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.
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 Wilzigâ€™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.