Show­girl with a cause

Josephine Baker took 1920s Paris by storm. But she was more than just a cabaret sen­sa­tion, writes David Na­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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