Empress, I’m glad you liked my post! But I’m quite sure that her son wouldn’t put something out there without proof. Like he said, he interviewed 2000 people. His whole life is Josephine Baker. He did a tremendous amount of research. Josephine’s sexuality doesn’t make her any less of an icon.

  7. EMPRESS says:

    Yeah I know it doesn’t make her any less of an Icon but I just hate when people put anothers business out there without permission is all. And he is quite a character. I’ve met him. I hope you ate at Chez Josephine’s b/c its wonderful!
    I swear I am Josephine reincarnated!

  8. EMPRESS says:

    Hey Bella,
    You should do a peice on Marsha Hunt or Donyale Luna:)
    Oh and my other idol Grace Jones or have you done that and I missed it?

  9. EMPRESS says:

    Oh and one more thing…did yall know that in the photo above that that is actually a hat and not her hair. She burned her hair out with a perm and her hairstylist came up with this idea. Its a hat glued to her head…AMAZING!

  10. Great article bella! I am a huge JB fan. I my middle name is also Josephine after her. I am going to check out that restaurant next time i’m in NY.

  11. Black Honey says:

    Great article Bella.

  12. I see your point, Empress. Grace Jones is the best suggestion I’ve heard so far, and I will DEFINITELY be working on that. Oh, I loved her in Boomerang. I’ve been collecting Donyale Luna stuff for a while now, but her story is so tragic. I haven’t been up to it yet, but I’ll get there someday. And I had no idea that was a hat!!!!!!!!! Crazy. That era wasn’t one for gentle haircare. I’m hoping to meet Jean Claude when I go to NYC for my birthday!

    Glad y’all liked it! It was a long one…

  13. Kilobelle says:

    Not on schedule but on time lol
    I loved this article on JB, especially since I never knew that much about her.:(
    That bit of info was informing and inspiring.
    The first I learned of JB was via a magazine where a model re-did that very same portrait you have posted.
    This reading has made me want to find out more!! :)

  14. Empress says:

    HEy Bella,
    I have an audio interview of La Baker before she died. Send me your email and I’ll send it to you.

  15. Thank you for this. She was a truly amazing woman. By the way, I agree, black history 365. Here’s something I work on with my brother and father. Black History Pages

  16. AppleDiva says:

    Bella,

    This was a great piece. I learned a lot about Ms. J. Baker. We are complex people, and I appreciated the care you took in telling a bit of her story. You are the best. :D

  17. Brilliant piece Bella! So upbeat and fun to read.

    To answer Lady80, in Africa, darker skinned beauties get a lot of love from white tourists. Interesting really, when you think how many women put themselves in danger using skin lighteners. I wish women would just open their eyes and realise every shade of brown is beautiful!!!

  18. Thanks for your story on La Baker. I feel a special kinship with her because I was born the day and year she died. Here was a black woman that did it up the way she wanted to do it and despite her fumbles, was fabulous all the same. We could all take a leaf out of her book!

  19. westindiangal says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by la Baker. I have his book, I have seen several of her movies including Princess Tam Tam & Zou Zou, and her banana dance is killer. I loved her joie de vivre.

  20. I love this women. I remember watching the biographical movie when i was just a little kid. You can tell she lived for the sake of living and living only. We can all learn from her how to be brave, vibrant, and passionate.

  21. Hey Afrobella!
    I loved this post you did on Josephine Baker! I used to hear her name alot back in the day as a kid, but I did not truly know a thing about her until I saw her bipoic a few years ago. Now, I am at a point where I am really into the history of Black ‘divas’! I am reading Donald Bogle’s book “Brown Sugar: 80 Years of America’s Black Female Superstars”!
    Your Nina Simone Post turned me on to her music; I knew about her, but now I listen to her ALL THE TIME!

    And BTW, I think doing a post on Donyale Luna would be great!

  22. Fabulous article!! I can’t wait to see who your spotlight will shine on next! Very true Missmarting, we can all learn from La Baker how to live life to its fullest. I know I certainly need to!

  23. Lady80:

    I lived in the south of france for one year as a student so I want to give you my take on the question that you posed in your post–do darker ladies get more love abroad.

    The answer:
    Yes and No. Yes in the sense that you are an oddity. A curiosity. It seems as if your skin shade has less influence over the fact that you are black. And no in the sense that 95% of the “love” you get comes from that fact that you are sexualized. Most of the guys only want to sleep with you–plain and simple. They want the black experience and that is it.

    I don’t know how many times I was called Joshephine Baker or Beyonce (I look like neither). It’s mostly a fantasy.

    This is my take. I’m pretty sure others had very different experiences but I’ve traveled all over Europe and it’s been pretty much the same–Italy is even worse, they feel entitled to come up and touch you and sexually harass you. My worst experienc was in Russia. They were straight up racist!

  24. i’ve been enchanted with josephine baker ever since i was a little kid, and i actually read jean-claude baker’s book a few years ago. it was pretty informative, and offered a first person perspective that is rare in comparison to other literature i’ve seen on her. i think the best things about her were her unabashed sensuality and spontaneity. to empress: from what i’ve read about josephine she was either bisexual or a lesbian who used men as a beard. whatever the case, she slept with women…a lot. it wasn’t uncommon back in the day for a lot of black female performers to dabble with both sexes,(some because it was in vogue, although i don’t think josephine fell into that category) or to only sleep with other women. some got into lavender marriages with gay men, and they acted as beards for each other, or they married men they had an understanding with. of course, this had no bearing on her sex appeal to men, her performances, or her icon status.

  25. bella i love this post. could you do something on the girl groups of the 60′s?

  26. design diva says:

    very interesting article bella! Thanks for posting and I hope you plan to do more articles like these!

  27. Excellently written bella — I wish I could be a fly on the wall in that interview.

    Josephine Baker *sigh* I wish I could have met her she sounds like such an amazing lady!

  28. Thank you for you story, I wiil get the book. I love Josephine her struggle is all our Black WOMAN fight still. We must tell our daughters where ever our village is. Our continued respectful growth comes from knowing our Sista past not leaving out our men but being aware of FROM where we came – so we can live today and make the furture.
    Diva on girls!!!!!

  29. Hy Bella, I thought I should introduce myself since I have been reading your website since quite a few months now and never posted so far.
    This article is so well written I felt I had to share my enthousiasm with you. Is this the article as you posted it for your magasine/newspaper at work, or is there another version out there? Again, thanks for making me discover more on the eternal grace and beautiful spirit that is Josephine!
    On a side note thanks for the great hair tips, even us mediterranean gals can use the advise, as well as the fabulous make up tips. love the site!
    Marie – from France

  30. I am so happy to have found this wonderful website, and I would like to share a painting that I finished recently. It pays homage to the legendary Josephine Baker and can be viewed here… http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=230113662473

  31. Hey Empress – I would love to hear the Josephine Baker audio interview!!!! My email is
    MrLopez2681@Yahoo.com

    This was a wonderful article Bella.

    I must say though that I am rather dissapointed at times that when most people think of Josephine Baker they think of the cute little woman in the banana skirt dancing her heart out, rather than the magnificent ‘Grand diva magnifique’ she became in her later years. This is no disrespect to who Josephine was as a performer in the 1920s and 30s, but from a purely artistic stance, she was somethign completely different by the 1950s.

    The average person isnt as familiar with the Josephine Baker of the 1950s on through to the 1970s. By the time she reached her 40s, her singing voice evolved from being a little lithe and sometimes even shrill (a voice typical of female simngers from the 1920s and 30s) into something incredibly opulent, rich, and expressive, with impeccable control and range, capable of all sorts of virtuoso vocals. On top of that her image and style of performing transformed – she became a Diva. That word is tossed around way to much these days, but she really was a DIVA. Diana Ross worshipped(s) Josephine, so did (does) Shirley Bassey, Whitney Houston, and on and on. La Baker was an incredible singer and performer. If anyone has been lucky enough to have seen any footage of her performing live in the 50s or 60s it is often overwhelming, and this is when she was really in her prime as an artist (why there are no DVDs of her performing in these years, I dont know – It would definately teach people today what true ‘DIVA-NESS’ is). She would come on stage dressed in a glittering gown that accentuated her statuesque figure, all topped off with a magnificent head-dress (she was well known back then for her head-gear). And then she would begin singing her wonderful hymns to Paris in french, with colorful accompanyment from the orchestra, usually classically arranged or heavily influenced by samba or exotica. Usually the show would start off with the song “Avec”, my favorite. For those who would like to hear her in her prime, there are two albums on disc which I reccomend – “The Fabulous Josephine Baker” (which has a wonderful cover photo that wonderfully embodies the Josephine Baker of the 1950s-1970s), and “En La Habana”, which was recorded in Cuba when Fidel Castro invited her to perform in Havana in 1966. There are a few others which were released onto LP that have not made it onto CD as of yet – her show at Carnegie Hall from 1973 or her live show as the Tivoli in Copenhagen. I encourage everyone to discover the Josephine Baker of these years.

    Hey Bella – perhaps you should ask Jean Claude why there are no live performance films avialable commercially of her!

  32. Dancing Spirit says:

    And the beat goes on!!! Josephine was the only Josephine she knew how to be–she was a wonderful black goddess ahead of her time.

  33. Excellent article!! Thank you Josephine for paving the way.

  34. mypov123 says:

    Thank you for this article! I’m a big fan of your site. Like Sloane, I’ve been an admirer of Josephine Baker ever since I was a child. In fact, when I was in junior high school, I had the privilege of portraying Josephine in a “wax museum” project at my school lol. I had a fabulous costume for the project: a long, white dress with a white faux fur shawl lol. I was glad that I had the chance to, in my own very modest way, pay tribute to her. What I admire most about her, even with all of her flaws (we all have flaws) is her liberated spirit, and the courage and perseverance she displayed throughout her life.

    I have yet to read the biography of Josephine written by Jean-Claude Baker. I somewhat agree with Empress regarding his revealing such intimate details about Josephine’s life without her permission. It kind of seems to me as if he has been exploiting Josephine’s name and legacy for his own personal gain.

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