Showgirl with a cause
Josephine Baker took 1920s Paris by storm. But she was more than just a cabaret sensation, writes David Nason
WHEN Europe emerged from the slaughter of World War I, it was only natural it would look to Paris for a new, lifeaffirming direction. The City of Light soon became a gathering place for artists, writers, musicians and radicals from around the world.
Painters Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, American writer Ernest Hemingway and the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky were among those drawn to Paris by the desperate French desire to bury the memories of the war with a new age of creativity and free expression. The Paris of the 1920s was swept up in Les Annees Folles, the crazy, jazz- filled years where the cafes, nightclubs, bars and music halls were alive with song and laughter and intellectual vitality.
It was here that the French- inspired art deco movement, the glamour and opulence of which was in perfect harmony with a society trying to distance itself from war, first reached out to the world at a 1925 exposition.
And it was here that a new and much less restrained sexual order took over from the old one. Women drank, smoked, wore heavy makeup, cut their hair short, lived alone, had casual sex and explored lesbian subcultures.
Add the new fixation with African culture, and this was the Paris that in 1925 opened its arms to Josephine Baker, the African- American cabaret performer and art deco idol.
Baker was many things: the last of the great courtesans in the Madame Pompidou tradition, the first internationally renowned AfricanAmerican female entertainer, the first AfricanAmerican to have a starring role in a significant film, the first to integrate an American concert hall, and a war hero who won France’s highest honours for bravery and who counted Charles De Gaulle among her long list of lovers.
Descended from Apalachee Native Americans and African slaves, and equipped with a lithe, elegant body, Baker’s exotic appearance seemed to capture the essence of the tribal art forms influencing the art deco style, while her daring stagecraft ( at one point her act at the Casino de Paris featured a fully grown pet cheetah) captured the movement’s rich and festive character.
Homages to Baker are part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Art Deco 1910- 1939, an exhibition comprising more than 300 works covering everything from painting and photography to fashion, film, architecture and jewellery.
The exhibition is sourced from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which houses one of the world’s great collections of art deco. But when it comes to Baker, there is probably no better collection of memorabilia than New York’s Chez Josephine restaurant on Manhattan’s West 42nd Street. Run by Jean- Claude Baker, Josephine Baker’s acclaimed biographer and unofficial adopted son ( Baker had a rainbow tribe of 12 adopted children representing every continent), it is a living memorial to a woman whose extraordinary life still leaves him mesmerised.
Jean- Claude was 14 and working as a bellhop in a Paris hotel when he first met Josephine in 1958. He later worked as her manager and after she died, moved to New York. His biography of Baker, Josephine: The Hungry Heart , won a Pulitzer Prize. According to Jean- Claude, La Baker’s sexually charged performances and promiscuous lifestyle personified the freewheeling hedonism of Paris in the ’ 20s and made her a black version of Marilyn Monroe.
‘‘ One white, one black, Josephine and Marilyn were the two great sex symbols of the 20th century,’’ Jean- Claude says. ‘‘ For men they projected sexuality but for women it was fragility. Women wanted to protect them. That’s why they became great symbols of liberty for women.
‘‘ You know, they met once in 1950 and had dinner. Marilyn asked Josephine to take her to Paris and teach her how to be a lady.’’
Born Freda Josephine McDonald in St Louis, Missouri, in 1906, Baker left school for the stage at 13, married early and later kept the surname of the second of her four husbands. By 1922 she was on Broadway in all- black reviews and in 1924 was the star of her own show, Chocolate Dandies . In 1925, she set sail for Paris as part of La Revue Negre , arriving four months after the opening of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which became the launching pad for the art deco movement. The timing could not have been better.
‘‘ The exposition had the effect of warming up the spirit of Paris and the elite of Paris for Josephine Baker,’’ Jean- Claude explains over lunch at his restaurant. ‘‘ Before Josephine, Paris was a kind of still wine. Then Josephine arrived and she is the bubble that makes that wine champagne.’’ On her opening night, Baker danced La Danse de Sauvage ( the dance of the savage). An explicit African mating dance, it quickly made her the talk of the city. ‘‘ It was so exciting and disgusting,’’ says Jean- Claude. ‘‘ She was virtually nude. Everything went on except penetration. Half the audience left screaming, but Picasso and Jean Cocteau cheered and declared Josephine to be wonderful.’’
Before long Baker’s shows were packed out, ticket sales boosted by the reputation she was developing off stage. An uninhibited bisexual, Baker took lovers whenever and wherever she pleased, sometimes rollicking with her chosen ones on the floors of the clubs where she performed. Her friends and admirers in these hard- partying times included many of the pillars of Parisian intellectual and artistic life, Picasso, Hemingway, Luigi Pirandello, Georges Rouault and Le Corbusier, to name a few.
‘‘ In the beginning, when she was not welleducated, when she did not know how to read or write, Josephine could still make these people from a different intellectual realm keep coming back to her,’’ Jean- Claude says. ‘‘ The elite, they all fell in love with Josephine. And she soaked them up like a sponge.’’
Of course, Baker was not the first AfricanAmerican performer to arrive on the Parisian entertainment scene. During the war years, jazz had been introduced to the city by AfricanAmerican soldiers; after the war, many returned to play in the clubs that sprang up everywhere. Others migrated in search of work in the racially tolerant social conditions Paris offered. It was an atmosphere that impressed and comforted Baker, and she decided early on that she was staying. In 1937 she took out French citizenship.
Soon after, when she was asked to work for the French secret service by intelligence officer Jacques Abtey, she did not hesitate. ‘‘ Abtey did not believe in the security of the Maginot Line and wanted to hire a female spy to discover German intentions,’’ Jean- Claude explains.
‘‘ There was an American showgirl but she was too stupid. When he was referred to Josephine, he was initially reluctant. He said: ‘ You must be crazy. That girl who dances naked and f . . ks with everybody? No.’ ’’ Eventually Abtey and Josephine met at her chateau on the outskirts of Paris. They went inside, drank champagne, talked, and two hours later Abtey came out transformed. ‘‘ Josephine told Abtey that Parisians had welcomed her with an open heart and she was willing to give her life for France,’’ Jean- Claude says. ‘‘ Then Abtey came back a second time and this time he slept with Josephine.’’
Baker’s advantage as a spy was that she knew everybody. Her lovers included the ambassadors of Germany and Italy, and she was invited to all the embassies.
When the Nazis took Paris and barred Jews and blacks from performing, Baker moved to the south of France and used the mobility afforded a showgirl to carry messages for the Resistance, notes written in invisible ink in her sheet music or pinned inside her bra.
Josephine’s final au revoir was in 1975 at 68, when she died of a cerebral haemorrhage in Paris and her friend Princess Grace organised a dignified funeral in a little church in Monte Carlo.
But the story doesn’t end there. As it turned out, Josephine’s casket was not buried after the service but stored in a tool shed at the cemetery pending a decision by Princess Grace on the marble to be used for the headstone. Six months later, when the press discovered the unrefrigerated body was still in the tool shed, another La Baker scandal was under way. Josephine was finally buried on October 2, 1975, 50 years to the day of her first performance on the Paris stage.
Only a handful of people were present, among them Abtey. In Josephine: The Hungry Heart , Abtey describes the scene: ‘‘ There was the hole in the earth, and the Princess of Monaco facing me across the open grave for more than an hour,’’ Abtey said. ‘‘ We were waiting for the priest to come, and he was late.’’ David Nason is The Australian’s New York correspondent. Art Deco 1910- 1939, at the National Gallery of Victoria until October 5.
Extraordinary life: Josephine Baker
Adopted son: Jean- Claude Baker